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Tales of the Alhambra

Chapter: The Abencerrages.
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Alhambra Tours

The Abencerrages.

A GRAND line of distinction existed among the Moslems of Spain, between those of Oriental origin and those from Western Africa. Among the former the Arabs considered themselves the purest race, as being descended from the countrymen of the Prophet, who first raised the standard of Islam; among the latter, the most warlike and powerful were the Berber tribes from Mount Atlas and the deserts of Sahara, commonly known as Moors, who subdued the tribes of the sea-coast, founded the city of Morocco, and for a long time disputed with the oriental races the control of Moslem Spain.

Among the oriental races the Abencerrages held a distinguished rank, priding themselves on a pure Arab descent from the Beni Seraj, one of the tribes who were Ansares or Companions of the Prophet. The Abencerrages flourished for a time at Cordova; but probably repaired to Granada after the downfall of the Western Caliphat; it was there they attained their historical and romantic celebrity, being foremost among the splendid chivalry which graced the court of the Alhambra.

Their highest and most dangerous prosperity was during the precarious reign of Muhamed Nasar, surnamed El Hayzari, or the Left-handed. That ill-starred monarch, when he ascended the throne in 1423, lavished his favors upon this gallant line, making the head of the tribe, Yusef Aben Zeragh, his vizier, or prime minister, and advancing his relatives and friends to the most distinguished posts about the court. This gave great offence to other tribes, and caused intrigues among their chiefs. Muhamed lost popularity also by his manners. He was vain, inconsiderate, and haughty; disdained to mingle among his subjects; forbade those jousts and tournaments, the delight of high and low; and passed his time in the luxurious retirement of the Alhambra. The consequence was a popular insurrection; the palace was stormed; the king escaped through the gardens, fled to the sea-coast, crossed in disguise to Africa, and took refuge with his kinsman, the sovereign of Tunis.

Muhamed el Zaguer, cousin of the fugitive monarch, took possession of the vacant throne. He pursued a different course from his predecessor. He not only gave fetes and tourneys, but entered the lists himself, in grand and sumptuous array; he distinguished himself in managing his horse, in tilting, riding at the ring, and other chivalrous exercises; feasted with his cavaliers, and made them magnificent presents.

Those who had been in favor with his predecessor, now experienced a reverse; he manifested such hostility to them that more than five hundred of the principal cavaliers left the city. Yusef Aben Zeragh, with forty of the Abencerrages, abandoned Granada in the night, and sought the court of Juan the king of Castile. Moved by their representations, that young and generous monarch wrote letters to the sovereign of Tunis, inviting him to assist in punishing the usurper and restoring the exiled king to his throne. The faithful and indefatigable vizier accompanied the bearer of these letters to Tunis, where he rejoined his exiled sovereign. The letters were successful. Muhamed el Hayzari landed in Andalusia with five hundred African horse, and was joined by the Abencerrages and others of his adherents and by his Christian allies; wherever he appeared the people submitted to him; troops sent against him deserted to his standard; Granada was recovered without a blow; the usurper retreated to the Alhambra, but was beheaded by his own soldiers (1428), after reigning between two and three years.

El Hayzari, once more on the throne, heaped honors on the loyal vizier, through whose faithful services he had been restored, and once more the line of the Abencerrages basked in the sunshine of royal favor. El Hayzari sent ambassadors to King Juan, thanking him for his aid, and proposing a perpetual league of amity. The king of Castile required homage and yearly tribute. These the left-handed monarch refused, supposing the youthful king too, much engaged in civil war to enforce his claims. Again the kingdom of Granada was harassed by invasions, and its Vega laid waste. Various battles took place with various success. But El Hayzari’s greatest danger was near at home. There was at that time in Granada a cavalier, Don Pedro Venegas by name, a Moslem by faith, but Christian by descent, whose early history borders on romance. He was of the noble house of Luque, but captured when a child, eight years of age, by Cid Yahia Alnayar, prince of Almeria, who adopted him as his son, educated him in the Moslem faith, and brought him up among his children, the Cetimerian princes, a proud family, descended in direct line from Aben Hud, one of the early Granadian kings. A mutual attachment sprang up between Don Pedro and the princess Cetimerien, a daughter of Cid Yahia, famous for her beauty, and whose name is perpetuated by the ruins of her palace in Granada; still bearing traces of Moorish elegance and luxury. In process of time they were married; and thus a scion of the Spanish house of Luque became engrafted on the royal stock of Aben Hud.

Such is the early story of Don Pedro Venegas, who at the time of which we treat was a man mature in years, and of an active, ambitious spirit. He appears to have been the soul of a conspiracy set on foot about this time, to topple Muhamed the Left-handed from his unsteady throne, and elevate in his place Yusef Aben Alhamar, the eldest of the Cetimerian princes. The aid of the king of Castile was to be secured, and Don Pedro proceeded on a secret embassy to Cordova for the purpose. He informed King Juan of the extent of the conspiracy; that Yusef Aben Alhamar could bring a large force to his standard as soon as he should appear in the Vega, and would acknowledge himself his vassal, if with his aid he should attain the crown. The aid was promised, and Don Pedro hastened back to Granada with the tidings. The conspirators now left the city, a few at a time, under various pretexts; and when King Juan passed the frontier, Yusef Aben Alhamar brought eight thousand men to his standard and kissed his hand in token of allegiance.

It is needless to recount the various battles by which the kingdom was desolated, and the various intrigues by which one half of it was roused to rebellion. The Abencerrages stood by the failing fortunes of Muhamed throughout the struggle; their last stand was at Loxa, where their chief, the vizier Yusef Aben Zeragh, fell bravely fighting, and many of their noblest cavaliers were slain: in fact, in that disastrous war the fortunes of the family were nearly wrecked.

Again, the ill-starred Muhamed was driven from his throne, and took refuge in Malaga, the alcayde of which still remained true to him.

Yusef Aben Alhamar, commonly known as Yusef II, entered Granada in triumph on the first of January, 1432, but he found it a melancholy city, where half of the inhabitants were in mourning. Not a noble family but had lost some member; and in the slaughter of the Abencerrages at Loxa, had fallen some of the brightest of the chivalry.

The royal pageant passed through silent streets, and the barren homage of a court in the halls of the Alhambra ill supplied the want of sincere and popular devotion. Yusef Aben Alhamar felt the insecurity of his position. The deposed monarch was at hand in Malaga; the sovereign of Tunis espoused his cause, and pleaded with the Christian monarchs in his favor; above all, Yusef felt his own unpopularity in Granada; previous fatigues had impaired his health, a profound melancholy settled upon him, and in the course of six months he sank into the grave.

At the news of his death, Muhamed the Left-handed hastened from Malaga, and again was placed on the throne. From the wrecks of the Abencerrages he chose as viziers Abdelbar, one of the worthiest of that magnanimous line. Through his advice he restrained his vindictive feelings and adopted a conciliatory policy. He pardoned most of his enemies. Yusef, the defunct usurper, had left three children. His estates were apportioned among them. Aben Celim, the oldest son, was confirmed in the title of Prince of Almeria and Lord of Marchena in the Alpuxarras. Ahmed, the youngest, was made Senor of Luchar; and Equivila, the daughter, received rich patrimonial lands in the fertile Vega, and various houses and shops in the Zacatin of Granada. The vizier Abdelbar counselled the king, moreover, to secure the adherence of the family by matrimonial connections. An aunt of Muhamed was accordingly given in marriage to Aben Celim, while the prince Nasar, younger brother of the deceased usurper, received the hand of the beautiful Lindaraxa, daughter of Muhamed’s faithful adherent, the alcayde of Malaga. This was the Lindaraxa whose name still designates one of the gardens of the Alhambra.

Don Pedro de Venegas alone, the husband of the princess Cetimerien, received no favor. He was considered as having produced the late troubles by his intrigues. The Abencerrages charged him with the reverses of their family and the deaths of so many of their bravest cavaliers. The king never spoke of him but by the opprobrious appellation of the Tornadizo, or Renegade. Finding himself in danger of arrest and punishment, he took leave of his wife, the princess, his two sons, Abul Cacim and Reduan, and his daughter, Cetimerien, and fled to Jaen. There, like his brother-in-law, the usurper, he expiated his intrigues and irregular ambition by profound humiliation and melancholy, and died in 1434 a penitent, because a disappointed man.

Muhamed el Hayzari was doomed to further reverses. He had two nephews, Aben Osmyn, surnamed El Anaf, or the Lame, and Aben Ismael. The former, who was of an ambitious spirit, resided in Almeria; the latter in Granada, where he had many friends. He was on the point of espousing a beautiful girl, when his royal uncle interfered and gave her to one of his favorites. Enraged at this despotic act, the prince Aben Ismael took horse and weapons and sallied from Granada for the frontier, followed by numerous cavaliers. The affair gave general disgust, especially to the Abencerrages who were attached to the prince. No sooner did tidings reach Aben Osmyn of the public discontent than his ambition was aroused. Throwing himself suddenly into Granada, he raised a popular tumult, surprised his uncle in the Alhambra, compelled him to abdicate, and proclaimed himself king. This occurred in September, 1445.

The Abencerrages now gave up the fortunes of the left-handed king as hopeless, and himself as incompetent to rule. Led by their kinsman, the vizier Abdelbar, and accompanied by many other cavaliers, they abandoned the court and took post in Montefrio. Thence Abdelbar wrote to Prince Aben Ismael, who had taken refuge in Castile, inviting him to the camp, offering to support his pretensions to the throne, and advising him to leave Castile secretly, lest his departure should be opposed by King Juan II. The prince, however, confiding in the generosity of the Castilian monarch, told him frankly the whole matter. He was not mistaken. King Juan not merely gave him permission to depart, but promised him aid, and gave him letters to that effect to his commanders on the frontiers. Aben Ismael departed with a brilliant escort, arrived in safety at Montefrio, and was proclaimed king of Granada by Abdelbar and his partisans, the most important of whom were the Abencerrages. A long course of civil wars ensued between the two cousins, rivals for the throne. Aben Osmyn was aided by the kings of Navarre and Aragon, while Juan II, at war with his rebellious subjects, could give little assistance to Aben Ismael.

Thus for several years the country was torn by internal strife and desolated by foreign inroads, so that scarce a field but was stained with blood. Aben Osmyn was brave, and often signalized himself in arms; but he was cruel and despotic, and ruled with an iron hand. He offended the nobles by his caprices, and the populace by his tyranny, while his rival cousin conciliated all hearts by his benignity. Hence there were continual desertions from Granada to the fortified camp at Montefrio, and the party of Aben Ismael was constantly gaining strength. At length the king of Castile, having made peace with the kings of Aragon and Navarre, was enabled to send a choice body of troops to the assistance of Aben Ismael. The latter now left his trenches in Montefrio, and took the field. The combined forces marched upon Granada. Aben Osmyn sallied forth to the encounter. A bloody battle ensued, in which both of the rival cousins fought with heroic valor. Aben Osmyn was defeated and driven back to his gates. He summoned the inhabitants to arms, but few answered to his call; his cruelty had alienated all hearts. Seeing his fortunes at an end, he determined to close his career by a signal act of vengeance. Shutting himself up in the Alhambra, he summoned thither a number of the principal cavaliers whom he suspected of disloyalty. As they entered, they were one by one put to death. This is supposed by some to be the massacre which gave its fatal name to the Hall of the Abencerrages. Having perpetrated this atrocious act of vengeance, and hearing by the shouts of the populace that Aben Ismael was already proclaimed king in the city, he escaped with his satellites by the Cerro del Sol and the valley of the Darro to the Alpuxarra mountains, where he and his followers led a kind of robber life, laying villages and roads under contribution.

Aben Ismael II, who thus attained the throne in 1454, secured the friendship of King Juan II by acts of homage and magnificent presents. He gave liberal rewards to those who had been faithful to him, and consoled the families of those who had fallen in his cause. During his reign, the Abencerrages were again among the most favored of the brilliant chivalry that graced his court. Aben Ismael, however, was not of a warlike spirit; his reign was distinguished rather by works of public utility, the ruins of some of which are still to be seen on the Cerro del Sol.

In the same year of 1454 Juan II died, and was succeeded by Henry IV of Castile, surnamed the Impotent. Aben Ismael neglected to renew the league of amity with him which had existed with his predecessor, as he found it to be unpopular with the people of Granada. King Henry resented the omission, and, under pretext of arrears of tribute, made repeated forays into the kingdom of Granada. He gave countenance also to Aben Osmyn and his robber hordes, and took some of them into pay; but his proud cavaliers refused to associate with infidel outlaws, and determined to seize Aben Osmyn; who, however, made his escape, first to Seville, and thence to Castile.

In the year 1456, on the occasion of a great foray into the Vega by the Christians, Aben Ismael, to secure a peace, agreed to pay the king of Castile a certain tribute annually, and at the same time to liberate six hundred Christian captives; or, should the number of captives fall short, to make it up in Moorish hostages. Aben Ismael fulfilled the rigorous terms of the treaty, and reigned for a number of years with more tranquillity than usually fell to the lot of the monarchs of that belligerent kingdom. Granada enjoyed a great state of prosperity during his reign, and was the seat of festivity and splendor. His sultana was a daughter of Cid Hiaya Abraham Alnayar, prince of Almeria; and he had by her two sons, Abul Hassan, and Abi Abdallah, surnamed El Zagal, the father and uncle of Boabdil. We approach now the eventful period signalized by the conquest of Granada.

Muley Abul Hassan succeeded to the throne on the death of his father in 1465. One of his first acts was to refuse payment of the degrading tribute exacted by the Castilian monarch. His refusal was one of the causes of the subsequent disastrous war. I confine myself, however, to facts connected with the fortunes of the Abencerrages and the charges advanced against Boabdil.

The reader will recollect that Don Pedro Venegas, surnamed El Tornadizo, when he fled from Granada in 1433, left behind him two sons, Abul Cacim and Reduan, and a daughter, Cetimerien. They always enjoyed a distinguished rank in Granada, from their royal descent by the mother’s side; and from being connected, through the princes of Almeria, with the last and the present king. The sons had distinguished themselves by their talents and bravery, and the daughter Cetimerien was married to Cid Hiaya, grandson of King Yusef and brother-in-law of El Zagal. Thus powerfully connected, it is not surprising to find Abul Cacim Venegas advanced to the post of vizier of Muley Abul Hassan, and Reduan Venegas one of his most favored generals. Their rise was regarded with an evil eye by the Abencerrages, who remembered the disasters brought upon their family, and the deaths of so many of their line, in the war fomented by the intrigues of Don Pedro, in the days of Yusef Aben Alhamar. A feud had existed ever since between the Abencerrages and the house of Venegas. It was soon to be aggravated by a formidable schism which took place in the royal harem.

Muley Abul Hassan, in his youthful days, had married his cousin, the princess Ayxa la Horra, daughter of his uncle, the ill-starred sultan, Muhamed the Left-handed; by her he had two sons, the eldest of whom was Boabdil, heir presumptive to the throne. Unfortunately at an advanced age he took another wife, Isabella de Solis, a young and beautiful Christian captive; better known by her Moorish appellation of Zoraya; by her he had also two sons. Two factions were produced in the palace by the rivalry of the sultanas, who were each anxious to secure for their children the succession to the throne. Zoraya was supported by the vizier Abul Cacim Venegas, his brother Reduan Venegas, and their numerous connections, partly through sympathy with her as being, like themselves, of Christian lineage, and partly because they saw she was the favorite of the doting monarch.

The Abencerrages, on the contrary, rallied round the sultana Ayxa; partly through hereditary opposition to the family of Venegas, but chiefly, no doubt, through a strong feeling of loyalty to her as daughter of Muhamed Alhayzari, the ancient benefactor of their line.

The dissensions of the palace went on increasing. Intrigues of all kinds took place, as is usual in royal palaces. Suspicions were artfully instilled in the mind of Muley Abul Hassan that Ayxa was engaged in a plot to depose him and put her son Boabdil on the throne. In his first transports of rage he confined them both in the Tower of Comares, threatening the life of Boabdil. At dead of night the anxious mother lowered her son from a window of the tower by the scarfs of herself and her female attendants; and some of her adherents, who were in waiting with swift horses, bore him away to the Alpuxarras. It is this imprisonment of the sultana Ayxa which possibly gave rise to the fable of the queen of Boabdil being confined by him in a tower to be tried for her life. No other shadow of a ground exists for it, and here we find the tyrant jailer was his father, and the captive sultana, his mother.

The massacre of the Abencerrages in the halls of the Alhambra, is placed by some about this time, and attributed also to Muley Abul Hassan, on suspicion of their being concerned in the conspiracy. The sacrifice of a number of the cavaliers of that line is said to have been suggested by the vizier Abul Cacim Venegas, as a means of striking terror into the rest. If such were really the case, the barbarous measure proved abortive. The Abencerrages continued intrepid, as they were loyal, in their adherence to the cause of Ayxa and her son Boabdil, throughout the war which ensued, while the Venegas were ever foremost in the ranks of Muley Abul Hassan and El Zagal. The ultimate fortunes of these rival families is worthy of note. The Venegas, in the last struggle of Granada, were among those who submitted to the conquerors, renounced the Moslem creed, returned to the faith from which their ancestor had apostatized, were rewarded with offices and estates, intermarried with Spanish families, and have left posterity among the nobles of the land. The Abencerrages remained true to their faith, true to their king, true to their desperate cause, and went down with the foundering wreck of Moslem domination, leaving nothing behind them but a gallant and romantic name in history.

In this historical outline, I trust I have shown enough to put the fable concerning Boabdil and the Abencerrages in a true light. The story of the accusation of his queen, and his cruelty to his sister, are equally void of foundation. In his domestic relations he appears to have been kind and affectionate. History gives him but one wife, Morayma, the daughter of the veteran alcayde of Loxa, old Aliatar, famous in song and story for his exploits in border warfare; and who fell in that disastrous foray into the Christian lands in which Boabdil was taken prisoner. Morayma was true to Boabdil throughout all his vicissitudes. When he was dethroned by the Castilian monarchs, she retired with him to the petty domain allotted him in the valleys of the Alpuxarras. It was only when (dispossessed of this by the jealous precautions and subtle chicanery of Ferdinand, and elbowed, as it were, out of his native land) he was preparing to embark for Africa, that her health and spirits, exhausted by anxiety and long suffering, gave way, and she fell into a lingering illness, aggravated by corroding melancholy. Boabdil was constant and affectionate to her to the last; the sailing of the ships was delayed for several weeks, to the great annoyance of the suspicious Ferdinand. At length Morayma sank into the grave, evidently the victim of a broken heart, and the event was reported to Ferdinand by his agent, as one propitious to his purposes, removing the only obstacle to the embarkation of Boabdil.