Child's History of Spain - John Bonner

The Moors at Granada

A.D. 1250-1476

When the Moors were driven out of Andalusia,Valencia, and New Castile, they took refuge in Granada, and to that spot their countrymen flocked from all parts of Spain. They chose as their caliph, or emir, or sultan, or king—he is called indifferently by all these names—a chief from Seville, named Ibrahim Ben Akmar, who was known as the red-man, because his complexion was fair and his hair light. He was a bold warrior, but he could not hold his own against the Christians, and he thought it wiser to pay them tribute, rather than continue the war. So every year he sent twelve thousand gold ducats to Castile as the price of peace.

Granada, his capital, was a fine city when he made it his home, and he spent enormous sums in beautifying it. It lay on both banks of the little river Darro, in the heart of a vast plain which was surrounded by lofty mountains, so tall that they were generally capped with snow. The city, which was surrounded by a wall with twelve gates and one thousand and forty towers, was built on the sides of two hills, which sloped to the river; the houses, with gardens and courts, in which oranges, lemons, and pomegranates grew, rose one above another till the tops of the hills were reached. On the top of one hill stood a strong fort which commanded the city; on the other stood the famous Red Palace, or Alhambra, of which, I dare say, you have heard.

Girls drawing water at the fountain, Toledo.


The palace of the Alhambra stood in an enclosure surrounded by a wall fifteen feet thick, and so high in places that from the terrace on the summit of the wall you can look down on the tops of tall trees growing in the valley beneath. The enclosure was large enough to have contained a small city, but it never enclosed anything but courts and halls, where the Moorish kings received ambassadors and transacted business, and splendid apartments where their wives and children lived. It is partly in ruin to-day, but enough remains to show you what it must have been in the days of its glory.

When you go to see it you will pass under a tall tower to a gate, which is called the Gate of Justice. Here the Caliphs of Granada used to sit, under a great stone key and a massive stone hand, to hear the complaints of their people, and render justice. Then you pass into the Court of Myrtles, whose walls used to be hidden by a myrtle hedge. Then comes another court, whose centre is a lake in which myriads of golden fish play; it is still, so still that you can almost hear yourself breathe. Then you come to the Hall of the Ambassadors, with its grand throne where the Caliph sat, its walls worked over with tracery, its white, blue, and gold cornices, its lofty dome with stars on it to imitate the vault of heaven. Under that dome some of the most famous people of Europe used to stand, before the days of Columbus, and for a long time after him.

In a building near by are the rooms where the ladies of the Moorish court lived. The rooms were thickly carpeted, and under the floor incense and perfumes were burned, so that the luxurious ladies should breathe sweet savors from an unseen source. There were a score of bathrooms, each with a bathtub cut out of a single block of marble, and on the floor were rugs of cloth-of-gold, on which the fair bather rested her pretty, bare feet. A fine metal tracery, representing stars and roses, let in light.

Another famous hall is the Hall of Lions, so called because the fountain in the centre is surrounded by marble lions, who, in the old days, poured water out of their mouths. The roof is a series of arches resting on groups of white marble pillars; it vaults from pillar to pillar with fantastic lightness. Yet another hall, also with a fountain and basin in its centre, is the Hall of the Abencerrages, of whom I will tell you presently.

To this marble building—under a balmy sky, breathing an atmosphere cooled by the snow-caps of the near-by mountains and scented by every sort of fragrant tree, plant, and flower, with no noise to disturb the ear except the soothing murmur of fountains, and with a picture for the eye of an endless garden, with the town of Granada in the foreground and the snowy range on the horizon—the caliphs returned from their toils to spend the evening with dark-eyed houris, and to listen to tender melodies and to the dreamy music of the lute. It must have been the life of a Moslem paradise. You will not be surprised to hear that the Emperor Charles V., when he went over the Alhambra, exclaimed to his courtiers:

"Ill fated was the man who lost all this."

The whole of the wide plane of Granada had been turned into a garden by the skilful diversion of water of the Xenil and the Darro into thousands of irrigating ditches. The Moors were famous for knowing the uses of water; they did not allow a gallon of it to go to wast; every acre of their land bore bounteous crops of grapes, or figs, or oranges, or lemons, or citrons, or walnuts, or pomegranates; in rows of mulberry-trees silk-worms wove cocoons, which were reeled into the finest silk. In the city people worked industriously at making steel weapons and cloths, and beautiful objects in gold, silver, and bronze. It was a busier place than any of the Christian cities in Spain.

The Moorish nobles who lived there led lives of culture and splendor. Schools flourished, prose and poetry were written, music was played on lutes, science was studied. Both sexes dressed handsomely; the ladies wore bracelets and anklets of silver or gold, studded with emeralds and chrysolites; they braided their hair and fastened the braids with jewels. The men dressed in spotless white coats of linen, over which, in winter, they threw cloaks of wool or silk of the finest texture. The sheaths of their swords and daggers were inlaid and adorned with gems; their very horses' trappings were of green and crimson velvet, on which letters were traced with gold and silver thread. The masses of the people were kept busily employed on their farms or in their factories. But the noble Moors gave their whole time to love and war. They paid to young ladies a respectful devotion, which I find it difficult to explain in a people who locked their wives up in harems.

For over two hundred years the Moors lived in wealth and luxury at Granada, their only diversion from love-making being freebooting forays, generally directed from the town of Jaen against the Christian cities of the neighborhood. For all this long stretch of time we hear little of their history except a string of names and occasionally a story or two which reads like a legend. We are told that there were twenty-three caliphs of Granada, some of whom took the title of king, and nearly all of whom were named Mahomet.

One of the stories says that the governor of a Christian town near the border of Granada resolved to make a raid upon the Moorish country. Before putting his men in the field he sent secretly a party of horse to explore the road; they fell in with a Moorish courtier of fine appearance, whom they forthwith made prisoner and brought before the governor. The young man cried bitterly when he was examined, and the governor, disgusted at his want of manliness, reproached him, saying:

"You are no warrior, but a woman, for you weep like one. Are you such a coward as to fret for your capture?"

"It is not the loss of my liberty that I lament," said the Moor, "but I have long loved the daughter of an alcalde in our neighborhood. She loves me, and to-night. was to be our wedding night. Now she is awaiting me, and will think I have deserted her. She will die of despair."

"Noble cavalier," said the governor, "you touch my heart. Go and see your lady; I will take your word that you will return."

I need not tell you that the Moor rode fast and furious to the lady's house. When he told her the story, she said:

"You must keep your word. But I will go with you. I share your fate, bond or free. And see, here are jewels to buy your ransom."

Next morning the couple appeared before the governor, and offered him the jewels. But he would none of them from a cavalier so loyal and a maiden so true. He had the pair married by a priest, loaded them with presents, and sent them back under escort to the home of the groom.

Another story of these times was the legend of the Abencerrages. It is not certain that it is true, but the Spaniards believe it; when you go to Spain you will be shown the stains of the blood of the Abencerrages on the floor of the hall in the Alhambra which bears their name.

They were a noble and wealthy family of Moors, who were equally famous for their valor and for their mercy. They spent their money in ransoming Christian prisoners, and it was said of them that there had never been an Abencerrage who was a coward, or a false husband, or a faithless friend. Between these Abencerrages and another Moorish family, called the Zegris, a feud always raged. The Zegris were as brave as the Abencerrages and as skillful in war, but they had never been known to spare a prisoner's life, or to say a word of love to a woman.

Now the Sultan of Granada had married a Zegri girl. She was cold and cruel, like the men of her tribe, and the king, losing his love for her, married, as the law allowed, a Christian captive as his second wife. At this the first wife became furiously jealous, and called upon her kinsmen to avenge her wrong; and the Christian wife appealed to the Abencerrages to take her part, which they promptly did.

It chanced that a wedding in the nobility just then took place, and the usual games were given. At one of the games the object was for a rider on a galloping horse to pierce with the point of his lance a ring held in the mouth of a silver dove on the branch of a tree, new rings being supplied as fast as any were pierced. The young men of the Abencerrages entered the list in white tunics, embroidered with pearls and silver; they rode white horses, and carried a shield on which were a lion and a shepherdess, with the legend "Gentleness and Strength." The Zegris wore green tunics, with gold ornaments, on horses covered with gaudy velvet trappings. Their shield bore the device of a bloody cimeter, with the motto "This is my law"

At the first joust one of the Abencerrages won twenty-five rings, while the highest number won by any Zegri was five. The defeat drove the latter to fury, and they vowed revenge.

A young Abencerrage had loved a maiden named Zoroaide before the caliph's son had ordered her to become his wife. He did not cease to love her when she was taken from him, and she pined in secret for him on the splendid terraces of the Alhambra. One night, when he could not restrain himself, the young Abencerrage scaled the side of the castle, leaped on the terrace, and stood before his love.

She bade him go, telling him that his life depended on his flight, and promising him that every evening of her life she would come to that rose-tree and mourn for him.

He went; but it was too late. A Zegri had overheard his voice. Hastening to the caliph's son, the spy told what he had seen. The prince at once summoned all the chiefs of the Abencerrages to the palace. When they came they were dragged to the court of the Abencerrages—thirty-six in all—and the head of every one was cut off and thrown into the fountain. The prince himself struck off the head of his wife's lover. The rest of the broken-hearted family removed from Granada.

In the year 1476, when the King of Castile and Aragon sent a messenger to Granada to collect his annual tribute, the Caliph Muley Abul Hassan replied to the Castilian:

"Go, tell your master that the emirs who agreed to pay tribute are dead. The mints of Granada now coin nothing but sword-blades."

King Ferdinand pondered over the message. Then learning that the Moors of Granada occupied fourteen cities, ninety-seven fortified places, and castles without count, he said:

"I will pick out the seeds of this pomegranate one by one."

In Spanish the word Granada means pomegranate.