Timeline: Nasrid {1232-1492}

The Nasrid Kingdom of Granada

When the Almohad caliph Abū Yaʻqūb al-Muṣtansir died in his youth without an heir to succeed him in 620 AH/1224 CE, the dynastic quarrels which ensued after within the Almohad ruling families created bouts of turmoil and political instability in both the Maghrib and especially al-Andalus. This inner-dynastic feud coupled with several alliances between competing Almohad leaders, competing for the throne, and various Christian kings of Northern Spain, ultimately led to a collapse of Almohad control in al-Andalus. It also resulted in a strengthened military advance of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Leon against a politically crumbling Muslim al-Andalus. With their loss of faith in Almohad governance, the populaces of Muslim Spain took to unrest and many local uprisings occurred. The chaos was exploited by several political parties, and more significantly the Banū Mardanīsh of Valencia, the Banū Hūd of Murcia, and Ferdinand III of Castile-Leon in order to assume power and accrue more territorial gain. As a result of this political turmoil and instability, Ferdinand III was able to conquer Cordoba in 632 AH/1236 CE and Seville in 646 AH/1248 CE. It was from the repercussions of this fickle political climate that the Nasrid Dynasty of Granada and last Muslim kingdom of medieval Spain emerged.


The dynasty was formed by Muḥammad b. Yūsuf, popularly known as Ibn al-Aḥmar or Muḥammad I. During this period of upheaval, Andalusī Muslim settlements sought the aid of strong overlords who could offer them protection. In 1231, the Muslims of Arjona (Arjūna) accepted Ibn al-Aḥmar as their leader. Ibn al-Aḥmar in turn aligned himself with the Banū Ashqilūla, who provided military support and initially acted as co-partners in his rule until his successor were able to subdue them years later. Over the next several years, Ibn al-Aḥmar became the master of Arjona and Jaen (1232), Guadix and Baza (1232) Granada (1237), Almeria (1238), Malaga (1239) and all his acquisitions were done through consent rather than force. Ibn al-Aḥmar was able to hold on to much of his newly acquired land after binding himself into vassalage of the Castilian crown which included an agreement for a twenty-one year truce accompanied by a substantial annual tribute to Ferdinand III. Although the crown of Castile-Leon was able to conquer Arjona in 1244, and Ibn al-Aḥmar surrendered Jaen to Ferdinand III in 1246, he was able to consolidate his remaining territory into what would become the Kingdom of Granada. Furthermore, the lengthy truce between him and Castile/Leon led to a period of relative peace between 1246 - 1264 that allowed Ibn al-Aḥmar the opportunity to do establish the Nasrid dynasty.


Political History of The Nasrids

The Emirate of Granada remained the last Muslim kingdom and stronghold in medieval Spain between 1238 -1492. Throughout this period, the kingdom was ruled dynastically by twenty-three Nasrid rulers from the Banū Aḥmar (descendants of Ibn al-Aḥmar). The dynasty's main political objective was to exist independently while resisting external threats. The Nasrids accomplished this by maintaining its frontier territory while simultaneously making slow territorial gains by conquering small settlements which had been previously lost to the Christians during their military conquests. To ensure their survival, the line of rulers from Ibn al-Aḥmar's descendants continuously cultivated a complex interplay of diplomacy with the Kingdom of Castile at their North and the Marinids located across the straits at their South. The Nasrid Kingdom of Granada did not desire to be governed by the Marinids, who ruled parts of North Africa from their capital in Fez, however they often accepted and helped the Marinids as allies and mercenaries for their jihād enterprises in Christian Spain. At the same time, the Nasrids continued to pay tribute to Castile, which was often suffering from financial difficulties, an act that provided them security against major external threats from Northern Spain. Additionally, the Nasrids also maintained strong ties with the Hafsids who ruled Tunisia and parts of Algeria. In addition to external strife, Nasrid rulers continuously had to overcome internal dissent and opposition. Rulers spent resources quashing a number of internal rebellions for power emerging from the Nasrid elite throughout the kingdom's history.


The golden period of Nasrid rule is considered to have taken place in the reigns of Yusuf I (1333 -1354) and Muḥammad V (1354 - 1391). This was a period where external threats to the kingdom were minimal, and literature, the arts, and the sciences flourished in the Nasrid court as a result. It was during this period in 1340, in the reign of Yusuf I, that the renowned Nasrid vizier Ibn al-Khaṭīb (1313--1375) entered the service of the Nasrid court. Ibn al-Khaṭīb was a prominent historian and wrote over sixty works of history and literature during his lifetime. He remained with Muḥammad V during his exile to Morocco in 1359 during which the Nasrid amīr met the famous medieval Arabic historian, Ibn Khaldūn. Thus, during the reign of Muḥammad V, Ibn Khaldun tried to establish himself in the Nasrid court, however due to a competitive rivalry with Ibn al-Khaṭīb was sent back to North Africa.

The writing of Arabic poetry also flourished and poets were regularly welcomed at court during this golden period. Ibn Zamrak (d. 1393) was a famous poet who came to court in Muḥammad V's reign. Verses of his poetry still exist in the stucco decoration adorning the walls of the Alhambra. Some Nasrid amīrs, such as Yūsuf III, were accomplished poets themselves.


Granada: The Burgeoning Capital and Dynastic Center

The ruling family governed from Granada and made their main residence in the al-Hambra fortress (al-Qalʻa al-Ḥamrā'), meaning the red fortress, which was situated on a hill which overlooked Granada. This was originally where Ibn al-Aḥmar had first established himself when he settled in Granada and remained the royal palace throughout Nasrid rule. The kingdom's geographical position at the southern edge of the Iberian Peninsula helped to foster its economical growth and prosperity. The Kingdom of Granada included the major port cities of Almeria and Malaga, and therefore it maintained a strong trade presence in the Mediterranean and could easily bypass Castile for import and export activities. Granada was directly connected to the Mediterranean Muslim world, and trade was also established with Italian merchants, especially the Genoese who built colonies in the kingdom's port cities. Unlike Christian Spain, Granada had a mixed agricultural economy including the exportation of silk and dried fruits that went to Italy and Northern Europe.


The city of Granada also grew extensively. Since the military campaigns of the Christian armies of northern Spain had been successful during the 13th century, many Muslims were expelled from their settlements in Andalusia and could only find refuge in this last remaining Muslim territory. Granada's population grew and the city expanded through the growth of existing quarters and the construction of new ones. For instance, during the reign of Muḥammad II (1273 - 1302) Granada's territory underwent a refortification that included the strengthening of the city walls and their extension. Also during his rule, the Albaicin quarter of Granada was included within the newly extended walls of the city. Granada's population was estimated at 50,000 at the time of its conquest in 1492.


Nasrid Art and Architecture

Nasrid art and architecture is understood as a continuation and adaptation of Almohad traditional art forms, however, various artifacts and objects from this time period reveal a heightened variety and richness of artistic production. During the Nasrid period, Malaga became an important center for ceramic production and Nasrid ceramics were exported to both the Muslim and Christian Mediterranean, including Christian Spain and parts of western Europe. Nasrid ceramics were produced using a yellowish-amber colored luster that exhibited a pronounced iridescence. Lusterware production was a technique dating back to ninth century Iraq and was most likely brought to Nasrid Spain via the emigration of Fatimid artists seeking new markets after the fall of Fatimid Egypt in 1171.


Luxurious textiles were also manufactured during the Nasrid period and exported throughout the medieval world. Mulberry trees existed in the kingdom and silk and textile production was a major contributor the economy. Nasrid textiles have woven geometric and arabesque decorative patterns that clearly represent the stucco and tile work present in contemporary Nasrid architecture. The most stunning contribution of the Nasrids to Islamic art is their plasterwork carvings which covered the walls of buildings during this period. Nasrid craftsmen carved gypsum into a combination of decorative designs depicting calligraphy, both in the dry Kufic and Naskhid-Thuluth styles, geometric lazo compositions, altaurique (floral and foliage arabesque patterns), and mocarabes or multiple stalactite type vertical prisms adorning capitals, friezes, arches, and vaults throughout the interior spaces of buildings. These splendid interior decorations cover most of the wall spaces in the Alhambra making it one of the most illustrious palace complexes in the medieval Islamic world and an attestation to Nasrid wealth and prosperity.


Nasrid military art and architecture is also a very important contribution to medieval Islamic material culture. Like the Almohads, the Nasrids built a series of walls and towers to defend cities and precincts. They also built monumental towers containing vaulted chambers. These included qalahurras, or towers with luxury residences. Like the Almohads, the Nasrids also constructed several qaṣbas as military installations throughout their territories. Military luxury arts were also readily produced in this period and make up some of the most intricate works of military artifacts from al-Andalus. Although Nasirid military art objects were never meant to be used in actual combat, they demonstrate the extent this kingdom went to ornament and adorn its public image.


The Nasrids are also known for their construction of mosques, madrasas, funduqs, ḥammams, hospitals, residences, and gardens and archeological evidence still exists for all of these structures. The Yūsufiyya Madrasa was built in 1349 by Yusuf I near the Jāmiʻ mosque of Granada in the main city. The madrasa's students learned from a variety of traditional Islamic subjects including theology, law, medicine, astronomy, logic, mathematics including geometry, and even mechanics.


The most vivid testimony to Nasrid splendor is by far the decoration and ornamentation achieved in the palace complex of the Alhambra. Although work on the palace complex spanned over two centuries, it was completed with much of its elaborate decoration during the reign of Muḥammad V who added the Palace of the Lions and the Cuarto Dorado to the complex. The ultimate ground plans, gardens, elevations, and majestic perspectives of the palace which can be seen today are a testimony to the courtly visual environment created by the Narsrids which was required for their constant plays of diplomacy, especially since they existed during the last years of diminishing Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.


Decline and Fall of Nasrid Granada

Frontier warfare with the Christians continued throughout the history of the Nasrid dynasty. However, in 1474 Isabella of Castile ascended to the throne of Castile, and five years later her husband, Ferdinand II was crowned as the king of Aragon. The two kingdoms were joined together and both monarchs jointly carried out a campaign against the Kingdom of Granada. Raids and battles continued and in 1482, the Christian armies were able to take Alhama, a small settlement believed to be impregnable. This attack was followed by internal dissension and the Granadan amīr, Abū al-Ḥasan was overthrown by his son Abū ʻAbd Allāh Muḥammad XII, popularly known as Bobadil in the Christian sources. Muḥammad XII continued military warfare against the advancing Christian armies to garner support.


However, he led an unsuccessful attack on Lucena in 1483 against the Castilians in which he was captured. His release and the disadvantageous terms by which it was negotiated left him without much support in Granada. He abdicated the throne and his father Abū al-Ḥasan, now blind, returned to lead. However, from this point onwards, Castilian military advances happened one after the other in Granadan territory. The Nasrids were isolated and received no support from other Muslim monarchs in the Islamic world. On behalf of a request by Ibn al-Azraq, the chief Qāḍī of Granada who traveled the Muslim world seeking assistance, the Mamluk Sultan Qā'it Bey sent two friars from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to plead with Isabelle and Ferdinand to spare Granada. At that moment, the monarchs agreed to uphold the civil and religious rights of Andalusian Muslims, but did not sway from their advance against Granada.


In 1485 Abū al-Ḥasan's ailing health caused him to also abdicate the throne and he was succeeded by his brother, Muḥammad XIII, nicknamed al-Zaghal. Despite the external threats taking place, in 1486, Muḥammad XII returned to the scene and unsuccessfully attempted to retake power from his uncle. During his strife, Castilian attacks against Granada continued and strongholds fell to the Christian armies one after the other. Finally Granada became completely isolated from any military support. Muḥammad XIII abandoned the kingdom, leaving for Oran after selling his rights to Castile for 30,000 gold castellanos. However, Muḥammad XII was left unable to defend Granada and famine spread across the besieged city. Finally, on January 1, 1492 the defeated Muḥammad XII sat in the throne room of the Alhambra where he handed over the keys of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, to Castilian authority and the last Muslim dynasty of Al-Andalus came to an end.


--Ali Asgar Alibhai, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, March 2016


Related Resources:

Andalusian Gardens


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