In the autumn of 1491 the brazen presence of Santa Fe, with its estimated army of 80,000 men, was a huge psychological blow to the Granadans, as it proclaimed the unflagging determination of the enemy to overpower them. The Nubdhat gives us the Arab perspective on what was happening at this time. The author describes constant fighting between Christian troops and the Granadans, with the enemy gaining all the smallholdings in the area except for Alfacar. He describes bitter fighting for this town and its surrounding area, which was defended with great tenacity by the Muslims who feared that if it also was lost to the Christians, the siege of the city of Granada would then be formalised. There was great loss of life here and in other similar localised fighting. What comes over is the courage and ferocity of the Muslim defence – not content with armed combat, they made nocturnal incursions into the enemy camp, taking advantage of the darkness, or they attacked them on the road, stealing all they could find, including horses, mules, asses, cows and sheep. As a result of this, there was a great deal of meat available in the capital, although it was sold at a high price to the few who could afford it. The Nubdhat states that, during these months of fighting, the Muslim nobility all perished save for a handful of men. Around this time many Granadan Muslims departed for the region of the Alpujarras, driven by fear and hunger. The route to and from the Alpujarras across the Sierra Nevada enabled good supplies of corn, wheat, oil, raisins and other foods to reach the capital, yet the situation inside was becoming more critical, with food and manpower scarce. As winter approached, snow fell in the mountains, cutting off the route and with it the food supplies, so many Granadans were reduced to begging. At the same time, the Christians controlled the vega and prevented the Muslims from ploughing and sowing. Their situation was desperate.
All the time that Ferdinand and Isabella were at Santa Fe, they were pressing Boabdil to hand over the city and leave for the Alpujarras himself, which they had promised on oath that they would grant him for himself and his descendants. The terrible reality of what Boabdil had been forced to agree to eight years before, after his capture at Lucena, resulting in a pact in which his son would be held hostage by the Catholic Monarchs until such time as he handed over Granada to them, was looming large. Perhaps he had thought that it would never happen, that he could put it off indefinitely. That was certainly what he had been attempting to do as the Christians lay in wait on his doorstep, as we can see in a letter to him from Ferdinand in response to the sultan’s latest amendments to the truce, which clearly amounted to delaying tactics. Ferdinand says that he has received Boabdil’s letter and one from his representatives Aben Comixa and al-Mulih, ‘which undoubtedly displeases me because such new demands as you make seem too much to ask and are very unlikely to be granted, and if it was not because I wanted to honour and favour you, I would not have replied to you’. He continues by insisting that Boabdil forget such thoughts, because it is very harmful to be so far from any conclusion, and ‘such delay cannot be of any advantage. I am certainly not pleased, and it is not my responsibility, but rather the blame is yours and those of your city … I would never have believed,’ he goes on, ‘that things would have got to the state they are now in. It has all been uprising and anger and discord, and none of it in my service.’
A parallel correspondence went on between Boabdil’s trusted aide al-Mulih and the influential secretary to Ferdinand and Isabella, Hernando de Zafra. The formulaic language that creates a veneer of mutual respect and care between the two opposing monarchs is echoed in the letters of their representatives, but it can’t cover up the underlying tension between the two parties. The royal secretary tells al-Mulih that his bosses the Catholic Monarchs know he is good and honest, and has the right intentions, while urging him to steer negotiations towards the quickest outcome ‘because otherwise the misfortunes and harm arising for you from any delay will increase’. This letter relates to Ferdinand’s own missive about the sultan’s stalling tactics, and Zafra is trying to get round al-Mulih, although his seemingly friendly tone contains a veiled threat. Al-Mulih is not fooled for one minute, and gives as good as he gets. Addressing Zafra as ‘Special lord and true friend’, he reminds him that when Aben Comixa was in Seville with him, the Christian king and queen were inclined to show great largesse to Boabdil, without any capitulation or obligation to capitulate. The series of letters between the two men are complex and involved. They reveal the intrigues, betrayals and secrecy of this time, when both sides were suspected of treachery, when messengers were liable to present false information, and when conspiracy was rife. Clearly, the correspondence between these two royal officials was deemed to be secret, despite which al-Mulih suggests to Zafra that when he needs to write something really confidential he should ‘put it in a small pocket inside a letter, in case it is necessary to read the letter out before the governor, or in case the sultan wants to know what it says. In this way,’ he says, ‘their secrets will be safe.’ This may have been a ruse to create a sense of confidence and conspiracy between the two, but there is a story that Boabdil distrusted al-Mulih, and almost had him killed. Even the most trusted advisers were liable to be untrustworthy. It is also unquestionable that Zafra used bribery. In a document dated 24 November 1491, just before the capitulations were signed, he recounts an extensive list of fine fabrics given as gifts amounting to over half a million maravedis, to reward minor betrayals by Muslims of their own people. Shockingly, Boabdil’s own siblings and negotiators appear among them.
There is good reason to believe that Boabdil’s mother, who now lived in the Dar al-Horra palace specially built for her in the Albaicin, had some influence on the decisions made in these dark days of the Nasrid kingdom. Hernando de Baeza suggests that Aixa, the queen mother, who had great spirit, fought with all her might against any agreement with the Catholic Monarchs. Whenever a communication from them arrived for Boabdil, she vehemently advised her son to hold firm and die as a king, like his ancestors. As a result, Boabdil began to keep quiet about his dealings with the Christians in case his mother found out. One day the sultan discovered a plot by Ferdinand to draw out the Granadans by starting a skirmish outside the city, which would allow them to enter through the open gates while the guards were being distracted. Luckily, a Muslim spy found out and told Boabdil, who told his knights in turn. They agreed to muster as many men as they could and go out to fight the Christians, rather than let such a great city be taken in such a way.
Boabdil got up early the next morning and anointed his body, which was the custom among the Muslims when their lives were in danger. He called for his arms and put them on in the presence of his mother and sister, then kissed his mother’s hand and asked for her blessing. He hugged his sister and kissed her on the back of her neck, hugged his wife and kissed her on the face, and also his daughter. This was the ordinary routine each time he went to battle, but on that day he asked his mother and the other women to forgive him for any trouble he had caused them. His mother was scandalised and alarmed and asked him why he had spoken like that. Boabdil replied that it was right for him to do so, upon which his mother grabbed him and begged him to tell her where he was going and what he was going to do. She began to cry, and the other women followed suit, and they wept so loudly it was as if he were already dead. Aixa was still holding on to her son, and wouldn’t let go until he told her what he had agreed with the Christians. When he told her she cried: ‘Who are you commending your sad mother, wife, children, sisters, relatives, servants, and the entire city and the other towns under your command to? What account will you give Allah of giving the order for us to die by the sword and lance, leaving the others captive? Think about what you are doing, because great tribulation brings wise advice.’
Boabdil replied: ‘My lady, it is much better to die once, than to live, and die many times.’ ‘That’s true,’ his mother said, ‘if only you die and everyone else is saved, and the city is liberated. But such a grave miscalculation is a very bad decision.’ The sultan asked her to let him go, as his knights were waiting for him, but she wouldn’t release her hold on him until he had sworn on the Koran he carried with him not to put himself in danger and for his men not to leave the city gates. Boabdil went out into the field and ordered the people to be kept inside the city so that what was planned in the Christian camp could not take place. For this reason, says Baeza, many people thought that the queen mother had advised her son to make an arrangement with the Christians to allow his family and all Granadan citizens to cross over to north Africa.
By November conditions had deteriorated in the city owing to food shortages which affected the rich and poor alike, and it was clear to the citizens that the enemy intended to wear Granada down through hunger and not by force of arms. Baeza describes the heart-rending sight of Moorish women with their babies in their arms begging in the streets for food. The suffering became so great that desperate people gathered in gangs, shouting that the sultan must get the help of the Christians, and if he wouldn’t, then they would. All this reached Boabdil’s ears, and he felt it deeply. The Nubdhat tells us that a meeting of all the eminent men of the city was called, both public and private individuals, religious leaders, treasury officials, governors and artisans, as well as what remained of valiant Granadan knights, and many common people – in other words, all those who passed for wise and intelligent citizens. They gathered together and insisted on an audience with the emir, to whom they made clear the dire situation of the inhabitants, describing their extreme hunger and the severe lack of food and other essentials. The city is large, they told him, so if the food that was usually imported was barely enough for their needs, what would happen now that nothing was being imported because the supply routes to the Alpujarras were blocked? They also told him of the great number of brave knights who had perished, the lack of general maintenance, the impossibility of ploughing and sowing crops, and the number of children who had died in recent fighting. ‘None of our Muslim brothers who live on the Moroccan coast come to our aid,’ they added, ‘in spite of the pleas we have sent to them. Meanwhile our enemies have built a whole town to attack us better – their strength is growing and ours is weakening, they get help from their country, while we have no help at all.’
They pointed out to Boabdil that winter was upon them, and the enemy forces were temporarily dispersed and weakened owing to the bad weather, so that hostilities had been suspended for a while. They put it to him that if they entered into dealings with the enemy now, he would accept their proposals and agree to their demands, but if they waited till the spring, when the Granadans would be even weaker and more impoverished, their requests wouldn’t be heard. Boabdil listened carefully, and replied: ‘Do what you think is best, and try to come to a unanimous agreement in line with your interests.’ This was a measured response, unlikely to provoke the wrath of the ulama or the patriots, and shrewdly appeared to give the decision-making power to his people. The last thing the Nasrid ruling class wanted was to be trapped in a destructive conflict caused by the very patriotic spirit they had encouraged among their people. In the end this group of noteworthy men, in consultation with the Granadan inhabitants, agreed to send a request to Ferdinand to open discussions about the fate of their city. What they didn’t know, although some of them suspected it, was that negotiations had been taking place in secret for some time between both parties with a view to surrendering Granada to the Christians. These secret plans meant that Boabdil was able to avoid a much more tragic, bloody and inevitable outcome to the conflict, however much the partisans of resistance militated against them.
The correspondence between Hernando de Zafra and al-Mulih reflects the tense situation between the two opposing sides. Both men underline the importance of secrecy in the negotiations, and it is evident that the Muslims were using every delaying tactic they could think of to defer the final date of any surrender. Zafra wrote to al-Mulih:
Dear brother and great friend, on the basis of what you write about one of your emissaries, I suspect that he may not have the best interests of my king or yours at heart, and is seeking all kind of delays to take things along another path. This will not have a good end, as he is not looking at things as they are, nor remembering that the son of his king is still captive, nor that the latter is in hourly peril of his life.
The ever-present threat of harming Boabdil’s son if the Catholic Monarchs didn’t get their own way resurfaces here; Zafra’s comments show the veiled menace and continual suspicion cast over all dealings between Boabdil and Ferdinand, and their representatives, even when they claim to respect each other.
One Sunday in November Boabdil sent a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in which he answered their request for a firm date for the surrender of the city. His initial suggestion of a date in May 1492 had been greeted with rage by the Christian Monarchs, and with corresponding apparent amazement on the part of the sultan at their reaction. So in this letter Boabdil backpedalled and proffered the end of March instead, when he would hand over ‘the two alhambras’, meaning the palaces as well as the fortress. He knew only too well that at this stage there was no way back, and surrender was inevitable, but he did all in his power to secure the best possible deal for his family and his people. Boabdil’s chancellery prepared a long document on behalf of the sultan setting out his proposals for the surrender of Granada. These replaced any provisional documents drafted previously. The terms, he asserted, were such that when Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to them, he would undertake the handover. First and foremost, on the day that they received the Alhambra, they must release Boabdil’s son, still prisoner in Moclín, and hand him over to his father, along with all the other hostages and their servants, without delay. The release of the prince Ahmed was almost certainly always Boabdil’s central preoccupation and had been so from the time his son became a hostage.
There followed a long series of practical conditions and religious stipulations. In essence, all Granadan Muslims should be allowed to keep their religion, mosques and leaders, and the muezzin’s call to prayer should continue, for all time. No Christian should be allowed to enter a mosque, nor be ordered to stay in a Muslim house, but at an inn, as they did under Muslim rule. Muslim figures of authority should be honoured, and any lawsuits between Muslims were to be judged by qadis and Muslim law alone. There was to be no forced religious conversion of Muslim children, and no married Muslim woman could convert until the statutory legal time had passed; nor could any elches, or Christians who had converted to Islam, be persecuted or forced to reconvert. Nor should any Muslim be forced to bear a distinguishing mark of any kind. Boabdil also stipulated that Jews living in Granada should have the same rights as Muslims under the terms of the surrender.
The practical conditions demanded that all Muslims should be allowed to keep their possessions for all time, including arms and horses; only a Muslim lawyer could pass judgement on their inheritances, and no punishments could be inherited. All Muslim merchants must be able to trade freely as in ‘tiempo de moros’, the time of the Moors, both in Granada and elsewhere in Spain, and Muslims were to live free of taxes for five years. Those Muslims who wished to leave for north Africa were to have freedom of movement overseas, as well as in Spain, taking all their possessions, with a five-year window in which to depart, and within which to return if they wished. Their property was to be sold by procurator after their departure, if necessary. All Muslim captives were to be released upon surrender of Granada, along with the hostages, and all Christian captives would be released at the same time. No Christian would have the right to speak cruelly of the past.
Boabdil’s desire to preserve the religious life and customs of his people, both present and future, and to negotiate a situation which would allow them the greatest possible freedom and tolerance is plain to see. He was sensitive to their feelings and took pains to try to avoid any sense of the inferiority of Muslims under Christian domination, as his stipulation about unkind words shows. The practice of Islam, and its material manifestations of the mosque, minarets and muezzins, were paramount, as was the aljama or Moorish quarter of the city, from where Muslim lawyers, judges and community leaders operated. Boabdil’s inclusion of the minority group of the Granadan Jews in the terms of surrender, where he states that they ‘should benefit like us from these terms’, is particularly poignant when just months later, in the spring and summer of 1492, all Jews, not just those from Granada, would be expelled from their native Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.
The sultan’s personal stipulations related to money, land and people. He requested 30,000 castellanos for himself, plus 10,000 castellanos each for his aides, the governors Aben Comixa and al-Mulih. Castellanos were the gold coins minted by the Castilians, especially Ferdinand and Isabella, each worth 485 maravedis, the silver or gold coins used in everyday transactions, until they were struck in copper for distribution in the New World after 1492. The sums Boabdil asked for were substantial. He also asked for all the fortresses within his jurisdiction and that of his two governors. All Muslim captives from the kingdom were to be returned within three months of surrender, starting with one hundred on the day of handover itself. The Christians, who were suspicious of an uprising, had demanded hostages over the period of transition, and Boabdil offered fifty people to act as hostages, to be handed over by Aben Comixa on the agreed day of the surrender for a period of three days while the enemy received the Alhambra and made the necessary arrangements there. He reiterates the obligation of the Catholic Monarchs to hand over his son and the other hostages, as well as the total of 50,000 castellanos, on the fated day. The details of these stipulations were set out in a long document to the Christian rulers by al-Mulih, who was even able to add a touch of humour in asking for some mules, one of which, he wrote, should be tall and broad in order to accommodate Aben Comixa, who must have been a man of generous proportions.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s response to these petitions was to use Boabdil’s text, but to reformulate it, subtly adjusting the terms to suit their purposes. The artfulness of drawing up the terms of surrender lay in satisfying Boabdil’s requirements while leaving the path open for the conversion of the Muslim population, and the reconversion of elches back into the Catholic faith. The devil was in the detail. Boabdil’s version expressly mentions the voice of the muezzin, who climbs the minaret of the mosque five times a day to call the faithful to prayer, maintaining a tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The words of the call proclaim ‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger’, a statement of a blasphemous nature to the Christian church. The clause finally approved by the Catholic Monarchs was subtly adjusted and refers to retaining mosques and the call to prayer, without mentioning the voice of the priest. His voice would no longer be permitted to be heard over the city of Granada.