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The Nasrid Dynasty Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain.	 Source: Jebulon / CC0.

The Nasrid Dynasty and the Birth of the Alhambra Palace

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The Nasrid Dynasty was the last Muslim dynasty on the Iberian Peninsula. The Nasrids ruled over the Emirate of Granada, which was founded during the 13 th century. The Emirate was the last Muslim state of Al-Andalus (also known as Andalusia) and was only conquered by the Christians around the end of the 15 th century. It may be said that the Emirate of Granada was able to survive so long as its rulers were tributary vassals of the Christian Kingdom of Castile. Moreover, the Nasrids were not considered to be a serious threat by the Christians and were therefore allowed to exist. Although the Nasrids gradually lost territory to the Christians, their capital, Granada, remained an important center of Islamic culture until its fall. The Alhambra in Granada is one of the best examples of the Nasrid Dynasty’s cultural achievements that has survived to this day.

Nasrid Dynasty coat of arms. (SanchoPanzaXXI / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nasrid Dynasty coat of arms. (SanchoPanzaXXI / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Nasrids in Al-Andalus and the crusades that defeated them

The Nasrid Dynasty came to power in 1212 AD, following the defeat of the Almohads (the Berber Muslims who ruled Al-Andalus) at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, a major battle of the Reconquista. At the Battle of Alarcos in 1195, Alfonso VIII of Castile suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Almohads. Subsequently, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, the Archbishop of Toledo, began stirring up indignation at the Muslim victory over the Christians. As a result, a proclamation of a crusade was obtained from the pope, which received the backing of several French bishops. In the spring of 1212, several contingents of French knights, and the Knights Templar arrived at Toledo. The crusade was joined by Aragon, Castile, and Portugal.

The crusaders began their march southwards on the 21 st of June, and succeeded in capturing two Muslim fortresses. Many of the non-Spanish crusaders, however, were discouraged by the harsh climate and living conditions, and returned home. Nevertheless, the remaining army was reinforced by an army from Navarre. In the meantime, the Almohads brought their army to the mountainous region around Baeza. The caliph, Muhammad al-Nasir, planned to cut the crusaders off at the plain of Las Navas de Tolosa. The crusaders arrived on the 12 th of July, and took Castroferral, hoping to reach the Muslims via the pass of La Llosa. This was not going to be an easy task, as the pass was heavily guarded. Fortunately for the crusaders, a local shepherd showed them an alternative route to the Muslim camps. The Almohads who were taken by surprise, were easily routed.

The defeat of the Almohads at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa marked the beginning of the end for them. Dynastic squabbles and the lack of a strong leader exacerbated the problems faced by the Almohads, and they quickly lost their grip on Al-Andalus. The power vacuum left by the Almohads was quickly filled by local Muslim rulers, who established their own taifas, or independent principalities. As a matter of fact, this was not the first time that taifas were formed. When the Caliphate of Cordoba fell in 1031, for instance, local Muslim leaders seized the opportunity to declare their independence. According to some estimates, as many as 50 taifas emerged after the collapse of central authority. Other estimates, however, place the number at around 30.

Battle of Granada between the Nasrids and Christian forces. (Fabrizio Castello, Orazio Cambiaso, Lazzaro Tavarone / Public Domain)

Battle of Granada between the Nasrids and Christian forces. (Fabrizio Castello, Orazio Cambiaso, Lazzaro Tavarone / Public Domain)

The Rise of the Nasrids and the Emirate of Granada

The Emirate of Granada was one of these taifas (though sometimes not considered as such) that emerged after the fall of the Almohads. Although the power of the Almohads had been greatly reduced as a result of their defeat to the Christians, they were still strong enough to control Al-Andalus for one or two decades. Eventually, however, the Almohads lost their control over Al-Andalus, and their lands were soon lost to the taifas. These independent principalities, however, did not last for long, as they were conquered one by one by the Christian kingdoms of Spain.

In the early 1230s, Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr ibn al-Ahmar (known also as Muhammad I of Granada, and Muhammad I al-Ghalib), a military leader from the Jaén region, founded the Emirate of Granada. In 1237, Muhammad established his capital at Granada. The city would serve as the Nasrid capital until the dynasty’s demise. In addition to Granada, Muhammad was also in control of neighboring Jaén, Almería, and Málaga. In other words, the Nasrids ruled over the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Nasrids were aware of the Christian threat to their emirate. Therefore, they chose to acknowledge the sovereignty of the King of Castile. In exchange for peace, the Nasrids paid an annual tribute to Castile, and were occasionally required to contribute to the Castilian war effort in the form of soldiers. Muhammad himself was a vassal of Ferdinand III, and continued his vassalage under Alfonso X, Ferdinand’s successor. The Castilians, in turn, were happy to maintain this arrangement, as they did not perceive the Nasrids as a strong Muslim state that may pose a threat to them.

Compared to the other taifas, the Emirate of Granada enjoyed a relatively peaceful relationship with the Christian states. As these taifas were conquered by the Christians during the Reconquista, more and more Muslims were forced to flee from their homes. Many of them headed south, and eventually reached Granada, where they were welcomed by the Nasrids. These refugees came from such cities as Seville, Valencia, and Murcia, which had been prosperous centers of Islamic culture. The refugees brought along their skills with them, which contributed to Granada’s prosperity, and transformed the city into the new center of Islamic culture on the Iberian Peninsula. Thanks to this new-found prosperity, the Nasrids were able to embark on the construction (more appropriately the renovation and rebuilding) of the Alhambra, arguably the achievement they are best remembered for today.

Just one of the many garden settings in the Alhambra Palace. (Rien Ramerman / Public domain)

Just one of the many garden settings in the Alhambra Palace. (Rien Ramerman / Public domain)

The Alhambra: stunning legacy of the Nasrid Dynasty

The Alhambra palace and fortress complex, which literally means ‘The Red One’, is situated on a natural plateau on the Sabika Hill, in the west of the city of Granada. From this hill, the entire city and plain of Granada can be seen. The hill is surrounded by mountains, whilst the Darro River flows at its base.

The Alhambra’s strategic location made it easy for anyone to control the city and its surrounding area. It would come as no surprise then that the site was already occupied long before the arrival of the Nasrids. It has been speculated that there once was a Roman fort situated on the Sabika Hill. The first written record about the Alhambra, however, dates to the 9 th century AD. According to this account, a man by the name of Sawwar ben Hamdun had sought shelter in the Alcazaba, as the Muslims and the Muladis (people of mixed Arab and European descent) were fighting. The Alcazaba is a fortress, and one of the oldest parts of the Alhambra.

Although Sawwar ben Hamdun and other Muslims who found refuge in the Alcazaba may have initiated new constructions there, the site sank back into obscurity during the 10 th century. During the 11 th century, the Zirid Dynasty established the Taifa of Granada, and decided to settle in the Alcazaba Cadima in Albaicín. According to some sources, the vizier, a Jew by the name of Samuel ibn Naghralla, sought to preserve an important Jewish settlement on the Sabika Hill, so he rebuilt the ruins on the hill, and constructed a new palace for his master there. Other sources claim that the rulers of Granada only established their residence on the Sabika Hill from the 13 th century onwards, i.e. during the Nasrid period.

Much of the Alhambra that we see today, however, was built by the Nasrids. When Muhammad, the first Emir of Granada, came to power, he initially settled in Albaicín, like the Zirids who preceded him. By that time, the buildings on the Sabika Hill had fallen into ruin once again, but they managed to catch the emir’s attention. Therefore, Muhammad ordered the ruins to be restored, and constructed new buildings on the hill. Although Muhammad laid the foundations for the Alhambra, successive Nasrid rulers added to the complex, and the Alhambra was only completed in the 14 th century.

Initially, the Alhambra served a largely defensive purpose. Muhammad built three new towers on the Sabika Hill, and restored the ruined ones. The emir also began the construction of the palaces and ramparts. To make the place habitable, Muhammad canalized water from the Darro River. Muhammad’s successors furthered his work, and continued building the Alhambra.

Magnificent Alhambra plaster work (Public Domain)

Magnificent Alhambra plaster work (Public Domain)

The best-known parts of the Alhambra were constructed during the reigns of Yusuf I and Muhammad V, his successor, both of whom ruled over Granada during the 14 th century. The contributions of the former to the Alhambra include the Baths, the Palace of Comares, and the Gate of Justice, whilst the latter’s most notable addition to the complex was the Palace of the Lions. One of the most impressive decorative elements of the Alhambra is its plasterwork, which covers almost every single surface of walls, arches, vaults, and ceilings of the royal palaces. The plasterwork of the Alhambra includes calligraphic inscriptions, geometric shapes, and floral and vegetal decorations.

The slow fall of the Nasrid Dynasty to Christian forces

The Nasrids were not able to become a formidable power in Spain. And the successors of the dynasty’s founder, Muhammad, were less capable. There was, however, one brief moment when the Nasrids seriously entertained the idea of reviving Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Despite recognizing Castile as their overlord, the Nasrids formed an alliance with the Marinids of Northwest Africa. In 1340, the Marinids crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, and invaded Spain, hoping to regain the territories lost by the Muslims to the Reconquista in the last century. The invaders and their Nasrid allies, however, were defeated by a combined Castilian-Portuguese army at the Battle of Rio Salado.

Although the Emirate of Granada was severely weakened after this defeat, it seems that the Christians were not able to end the Nasrid Dynasty once and for all. The King of Castile, Alfonso XI, died 10 years after the Battle of Rio Salado, whilst his successors displayed little interest in continuing the Reconquista. Instead, they were busy fighting other wars. As a result, the Nasrids were able to hold on to their emirate for another century and a half. Nevertheless, the Nasrids were only able to delay, but not prevent, the inevitable, i.e. the fall of Granada to the Spanish Christians.

In 1469, the Christians of Spain were finally united, as a result of the marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. Around the same time, the Nasrids refused to pay tribute to Castile, which resulted in a war between the Emirate of Granada and Spain. The situation in Granada was exacerbated by dynastic and factional divisions.

By the spring of 1491, The Nasrids had lost all of their territory to the Christians, with the exception of Granada. The last Nasrid ruler of Granada, Muhammad XII (known also as Boabdil by the Europeans) was unable to lift the siege of the city. He managed, however, to negotiate a four-month truce with the Spanish. If no help was received by the city at the end of the truce, he would surrender the city to them. Muhammad’s attempts to obtain aid from the Marinids proved unsuccessful. Therefore, on the 2 nd of January 1492, when the truce expired, Granada was surrendered to the Spanish.

The End of the Nasrid Dynasty and their unique legacy

The fall of Granada marked the end of the Nasrid Dynasty, as well as Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. The Nasrids are best remembered today as the last Muslim state on the Iberian Peninsula, as well as the longest surviving taifa. More importantly, perhaps, is the legacy they left behind, the most notable being the Alhambra.

In the centuries following the fall of Granada, the Alhambra suffered an ignominious fate. Soon after the Nasrid Dynasty was overthrown, much of the Alhambra’s interior was defaced, and its furniture destroyed or removed. During the 16 th century, Charles V rebuilt parts of the Alhambra in the Renaissance style, and demolished others so that he could build an Italianate palace. In the early 19 th century, some of the Alhambra’s towers were blown up by the French during the Peninsular War, and further damage was caused by an earthquake. Fortunately, in the same century, extensive repairs and rebuilding were initiated. The Alhambra was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, and its restoration and conservation continue till this day.

Top image: The Nasrid Dynasty Alhambra Palace, Granada, Spain.          Source: Jebulon / CC0.

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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