The Red

For seven centuries the Moors had ruled al-Andalus.   The Christians in the north, though, had persistently fought for more and more territory to the south, and al-Andalus had devolved into a series of taifas (city states).  By 1236, King Ferdinand III of Castille had taken Seville, and looked hungrily at Cordoba, the most powerful Moorish territory in al-Andalusian history.  In order to gain Cordoba, Ferdinand traded Granada in an alliance with Ibn Ahmar Nasr, a successful muslim general.  Nasrid helped him take Cordoba, and, under the king’s protection, the Nasrid family went on to rule Granada for 250 years.

It was the first Nasrid who began construction of the magnificent fortress high in the Sierra Nevada on the site of what had been referred to as the “old red fort,” so named because of the red earthen walls.  The name Alhambra (“the red”), survives to today.


Eventually, Granada was the only Moorish territory remaining.


In 1469, in an astute political manoevre that belied her youth, Isabella, heir to the throne of Castille, married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon.   Eventually they consolidated power, unifying a new single Catholic state, Castille, and in 1491, they set their sights on Granada.   It was clear to them that no-one would be able to penetrate the Alhambra militarily, and after a one-year seige on the city, Isabella came up with a diplomatic strategy.

“Their highnesses and their successors
will ever afterwards allow [Granadians]
to live in their own religion, and not permit
the Mosques to be taken from them, nor
their minarets nor their muezzins, nor will
they interfere with the pious foundations
or endowments, which they have for such
purposes, nor will they disturb the uses
and customs which they observe.”  

                             –  Chapter 6, Agreements of Capitulation of the City of Granada

With this agreement and “the Moors’ last sigh,” the last Nasrid, Muhammad XI, fled Granada.  His mother remarked under her breath that he should not cry like a woman for a place he would not defend like a man.

So it was that Isabella and Ferdinand and their entourage, dressed in Arab finery, swept up the hill and into Alhambra, declaring it their new “casa real”, marking their total and final rule of the entire Castillian empire.   


Despite the “capitulation,” within months, the Jews were expelled from Castille and within the next few years, over 300,000 Muslims were also banished.  Not long after, over a million Muslim texts, including Cordoba’s entire royal library, were destroyed.

Whatever we may think about Ferdinand and Isabella’s treatment of non-catholics, their takeover of all of Spain was just one of a seemingly endless chain of usurpations of the fabulous Iberian peninsula (making the case for the “one damn thing after another” view of history), one that lasted until Franco seized power in 1939.  Isabella and Ferdinand’s consolidation of power and territory in 1492 marked the end of the middle ages and ushered in the Spanish Golden Age.  

The beloved Alhambra was preserved, untouched.

Nights from the Alhambra by Loreena McKennitt; short sample, the full album is on youtube.

My impressions of these spectacular buildings and gardens:

Later, we visited the Albaicin district of Granada, the medieval Moorish quarter outside the city wall:

This is where my look at Muslim rule in southern Spain leaves off; shortly, I’ll look at Christian domination of the east in roughly the same time period.  But first, a little more España!



(If you’re interested, this is how the beautiful, ornate plasterwork in Alhambra is made and restored:)


3 thoughts on “The Red

  1. Wonderful pictures Jan. Thanks for the fab history.
    We move on to St Ives today.

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