An Independent Iberian Caliphate is Born in Cordoba
Almost three hundred and fifty years earlier, in 756, the Umayyad chieftain, Abderraman I, took Cordoba, the former capital of Roman Spain. There he built the great mosque which still stands today. Though converted into a Christian cathedral and tourist attraction, it is still referred to as “La Mezquita,” “The Mosque,” of Cordoba.
In the beginning the Cordovan Emirate was politically and religiously dependent upon the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus. But neither that dynasty nor the Abassids which followed it were able to prevent the full religious and political independence of the Spanish Muslims.
In the year 929 the Umayyad emir, Abderraman III, proclaimed himself Caliph, thus establishing the independent Caliphate of Cordoba, which was to give rise to a brilliant if short-lived civilization in which Granada played only a modest role in the beginning.
Though the Umayyad Caliphate lasted barely 100 years, most of the noteworthy achievements of al-Andalus in art, culture, science, commerce and architecture took place during its time. These included the construction of the Great Mosque and the library of Al-Hakam II which reputedly contained some 400,000 volumes. It was the manufacture of paper, a technology which the Arabs brought from the Orient, which made this, and all subsequent Western libraries, possible. Europe’s first paper mill was established in the middle of the 11th century by Muslims in Játiva, in what is today the Spanish province of Alicante. The Cordovan monarchs also sponsored arts and letters, and were patrons of translators and philosophers such as Ibn Masarra, Averroes and Maimonides. They also achieved important innovations in medicine, mathematics and astronomy. The astrolabe, which made possible accurate celestial navigation, was introduced into Europe from al-Andalus in the early 12th century, around the same time the Cordovan doctor, Abenzoar, was experimenting with the world’s first eye surgery.
The collapse of the Caliphate in 1031 was brought on not so much by Christian military prowess as by dissension among the Muslims themselves. A civil war broke out between the descendants of the last caliph, Hisham II, and those of his prime minister, Almanzor. When the various administrative divisions of the Caliphate opted for independence, thus creating a series of splinter kingdoms (reinos de Taifa), Muslim Iberia was terminally fragmented. The reinos de Taifa were eventually subdued by the Almohade dynasty, an even stricter Muslim sect that swept in from the Maghreb to replace the backsliding Almoravides and ruled al-Andalus for more than a century, from the mid-12th century till 1269. The Christian Reconquest was not consummated until more than four centuries after the fall of the Caliphate.
The Battle that Changed the Tide
En route to the culmination of that long and bloody trudge, in the year 1212 on a plateau above the town of Santa Elena, on the northern fringe of Al-Andalus, the Christians and the Moors fought the battle that was to set the tone for the rest of their mutual history.
The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa took place nearly 300 years before the final victory at Granada. King Alfonso VIII of Castille, who had always been the most active of the Christian monarchs in the struggle against the fanatical Almohade dynasty, had confronted the Moors in the year 1195 with just his own troops at the town of Alarcos, coming out of the fray severely scalded. Seventeen years later he made common cause with Pope Innocence III to declare a crusade against the infidels.
After Alfonso’s elaborate recruiting efforts throughout Christian Europe, most of Alfonso’s northern European allies abandoned his ranks and went home to France and Germany before the battle even began. This was because Alfonso, in the humane tradition of centuries of Christian-Muslim conflicts, prohibited his troops from putting to the sword the Muslim inhabitants of the towns along the way, a policy the fanatical northern Christians could not countenance. The battle, joined on July 16, 1212 on a plateau near the village of Las Navas de Tolosa, a little town south of Despeñaperros Pass in the Sierra Morena mountains, was brief and bloody. Its outcome was decided by a bold frontal charge uphill, led by King Alfonso himself, accompanied the bishop of Toledo and the king of Navarra.
Despite being significantly outnumbered by the troops of his enemy, Mohamed al-Nasir, the fourth caliph of the Moroccan Almohade dynasty, Alfonso persevered and won such a decisive victory that the Muslims were never again to gain the initiative in the struggle for Iberia. In fact, had he not been hindered by the plague, Alfonso would have followed up and consolidated his victory then and there.
Las Navas was a truly international confrontation, with Moorish allies coming from as far away as Turkey—the dreaded Agzaz archers, capable of loosing their arrows accurately from galloping horses. The details reported by the chroniclers are eloquent. The Archbishop of Narbonne affirmed afterwards that more than 2,000 pack mules were required just to carry off the boxes of unused Muslim arrows.
After Alfonso’s decisive victory, his great nephew, Fernando III of Castille (son of Alfonso IX of Leon, el baboso, “the sloberer,” because he foamed at the mouth when enraged) had little trouble conquering Cordoba in 1236, thus ending the period of the Taifa mini-kingdoms. It was then that Granada took on greater importance as the last Muslim bastion on the Iberian Peninsula. The very next year Ibn al-Ahmar (1237-1273, or Muhammed I, the first of a line of 20 Nasrid emirs of Granada, ordered construction to begin on the Alhambra.
Al-Andalus as Earthly Paradise
The Muslims who arrived in Granada from North Africa in 711 a.d. found all the makings of an earthly paradise, and set about creating it. In the eighth-century the Spanish Visigoths had not advanced much since Roman times, and their diet was still limited to the classic Roman staples: wheat, meat and wine. It was the Muslims who developed Europe’s most-sophisticated ancient irrigation systems and introduced a great variety of fruits and vegetables into the Iberian—and European—diet. Most of the Spanish words still associated with water and water works are derived from Arabic: acequia, irrigation canal; aljibe, cistern; alberca, reservoir; azud, dam; sequía, drought; noria, water wheel…
Moorish Granada (Gharnatah), initially just a fortress from which they consolidated the newly-won territory, was located in a fertile plain (la vega de Granada) irrigated by two rivers, the Genil and the Darro, both of which descended from the north slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains that rise regally over the city, providing the glamorous backdrop for the Alhambra that Bill Clinton was so impressed by when he visited Granada more than a thousand years later in 1997. This abundant water and its clever administration made it possible to grow almost anything, and the invaders soon turned the lower mountainsides and the plain into a giant garden, some of which still remains, despite the last century of concrete and asphalt encroachments.
Granada still retains some of the abundant and gracious lifestyle established by the Arabs nearly 1,300 years ago. A stroll around the outskirts of today’s city and surrounding villages will take you through market gardens and orchards of fruit trees brought here by the Arabs. In fact, most of the fruit trees one sees here today were already present in the 13th century: almonds, figs, pomegranates, quince, citrus fruits, apricots, bananas, dates, and of course the mulberry tree, which was the mainstay of the silk industry that flourished in Granada in the Middle Ages.
Granada still retains some of its fascinating old persimmon trees, alluring because the fruit remains on the trees in early winter after all the leaves have fallen, leaving an otherwise bare framework dappled with persimmons which slowly turn from pumpkin yellow to tomato red as winter wears on. The quince, another old-fashioned fruit tree, still abounds around Granada, as farmers still use it for hedgerows. The fruit is too tart to be eaten raw, so the women of the villages turn almost all of it into carne de membrillo, the local version of quince jelly, for which every Granada grandmother has her own recipe.
It was also the Muslims who imported the new species of plants which both beautified the landscape and gave the people of al-Andalus the rich and varied year-round diet of fruits and vegetables which the Spanish—and the rest of Europe—still enjoy. They introduced watermelon, sugar cane, aubergine, rice, asparagus, beans, garlic, onions, artichokes, squash, and spinach, along with the jasmine flowers which still perfume all Mediterranean summer nights.
The End of Al-Andalus
The glorious, sordid and tragicomic 800-year-long epic of al-Andalus ended in Granada on January 2, 1492, after a 10-year siege, with the victory of Ferdinand and Isabella over the Nasrid Emir Boabdil, whom they exiled to a village on the southern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The following year he left for Morocco, never to see Granada again. Spanish mythology has it that as Boabdil crested the hill a few kilometers south of Granada in a place still called El Suspiro del Moro, “The Moor’s Sigh,” he burst into tears. His mother, the sultana Aixa, comforted him bitter sweetly: “Cry like a woman, my son, for what you were not able to defend like a man.”
The Almoravides (from the Arabic “murabit,” “hermit”) conquered al-Andalus on horseback at the end of the 11th century on a wave of strict religious fundamentalism, but it didn’t take them long to succumb to the worldly temptations offered them in the lushness of al-Andalus. The Almohades, under an even stricter Muslim religious regime, displaced them just a century later, but the Almohades’ relaxation of spiritual dogmas and customs weren’t long in coming, either. It’s almost as if the natural conditions of al-Andalus–something in the water, perhaps–were conducive to hedonism. Not much has changed in 800 years.