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When Ferdinand and Isabella retook Granada in 1492, they ended eight centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

In Western minds 1492 resonates as the year Christopher Columbus arrived on the Atlantic and Caribbean shores of the New World, the culmination of an arduous journey made possible by the patronage of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile. By financing the Italian explorer’s “enterprise of the Indies,” the married Catholic monarchs helped change history.

But aiding Columbus was not the only way in which Ferdinand and Isabella shaped their times and, indeed, the world map. In the months before the explorer and his party set off across the Atlantic aboard Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, the royal couple oversaw the culminating siege in what had been a long and brutal war for the heart and soul of future Spain—one ultimately leading to the expulsion of a culture that for nearly eight centuries had dominated every aspect of life on most of the Iberian Peninsula.

That war came to a close on Jan. 2, 1492, in Granada, a prosperous fortress city in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Islam arose amid the desert expanses of the Arabian Peninsula in the first decade of the 7th century. By 682 the faith of Muhammad had spread across Syria, Egypt and North Africa, and the Muslim vanguard had reached the southern shore of what we now know as the Strait of Gibraltar. The 9-mile-wide channel connecting the Mediterranean and the open Atlantic only briefly delayed the armies of conquest, and in 711 some 12,000 Arabs and Berbers loyal to the Damascus-based Umayyad caliphate crossed the strait under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad. The invaders landed near a massive promontory they dubbed Jabal Tariq (“Mount Tariq,” later corrupted into Gibraltar) and quickly set about subduing the defending Visigoths. Masters of the peninsula since the early 5th century, the warlike Visigoths were disinclined to welcome new arrivals and did what they could to halt the advancing Moors (a catchall term referring to the Arab and Berber Muslims of the North African coastal region of Mauretania). At the decisive Battle of Guadalete the Moors under Tariq vanquished Visigoth forces under King Roderick, who was either killed or fled the field. Tariq quickly pressed north to take Córdoba and Toledo. Landing with a follow-up Umayyad force, Musa ibn Nusayr soon added Medina-Sidonia, Seville, Mérida and Saragossa to the lengthening list of Muslim conquests.

By 717 the Moors had reached the Pyrenees, compelling opposing Christian forces to retreat into the mountains to the north and west. The advancing Muslims then crossed into France and by 725 had reached Burgundy and sacked Autun. In 732, exactly 100 years after the death of Muhammad, an army under Abd ar-Rahman al-Ghafiqi defeated Duke Odo of Aquitaine at the Battle of the River Garonne and sacked Bordeaux.

These victories allowed Abd ar-Rahman to set his sights on Poitiers and Tours. Trepidation among the Christians must have been palpable, for the Muslims appeared unstoppable. Europe hadn’t faced a similar threat since the Huns’ rampage nearly three centuries earlier.

But Abd ar-Rahman was about to meet his match.

Opposing the Moors were the Franks, a disunited people who in their hour of need found a champion in the person of Charles Martel. Known as “The Hammer,” the veteran commander had earned his stern moniker waging successful campaigns against the pagan Germanic tribes.

Forewarned by Duke Odo of the Muslim advance on Tours, Martel placed his army squarely in their path. While Muslim armies had long made effective use of heavy cavalry as a shock force—again proving its worth on this campaign—Europeans traditionally fought afoot. The recent adoption of saddles and stirrups from Central Asia, however, made fighting on horseback practicable, and Martel had his own cavalry to deploy. As he prepared to meet the Moors, the Frankish commander put the Loire River at his back. There would be no retreat.

Abd ar-Rahman halted his army to reconnoiter. Martel did likewise, keeping to the hills and concealing his numbers in the surrounding forest. It was early October, and an autumn chill was in the air. Fresh from their summer campaigns, the Moors wore light fatigues, while Martel’s men were equipped for winter. For a week the armies shadowed one another as temperatures dropped. Loath to wait any longer, Abd ar-Rahman launched his heavy cavalry. Anticipating the charge, Martel had formed a hollow square to repel the onslaught, meanwhile sending outriders through the forest to hit the Moorish baggage train from the rear. Abd ar-Rahman sent repeated charges uphill into the waiting infantry square, but the Franks held.

The decisive moment came when Martel’s outriders reached the enemy baggage train, news of which spread panic through the Moorish ranks. Muslim troops that had managed to penetrate the square broke off and flooded back to their lines. As he sought to rally his men, Abd ar-Rahman was killed by a lance, and the battle devolved into a series of cavalry clashes that stretched into nightfall. At dawn the Franks found the enemy had fled south.

Over the next decade Martel remained on the offensive, driving the Moors from Burgundy and Languedoc. On his death in 741 son Pepin the Short took up the banner, and by 759 the Franks had driven the Moors back across the Pyrenees. Future campaigns would center on Iberia.

Ferdinand and Isabella accept tribute from a Moorish prince. (Antonio Rodriguez/Museo Del Prado/Bridgeman Images)

In 756 another Abd ar-Rahman, this one an exiled prince of the since deposed Umayyad caliphate in Damascus, established the independent emirate of Córdoba, which dominated the Iberian Peninsula into the 11th century. Jews were well treated, while Christians were tolerated on payment of a poll tax. Rebellious governors in the fortress cities bordering France proved problematic, and by 801 the Catholic army of Charlemagne, Martel’s grandson, had reconquered northeast Iberia. Meanwhile, internal revolts spread, even to Córdoba itself.

This state of unrest continued until the 891–961 reign of Abd ar-Rahman III, the most powerful of the Umayyad emirs, who largely pacified the peninsula and oversaw administrative, industrial and agricultural improvements that brought the caliphate to its zenith. Córdoba, with a population numbering around a half-million, became Europe’s intellectual hub and capital of the Islamic cultural domain known as al-Andalus. The majority Muslim population continued to tolerate Christians and Jews, and intermarriages were not unusual up to the 13th century. It took the preaching of Crusade as part of the Reconquista, together with papal propaganda, to fully foment the forces of Muslim intolerance and fanaticism.

Meanwhile, the wars continued. Between 962 and 970 Catholic Castile, Leon and Navarre were all forced to sue for peace, then the all-conquering Umayyads replaced the Fatimids in Morocco. It seemed their ascendancy would continue. Cracks in the dynasty began appearing in the late 10th century, however, which only exacerbated the power struggles and civil war, playing into Christian hands. From 989 the Catholic Church began proclaiming a Pax Dei (“Peace of God”), applying spiritual sanctions to limit violence within Christendom, though it remained perfectly permissible to head south of the Pyrenees armed to the teeth. In later centuries when the Crusades were in full swing, church leaders pointed to the fight in Iberia as a convenient alternative to waging war in the Holy Land.

The religious enmity reached a new pitch in 981 with the rise of al-Mansur, the fervently Muslim de facto ruler of al-Andalus, who terrorized the Christian north with nearly 60 attacks over his 21-year rule. In 997 he had the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Iberia razed, then forced Christian slaves to tote its bells to Córdoba, where they were melted down into lamps for the great mosque. Supposed burial place of the martyred apostle James (Santiago in Galician parlance), son of Zebedee, the shrine at Santiago de Compostela remained a major Christian pilgrimage destination. According to legend, Santiago appeared to Catholics marching into battle against the Moors and delivered them a glorious victory, earning for himself the nickname Matamoros (“Moor-slayer”) and veneration as the patron saint of Spain.

After al-Mansur’s death in 1002, the long-standing Umayyad caliphate in Córdoba went into decline and in 1031 dissolved into numerous petty principalities. The resulting power vacuum enabled expansion-minded Alfonso VI of León and Castile to capture Toledo in 1085. Alarmed at Alfonso’s gains, the other Muslim princes invited the Almoravid Berbers of Morocco to join them in an alliance against the Christians. The Berbers landed at Algeciras the next year, and the combined force defeated Alfonso at the Battle of Zallaqa (“Slippery Ground” in Arabic, supposedly named for the amount of blood shed there). As the Moors resumed their vigil at the borders, their victorious Almoravid allies proceeded to annex the whole of Moorish Iberia but for Saragossa.

The 1961 film El Cid centers on this period, relating the story of real-life Castilian nobleman and commander Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (played by Charlton Heston), who lives in Spanish national memory as the iconic folk hero El Cid (from al-Sayyid, “The Lord” in Arabic). An epic in its own right, the film accurately conveys the inherent chaos of the Iberian wars. Aided by El Cid—notable for having fought on both sides of the conflict, hence his Moorish moniker—Alfonso resumed his attempts at reconquest. El Cid’s greatest contribution to the venture was his capture of Valencia in 1094.

In the mid-12th century the ascendant Almohad caliphate conquered Morocco, followed by the whole of Maghreb (as far east as present-day Libya), managing to unify Muslim Iberia as a province of its North African empire. Alfonso VIII of Castile led a series of successful attacks on the Muslims, but was forced to cede his gains after losing to the Almohads at the Battle of Alarcos in 1195. The Almohads were at the apogee of their power.

The region that would coalesce into Portugal was also engaged in reconquest, beginning in the mid-11th century with Castilian knight Alfonso Henriques, who waged a series of campaigns against the Moors in the early 12th century, roundly defeating them at the 1139 Battle of Ourique. By 1147 Alfonso I had secured official recognition of the Kingdom of Portugal and the capture of its future capital, Lisbon. Alfonso’s son, Sancho I, continued his work, settling colonists on the lands won from the Moors. There would be no going back.

In 1212 the Moorish denouement was at hand, as Alfonso VIII of Castile rallied the Catholic kingdoms of the peninsula for a unified assault on the Muslims, first securing the moral high ground by recruiting Pope Innocent III to the cause. The allied kings crushed the Almohads at the July 16 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, signaling the beginning of the end of Moorish pre-eminence on the Iberian Peninsula.

The mopping up largely fell to Ferdinand III of Castile, who retook Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248. His death in 1252 cut short his ambitions to take the war to the Almohads in North Africa. By then the Iberian Christians no longer obsessed about the Muslim threat, leaving them free to wage their own dynastic struggles, as baronage and crown fought for supremacy. While Ferdinand’s Castilians had done most of the heavy lifting, James I of Aragon did his fair share, freeing his own Mediterranean frontier and the Balearic Islands from the Muslims.

There was one more major defensive battle to come—the Oct. 30, 1340, rout of the Marinid invasion at Río Salado, fought by Alfonso XI of Castile with aid from the Portuguese. There would be no more Muslim invasions; it was just a question of how long the vestiges of a once-proud caliphate could hold out. Increasing rapprochement between Castile and Aragon in the late 14th century focused their attention on the eviction of the Moorish rump.

Isolated pockets of resistance remained, of which only the Nasrid emirate of Granada amounted to much, and it was effectively a vassal state of Castile. Still, it was a refuge for Muslims fleeing the Reconquista, and its inhabitants refused to submit to the Catholic kingdom’s rules, pointedly maintaining Arabic as its mother tongue and engaging in commerce with the Muslim Maghreb. Sporadic Nasrid border raids prompted punitive responses short of invasion. The Portuguese were more aggressive, taking the key North African trading hub of Ceuta in 1415, thus kicking off the era of European colonization. Granada held on as the sole remaining Muslim emirate on an otherwise unified Christian peninsula.

For Ferdinand and Isabella it was a boil to be lanced.

The 1469 marriage of Isabella, heiress to the throne of Castile, to Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon, was a decisive catalyst in both the final defeat of the Moors and Spanish unification. Isabella took rule in Castile (and Léon) in 1474, while Ferdinand succeeded in Aragon (and Catalonia and Valencia) five years later. In 1478 the royal couple established the Inquisition, intended to ensure Catholic orthodoxy in the realm.

In Granada the sultan’s son Abu Abd Allah, known to the Spanish as Boabdil, was keen to gain power and in 1482, after a series of Christian-Muslim clashes, peremptorily named himself Nasrid ruler, effectively dethroning his father, Abu al-Hasan Ali. Opposing Muslim factions chose sides, and the ensuing civil war saw the emirate fatally weakened. Fate intervened when Castilian forces captured the young emir during a ill-conceived raid south of Córdoba. Exploiting the Nasrid rift, Ferdinand and Isabella sought to win over Boabdil to their cause, offering him a truce in exchange for tribute payments and a pledge to make war against his own father.

Consenting to the humiliating terms, Boabdil returned to Granada to foment trouble and fight both his father and uncle for the emirate. Muslim battled Muslim, and amid the chaos the dominoes began toppling. The fortress cities of Marbella and Ronda capitulated. Too late the treacherous Boabdil fell out with his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella, defected and decided to oppose the dual monarchs, seeking redemption as some sort of Granadian patriot. The fall of the primary seaport at Málaga (1487) and the stronghold of Baza (1489) were the final prelude to the fight for the capital.

Holed up inside Granada, Boabdil appealed for aid from the Muslim powers in Egypt and North Africa, but without success. It was nigh on impossible to provide succor to Granada anyway, as it had been cut off from the sea. The time had come for the coup de grâce, and Ferdinand and Isabella settled on a siege rather than lose men in an all-out assault. Operations began in April 1491. Eight months of misery, decay and disorder ensued before the city fell to the Spanish on Jan. 2, 1492.

Leaving Granada with his family and retainers, Boabdil personally delivered the keys of the city to Ferdinand. Within moments royal bearers raised a great silver cross and the Castilian banner in triumph from the watchtower of the Alhambra, and the victorious royal couple wept for joy. Later that day, as he crossed over the Sierra Nevada, a dejected Boabdil paused for one last look at the city, shedding a tear for all he’d lost, only to be taunted by his own mother. “You do well to weep like a woman,” she scolded, “for what you failed to defend like a man!” This verbal slap was perhaps unjust, for while Boabdil had been a weak and vacillating ruler, he had been resolute in battle. The rocky pass from which Boabdil supposedly cast his backward glance remains known as Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor’s Sigh).

A personal defeat for the emir, the fall of Granada also marked the end of 781 years of Moorish rule in Iberia. Muslims immediately went into mourning, regarding it as a catastrophe of epic proportions. Spanish Catholics, on the other hand, hailed it as the most blessed day in their history. With the Reconquista completed, so too ended threats of invasion from Moorish North Africa. According to the generous treaty terms, Muslims who remained in Iberia would be afforded respect with regard to their religion, culture and property—but such promises proved to be so many words.

After turning over the keys of Granada to Ferdinand, Boabdil took a last glance at the city before riding into exile. (Alfred Dehodencq/RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, New York)

The Reconquista of Iberia from the Moors was followed by a spiritual reconquest, spearheaded enthusiastically by the Inquisition. Practicing Jews (perhaps as many as 40,000) were expelled by royal edict in 1492, while Moors who refused to convert were shown the door in Castile in 1502. The fallout continued for decades. As late as 1530 Khayr ad-Din, a notorious Ottoman corsair and admiral known to Europeans as Barbarossa, evacuated tens of thousands of Moors from Andalusia.

The irony of the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula is that while late medieval Europe was largely rural and impoverished, Moorish Iberia had been a flourishing economic and cultural center at the cutting edge of science, philosophy and medicine. Indeed, in Castile the Muslims would be protected for their economic value. External influences had long informed Spanish culture, and the Muslim scholastic tradition continued to predominate, translations from Arabic to Latin making Iberia the conduit by which knowledge permeated the West. Toledo, a center of Arab learning, was a base for translating Arabic and Greek works into Latin. The Moors also left their mark architecturally in such monumental edifices as the 10th century Great Mosque of Córdoba, or Mezquita, Seville’s 12th century royal palace of Alcázar and the mostly 14th century Alhambra of Granada.

A further irony is that in the year 1492, as the Catholic pushed the Muslim out of Iberia and retreated in on himself, he was also busy discovering the New World and expanding his horizons in a new direction. The Muslim was not welcome in Spain, but Spain was bagging America.

Of course, discord and open conflict continues, notwithstanding the many millions of Muslims and Christians who live in peace. But perhaps by relearning the lessons of history, the disparate cultures and religions can advance side by side for humanity’s greater good. MH

Steve Roberts [] is a U.K.-based freelance writer and author. For further reading he recommends The Crusades, by Antony Bridge, and History’s Greatest Battles: Masterstrokes of War, by Nigel Cawthorne.