A singular clause in the truce existing between the Christians and the Moors, permit[ted] hasty dashes into each others’ territories, and assaults of towns and fortresses, provided they were carried on as mere forays, and without the parade of regular warfare. A long time had elapsed, however, without any incursion of the kind on the part of the Moors, and the Christian towns on the frontiers had, in consequence, fallen into a state of the most negligent security. In an unlucky moment, Muley Abul Hassan was tempted to one of these forays by learning that the fortress of Zahara, on the frontier between Ronda and Medina Sidonia, was but feebly garrisoned and scantily supplied, and that its alcayde was careless of his charge. This important post was built on the crest of a rocky mountain, with a strong castle perched above it, upon a cliff, so high that it was said to be above the flight of birds or drift of clouds. The streets and many of the houses were mere excavations, wrought out of the living rock. The town had but one gate, opening to the west, and defended by towers and bulwarks. The only ascent to this cragged fortress was by roads cut in the rock, so rugged in many places as to resemble broken stairs. In a word, the impregnable security of Zahara had become so proverbial throughout Spain, that a woman of forbidding and inaccessible virtue was called Zahareña. But the strongest fortress and sternest virtue, have weak points, and require unremitting vigilance to guard them; let warrior and dame take warning from the fate of Zahara.
In the year of our Lord one thousand four hundred and eighty-one, and but a night or two after the festival of the most blessed Nativity, the inhabitants of Zahara were sunk in profound sleep; the very sentinel had deserted his post, and sought shelter from a tempest which had raged for three nights in succession; for it appeared little probable that an enemy would be abroad during such an uproar of the elements. But evil spirits work best during a storm. In the midst of the night, an uproar rose within the walls of Zahara, more awful than the raging of the storm. A fearful alarm cry—“The Moor! The Moor!” resounded through the streets, mingled with the clash of arms, the shriek of anguish, and the shout of victory. Muley Abul Hassan, at the head of a powerful force, had hurried from Granada, and passed unobserved through the mountains in the obscurity of the tempest. While the storm pelted the sentinel from his post, and howled round tower and battlement, the Moors had planted their scaling-ladders, and mounted securely into both town and castle. The garrison was unsuspicious of danger, until battle and massacre burst forth within its very walls. It seemed to the affrighted inhabitants, as if the fiends of the air had come upon the wings of the wind, and possessed themselves of tower and turret. The war-cry resounded on every side, shout answering shout above, below, on the battlements of the castle, in the streets of the town—the foe was in all parts, wrapped in obscurity, but acting in concert by the aid of preconcerted signals. Starting from sleep, the soldiers were intercepted and cut down as they rushed from their quarters; or if they escaped, they knew not where to assemble, or where to strike. Wherever lights appeared, the flashing scimitar was at its deadly work, and all who attempted resistance fell beneath its edge.
In a little while the struggle was at an end. Those who were not slain took refuge in the secret places of their houses, or gave themselves up as captives. The clash of arms ceased; and the storm continued its howling, mingled with the occasional shout of the Moorish soldiery, roaming in search of plunder. While the inhabitants were trembling for their fate, a trumpet resounded through the streets, summoning them all to assemble, unarmed, in the public square. Here they were surrounded by soldiery, and strictly guarded until daybreak. When the day dawned it was piteous to behold this once prosperous community, who had laid down to rest in peaceful security, now crowded together without distinction of age, or rank, or sex, and almost without raiment, during the severity of a wintry storm. The fierce Muley Abul Hassan turned a deaf ear to all their prayers and remonstrances, and ordered them to be conducted captives to Granada. Leaving a strong garrison in both town and castle, with orders to put them in a complete state of defense, he returned, flushed with victory, to his capital, entering it at the head of his troops, laden with spoil, and bearing in triumph the banners and pennons taken at Zahara.
While preparations were making for jousts and other festivities, in honor of this victory over the Christians, the captives of Zahara arrived—a wretched train of men, women, and children, worn out with fatigue and haggard with despair, and driven like cattle into the city gates by a detachment of Moorish soldiery.
Deep was the grief and indignation of the people of Granada at this cruel scene. Old men, who had experienced the calamities of warfare, anticipated coming troubles. Mothers clasped their infants to their breasts as they beheld the hapless women of Zahara, with their children expiring in their arms. On every side the accents of pity for the sufferers were mingled with execrations of the barbarity of the King. The preparations for festivities were neglected; and the viands which were to have feasted the conquerors were distributed among the captives.
The nobles and alfaquis, however, repaired to the Alhambra to congratulate the King; for, whatever storms may rage in the lower regions of society, rarely do any clouds, but clouds of incense, rise to the awful eminence of the throne. In this instance, however, a voice arose from the midst of the obsequious crowd, and burst like thunder upon the ears of Abul Hassan. “Woe! Woe! Woe to Granada!” exclaimed the voice; “its hour of desolation approaches. The ruins of Zahara will fall upon our heads; my spirit tells me that the end of our empire is at hand!” All shrank back aghast, and left the denouncer of woe standing alone in the center of the hall. He was an ancient and hoary man, in the rude attire of a dervish. Age had withered his form without quenching the fire of his spirit, which glared in baleful luster from his eyes. He was (say the Arabian historians) one of those holy men termed santons, who pass their lives in hermitages, in fasting, meditation, and prayer, until they attain to the purity of saints and the foresight of prophets. “He was,” says the indignant Fray Antonio Agapida, “a son of Belial, one of those fanatic infidels possessed by the devil, who are sometimes permitted to predict the truth to their followers; but with the proviso, that their predictions shall be of no avail.”
The voice of the santon resounded through the lofty hall of the Alhambra, and struck silence and awe into the crowd of courtly sycophants. Muley Abul Hassan alone was unmoved; he eyed the hoary anchorite with scorn as he stood dauntless before him, and treated his predictions as the ravings of a maniac. The santon rushed from the royal presence, and, descending into the city, hurried through its streets and squares with frantic gesticulations. His voice was heard in every part in awful denunciation. “The peace is broken! Exterminating war is commenced. Woe! Woe! Woe to Granada! Its fall is at hand! Desolation will dwell in its palaces; its strong men will fall beneath the sword, its children and maidens be led into captivity. Zahara is but a type of Granada!”
Terror seized upon the populace, for they considered these ravings as the inspirations of prophecy. Some hid themselves in their dwellings, as in time of general mourning; while some gathered together in knots in the streets and squares, alarming each other with dismal forebodings, and cursing the rashness and cruelty of the King.
The Moorish monarch heeded not their murmurs. Knowing that his exploit must draw upon him the vengeance of the Christians, he now threw off all reserve, and made attempts to surprise Castellan and Elvira, though without success. He sent alfaquis, also, to the Barbary powers, informing them that the sword was drawn, and inviting the African princes to aid him with men and supplies in maintaining the kingdom of Granada, and the religion of Mahomet, against the violence of unbelievers….
Great was the indignation of King Ferdinand when he heard of the storming of Zahara…. Muley Abul Hassan had rashly or unwarily thrown the brand that was to produce the wide conflagration. Ferdinand was not the one to quench the flames. He immediately issued orders to all the adelantados and alcaydes of the frontiers, to maintain the utmost vigilance at their posts, and to prepare to carry fire and sword into the territories of the Moors.
Washington Irving, The Conquest of Granada (Agapida edition), (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1893), pp. 22-32.
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 206