Granada: The Last Refuge of Muslims in Spain

Granada on the southern coast of Spain was to stay in Muslim hands until 1492. Its fall came centuries after other Muslim areas fell to the Christians. This article highlights some of the important legacies of Muslim Granada.

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Figure 1. External view of the Alhambra complex in Granada (Source)

Figure 2. Alcazar de Genil interior

If anyone wants to know about the so-called Granada wars, or the wars that depict the Spanish Christian capture of the Granada Emirate between 1482 and 1492, there is no better work than Washington Irving’s Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada.[1] Should anyone seek to understand the foundations of Christian-Muslim military conflict of the late medieval period, including the Granada wars, then, the master is the unchallengeable Norman Housley.[2] None better than him can explain these and related matters.[3] Related to this, many people don’t understand that the Spanish Christian Reconquista did not just involve the ‘reconquest of Spain and Portugal,’ it also involved the Christianisation of North Africa. Housely as just noted is an excellent source on this issue, but there are other sources which also explain this very well including: Ch. E. Dufourcq: L'Espagne catalane et le Maghrib aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles;[4] A. Giménez Soler: La Corona de Aragón y Granada,[5] A. Masiá de Ros: La Corona de Aragón y los estados del norte de Africa;[6] and A.S. Atiya: The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages.[7] A major proponent of the Christianisation of North Africa and the Re-conquest of Jerusalem through a victorious march through North Africa was Ramon Lull (1232-1316), whose theories on how this should be done are widely available in his writing: His Liber de fine and Liber de acquisitione Terrae Sanctae.[8] José Goñi Gaztambide has also an excellent work on role of the Papacy in supporting and financing the crusading projects against Muslims including in North Africa.[9]

 If anyone sought to follow the progress of the Christian so called Reconquista in military terms, here one can cite the excellent works by Lomax,[10] O’Callaghan,[11] and for those fortunate to understand Spanish: Huici Miranda.[12] The best outline of all is by Bishko.[13] This latter work in fact is part of one of the best scholarly legacies to date: Kenneth Setton’s History of the Crusades. One does not agree with Setton on many issues, but his edition of this multivolume work, and it must be said the collaboration with him in editing separate volumes by the likes of Hazard, and the quality of the essays, make it a vivid instance of Western scholarship at its very best.[14]

In regard to the impact of the Spanish-Christian victory over the Muslims, here, there are few works of immense quality. We begin with a brief and yet excellent outline by another Irving (T.B) on the end of Islamic Spain.[15] Two books are by the unequaled H.C. Lea.[16] This author’s work on the Inquisition in particular, is the must read by every person who cares for good scholarship.[17] The other excellent work on Muslim Spain and the fate of Muslims following their defeat, besides a great narration of the various Muslim uprisings, is S.P. Scott’s History of the Moorish Empire.[18] Against the wisdom of the modern scholars of Muslim Spain, who with hardly any exception have always ignored Scott, this author, instead, has seen in him a first class scholar, and has always been generous in his citations of him from the moment he discovered him late in the 1990s. S.P Scott (1846-1929) one reminds was a banker, who instead of seeking to make more money than he already had, chose to withdraw into seclusion and devote his life to scholarship. What better instance and guide to all those who fail to see the true value of things than him.

In a recent (2014) article devoted to Scott, by Kearley, we read:

In the preface to his History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, which is dated 1903, Scott says that the work ‘engaged the attention of the author for more than twenty years.[19]  In fact one has to wonder whether Scot’s dedication to the History might have caused him to be inattentive to his bank duties and might have contributed to his downfall.[20] The book long anticipated appearance also may have provided him a much needed boost during his difficult years of bank litigation, and it might have been easier for him to cease his previous civic activities and focus instead on scholarly endeavours.” [21]

Just like Scott’s History, the best literature on Muslim Spain, especially in relation to our subject is to be found in the aged, and yet first class works by the likes of Prescott.[22] Anyone writing on the history of Spain, especially of that period, has to have recourse to him, Prescott, and also the excellent R.B. Merriman.[23] The stuff that keeps coming in recent decades, especially in the past few years, few exceptions aside (such as Glick and Castro), is to be discarded, except, maybe, to be used in order to correct a few dates and names here and there as old sources have some failings in these particular areas. French writing on Spanish history is also to be dismissed. One cannot think of one single piece of writing of worth with the exception of Rodrigo de Zayas who writes/or wrote in French explaining the manner Muslims were dehumanized before being removed from Iberia.[24] Highly publicized works such as Lapeyre’s Geographie de l'Espagne Morisque are a calamity of misinformation as the author, Lapeyre, tries very hard to reduce the Muslim population of al Andalus to a mere few thousands, and to make us believe that the so called Moors expelled in 1609-1610 were just few thousands who reached North Africa and were massacred by their Arab brethren.[25]  

Spanish sources, especially old ones, are absolutely necessary for any scholar, and their quality is essentially excellent. One says this regardless if such sources are not always and all of them kind to the Islamic side. This does not matter. What matters is their quality; that is their scholarly standards and the fats and information they convey. In relation to our subject (Granada), we can cite at random some such excellent material:

  • Alvaro Garcia de Santa Maria: Crónica de Don Juan II de Castilla (Colección de documentos inéditos para la historia de España, vols. XCIX-C, Madrid, 1891).
  • J. de M. Carriazo in, the Colección de crónicas españolas (9 vols., Madrid, 1940-1946).
  • Diego de Valera, Crónica de los Reyes Católicos (ed. J. de M. Carriazo, Madrid, 1927; Col. crón. esp.)
  • Fernando del Pulgar: Crónica de los Reyes Católicos (ed. Carriazo, Madrid, 1943; Col. crón. esp.)
  • Alfonso de Palencia: Narratio belli adversus Granatenses (Sp. tr. by A. Paz y Melia, Madrid, 1909).
  • Andrés Bernáldez: Memorias del reinado de los Reyes Católicos (ed. M. Gómez-Moreno and J. de M. Carriazo, Madrid, 1962).
  • J. de M. Carriazo, "Historia de la guerra de Granada," in Menéndez Pidal, ed., Historia de España, XVII, vol. I (Madrid, 1969), 385-914.
  • A. de la Torre: Los Reyes Católicos y Granada (Madrid, 1946).
  • M.A. Ladero Quesada: Milicia y economia en la guerra de Granada (Valladolid, 1964).
  • M.A Ladero Quesada: Castilla y la conquista del reino de Granada (Valladolid, 1967).
  • M.A. Ladero Quesada, Granada, historia de un país islámico, 1232-1571 (Madrid, 1969).
  • Jeronimo Zurita: Anales de la Corona de Aragon; Saragossa, 1610; 6 vols.
  • Nueva Bibliotheca de Autores Espanoles; Madrid, 1905-1912, 20 vols.
  • M. Lafuente: Historia General de Espana; Madrid; 1850-67; 30 vols.
  • Colleccion de Documentos ineditos para la Historia de Espana; Madrid, 1842-1895; 112 vols.
  • Biblioteca de Autores Espanoles; Madrid, 1846-1880; 71 vols.
  • M. S. Carrasco Urgoiti, El Moro de Granada en la literatura del siglo XV al XVI (Madrid, 1956).
  • Luis del Marmol Carbajal, Rebelion y Castigo de los Moriscos de Granada (Bibliotheca de autores espanoles, Tom. XXI).
  • M. Danvila Y Collado, La expulsion de los Moricos espanoles, Madrid, 1889.
  • F. Janer, Condicion social de los moriscos de Espana, Madrid, 1857.
  • Damian Fonseca: Lusta expulsion de los moriscos de Espana, Madrid 1612.
  • Olmo, Relacion del Auto de la Fee celebrada en Madrid 30 Junio de 1680, Madrid, 1680.
  • Perez de Hita: Guerras civiles; Blanchard-Demouge ed; 2 vols; Madrid; 1913.


The nineteenth century, French poet, Victor Hugo, in a poem on Granada, included in his collection Les Orientales (1829), exclaims:

            L'Alhambra! l'Alhambra! palais que les Genies
            Ont dore comme un reve et rempli d'harmonies..

(Alhambra! Alhambra! Palace the genii
Have adorned like a dream flowing with harmonies).

Equally impressed was the 19th century traveller, Washington Irving who wrote:

Such was its lavish splendour that even at the present day the stranger, wandering through its silent courts and deserted halls, gazes with Astonishment at gilded ceilings and fretted domes, the brilliancy and beauty of which have survived the vicissitudes of war and the silent dilapidation of ages. [27]

The Alhambra is a feature of Granada’s Muslim legacy. It is not the only one. Granada was also a city of scholars and high culture. It was most of all the last refuge of Muslims in Spain. This followed the loss of Cordova (1236,) Valencia (1238,) Seville (1248,) Murcia and the rest of Muslim Andalusia (all falling to Christians in the following years.)

Scores of people know that the Muslims lost Spain. Most, however, are little aware of the crucial phases of such loss and fall. Many believe the whole of Spain was lost in 1492. Many more confuse the various parts and dates, and their history. Nearly everyone questions themselves on where have the Muslims of Spain gone, and when did they disappear. The following outline enlightens on such issues, but does it as briefly as possible.

Soon after the death of the great leader, Ibn Abi Amir (al-Mansur (1002), Muslim Spain fell into chaos, the era of the `party kings' (reyes de taifas, muluk at-tawa'if) (1009-1091), when the Peninsula broke into as many as thirty more or less independent rulers, who fought each other.[28] Profiting from this, Christian princes in North West Spain swept south, conquering one Islamic kingdom after the other, very often using one against the other.[29] In panic some Reyes called the Almoravids of Morocco, and their leader Yusuf Ibn Tashfin, who had to assist them on three occasions, each time after crushing the Christian armies, he was asked to leave Spain, to be re-called once the Reyes were threatened again. The third time he was invited, in 1090, Ibn Tashfin crossed the straight of Gilbraltar from Morocco, and this time eliminated the inept Reyes, and installed Almoravid rule all over the country. Under Almoravid rule was not just restored   the unity of the Muslim Peninsula, but also re-appeared in the West a combative form of Islam that responded to the Christian combativeness.[30] When Almoravid power subsided, the Almohads came to the fore in 1147. Their most determinant victory was on 18th July, 1195, when they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Christian alliance of many armies at Alarcos, the Christian army being virtually exterminated.[31] However, once their rule became ridden with internal rivalries, the Almohads were themselves crushed at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, a defeat which Lewis rightly recognised, `broke the back of Muslim power in the Peninsula.’[32] It was not just that, for Muslims were busy fighting each other, too, and often siding on the Christian side against other Muslims. Hence, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar of Granada became a vassal of Ferdinand I of Castile, contracting to pay him a large annual tribute, and even helping him to conquer the Muslim principality of Seville in 1248.[33] By then, Cordova had already fallen in 1236, Valencia in 1238, soon followed by other towns and cities, only leaving the Granada Emirate/principality in Muslim hands. Abul-Beka, of Ronda, Ibn-al-Lebburn, of Murviedro, and Ibn-al-Khatib, of Granada, describe the national calamities inflicted by Christian supremacy,—the dissolution of empire, the desecration of the sanctuary, the dismemberment of families, the exile of the vanquished, the horrors of servitude.[34] For a couple of centuries, whilst the Spanish monarchs were busy in their rivalries, Granada remained independent in Muslim hands, the last beacon of Muslim civilisation in the Christian West. Granada provided refuge for Muslims expelled from Spanish Christian territory, such as Valencia and Almeria, and these refugees in time doubled the size of the city, besides increasing the lustre of its civilization.[35] Commerce and industry revived, art flourished, and the little kingdom survived till 1492 as the last European foothold of ‘a culture that had made Andalusia for many centuries an honour to mankind.’[36] Granada’s useful services to its Christian neighbours and its natural impregnability go far to explain its long survival, enjoying a unique position athwart Christian Spain and the Muslim Maghrib.[37]

The Emirate of Granada would, as we will see further down, be torn piece by piece in the 1480s, Granada itself falling in 1492.[38] The story of such a fall was like all Muslim stories: a combination of acts of the lowest sort on the part of Muslims (their usual fickleness and acts of betrayal), but also acts which always mark Muslim history: exceptional courage on the part of many as Muslims alone are capable of.

Figure 3. Al Hambára Palace (Source)

Granada was the capital of the former Muslim kingdom of that name and one of the major cities of Muslim Andalusia. Located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada some 689 meters (2,260 feet) above sea level. The city was built on three hills, two of which are separated by a deep ravine through which the Darro River (Arabic: Hadarru) flows, covered for much of its length by broad, tunnel like bridges.[39]

 The three major sections of the city are the Antequeruela (named after refugees from Antequeruela who settled there in 1410), which is enclosed by the Darro River, with the Alhambra to the west; the Albaicin (from rabad al- hayazf,) or falconers' quarter, though one tradition connects the name with refugees from Baeza who fled there in 1245, after Christians captured their town), which is the oldest quarter, much favored by Muslim nobles, located to the northwest, on the other side of the Darro; and Granada proper.[40]

Figure 4. The Mountains of the Sierra Nevada, from the walls of Granada

Granada’s illustrious past is inextricably linked with the Muslims. Following the Muslim conquest in the early eighth century, it was governed by the Umayyad caliphate at Damascus and later came to be known as the Damascus of the West. After 1031 the Zirid ruler, Zawl, established an independent kingdom here. [41]

The increasing prosperity of Granada under Almohad rule made it, by about 1200, the fifth largest city in Spain, with a population of Arab, Spanish, and Berber Muslims, Spanish Christians, and Jews living in separate quarters.[42] Ibn Sa'îd, a thirteenth-century writer from Alcalá la Real (Granada), remarked that no eastern cities reminded him of home except for Damascus and Hama, a central Syrian town, and al-Shaqundî called Granada the Damascus of al-Andalus.[43] Indeed, despite all the upheavals around, the Muslim Spanish realm being lost one large stretch of land after the other, Granada was still prosperous. A brief period of insurrection between 1229 and 1238 brought a scion of the Banu Hud from Saragossa to power. He ruled Granada as part of a larger kingdom stretching from Algeciras to Almeria, but he was defeated by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar, prince of Jaen, who seized the city and founded the Nasrid dynasty there in 1248, becoming lord of Malaga and Almeria at the same time.[44] He was going to be the first of a line of twenty-one Nasrid sovereigns who maintained the independence of Granada until 1492, when the city, the last surviving outpost of Muslim Spain succumbed to the Spanish Catholic monarchy, on which more further on.[45]

Granada had received many exiles from Valencia, Cordova, and other places which the Muslims had deserted.[46] These refugees in time doubled the size of the city, besides increasing the lustre of its civilisation.[47] With a population whose numbers were daily increased, Grenada, at this period, was more than three leagues in circuit, surrounded by impregnable ramparts, defended by many strong towers, and by ‘A brave and numerous people, whose military prowess seemed to ensure their safety and independence.’[48]

Fourteen medium cities and more than one hundred of smaller size, together with a large number of towns, constituted the Grenada kingdom.[49] This kingdom was surrounded by the natural defences of the Sierra Nevada and outlying ranges of the Baetic Cordillera. Its interior could be reached only through a limited number of passes and twisting mountain roads, watched by castles or walled towns.[50] The few good harbours along its rockbound coast -Malaga, Vélez-Málaga, Almeria- gave no easy access to the interior. As in Grenada, the relatively dense population, in part descended from refugees from other places, possessed ‘naturally warlike inclinations, hatred of the ancestral Christian enemy, a fierce love of independence, and a deep awareness that they were defending the last free Islamic homeland in the peninsula.’[51]

This renowned kingdom, Irving remarks, although protected by rugged mountains, embraces deep, rich, and ‘verdant valleys of prodigal fertility.’[52] ‘It was a vast garden of delight,’ refreshed by numerous fountains and by the river Xenil. ‘The labour and ingenuity of the Moors,’ Irving adds, had diverted the waters of this river into ‘thousands of rills and streams, and diffused them over the whole surface of the plain.’[53] Indeed, they had endowed this region with an incomparable degree of prosperity, and took a pride in decorating it:

The hills were clothed with orchards and vineyards, the valleys embroidered with gardens, and the wide plains covered with waving grain. Here were seen in profusion the orange, the citron, the fig, and the pomegranate, with great plantations of mul