High up against the steep walls dropping straight down to the river Darro, to the north of the palatine city of the Alhambra, the palaces occupied by Boabdil as reigning sultan were well protected by the nearly vertical embankments. Next to these was the mexuar, or administrative area for the Nasrid kingdom, which was entered from the public square and is described for us by Ibn al-Jatib, the vizier of sultan Muhammad V, in 1362. The mexuar had two patios, one where the council of viziers met, and another which housed the royal chancellery, where the royal secretariat’s writing office was located. This office occupied a place of great importance in Granada’s political and cultural life, as the court secretaries were a group of luminaries who wrote not only documents of propaganda and legitimisation but also literary works in prose and verse. All correspondence, official letters, legal and diplomatic documents and private communications were written on the legendary red paper of the Nasrid chancellery. Although white was the most usual colour for paper, as it is today, medieval Muslim craftsmen knew how to make paper of different colours. Red represented the Nasrid dynasty, and documents issued in this shade were appropriate for the lord of the Alhambra, the red fort.
On 16 December 1489 Boabdil wrote a letter on the crimson paper, signed in his own hand and sealed with his seal, addressed to the viziers, sheiks and dignitaries of the settlement of Ugíjar and the farmholdings of the Alpujarran village of Picena, asking for their support. What happened at Baza, he wrote, was the will of Allah, and its loss filled Muslims with pain and diminished western Islam. But now, he stated, Muslims must consider the consequences of how they behave, and reflect with all their good judgement on their situation and future. They must cease their changes of heart and hasten towards what is good with strong resolve and diligence. Boabdil told them that he had agreed an amnesty with the Christians for two years extending to all his people, and urging them to recognise his authority. He encouraged them to exalt their holy cause and confess their absolute unity in private and in public. The sultan’s tone is persuasive and moralising, but also inspiring and affectionate, as he instructs them to accept what he calls ‘goodness and peace’. Just over a month after this letter had been sent, something happened to change his opinion about the amnesty. Early in January 1490, Boabdil sent his trusted vizier, al-Mulih, to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella to enter into talks with them. The subject of those talks is not specified, and it may have related to the recently agreed truce, although some believe it related to the potential handover of Granada. Al-Mulih returned with a letter from the royal couple, and accompanied by two young officers, who seem to have been charged with the task of negotiating for the city itself. One of the men was Gonzalo de Córdoba, aged thirty-seven, who had been inside Granada before when he had provided support for Boabdil against El Zagal, and had also been at the Battle of Loja, where he had apparently persuaded the sultan to surrender the town. Gonzalo had patched up relations between Ferdinand and Boabdil and renewed the secret pact in which the latter was to be rewarded for fighting against his uncle with the gift of a dukedom or a high-ranking title. The other man was Martín de Alarcón, who had been in charge of the arrangements for Boabdil’s imprisonment at Porcuna when he was first captured by the Castilians in 1483, from which time forward Boabdil had been the pawn of Castilian policy. Both men were well known to the sultan, although they were both associated with very negative experiences for Boabdil, which should have made him suspicious.
In his letter of reply to Ferdinand and Isabella, dated 22 January 1490, Boabdil suggested that it would be best to send his representative back to court to speak in person to the monarchs. According to Hernando de Baeza, the sultan realised that the Castilian negotiators were shifting the terms of their agreement and sent a nobleman from his household to the Castilian court at Cordoba to clarify matters. Boabdil was horrified at their response, which we can deduce was along the lines that the Muslims must surrender their arms and the city at once. This, of course, broke the pact of peace and contravened the truce signed with the Christians. Boabdil, now a man of thirty who knew his own mind, was no longer the inexperienced young sultan of 1482. He had been betrayed, imprisoned and maligned, and his son was still held hostage by the Castilians. The new demand must have seemed one betrayal too many. His immediate reaction was to provoke war, but his closest advisers warned against this, and suggested he should send his messengers back a second time. He heeded their advice and sent Aben Comixa, the senior constable of Granada, accompanied by a very good friend of Hernando de Baeza, a merchant called Abrahim Alcaiçí. They returned very unhappy, and confirmed that the Christians had no intention of keeping their word over what had already been agreed twice with the sultan. The news got out and the city was in an uproar. The stage was set once again for war.
The perception of Boabdil as the covert friend and ally of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Castile has done much to foster the idea that the Muslim leader was a traitor to his people, but it is not borne out by the textual evidence. At no time in their long association did either man pay anything but lip service to the idea of an affectionate, chummy relationship between the two. In their lengthy official correspondence, Boabdil’s letters begin and end with effusive expressions of subservient respect, admiration and solicitude which might lead us to think that he was overly compliant with the wishes of the Catholic Monarchs, until we realise that this flowery rhetoric was a standard part of formal letter-writing style in Arab tradition. The communications sent by the Christians were only slightly less demonstrative and familiar, again in keeping with the habitual language of official letters in the more sober Castilian language.
More revealing of Ferdinand’s true motivation is his letter to the Mameluk leader Qa’it Bey, with whom he had made a temporary alliance against the Ottoman Turks from 1488 to 1491. The Spanish sovereigns described the war against Granada as if it had marginal religious motivation. They wrote of Granada as a vassal kingdom, part of the Castilian crown, which had failed to fulfil its obligations to them, and made out that the war was a punishment of the rebels, nothing more. Those who were willing to surrender were guaranteed the preservation of their faith and freedom in their religious practices. This quite blatantly contradicts the way the war was spoken of inside Castile and by the Christian chancellery, who presented it as a crusade against the enemies of the faith. Queen Isabella’s obsession with winning the war was apparently rooted in her deep Christian beliefs and piety. With crusading zeal, she longed to destroy the last remnants of Muslim power, and resented the presence of a potentially hostile kingdom of different race and religion. But her aim was political unity, fuelled by a desire to build a sense of nation and enlist the support of her people. It was obviously helpful for the alliance with the Mameluks not to show hostility towards Islam, and so the Castilians craftily harked back to the original vassaldom of the Nasrids to the Christians approved by Muhammad I in 1236. As no formal peace treaty had been signed between Boabdil and Ferdinand, only truces, this ancient agreement was still legally valid from the Christian perspective. This version of the situation as it was presented to Qa’it Bey implies that one major reason for war was the acquisition of money and power, masquerading as a religious motive. Another strategic purpose was to take the southeast of Spain from a power closely linked to the feared menace of the Turks, who might recover their strength and join with Granada in the future. So Christian Spain was sending a clear message to the Mameluks that they would do well to keep Ferdinand and Isabella as allies and not enemies.
These political and military manoeuvres reveal the cunning and duplicity of Ferdinand. The notorious Florentine diplomat and writer Machiavelli, who was a great admirer of the Catholic king, stated in his work The Prince that great campaigns and striking demonstrations of personal abilities brought great prestige to a prince. He had Ferdinand in mind. As a young man, the Aragonese prince had been clever and likeable, and, like Boabdil, was an excellent horseman and hunter. The historian Fernando del Pulgar spoke of him as having ‘such grace that everyone who talked to him wanted to serve him’. But his shrewdness was obvious even then – his motto was ‘Like the anvil, I keep silent because of the times’. All his life he had frequented the halls of power. Aged just nine, he had been his father’s deputy in Catalonia, and became its lieutenant at sixteen. He was the ideal successor to his father on the throne of Aragon, which he took over in 1477, brought up in that kingdom, but also having Castilian blood as second cousin of his wife Isabella, which made it easier to unite the two kingdoms by their marriage. In spite of this, he was a womaniser and had at least three illegitimate daughters, all relegated to convents. Historians tell us that Ferdinand was easy-going but also ruthless, devious and more cynical than his wife. The modern historian Hugh Thomas states in his book Rivers of Gold that his instincts were those of a calculating machine rather than a man of passion. And there were the prophecies by the clergy that he would be the king who would win back the Holy Land for Christendom. The dramatic impact of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had renewed the crusading zeal of western Europe, reflected in the popularity of the chivalric novels of the late fifteenth-century such as Tirante the White and Amadeus of Gaul, whose mixture of chivalry and violence chimed with contemporary warfare. There was a sense, as we have seen, that Ferdinand was the man for the moment, and his successes at the siege of Malaga and the taking of the seemingly impregnable Ronda had been personal triumphs. His eye was firmly on the big prize of Granada, whose conquest would make him and Isabella rulers of virtually the whole of Spain.
Boabdil was up against a man who was obsessively ambitious, immensely powerful and an expert military strategist. He knew how to take advantage of the newest trends in warfare developed in the mid-fifteenth century, which included new weapon capabilities, tactics and administrative advances. During the course of this century almost every European army had adopted the gunpowder weapons so successful in siege operations during the Granadan war. Siege artillery had been used in Spain before the fifteenth century: Sultan Isma’il I was reported to have captured the town of Huéscar in 1324 and Baza in 1325 using gunpowder artillery, and we know that the Spanish Muslims used cannon against the Castilian army of Alfonso XI at the siege of Algeciras in 1342. One big mistake by the Nasrids was failing to advance the use of gunpowder artillery in their military strategies. Instead, they left this to the Christians. Ferdinand modelled his siege artillery on the French weapons which had been used in the 1450s, and appointed a French Master of Artillery. The triumphs he had in the war up till 1490 would not have happened without gunpowder technology.
At the same time, Ferdinand’s naval blockade on al-Andalus gave him control of the straits of Gibraltar, the narrow stretch of water between Spain and Africa which either allowed or prevented invasion. Regular Spanish patrols made it impossible for the north African Muslims to make contact with Granada. The third prong of the Christian king’s military strategy was the tala, or devastation of crops, throughout the kingdom of Granada, but most cruelly in the vega surrounding the city itself. To besiege a population and destroy their food supplies at the same time is a deadly combination which Ferdinand used remorselessly. The first tala of the year, on 21 May 1490, destroyed the crops of the vega, whose castles at La Malaha and Alhendín had just been taken by his army.
Despite the threatening situation, Boabdil was in no mood to relinquish his kingdom. Granada was still formidable because of its position and defences, shielded to the east by the great mountain range of the Sierra Nevada and encircled by massive towers and walls of great strength and solidity facing the vega. The sultan had a change of heart and abandoned the dangerous diplomatic game he had been playing for years. Courageously, he launched an attack on the town of Padul, recently acquired by Ferdinand from El Zagal, as soon as the Castilians had withdrawn from the tala in June 1490. The assault was successful and, against the odds, he managed to recapture the town and surrounding area, as well as the castle of Alhendín. No doubt elated by these victories, he went to war against the coastal town of Adra, which was won back with the help of north African volunteers, but a further attack on the coastal town of Salobreña failed in September, as the Muslim army had to hurry back to Granada, where the Christian army was reported to be heading. Boabdil was trying to rebuild his kingdom with modest victories, and probably hoping to open up links from Granada to the outside world now that vital food supplies from the vega were practically non-existent. A chain of seaside bases might provide a tenuous life-line to allow food and other supplies to reach them from north Africa, and a link across the mountain tops to the outside world might also enable a limited amount of provisions and men to get through to Granada. During the rest of 1490, a kind of stalemate was reached. The Castilians didn’t launch a full-scale offensive, but raided and skirmished, with minor successes, and destroyed the crops of the vega for a second time in September. Boabdil refused to surrender, although it was now that his uncle decided to leave his endangered estate and cross over to Oran.
By 1491 the writing was on the wall. Granada lived in fear and hardship, while frantic, secret negotiations went on behind the scenes. In April, once the better weather came, Ferdinand led his army once more towards Granada and intended to stay there until the city surrendered. On 26 April, the army camped near the fountain of a small town called Ojos de Huéscar, known as Atqa to the Muslims, just six miles west of Granada. Here they were joined once more by Queen Isabella and her ladies in waiting: the queen supervised the military preparations and inspected the encampment dressed in full armour. There is a story that she wished to get a closer view of the Muslim city, so the king and queen went to Zubia, a nearby village, and sat at a window which gave an unbroken view of the beautiful Alhambra. The feeling of being spied on by an enemy moving ever closer was too much for the Granadans to endure, and they burst out of the city gates, dragging several pieces of artillery with them, and assaulted the lines of Spanish soldiers stationed between the village and the city to protect the king and queen. The Castilians pursued them back to the city gates and a large number of Granadans were killed before they could regain safety.
The Christian army remained within striking distance of Granada throughout June and July, when Ferdinand made a remarkable decision. Seeing they might well still be in the same position as winter approached, he ordered an entire new town to be constructed on the site of the encampment. Extraordinary as this decision seems, Ferdinand was a man who had been undaunted by re-engineering mountain pathways to accommodate his troops and artillery: his plan was put into immediate action, and his soldiers became artisans. Neighbouring villages were razed to the ground to provide materials for the new buildings, which were erected in just eighty days. Where there had been temporary tents there was now permanent stone and mortar in the form of dwelling houses, plus stables for 1,000 horses. The town had the shape of a rectangular gridiron with two spacious avenues intersecting at right angles in the centre in the form of a cross, 400 paces long by 300 wide, with imposing portals at each of the four points. Inscriptions on blocks of marble recorded the relative share of labour of men from various cities in the work.
While the town was under construction Isabella had been lodged in a magnificent silk tent owned by the Marquis of Cádiz. One night a gust of wind blew over one of the lamps, which set fire to the loose hangings inside, and the blaze spread to nearby tents. It happened in the early hours when the sentinels had fallen asleep, but the Queen and her children managed to escape unharmed, although many jewels, precious silks and brocades were lost, and she had to borrow clothes from her friends. When the buildings were finished and painted in gleaming white, a mayor was appointed, a man called Francisco de Bobadilla, a war hero and commander of the military Order of Calatrava, one of the semi-religious brotherhoods whose members had played a key role in the fighting against the Muslims. The army wanted the town to be named after the queen, but she declined the honour and named it Santa Fe, Holy Faith, as a token of trust in their Christian divinity. If you visit Santa Fe today, it looks much the same as it did in 1491. The church of Santa María de la Encarnación, built later, in the sixteenth century, bears the words ¡Ave María! and a lance sculpted in memory of a Christian nobleman, Hernán Pérez del Pulgar, who had gone to Granada at dead of night in the winter of 1490 via a secret tunnel, to pin a parchment bearing those words upon the entrance to the mosque with his dagger. It was an act straight out of the pages of chivalric romance, and suggests that many Christian knights fought for fame and glory as much as anything else. Most of the monarchs’ advisers, secretaries and treasurers also went to Santa Fe, which was set up as a court as well as a military headquarters. In October 1491 Isabella actually summoned Columbus there, where he stayed all autumn, an unintentional witness to the events unfolding in nearby Granada.