Photo of John D. Cressler

Historical Primer for Emeralds of the Alhambra

In the Islamic world, the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E. without a chosen successor led to several decades of bloody internal power struggle, the remnants of which linger to this day in Shiite vs. Sunni tensions. By 661, however, the Sunni Arab Umayyad clan prevailed and to solidify their power moved the Islamic capital from Medina (Saudi Arabia) to Damascus (Syria). A rapid swelling of Islamic culture, wealth and power commenced, launching a conquest of conversion reaching from the western end of the Mediterranean basin to the Near East. By 711 the Maghreb was breached (land including the rugged Atlas mountains of extreme northwest Africa and the coastal plains of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). An Islamic army, led by an Arab Syrian governor turned general named Tariq ibn Ziyad and comprised of a freshly-converted, capable warrior clan of local Berber tribesmen, invaded Iberia at Gibraltar. They rapidly conquered the Iberian peninsula under the banner of jihad (holy war), effortlessly absorbing the Visigoth and post-Roman era towns and peoples. Al-Andalus, the Arabic name for the (ever-changing) lands of Iberia under Muslim dominion, was born.

Al-Andalus survives 781 years, until the cold morning of January 2, 1492, when Fernando and Isabel, the “Catholic monarchs” of a newly unified Spain, ironically dressed in flamboyant Moorish finery and under the wind-taut Papal Banner of Christian reconquest (reconquista – their own brand of holy war), at long last defeat the Moors, the Christian name for the Muslim Andalusians, famously capturing the last great stronghold of al-Andalus, the exquisite Alhambra palace in Granada. Legend has it that the last Nasrid Sultan, Muhammad XII, Boabdil to the Castilians, riding out of now-Christian Granada, wistfully glances back at his lost treasure, the Alhambra, and utters the famous “Moor’s last sigh.” Muslim Spain is dead.

Several pivotal events in the history of al-Andalus are important to our story. In 750 C.E., the Umayyads in Damascus are slaughtered by the rival Abbasids, and the sole surviving Umayyad heir, Abd al-Rahman, a boy in his late teens, sets out on the twenty-five hundred mile journey to al-Andalus, to boldly reclaim his own slice of history in a forgotten corner of the Islamic empire – Córdoba, on banks of the Guadalquivir river in southern central Spain. The Umayyad regime re-emerges like a phoenix from the ashes with the crowning of Abd al-Rahman Emir (governor) of Córdoba in 756.

The fuse is lit, and al-Andalus soon rockets skyward. Abd al-Rahman’s heir (the III) ultimately declares himself the rival caliph (from the Arabic khalifa, “successor” (to the Prophet Muhammad) – supreme ruler of Islam) to the Abbasid caliph in January 929. Now unified and under able and enlightened Arab leadership, al-Andalus rises to its full glory. Convivencia reigns. Córdoba becomes the largest and most prosperous city in Europe, the crown jewel of Western Islam, and a magnet of learning and intellectual fervor that equals Baghdad, the rival Abbasid caliphate’s capital and the biggest city on the planet. Late 10th to early 11th century Córdoba is considered the cultural and intellectual zenith of al-Andalus.

Ironically, much of the knowledge that ultimately spawns European hegemony hundreds of years later will enter the continent through Córdoba and its neighboring Muslim cities (Toledo, Sevilla, Granada and Málaga). Sadly, by 1031, only a hundred years later, the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba is gone, the sublime Royal Palace at Madinat al-Zahra razed to the ground. Mercifully, the great double-horseshoe-arched Great Mosque of Córdoba was preserved and still stands today. The Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba was a victim of its own internal power struggles, ego and weak leadership.

The post-Córdoban Umayyad caliphate dissolves into a loose collection of small taifa (“parties” or “factions”) kingdoms, bitter rivals all, and suddenly without a unified front to present to the displaced Christian kings in the north who thirst for both land and power. Alfonso VI of Castile conquers Muslim Toledo in 1085, triggering panic throughout al-Andalus. A fateful cry for help to the fundamentalist Muslim Almoravids of the Maghreb is made. The Almoravids are fierce Berber clans with great disdain for the cultural accomplishments and the rich, easy life and religious tolerance of the Arab Umayyads. They are steadfast in their strict interpretation of Islam, loathing any perceived attempt to water-down the dictates of Muhammad. In 1086, the Almoravid Yusuf ibn Tashfin answers the northern distress call and invades al-Andalus. The Almoravids quickly halt the Christian advance, and after a cursory comparison of the rich, lush al-Andalus with their own unyielding, arid homeland, decide to stay, making quick work of conquering the Arab taifa kingdoms.

Al-Andalus passes from tolerant Syrian Arab rule to fundamentalist Berber Almoravid rule. The even more fundamentalist Almohads, also of fierce Berber stock but bitter enemies of the Almoravids, and with even greater disdain for moderate Arabs, defeat the rival Almoravids in the Maghreb in the late 11th century, and cross the Strait of Gibraltar to join the party. The Almohads transfer their capital from North Africa to Sevilla in 1170.

From that fateful day in 1086, al-Andalus transitions from enlightened, tolerant Umayyad rule to 150 years of stark fundamentalist Berber rule. Andalusian vs. Berber tensions smolder across Iberia. Jews once welcomed (prized!) at Umayyad court are now persecuted and segregated. Christians formerly living peacefully side-by-side with Moors are expelled from Muslim cities. Convivencia is dead. Christian vs. now-fundamentalist Muslim tensions flare, and with Papal encouragement, reconquista soon becomes the calling card of a crusading Christian north. War drums sound. Slowly but surely over the next two-hundred and fifty years, al-Andalus is pushed inch-by-inch, town-by-town, to the southern shores of Iberia.

The Ahmohads are resoundingly defeated on the 16th day of July, 1212 at the “Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa” by a unified force led by the Christian kings of Castile, Navarre, Aragon, and Portugal. The unprotected Muslim crown jewels begin to fall like dominos to Christian armies – Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, Sevilla in 1248. The scent of blood is thick in the water for an Iberia free of Moors.

And so we come to Granada. Following the power-vacuum created by the collapse of the Ahmohads, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr (Muhammad I), of the Arab Banu Nazari clan (the Nasrids), contrived in 1232 to set up a small kingdom centered on the lovely, mountain-girded city of Granada. At its largest, Muhammad’s kingdom is a mere one hundred mile wide swath of land at the extreme southeastern tip of Spain, stretching from the Mediterranean coast north of Almería, through Málaga, to Gibraltar. Inevitably, in 1245, reconquista knocks on the door, and Fernando III of Castile lays siege to Jaén, the well-fortified northern-most Muslim stronghold only forty miles north of Granada. To make peace, Muhammad reluctantly surrenders Jaén in 1246 and agrees to become a tribute-paying vassal to the king of Castile, ensuring at least a temporary halt to reconquista in the region. In hindsight, this was a profoundly shrewd move. The Nasrid Kingdom of Granada is born, and will prosper, wildly, through twenty Sultans and two-hundred forty-six more years, the last great seat of Muslim power in Iberia.

The famed “Vega de Granada” surrounds the city, at once a source of the kingdom’s pride and strength. The Vega is literally the floodplain of the river system emerging from Sierra Nevada mountains. It becomes the fruit and vegetable and bread basket of Granada, flanked by miles upon miles of verdant grazing land, the envy of all of Europe in its culinary opulence. Stretching outward from the city walls far into the surrounding countryside, the mountain-rimmed Granadine Vega is breathtaking by medieval standards; flat, fertile, and lush. Irrigation is the lynchpin. Without it, Granada is practically a dustbowl. Sophisticated hydraulic systems lift and lower precious water at will from the convergent Darro, Genil and Beiro rivers. Irrigation dams within the fields channel water among the thirsty rows on a weekly rotation.

The splendor is remarkable: Wheat, barley, rice, sugar cane, cotton, artichokes, eggplant, beans, endive, spinach, chard, radishes, leeks, carrots, beets, celery, peppers, onions, asparagus, figs, cherries, apples, pears, grapes, olives, oranges, lemons, limes, pomegranates, apricots, dates, almonds, pine nuts, hazel nuts, saffron, hot peppers, cumin, aniseed, mint, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, parsley, garlic, mustard. A Granadine feast. Typical European fare stands bland by contrast, centered on roasted meats, breads, grain gruels, and roots; spices and seasonings are available only for the rich. Cattle, horse, goat, sheep and chicken dung recharge the Vegan fields (pigs are forbidden in Islam). Arab mastery of irrigation, fertilizer, crop rotation, and fallowing precedes Europe by centuries.

Bickering among the rival Christian kingdoms, predictable exhaustion of coffers, and the threat from the emergence of the Muslim Marinids, yet another set of Berber clans who in 1244 conquer the Ahmohads to rule the Maghreb from Fez (Morocco), stymie the Christian advance and reconquista comes to a grinding halt. Meanwhile, Granada thrives. Predictably, the Nasrids ally themselves with the Marinid Empire, and begin a long, slow, swaying dance as thinly sliced buffer between Christian Spain and the Muslim Maghreb, at the same time vassal of Castile and ally of the Marinids. Interesting times for the diplomatic corps.

Now to some specifics of our story. Enter Muhammad V in 1354, age 16, eighth Nasrid Sultan of Granada. In 1358 the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (in northeast Spain) bicker and finally come to blows, and Granada, as vassal to Castile, lends its support (both financial and naval) to King Pedro of Castile (later nicknamed Pedro the Cruel), earning great favor at the Castilian court in Sevilla. Aragon bitterly resents the meddling by the Moors in Christian politics.

The plot thickens. Young Muhammad V falls victim to a coup led by his brother Ismail II on a sultry August night in 1359; sadly, orchestrated by Muhammad’s own mother, Maryam. Muhammad barely manages to escape with his life to Fez to live in exile with the Marinids. Ismail II is in turn assassinated in 1360 and replaced by Muhammad VI, their ambitious cousin. In 1362, Muhammad V, secretly encouraged and assisted by his unlikely ally, Pedro of Castile, crosses the Gibraltar Strait to reclaim his throne. Muhammad VI, in a painfully naïve move, races to Sevilla with his entourage and throws himself at Pedro’s feet, begging for help. Pedro welcomes him with open arms and a slap on the back, feasts lavishly with his Arab guests, then promptly has all thirty-seven arrested, stripped of their valuables, and two days later Pedro personally executes Muhammad VI. Pedro the Cruel. Muhammad V reclaims his throne and receives a welcoming gift from Pedro – his cousin’s head.

With Muhammad V successfully restored to power, a welcomed stability returns to the Granadine court and the kingdom flourishes under his benign rule. Muhammad V completes the glorious Alhambra, the lavish fortress-palace of the Granadine Royal Court. He even sends his masons to assist Pedro in remodeling his own palace in the Granadine style.

“Alhambra” refers to the entire walled fortress that clings to the long and narrow red-soiled ridge overlooking Granada. The red hill itself is the source of the palace’s name (al-hamra is Arabic for ‘red’). Unlike today, in the fourteenth century the towers and walls of the Alhambra would have been white-washed and the hill laid bare for defense, a stunning white on red contrast. The fortress is compact, as dictated by the terrain, about one hundred yards wide and seven hundred yards long, and is nestled within the walled and garrisoned city of Granada. The Alhambra complex contained the Royal Palace of the Sultan (qasr), the complete functioning town (medina) that supported it, all of the judicial and administrative services required to run the kingdom, and a separately castled garrison.

The Alhambra and the walled city of Granada itself were, for all intents and purposes, impregnable, and were never captured by force of arms, only surrendered (in 1492 to Isabel and Fernando, the “Catholic Monarchs”). The Alhambra’s population in 1367 when our story begins was roughly two thousand, including a garrison of perhaps three hundred elite troops, compared to about sixty-five thousand inhabitants in Granada proper, a very large city by fourteenth century standards.

Alas, in 1366, after only four years of calm for Muhammad V and Granada, Enrique II of Trastámara launches the Castilian Civil War, and with the support of Aragon, France and the Pope, attempts to wrestle Castile away from his brother, King Pedro. As vassal of Pedro, Granada is once again reluctantly thrust center stage, ironically pinioned between the dueling Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.