A man emerges from cool shadows into dawn’s twilight blue. The sea-breeze of this mild Mediterranean winter, so pleasant, so suited to his temperament, now seems strangely foreign. He almost smiles at this. A pleasureless, sardonic smile. Indeed, everything he now sees will soon be foreign to him. Perhaps it already is.
The young sultan is in his early thirties, of healthy complexion and affable disposition, now weighed down by a lack of sleep and gravity of thought. From his black tunic, woven from the finest threads, he produces a sealed envelope.
Before him stands a seasoned captain. His skin scarred and tanned by the sun of many campaigns. He takes the envelope. It merely testifies to the already agreed upon terms of surrender, signed by the now former prince of this, the city of Granada, on the southernmost coast of Spain. The departing sultan, Muhammed XII of the house of Nazari, nicknamed Boabdil, the child king, has agreed to leave of his own accord.
He will hand over the keys to his realm’s new lords, but there will be no humiliating pageantry, no kissing of the ring. He has arranged for Christian knights to accompany him and his family, seeing them off safely onto the vessels that will take them to north Africa, for there are many among his people who would not allow so smooth a transition as to keep him alive: many who hail from northern territories, now Christian, who left before the advance of the Reconquista, and many whose parents and grandparents did so. To them, Granada is a bastion, a chance at a final stand, a place where martyrdom might be earned. Boabdil wants no part in it.
For months he has negotiated with the northern monarchs, Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile. Most recently, he had asked for a six-month reprieve from their siege, that he might finally convince his people to accept the new arrangement. This, however, was denied. Granada has been under Muslim authority for nearly eight centuries, yet Spain’s monarchs, it seems, will now not delay even half a year.
Boabdil’s loyalty has always been mercurial. He has long been at odds with his own family. The son of a noblewoman named Aisha, he rebelled against his father, Muley Hacen, when this latter displaced the heir’s mother in favor of a Christian concubine. In 1482, while Muley Hacen fought the Christians, Boabdil and Aisha instigated a coup in Granada. During the ensuing civil war, the young would-be sultan attempted to prove his valor by taking a fortified Castilian city, Lucena. He was, however, captured, apparently in the course of trying to rescue his horse from drowning, which cannot but have endeared him to his captors. The Christian monarchs agreed to release him, so long as he submitted to vassalage.
Boabdil’s father would die soon after, in 1485, but not before retiring from the city with his preferred concubine and handing over the reins of government to his brother, ibn-Sad, often referred to only as El Zagal, “the brave.” Boabdil and his uncle divided Granada between themselves, but after the child king was again captured during the fall of the city of Loja to the Christians, he was reminded of his vassal status.
Thereafter, he would maintain secret contacts with the kings of Spain, especially by way of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, a friend and skilled captain who was fluent in Arabic. In this way, Boabdil received help to force his uncle out of power and unite Granada under himself, always with the understanding that he would find a way to peacefully relinquish his dominion. Fernández de Córdoba was something of a military genius, combining infantry, artillery, and cavalry in configurations that permanently revolutionized European warfare. He is credited with leading the first battle ever won by gunpowder, the 1503 battle of Cerignola, in Italy, and was viceroy of Naples for a time. Neither was Fernández de Córdoba the only formidable force arrayed against the permanence of the Nazari dynasty. In 1487, the campaign was declared a crusade by Pope Sixtus IV, which facilitated funds and encouraged knights throughout Europe to harken to the southwestern corner of their continent.
Initially upon being maneuvered out of his position, El Zagal left for the port city of Almeria, where he withstood Spanish attacks until December of 1489, at which time he finally surrendered, receiving and hailing King Fernando. Before permanently relocating to north Africa, however, he would sell nearby Muslim territories to the Christians, a move viewed by some as a kind of vengeance against Boabdil, for El Zagal’s unfortunate nephew would now find himself even more isolated than before. Indeed, pressure was about to mount against the young ruler. Isabel and Fernando built a fortress near Granada, called Santa Fe, from which to launch attacks.
We may now detain ourselves at what is one of the most crucial moments of the taking of Granada: The year is 1490—a small cadre makes its way from the newly constructed fort through a hilly countryside, diligently avoiding Boabdil’s nocturnal patrols. They have with them a scout who knows the enemy’s schedule, and their captain, a long dark-haired figure, will not allow them to doubt the successful outcome of their mission. Soon, they come to the walls of the city where four sentries stand guard. The leader of the group, thirty-nine-year-old captain Hernán Pérez del Pulgar, turns to them with keen eyes that bid they stay where they are. He ensures that the glinting tips of several small daggers he carries with him are hidden under leather sheaths, fastened to his belt along with a tightly-wound scroll, his secret cargo. Then he looks forward and disappears into the night. Soon, the group hears sounds of violence, followed by a signal to draw near. The guards have been dispatched and the walls are clear. Granada has been breached. They immediately make for the city’s mosque, where Pérez del Pulgar uses his daggers to nail the scroll to its door: an Ave Maria. They set the market aflame before dawn has broken, and fight off the city’s defenses when these are finally roused, retreating with Pérez del Pulgar’s words resounding in their ears, “be my witnesses, I have claimed this place in the name of our king and queen, and I have left our Lady here, therefore I will return to retrieve her.” And sure enough, he will find himself here again, victorious, on the 3rd of January two years hence.
So began the siege of the city. On the 25th of November 1491, Boabdil and the kings of Spain had settled on terms. Property would be respected, safe passage would be granted to those wanting to leave, no artillery would be used, for the city was not to be damaged, and the Muslim population would continue to live under shariah law. With this, at the beginning of January 1492, Boabdil left his former home. According to one, possibly apocryphal, account, as they prepared to sail away, his mother, Aisha, seeing her son look back with tears in his eyes, rebuked him thus: “cry like a child for that which you did not defend like a man.” He would live out his days in Fez, where he had a palace built. Although accounts of his death vary, he was survived by two sons.
It was done. The city had returned to Spain. This is no anachronism. Queen Isabel declared that the kingdom of Toledo had been restored that day, referring to the regnum Hispaniae, the “Hispanian” kingdom, with its capital in Toledo ruled over by the Visigothic monarchy. Throughout the Middle Ages, the term “Spain” would denote the old peninsular unity and those various Christian kingdoms that were considered its heirs. The term Restauratio, restoration, was therefore used to describe the process which is now usually referred to as Reconquista. And it was not only Spain to which Granada had returned. The taking of the city was celebrated in Rome and, it is said, cathedrals across Europe joined in celebratorily ringing their bells, accompanying the three canon blasts that marked the city’s official transition into Spanish hands.
Eventually, partly for fear of the Ottoman Empire’s influence, the Muslim population of Granada would be offered the choice to leave or convert and, under king Philip III, the entire three-hundred thousand strong, by now at least nominally Christian, population of Muslim descendants was exiled, as it was considered that they were harboring an Ottoman fifth column.
Turning to the present year, recent celebrations of the taking of Granada have been repudiated by elements of the establishment left, including a platform by the name of Granada Abierta, together with Podemos, who described them as an ode to cruelty and genocide. In contrast, VOX has called for the 2nd of January to be declared a national holiday.
Elements of the left have long been engineering a thoroughly counter-historical Andalusian identity. The gambit is a typical one, leveraging a sickly desire to be the victim, invent identities and commit gross historical inaccuracies to foster malcontent towards anything stable and inherited. The story of that conflict whose end we commemorate on the 2nd of January is certainly a long and varied one, but it is interesting that an economy making ample use of slave labor, a political order demanding tribute be paid in virginal young women, and a society in which Arab nasb (lineage) awarded a small minority with ethnic privilege over conquered peoples such as indigenous Iberians, should so endear itself to “the left.”
For our part, we may use the opportunity to reflect on how protean history can be, how long a human enterprise, at times seemingly impossible, can be sustained and brought to term, and how, once, Europe and European Christendom was united enough to celebrate the culmination of such a feat.