Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Key of Granada

Nearly eight hundred years had passed away after the landing of Tarik, the Arab, in Spain and the defeat and death of Don Roderic, the last king of the Goths. During those centuries the handful of warriors which in the mountains of the north had made a final stand against the invading hordes had grown and spread, pushing back the Arabs and Moors, until now the Christians held again nearly all the land, the sole remnant of Moslem dominion being the kingdom of Granada in the south. The map of Spain shows the present province of Granada as a narrow district bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, but the Moorish kingdom covered a wider space, spreading over the present provinces of Malaga and Almeria, and occupying one of the richest sections of Spain. It was a rock-bound region. In every direction ran sierras, or rugged mountain-chains, so rocky and steep as to make the kingdom almost impregnable. Yet within their sterile confines lay numbers of deep and rich valleys, prodigal in their fertility.

In the centre of the kingdom arose its famous capital, the populous and beautiful city of Granada, standing in the midst of a great vega or plain, one hundred miles and more in circumference and encompassed by the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The seventy thousand houses of the city spread over two lofty hills and occupied the valley between them, through which ran the waters of the Douro. On one of these hills stood the Alcazaba, a strong fortress; on the other rose the famous Alhambra, a royal palace and castle, with space within its confines for forty thousand men, and so rare and charming in its halls and courts, its gardens and fountains, that it remains to-day a place of pilgrimage to the world for lovers of the beautiful in architecture. And from these hills the city between showed no less attractive, with its groves of citron, orange, and pomegranate trees, its leaping fountains, its airy minarets, its mingled aspect of crowded dwellings and verdant gardens.

Boabdil  and Ferdinand


High walls, three leagues in circuit, with twelve gates and a thousand and thirty towers, girded it round, beyond which extended the vega, a vast garden of delight, to be compared only with the famous plain of Damascus. Through it the Xenil wound in silvery curves, its waters spread over the plain in thousands of irrigating streams and rills. Blooming gardens and fields of waving grain lent beauty to the plain; orchards and vineyards clothed the slopes of the hills; in the orange and citron groves the voice of the nightingale made the nights musical. In short, all was so beautiful below and so soft and serene above that the Moors seemed not without warrant for their fond belief that Paradise lay in the skies overhanging this happy plain.

But, alas for Granada! war hung round its borders, and the blare of the trumpet and clash of the sword were ever familiar sounds within its confines. Christian kingdoms surrounded it, whose people envied the Moslems this final abiding-place on the soil of Spain. Hostilities were ceaseless on the borders; plundering forays were the delight of the Castilian cavaliers and the Moorish horsemen. Every town was a fortress, and on every peak stood a watch-tower, ready to give warning with a signal fire by night or a cloud of smoke by day of any movement of invasion. For many years such a state of affairs continued between Granada and its principal antagonist, the united kingdoms of Castile and Leon. Even when, in 1457, a Moorish king, disheartened by a foray into the vega itself; made a truce with Henry IV., king of Castile and Leon, and agreed to pay him an annual tribute, the right of warlike raids was kept open. It was only required that they must be conducted secretly, without sound of trumpet or show of banners, and must not continue more than three days. Such a state of affairs was desired alike by the Castilian and Moorish chivalry, who loved these displays of daring and gallantry, and enjoyed nothing more than a crossing of swords with their foes. In 1465 a Moorish prince, Muley Abul Hassan, a man who enjoyed war and hated the Christians, came to the throne, and at once the tribute ceased to be paid. For some years still the truce continued, for Ferdinand and Isabella, the new monarchs of Spain, had troubles at home to keep them engaged. But in 1481 the war reopened with more than its old fury, and was continued until Granada fell in 1492, the year in which the wise Isabella gave aid to Columbus for the discovery of an unknown world beyond the seas.

The war for the conquest of Granada was one full of stirring adventure and hair-breadth escapes, of forays and sieges, of the clash of swords and the brandishing of spears. It was no longer fought by Spain on the principle of the raid,—to dash in, kill, plunder, and speed away with clatter of hoofs and rattle of spurs. It was Ferdinand's policy to take and hold, capturing stronghold after stronghold until all Granada was his. In a memorable pun on the name of Granada, which signifies a pomegranate, he said, "I will pick out the seeds of this pomegranate one by one."

Muley Abul Hassan, the new Moorish king, began the work, foolishly breaking the truce which Ferdinand wished a pretext to bring to an end. On a dark night in 1481 he fell suddenly on Zahara, a mountain town on the Christian frontier, so strong in itself that it was carelessly guarded. It was taken by surprise, its inhabitants were carried off as slaves, and a strong Moorish garrison was left to hold it.

The Moors paid dearly for their daring assault. The Christians retaliated by an attack on the strong and rich city of Alhama, a stronghold within the centre of the kingdom, only a few leagues distant from the capital itself. Strongly situated on a rocky height, with a river nearly surrounding it and a fortress seated on a steep crag above it, and far within the border, no dream of danger to Alhama came to the mind of the Moors, who contented themselves with a small garrison and a negligent guard.

But the loss of Zahara had exasperated Ferdinand. His wars at home were over and he had time to attend to the Moors, and scouts had brought word of the careless security of the guard of Alhama. It could be reached by a difficult and little-travelled route through the defiles of the mountains, and there were possibilities that a secret and rapid march might lead to its surprise.

At the head of the enterprise was Don Rodrigo Ponce de Leon, Marquis of Cadiz, the most distinguished champion in the war that followed. With a select force of three thousand light cavalry and four thousand infantry, adherents of several nobles who attended the expedition, the mountains were traversed with the greatest secrecy and celerity, the marches being made mainly by night and the troops remaining quiet and concealed during the day. No fires were made and no noise was permitted, and midnight of the third day found the invaders in a small, deep valley not far from the fated town. Only now were the troops told what was in view. They had supposed that they were on an ordinary foray. The inspiring tidings filled them with ardor, and they demanded to be led at once to the assault.

Two hours before daybreak the army was placed in ambush close to Alhama, and a body of three hundred picked men set out on the difficult task of scaling the walls of the castle and surprising its garrison. The ascent was steep and very difficult, but they were guided by one who had carefully studied the situation on a previous secret visit and knew what paths to take. Following him they reached the foot of the castle walls without discovery.

Here, under the dark shadow of the towers, they halted and listened. There was not a sound to be heard, not a light to be seen; sleep seemed to brood over castle and town. The ladders were placed and the men noiselessly ascended, Ortega, the guide, going first. The parapet reached, they moved stealthily along its summit until they came upon a sleepy sentinel. Seizing him by the throat, Ortega flourished a dagger before his eyes and bade him point the way to the guard-room. The frightened Moor obeyed, and a dagger thrust ended all danger of his giving an alarm. In a minute more the small scaling party was in the guard-room, massacring the sleeping garrison, while the remainder of the three hundred were rapidly ascending to the battlements.

Some of the awakened Moors fought desperately for their lives, the clash of arms and cries of the combatants came loudly from the castle, and the ambushed army, finding that the surprise had been effective, rushed from their lurking-place with shouts and the sound of trumpets and drums, hoping there-by to increase the dismay of the garrison. Ortega at length fought his way to a postern, which he threw open, admitting the Marquis of Cadiz and a strong following, who quickly overcame all opposition, the citadel being soon in full possession of the Christians.

While this went on the town took the alarm. The garrison had been destroyed in the citadel, but all the Moors, citizens and soldiers alike, were accustomed to weapons and warlike in spirit, and, looking for speedy aid from Granada, eight leagues away, the tradesmen manned the battlements and discharged showers of stones and arrows upon the Christians wherever visible. The streets leading to the citadel were barricaded, and a steady fire was maintained upon its gate, all who attempted to sally into the city being shot down.

It began to appear as if the Spaniards had taken too great a risk. Their peril was great. Unless they gained the town they must soon be starved out of the castle. Some of them declared that they could not hope to hold the town even if they took it, and proposed to sack and burn the castle and make good their retreat before the king of Granada could reach them with his forces.

This weak-hearted counsel was not to the taste of the valiant Ponce de Leon. "God has given us the castle," he said, "and He will aid us in holding it. We won it with bloodshed; it would be a stain upon our honor to abandon it through fear. We knew our peril before we came; let us face it boldly."

His words prevailed, and the army was led to the assault, planting their scaling-ladders against the walls and swarming up to attack the Moors upon the ramparts. The Marquis of Cadiz, finding that the gate of the castle was commanded by the artillery of the town, ordered a breach to be made in the wall; and through this, sword in hand, he led a body of troops into the town. At the same time an assault was made from every point, and the battle raged with the greatest fury at the ramparts and in the streets.

The Moors, who fought for life, liberty, and property, defended themselves with desperation, fighting in the streets and from the windows and roofs of their houses. From morning until night the contest continued; then, overpowered, the townsmen sought shelter in a large mosque near the walls, whence they kept up so hot a flight of arrows and lances that the assailants dared not approach. Finally, protected by bucklers and wooden shields, some of the soldiers succeeded in setting fire to the door of the mosque. As the flames rolled upward the Moors, deeming that all was lost, rushed desperately out. Many of them were killed in this final fight; the rest surrendered as prisoners.

Charles V


The struggle was at an end; the town lay at the mercy of the Spaniards; it was given up to plunder, and immense was the booty taken. Gold and silver, rare jewels, rich silks, and costly goods were found in abundance; horses and cattle, grain, oil, and honey, all the productions of the kingdom, in fact, were there in quantities; for Alhama was the richest town in the Moorish territory, and from its strength and situation was called the Key of Granada. The soldiers were not content with plunder. Thinking that they could not hold the place, they destroyed all they could not carry away. Huge jars of oil were shattered, costly furniture was demolished, much material of the greatest value was destroyed. In the dungeons were found many of the Christian captives who had been taken at Zahara, and who gladly gained their freedom again.

The loss of Alhama was a terrible blow to the kingdom of Granada. Terror filled the citizens of the capital when the news reached that city. Sighs and lamentations came from all sides, the mournful ejaculation, "Woe is me, Alhama!" was in every mouth, and this afterwards became the burden of a plaintive ballad, "Ay de mi, Alhama," which remains among the gems of Spanish poetry.

Abul Hassan, full of wrath at the daring presumption of his foes, hastened at the head of more than fifty thousand men against the city, driving back a force that was marching to the aid of the Christians, attacking the walls with the fiercest fury, and cutting off the stream upon which the city depended for water, thus threatening the defenders with death by thirst. Yet, though in torments, they fought with unyielding desperation, and held their own until the duke of Medina Sidonia, a bitter enemy of the Marquis of Cadiz in peace, but his comrade in war, came with a large army to his aid. King Ferdinand was hastening thither with all speed, and the Moorish monarch, after a last fierce assault upon the city, broke up his camp and retreated in despair. From that time to the end of the contest the Christians held the "Key of Granada," a threatening stronghold in the heart of the land, from which they raided the vega at will, and exhausted the resources of the kingdom. "Ay de mi, Alhama!"