Boabdil – Spain’s Last Moslem King

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Boabdil, Last Moslem Ruler of Granada

His name has been given to restaurants, saunas and gymnasiums and his life has become the stuff of popular legend, but how much do we really know about Boabdil, the last Moslem ruler of Granada? The tragedy of his short rule would be eclipsed by the new Christian Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella but, even so, this story of drama, love and betrayal has managed to survive the centuries.

The Nasrids and The Reconquest

To set the scene for this late Medieval saga, we need to know what had been happening in the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Since the 8th century AD, a large part of the territory had been ruled by a series of Moslem dynasties, while in the north the remnants of the displaced Christian population had gradually regrouped to form kingdoms of their own.

From early days, the Christians began to expand their domains, a gradual process that came to be known as the Reconquest. Despite the continual state of friction, Moslem al-Andalus was for a time the European centre of culture, artistic achievement and scientific excellence. At times, too, a considerable degree of tolerance was extended to the Jewish and Christian inhabitants of this Islamic domain.

The Nasrid dynasty was founded in 1232 and produced the last line of Moslem rulers. With the city of Granada as their capital, they presided over an ever-shrinking kingdom. Even so, their short-lived dynasty was to flower briefly and in spectacular fashion, for it is the Nasrids who constructed that paragon of Islamic art and culture, the Alhambra.

Family Strife

Despite these twilight years of glory, the writing was on the wall for the kingdom of Granada. In 1469, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile paved the way towards a unified Christian Spanish state that would pose the ultimate threat to the remnants of al-Andalus.

Boabdil himself was born in Granada in or around 1459, the son of Abu I-Hasan Ali Muhammed XI. What little we know about his early life suggests that his mother, Aixa, was instrumental in turning Boabdil against his father. Aixa had good reason to resent her husband because she had been rejected by him in favor of a Christian concubine, Isabel de Solis.

With a hostile father and a scheming mother to contend with, the bright star in Boabdil’s life was his wife, Morayma. The daughter of Ali Atar, the governor of the nearby town of Loja, she married Boabdil when she was fifteen. Contemporary accounts say that they were devoted to each other but that Morayma suffered from periods of deep unhappiness due to her husband’s long absences.

The Battle of Lucena

Supported by powerful aristocratic allies, Boabdil’s chance to sieze power came in 1482 after his father imposed heavy taxes on the citizens of Granada and they rose up in protest. He would have little time to enjoy his rule, however. With the Castilian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella harrying his borders, the new ruler of Granada had no choice but to defend his realm.

In 1483, he took 10,000 soldiers and cavalry to besiege the town of Lucena, in modern-day Cordoba province: with him was his trusted ally and father-in-law, Ali Atar. All did not go well for Boabdil, because opposition arrived in the form of the Count of Cabra whose forces surprised the Granadan troops on one side, enabling the garrison of Lucena to attack the opposite flank, thus turning the siege into a rout. One story says that Ali Atar was killed in the battle but worse still, Boabdil himself was captured and imprisoned. Ferdinand and Isabella now had the erstwhile lord of Granada exactly where they wanted him.

A Fateful Bargain

The Catholic Monarchs were far too clever to execute their captive, and Boabdil was held for several months in the famous octagonal tower at Porcuna (Jaen province), then in the castle at Lucena. Boabdil´s capture gave his father the chance to seize the Alhambra again, with the help of his powerful and ambitious brother, Muhammed ibn Sa´d al-Zagal, the lord of Malaga.

With Boabdil in their hands and the kingdom of Granada not quite within reach, Ferdinand and Isabella opted to destabilize the Moslem state still further by making Boabdil a superficially attractive offer. They would allow him to return to the Alhambra, on condition that he not only administer Granada as a tribute kingdom of Castile, but that he also cede to them the territory currently controlled by his father.

Return to Granada

Despite these severe terms, Boabdil agreed to this proposal and was set free. However, not only did the Castilians keep his young son Ahmed hostage as surety, but he still had to contend with his father and uncle. Unable to return to the Alhambra, he set up his court in Almeria but was driven from there by his uncle, Al Zagal, and forced to flee to Cordova where, in an ironic twist of events, he sought the protection of Ferdinand, his erstwhile captor.

For a short time, Al Zagal was a thorn in the side of the Castilians and won several victories over them, even declaring himself emir under the title of Muhammed XIII after the death of Boabdil’s father in 1487. However, he was finally defeated by the Christians, enabling Boabdil to again install himself in the Alhambra as sole ruler of Granada.

The Rise of Santa Fe

The Catholic Monarchs had gained exactly what they wanted: by encouraging disunity among the feuding Nasrids, they were able to nibble away even more territory from the last Islamic enclave on the Iberian peninsula. By 1490, they had captured the important towns of Malaga, Marbella, Almeria, Guadix and Baza – in other words, Granada was virtually surrounded and all that remained of Boabdil’s kingdom was the city itself and the mountain enclave of the Alpujarra.

If Boabdil ever genuinely believed that Ferdinand and Isabella would honour their pact, he was to be severely disappointed. In 1491, the residents of Granada were alarmed to see a vast encampment under construction not far from the city, on the fertile plains of the Vega. The Catholic Monarchs were finally turning their attention to Boabdil’s city with its fabled palaces and, by cutting off all supplies into Granada, they effectively rendered it under siege.

When the first encampment burned down, it was rebuilt in stone and mortar and given the name Santa Fe – surely the undeniable evidence that Ferdinand and isabella were here to stay. By November, Boabdil realized that Granada could not hold hold for much longer and by way of secret negotiations between his vizier and the Castilians’ representative, a meeting was arranged between himself and the Catholic Monarchs at Santa Fe on 25th November.

At this meeting, Boabdil put his name to the agreement known as the Capitulation of Granada which committed him to relinquishing the keys to the Alhambra. He would be given the Alpujarra as his fiefdom, and the rights of Granada’s Moslem inhabitants would be respected by their new Christian overlords.

The Fall of Granada

Having signed this accord, Boabdil returned to Granada. He had sixty days to leave the city, but news of the agreement with Ferdinand and Isabella somehow filtered out and caused such unrest among the populace that Boabdil’s advisors feared for his safety. They decided on a definitive date to leave, and on the morning of January 2nd 1492, the king and queen of a Christian Spain took possession of their prize. For his part, Boabdil, Muhammed XII, last of the Nasrid rulers, headed into exile in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Exile

The best known story about Boabdil may not, in fact, be true. The legend says that as he went into exile, he stopped for a last look at his city and wept for what he had lost. At this, his mother Aixa chastised him, saying “Do not weep like a woman for what you did not know how to defend as a man”. The spot on the road from Granada to Salobreña where this took place is, to this day, known as Puerto del Suspiro del Moro: The Pass of The Moor’s Sigh. Recently, however, it has been suggested that this story was invented decades later, and that Boabdil possibly never even passed through this place on his way to the Alpujarra.

Other writers suggest that Boabdil and Morayma enjoyed a brief period of happiness in the Alpujarra. Whether or not this is true, by the following year his beloved wife and one of his sons were both dead, and a desolate Boabdil left Spain for Morocco, never to return.

He had already written to the Caliph of Morocco’s ruling Marinid dynasty, requesting sanctuary. This was freely granted and Boabdil travelled first to Melilla and then to Fez where he was treated royally and permitted to construct a palace. Although he had lost his kingdom, at least he would never witness the cruelties of the Catholic Inquisition, and the persecution of the Moslem and Jewish residents of the new Spain.

As with other aspects of his story, the circumstances of Boabdil’s death are debatable. A 16th-century Spanish chronicler wrote that he died in battle in 1527, fighting for the Marinids against their rivals, the Saadis. Others say that he died at home in 1533, surrounded by his family. Whatever the truth, amidst the uncertainties of Boabdil´s history, we can still catch a glimpse of the man himself, a loving husband and a troubled ruler and one for whom the epithet “The Unfortunate”, proved to be tragically accurate.

Sources

  1. Biografías y Vidas: Boabdil el Chico www.biografiasyvidas.com
  2. Guiarte.com Las lagrimas de Boabdil www.guiarte.com
  3. Mark R Williams: The Story of Spain Golden Era Books: San Mateo, CA; 2004 ISBN 0 9706969 2 2
  4. Rachel Vilchez: El suspiro de Boabdil que nunca existió www.webislam.com