Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Last Sigh of the Moor

In 1492, nearly eight centuries after the conquest of Spain by the Arabs, their dominion ended in the surrender of the city of Granada by King Boabdil to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella. The empire of the Arab Moors had shrunk, year by year and century by century, before the steady advance of the Christians, until only the small kingdom of Granada remained. This, distracted by anarchy within and assailed by King Ferdinand with all the arts of statecraft and all the strength of arms, gradually decreased in dimensions, city after city, district after district, being lost, until only the single city of Granada remained.

This populous and powerful city would have proved very difficult to take by the ordinary methods of war, and could only have been subdued with great loss of life and expenditure of treasure. Ferdinand assailed it by a less costly and more exasperating method. Granada subsisted on the broad and fertile vega or plain surrounding it, a region marvellously productive in grain and fruits and rich in cattle and sheep. It was a cold-blooded and cruel system adopted by the Spanish monarch. He assailed the city through the vega. Disregarding the city, he marched his army into the plain at the time of harvest and so thoroughly destroyed its growing crops that the smiling and verdant expanse was left a scene of frightful desolation. This was not accomplished without sharp reprisals by the Moors, but the Spaniard persisted until he had converted the fruitful paradise into a hopeless desert, and then marched away, leaving the citizens to a winter of despair.

The next year he came again, encamped his army near the city, destroyed what little verdure remained near its walls, and waited calmly until famine and anarchy should force the citizens to yield. He attempted no siege. It was not necessary. He could safely trust to his terrible allies. The crowded city held out desperately while the summer passed and autumn moved on to winter's verge, and then, with famine stalking through their streets and invading their homes, but one resource remained to the citizens,—surrender.

Ferdinand did not wish to distress too deeply the unhappy people. To obtain possession of the city on any terms was the one thought then in his mind. Harshness could come later, if necessary. Therefore, on the 25th of November, 1492, articles of capitulation were signed, under which the Moors of Granada were to retain all their possessions, be protected in their religious exercises, and governed by their own laws, which were to be administered by their own officials; the one unwelcome proviso being that they should become subjects of Spain. To Boabdil were secured all his rich estates and the patrimony of the crown, while he was to receive in addition thirty thousand castellanos in gold. Excellent terms, one would say, in view of the fact that Granada was at the mercy of Ferdinand, and might soon have been obliged to surrender unconditionally.

On the night preceding the surrender doleful lamentations filled the halls of the Alhambra, for the household of Boabdil were bidding a last farewell to that delightful abode. The most precious effects were hastily packed upon mules, and with tears and wailings the rich hangings and ornaments of the beautiful apartments were removed. Day had not yet dawned when a sorrowful cavalcade moved through an obscure postern gate of the palace and wound through a retired quarter of the city. It was the family of the deposed monarch, which he had sent off thus early to save them from possible scoffs and insults.

The sun had barely risen when three signal-guns boomed from the heights of the Alhambra, and the Christian army began its march across the vega. To spare the feelings of the citizens it was decided that the city should not be entered by its usual gates, and a special road had been opened leading to the Alhambra.

At the head of the procession moved the king and queen, with the prince and princesses and the dignitaries and ladies of the court, attended by the royal guards in their rich array. This cortege halted at the village of Armilla, a league and a half from the city. Meanwhile, Don Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, Grand Cardinal of Spain, with an escort of three thousand foot and a troop of cavalry, proceeded towards the Alhambra to take possession of that noblest work of the Moors. At their approach Boabdil left the palace by a postern gate attended by fifty cavaliers, and advanced to meet the grand cardinal, whom, in words of mournful renunciation, he bade to take possession of the royal fortress of the Moors. Then he passed sadly onward to meet the sovereigns of Spain, who had halted awaiting his approach, while the army stood drawn up on the broad plain.

As the Spaniards waited in anxious hope, all eyes fixed on the Alhambra heights, they saw the silver cross, the great standard of this crusade, rise upon the great watch-tower, where it sparkled in the sunbeams, while beside it floated the pennon of St. James, at sight of which a great shout of "Santiago! Santiago!" rose from the awaiting host. Next rose the royal standard, amid resounding cries of "Castile! Castile! For King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella" The sovereigns sank upon their knees, giving thanks to God for their great victory, the whole army followed their example, and the choristers of the royal chapel broke forth into the solemn anthem of "Te Deum laudamus."

Ferdinand now advanced to a point near the banks of the Xenil, where he was met by the unfortunate Boabdil. As the Moorish king approached he made a movement to dismount, which Ferdinand prevented. He then offered to kiss the king's hand. This homage also, as previously arranged, was declined, whereupon Boabdil leaned forward and kissed the king's right arm. He then with a resigned mien delivered the keys of the city.

Moorish king and King of Castile


"These keys," he said, "are the last relics of the Arabian empire in Spain. Thine, O king, are our trophies, our kingdom, and our person. Such is the will of God! Receive them with the clemency thou hast promised, and which we look for at thy hands."

"Doubt not our promises," said Ferdinand, kindly, "nor that thou shalt regain from our friendship the prosperity of which the fortune of war has deprived thee."

Then drawing from his finger a gold ring set with a precious stone, Boabdil presented it to the Count of Tendilla, who, he was informed, was to be governor of the city, saying,—

"With this ring Granada has been governed. Take it and govern with it, and God make you more fortunate than I."

He then proceeded to the village of Armilla, where Queen Isabella remained. She received him with the utmost courtesy and graciousness, and delivered to him his son, who had been held as a hostage for the fulfilment of the capitulation. Boabdil pressed the child tenderly to his bosom, and moved on until he had joined his family, from whom and their attendants the shouts and strains of music of the victorious army drew tears and moans.

At length the weeping train reached the summit of an eminence about two leagues distant which commanded the last view of Granada. Here they paused for a look of farewell at the beautiful and beloved city, whose towers and minarets gleamed brightly before them in the sunshine. While they still gazed a peal of artillery, faint with distance, told them that the city was taken possession of and was lost to the Moorish kings forever. Boabdil could no longer contain himself.

"Allah achbar! God is great!" he murmured, tears accompanying his words of resignation.

His mother, a woman of intrepid soul, was indignant at this display of weakness.

"You do well," she cried, "to weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man."

Others strove to console the king, but his tears were not to be restrained.

"Allah achbar!" he exclaimed again; "when did misfortunes ever equal mine?"

The hill where this took place afterwards became known as Feg Allah Achbar; but the point of view where Boabdil obtained the last prospect of Granada is called by the Spaniards "El ultimo suspiro del Moro," or "The last sigh of the Moor."

As Boabdil thus took his last look at beautiful Granada, it behooves us to take a final backward glance at Arabian Spain, from whose history we have drawn so much of interest and romance. In this hospitable realm civilization dwelt when few traces of it existed elsewhere. Here luxury reigned while barbarism prevailed widely in Europe. We are told that in Cordova a man might walk ten miles by the light of the public lamps, while centuries afterwards there was not a single public lamp in London streets. Its avenues were solidly paved, while centuries afterwards the people of Paris, on rainy days, stepped from their door-sills into mud ankle-deep. The dwellings were marked by beauty and luxury, while the people of Europe, as a rule in that semi-barbaric period, dwelt in miserable huts, dressed in leather, and lived on the rudest and least nutritive food.

The rulers of France, England, and Germany lived in rude buildings without chimneys or windows, with a hole in the roof for the smoke to escape, at a time when the royal halls of Arabian Spain were visions of grace and beauty. The residences of the Arabs had marble balconies overhanging orange-gardens; their floors and walls were frequently of rich and graceful mosaic; fountains gushed in their courts, quicksilver often taking the place of water, and falling in a glistening spray. In summer cool air was drawn into the apartments through ventilating towers; in winter warm and perfumed air was discharged through hidden passages. From the ceilings, corniced with fretted gold, great chandeliers hung. Here were clusters of frail marble columns, which, in the boudoirs of the sultanas, gave way to verd-antique incrusted with lapis lazuli. The furniture was of sandal- or citron-wood, richly inlaid with gold, silver, or precious minerals. Tapestry hid the walls, Persian carpets covered the floors, pillows and couches of elegant forms were spread about the rooms. Great care was given to bathing and personal cleanliness at a time when such a thought had not dawned upon Christian Europe. Their pleasure-gardens were of unequalled beauty, and were rich with flowers and fruits. In short, in this brief space it is impossible to give more than a bare outline of the marvellous luxury which surrounded this people, recently come from the deserts of Arabia, at a time when most of the remainder of Europe was plunged into the rudest barbarism.

Much might be said of their libraries, their universities, their scholars and scientists, and the magnificence of their architecture, of which abundant examples still remain in the cities of Spain, the Alhambra of Granada, the palace which Boabdil so reluctantly left, being almost without an equal for lightness, grace, and architectural beauty in the cities of the world. Well might the dethroned monarch look back with bitter regret upon this rarest monument of the Arabian civilization and give vent, in farewell to its far-seen towers, to "The last sigh of the Moor."