The Moor’s Last Stand – Elizabeth Drayson
The year of 1492 was one of major significance for the western world. We all know that it was the year in which Christopher Columbus had trouble with his sat nav and landed on an island which he dubbed as San Salvador, thinking that he had reached the East Indies. What is less well-known is that it was the year in which the last foothold of Islamic power was eradicated from Western Europe, a tale that Drayson tells with some gusto.
On 2nd January of that fateful year, Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, handed over the keys of the capital, ,which had been in Moslem hands for seven centuries, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and went into exile. It is said when Boabdil reached the furthest point of his former land from which Granada could be seen, he sighed and burst into tears. His mother, Aixa, turned round and said, “you do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” This is probably apocryphal but ever since Boabdil has had a bad rep and Drayson’s mission is to restore his credibility or at least explain why he gave up his kingdom without much of a fight.
Drayson traces the history of the Emirate of Granada from the conquest of large parts of the Iberian peninsula and the establishment of Al-Andalus from 711 CE by the Umayyads. The Nasrid dynasty, of whom Boabdil was the last, took control in 1238, although, in truth, their status was little more than vassals to the kingdom of Castille. What did for Boabdil was the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, uniting the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, and Ferdinand’s determination to eradicate the Moslem thorn in his side. Ferdinand successfully played on divisions amongst Boabdil’s relatives and by late 1491 the writing was on the wall for Boabdil. Rather than risk mass slaughter, he negotiated a treaty of surrender.
About 200,000 Muslims emigrated to North Africa after the surrender and those who remained were guaranteed their property, laws, customs and religion under the terms of the surrender. But the Christian rulers began to turn the screw and following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1500 the rights of Muslims and Jews, who were collateral damage in the whole affair, were withdrawn. At best, Boabdil was naïve in trusting that the Christians would be true to their word.
This is a strange book. It is never a good sign when half way through the ostensible subject, Boabdil in this case, is dead and, frankly, the evidence and facts about him are painfully thin. Drayson spends more time exploring the early days of the Muslim presence in Iberia and then reviewing how later history, literature, art, poetry and music viewed the last Sultan than on the Sultan himself. The sense is that what would have been an interesting monograph has been padded out to make a book and parts of the last two chapters dealing with his posthumous reputation are deadly dull. I struggled to summon the enthusiasm to see it through to the end.
History, as they say, is written by the victors. From an objective standpoint, it is hard to see that the expulsion of the Muslims, and the Jews, was a good thing. Granada with its wonderful Alhambra is a testament to the architectural skills of the Moors. Their territories allowed learning and research to flourish and were a model of religious tolerance, allowing people of all faiths to live in what they termed convivencia or harmony. The surrender of 1492 ushered in intolerance and the Inquisition. Boabdil was a victim of realpolitik, no more, no less. I am grateful for Drayson for shining a light on an area of history I was painfully ignorant of. I just think she could have made a better fist of it.