Paradise Lost: End of Glorious Muslim Rule in Spain

By Nasser Tufail

Keys to Paradise in Granada

The surrender of Alhambra would be the final war of ‘Reconquista’, a paradise lost, with Spain now essentially seeing itself as the guardian of Catholicism. On January 2, 1492, the last Muslim King of Granada, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, relinquished the sovereignty of Granada and handed over the symbolic keys of the Moorish capital to the Catholic Monarchs Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. “These are the keys to paradise,” he said, before leaving the city and going into exile.

Alhambra Palace

The fall of the Nasrid dynasty after a series of military campaigns over a 10 year period had sealed the fate of the Moorish Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.

Boabdil, the last King of Granada

Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII ( known to the Spanish as King ‘El Chico’ Boabdil) was the 22nd and last Nasrid ruler of the Emirate of Granada. Political machinations and power struggles were the norm during Arab rule in Spain. Boabdil was continually fighting with his father, Abu’l-Hasan Ali ibn Sa’d (known to the Spanish as Muley Hacén), as well as his uncle, Emir Al-Zagal, all of whom considered themselves the rightful rulers of the kingdom of Granada!

Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII (Boabdil)

Boabdil reviled his father for devoting himself to worldly pleasures and lust, delighting himself with songstresses and dancers. Evidently, he didn’t approve of his father taking on a young abducted Christian girl, Isabella de Solís, as his second wife. Isabella was the daughter of Castilian nobleman Sancho Jiménez de Solís who fell whilst bravely defending against the Muslim forces in a raid and was taken prisoner. Isabella ended up as a chambermaid in the harem of the palace of Boabdil’s father, Muley Hacén.

Muley Hacén, perhaps invoking the ‘Ma malakat aymanukum’ (right hand possessions) doctrine of fair game and rightful ownership, ‘blessed’ Isabella as a distinguished member of his Tier-1 harem! After converting her to the Muslim faith, she was given the name Zoraya (Soraya in Arabic, which roughly means a bright morning star) and then married her. He promptly abandoned his first wife, Sultana Aixa (Aysha in Arabic), Boabdil’s mother. A manipulative, green-eyed woman, Aixa would organize a rebellion to overthrow her former husband, Muley Hacén, and replace him with her son, Boabdil.

Internecine Palace Intrigues

In the 10th and early 11th century, political intrigue and power tussles broke up the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba into almost three dozen disunited taifas (independent principalities), which started falling one by one to the Christian Reconquista over the next two centuries. Unceasing instability, betrayal, murder and violence followed. Nasr, the fourth sultan, was overthrown by his cousin Isma’il. Isma’il met a violent death by another one of his own cousins. The sixth Sultan too was murdered in a plot, the origins of which were in North Africa.

The next Nasrid Sultan, Yusuf, was assassinated as he was praying in the great mosque, paving way for his son, Muhammad V, Boabdil’s grandfather, to next rule Granada. Soon, he too would be replaced by another Nasrid prince, Isma’il, the grandson of Emir Nasr. A new plot orchestrated by Muhammad VI (the Red), nephew of Yusuf I, resulted in Isma’il’s assassination in 1360, with Yusuf I taking over the throne. Two years later, true to the Nasrid tradition, Muhammad V, with help from King Peter I of Castile, won back the Kingdom of Granada whilst Muhammad VI (the Red) was imprisoned and later poisoned. After Muhammad V died, his son Yusuf II, Boabdil’s great-grandfather, reigned for a couple of years until he died a terrible death after putting on a poisoned gold tunic sent as a “gift” from the King of Fez.

Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions)

That Rapscallion Gene!

The clan warfare and treachery continued for several years with new pretenders to the throne surfacing in a dizzying display of musical chairs until Boabdil’s paternal grandfather, Abu Naser Saa’d, took the reins of the throne around 1453, supported by the Abencerrajes (Banu Sarraj). Eight years later, he ordered the assassination of the very supporters and promoters who helped put him on the throne – the Banu Sarraj. He invited them to a banquet at the Alhambra and had almost the entire clan slaughtered. Three years on in 1464, in a bizarre twist of fate, Saa’d was overthrown by his own son, Abu’l-Hasan Ali ibn Sa’d. In 1482, as mentioned above, Muley Hacén was overthrown by Boabdil in a rebellion supported by his mother, Sultana Aixa. My head is still spinning trying to come to terms with that rapscallion gene which continued to endure without palpable mutation, begetting royal sagas with as many intrigues and subplots as Game of Thrones, as I try to get the maelstrom of reversal of fortunes straight! The Wars of Roses between the House of Lancaster and the House of York seem like a side show compared to all this!

In her book ‘The Moor’s Last Stand’, Elizabeth Drayson writes: “It was a time of kaleidoscopic reversals of alliances: there were no Muslim leaders in Spain who had not done deals with the Christians.”

Battle of Lucena

A city called Lucena in the province of Cordoba had remained under the Moors until the middle of the 13th century, when Ferdinand III of Castile took over control. King Boabdil attempted to retake it in his first military adventure, the Battle of Lucena, but was defeated. His father-in-law, who accompanied him, was killed. As Boabdil tried to escape, his horse got stuck in the mud and he ran and tried to hide in some bushes. He was found out by the Christian forces and imprisoned. His father, Muley Hacén, became the ruler of Granada once again. But just two years later, in another palace intrigue, Muley Hacén’s brother, Muhammad XIII el Zagal got rid of Muley Hacén and took control of the kingdom.

Incarceration of King Boabdil

I had a chance to visit the Castillo del Moral in Lucena, where Boabdil Muhammad XII was imprisoned for over 3 years.

Castillo del Moral

Here is the view from Castillo del Moral of Plaza de Espana and Church of San Mateo.

Boabdil was allowed into the courtyard when he wasn’t cooped up in his dungeon. He would sometimes take walks on the paths between the double walls of the castle.

Here are the stairs that Boabdil would take to go to his underground dungeon.

There is a sign post around one corner of the castle which reads: “It is important, the tower of Moral. Inside it the King Boabdil “El Chico”, last Nazari King of Granada, was prisoner in the first battle which he lost, until the definitive loss of his kingdom.” At the entrance is the statue of Spanish nobleman, Diego Fernández de Córdoba, the Marquis of Comares and Grandee of Spain who served as the Mayor of Lucena as well as the Governor of Oran (in present day Algeria).

While serving out his imprisonment in Castillo del Moral, Boabdil cut a deal with his captors for his release. In exchange for their support in helping him recover his throne, he would agree to hold Granada as a tributary kingdom and govern it under the Catholic monarchs. Not only that, but he also agreed to hand over part of the territory ruled by his father to the kingdom of Castile and undertook not to intervene in the siege of Malaga in which the city was taken by the Christians.

Momentous Fall of Malaga

There was a milestone event, and perhaps the most pivotal one in the Christian military campaigns that preceded the fall of Granada five years earlier. Well-fortified Malaga under Boabdil’s uncle, Emir Al-Zagal, was economically prosperous and the second most important city after Granada. Malaga was also the principal trading port on the Mediterranean without which Granada could not have sustained as an independent state.

Boadbil had sided and directly supported the Christian besiegers against his own Uncle, Emir Al-Zagal, when the former attacked Velez-Malaga, the chief seaport of Granada, in 1487. Soon, the heretofore ‘impregnable’ Alcazaba, the largest Arab citadel in Spain and the connected Gibralfaro fortress above it would become ‘pregnable’, and the Moors would be routed out of Malaga.

A Queen’s show of strength in Santa Fe

Most of us will be familiar with Santa Fe in New Mexico. It was founded by the Spanish colonists around the turn of 16th century and designated as the capital of the State. But the original town of Santa Fe, on which the US city with the same name is based, lies in the province of Granada in Spain. It was in this town that Columbus and Catholic Monarchs met to sign the Santa Fe Capitulations, on 17 April 1492. The name Santa Fe, which means Holy Faith, was founded in 1491 by the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabella and served as their court as well as the exclusive seat of the Catholic Church. That is, until the capture of the Nasrid capital, Granada.

Extraordinarily, this is also the town where the Reconquista actually culminated! Isabella had set up a military camp in Santa Fe to besiege the city of Granada, by then the last vestige of Muslim power. The rectangular structure of the town follows the form of a symbolic Christian cross based around two roads that intersect at the center. Talk about an audacious demonstration of strength of faith by first naming the city Sante Fe (reference to Catholic faith) and then laying it out in the shape of a Christian symbol to signify the fight against the Muslim occupiers!

At each end of the cross, monumental gates were built and named after the Andalusian cities – Loja, Granada, Sevilla and Jaén (the latter gate is no longer there). A protective wall and moat were added around the town for security. At almost lightning speed, within roughly 80 days, the army camp grew into an imposing town of bricks and mortar with 60,000 soldiers packed inside, getting all psyched up for taking back their rightful lands.

I set off to go and check out the city that once evinced ‘The audacity of Hope’, to borrow the title of President Obama’s book! Here is what the main gate to the military camp in Santa Fe looks like today. You can see the straight line of the cross through the arch and the other gate down at the far end.

And the gate at one end of the perpendicular line of the cross.

The sight of the massive powerhouse emerging out of the dust must have sent a strong message to the Moors that the Christians meant business. It was no coincidence why Santa Fe was chosen as the Reconquista launch pad. Santa Fe is roughly 11 KM (as the crow flies) from the Alhambra palace, and is in clear sight of anyone standing on the rooftop. Here is a picture taken from the roof of Alhambra palace, and the rough location of Santa Fe is indicated by a red arrow.

Queen Isabella Strategizes in Santa Fe Against the ‘Turbaned Infidel’

As Queen Isabella fine-tuned her strategy for the Reconquista, she shuttled between Santa Fe and a farmhouse in the village of La Zubia a few kilometers away, where she was staying (or keeping cover from the Moors, as the case may be). She prayed in the church of Iglesia de la Encarnacion in Santa Fe for victory against the ‘turbaned infidel’! This is that church located in Plaza de Espana, though it may not exactly resemble the original one which had to be extensively renovated/reconstructed after the damage inflicted by the great earthquake.

Iglesia de la Encarnacion

We can only presume that God must have answered Queen Isabella’s prayers this time around! When the monarchs called in their pledge, Boabdil at first refused to deliver, but with the besiege of the city of Granada complete and the Christians’ faith and determination to win back Granada left in no doubt, the Moors had no choice but to sign the surrender treaty. Boabdil was brought to Santa Fe and he finally agreed to surrender Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella and signed the capitulation treaty in November, 1491.

The Capitulation of Granada by Francisco P. Ortiz

Santa Fe, in a sense, is thus an evocative metaphor for what was the real conquest of the Nasrid capital, Granada, and the end of the reign of the Muslim Moors.

Suspiro del Moro

As soon as the Catholic monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand settled in ‘United Granada’ in 1492, they raised their flag in the Alhambra as a symbol of victory.

Boabdil and his entourage first stayed in Laujar de Andarax in Las Alpujarras, Almeria, and then departed for their exile first to Cazaza and then later onwards to Fez in Morocco. Boabdil is said to have stopped on a short hill South-West of the Alhambra on his way into exile which is now known as Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor’s Sigh).

It was here that a dejected Boabdil paused to have one last gaze at the magnificent Alhambra palace, possibly also reflecting on its assortment of fine concubines that he left behind! He sighed for a moment and started yearning for the lost land, weeping profusely as he did. Just then, Boabdil’s mother, Aixa, full of anger and shame that her son gave up everything without even a fight, rebuked Boabdil with the famous admonition:

Now you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.” Or so the legend goes!

Moor’s Last Sight by Francisco P. Ortiz

A concrete marker with the words ‘Suspiro del Moro’ (Moor’s Last Sigh) written on it indicates the exact location. I missed it twice as I was looking for it to the right side of the road while driving , when in fact it is inside the median to the left that divides the opposing traffic on the highway; one has to (very cautiously) cross the highway on foot and climb over the guardrails to reach it.

Moor’s Last Sigh marker

The red cross in the picture below is the approximate location of the Alhambra palace, just at the foothills of the mountains.

And these are the views the last Sultan of the Nasrid dynasty of Granada would have seen around him from the location of the marker.

Just as Granada had risen to splendor on the exploitation in the Vega and ruin of other Muslim kingdoms, so its glory would end with internecine intrigue, inveterate jealousies and unqualified perfidy. Almost eight centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula would finally come to an end, ushering in a period of religious intolerance and forced conversions of Muslims to Christianity just a decade later.


The highest mountain in the Iberian Peninsula in Sierra Nevada is called Mulhacén. It is named after Boabdil’s father, Abu’l-Hasan Ali (Muley Hacén in Spanish) who, according to legend, is supposedly buried on the summit of the mountain – his last wish to be buried where no one would ever find him!


Click below for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings on Spain:

The City That Gave an Empire its First Defeat

Legendary Mines of Rio Tinto and King Solomon’s Wealth

Hemingway’s Obsolete Machismo: For Whom The Bulls Still Toil!

Death in the Afternoon: In the Footsteps of Hemingway

A lesser-known Malaga – Fascinating people on the Costas

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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  1. With all of this intrigue and nastiness, it’s amazing they were able to make such incredibly beautiful buildings and art. Seems a mismatch!

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