Granada, The Seizure of the Sultanate, Donald McGilvray
Review by Maureen Dolan
The loss of the Sultanate at Granada in 1492 is one of the most poignant episodes in Spanish history. The lament of the ejected Sultan of Al Andalus, Boabdil, as he casts a final, tearful look back at Granada on his way to exile in Fez, Morocco, is the stuff of legends. Yet the story is only some five hundred years old and a wealth of historical material exists on how the invading Moors from North Africa were finally ousted from their earthly paradise at the Alhambra by the reconquering Catholic Kings.
In his book, Granada, The Seizure of the Sultanate, Donald McGilvray plunges headlong into this material to bring the reader an explanation of this famous conflict. Although written without scholarly end notes to meet the stated aim of catering for “general readers in the English-speaking world,” this solid account relies on an extensive bibliography, simple but helpful historical maps and a well-organized list of contents.
McGilvray writes in a crisp, clear and detailed manner, with obvious passion for his subject. He sets the events in the south of the Iberian peninsula within the European context of the time, in particular, the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in Otranto, Italy, and deals with overarching issues such as the drive towards the creation of the centralised nation state and the emergence of the bourgeoisie. Against these, the book tracks the military and diplomatic processes through which the Catholic Kings, Isabel and Ferdinand, successfully pressurised the wealthy nobility and the Pope to contribute to their wars of expansion, and finally conquered Granada in a step-by-step process.
Though the book touches on the grandeur of the Sultanate and its legacy in Spanish culture, it is essentially a military history, concentrating with great expertise on questions of strategy, logistics and technological innovation, such as Queen Isabel´s introduction of the field hospital (read our Review of The Queen’s Vow – Queen Isabel’s story).
Also excellent is McGilvray´s consideration of the stated commitment of the Catholic Kings to maintaining a tolerant, multicultural society after the fall of Granada. He argues that their Machiavellian lack of scruples after military conquest led them to entrust the book-burning, mosque-closing Inquisitor Cisneros with forced, mass conversions to Christianity. Thus the rulers chose to repay in conversions the crusade expenses they had received from the Pope, rather than adopt the more challenging task of allowing religious difference to flourish.
While this discussion is insightful, the author is on less solid ground regarding the intriguing issues he sets out in the Introduction, describing them as still prevalent today: “… religious fundamentalism and the use of religion for political ends, holy wars and foreign occupation, and attempts to create multicultural societies.”
McGilvray fails to draw explicit conclusions on these questions and he seems more at ease recounting a “top down” version of history in which the players are kings, queens, sultans and inquisitorial clergy than the “intra-history” of the mass of the people living in the Sultanate, as well as outside it. Drafted for wars, forced to change religion or ruthlessly slaughtered for causing “unrest”, their contribution to the forces that ended the Sultanate remain unexplored and so, in terms of readership, the book is better suited to those with an interest in battle tactics and aristocratic diplomacy rather than cultural studies.
Mo Dolan fell in love with Spain as a child, studied the language and for many years lived abroad in Zaragoza, Oviedo and Santa Barbara, California, where she studied for a doctorate on Hispanic culture. For some years she taught Spanish at university and the after marrying her Spanish boyfriend they moved to Alcalá de Henares, Spain, which is a World Heritage Site.
© Books4Spain Ltd 2013 This review may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of Books4Spain or Mo Dolan.
Books4Spain has a many books about Granada and Moorish Spain, from travel guidebooks to books about the Alhambra Palace and historical fiction dealing with the reconquest of Spain and the taking of Granada by the Isabel and Ferdinand, The Catholic Kings. Here are a few examples: