Sacred Mountain: Gypsies, War, & Betrayal

“You do well to weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man.” -Aixa la Horra (Aisha the Chaste) to her son Boabdil

The demise of the Umayyad Caliphate is one of the longest and most tragic stories in Islamic history. Once the master of all the lands from Baluchistan to Morocco, the Umayyads ruled in splendor from Damascus for 150 years before their decline and defeat by the Abbasids in 750 A.D. near Mosul in present day Iraq. So complete was their downfall that the first Abbasid Caliph, Saffa, the Shedder of Blood, was able to hunt down and kill every member of the Umayyad line from Egypt to Khorasan. He and his brother Mansur slaughtered and kept Umayyad bodies by the dozen — men, women, and children — in a secret vault in the Abbasid palace in Baghdad, a grim trophy and testament to the dominance of Abbas. Despite the grisly toll, one managed to survive: Abd al Rahman.


Escaping to Iberia beyond the reach of Abbasid assassins, Abd al Rahman reestablished the Umayyad Caliphate and built an enduring capital in the heart of Andalucia. There the Umayyads constructed a stronghold of unmatched grandeur, the Alcazaba, on the western reaches of a fertile and well-watered ridge overlooking the beautiful city of Granada. For themselves, they built a lavish palace in Damascene style, Alhambra, from which they administered their vast dominion for eight centuries.

During that time, Alhambra became a center of culture and learning. The Caliphs established schools for science and mathematics, and art and music. The court attracted poets and historians and gave life to a culture of refinement and diversity. Here Gypsy music developed a wide appeal and both Christians and Jews found a place in society, the former serving as doctors and the latter as merchants and financiers. The Caliphate was an architect’s paradise, where palaces and fortresses and gardens and libraries were a venue for competition amongst the nobles. Architects lent lasting grandeur to the Caliphate, as every visitor to Sevilla can attest. But the kingdom was under assault both from within and without and its internal enemies proved its undoing.

The wrenching tragedy of the last Caliph, Abu Abdullah Mohammed XII, more commonly known as Boabdil, is made worse by the fact that he lived his entire life among intrigue and betrayal. His own father, Caliph Muley Abul Hassan, conspired against Boabdil when astrologers prophesized that the infant would sit upon the throne but would accomplish the downfall of the Caliphate. Fearing the prophecy and influenced by his second wife Zoraya –once a Christian member of his harem– Abul Hassan imprisoned Boabdil and his mother, Queen Aisha, in a tower in the Nazrid Palace of Alhambra. Plotting their execution, Abul Hassan hesitated long enough for the intrepid Aisha to arrange an escape, setting in motion years of infighting and war that drained the once glorious Caliphate of its strength.


The years leading to the arrest of Aisha and Boabdil were characterized by a bizarre peace between Abul Hassan and the Christian factions that lay beyond the mountains surrounding Granada. The Caliph’s peace agreement shifted geographically from time to time and never included all potential enemies so that there was always a threat (and a target) in one direction or another. In an effort to limit warfare, all sides agreed to allow raids of a predetermined scope and violence on each other’s territory. To guard against these incursions, they established a complex system of observation posts in the mountains, fortified their frontier villages, and emptied them of treasure. Over time, raids became fewer and less ferocious as both sides settled for less-costly grandstanding.

This comfortable equilibrium became fatal for one naturally fortified Christian village called Zahara. Perched high in the mountains and accessible only by a treacherous trail through a cut in the cliff side, Zahara and its garrison were so complacent that Abul Hassan’s spies alerted him to an opportunity. Against the wishes of his advisors, the Caliph gathered an abnormally strong force and followed a fierce winter storm into the mountains. The gale masked the approach of Abul Hassan’s men and they were in the fortress before the alarm was even raised. They quickly overwhelmed Zahara’s garrison, plundered its paltry riches, and drove the remaining villagers through the mountains to become slaves in Alhambra. The sight of the wretched Christians, paraded frozen and battered and with their children expiring in their arms, shocked the citizens of Granada. Recognizing their side had breached the peace, their fear of renewed conflict clashed with the smug celebrations of their leaders and caused great resentment toward Abul Hassan. The seeds of rebellion were sown.

Powerful factions began to back Boabdil. Pushed by his vengeful mother, he eventually captured Alhambra and ousted his father for good. But the damage was done. Civil war fatally weakened the Caliphate. In 1492 the powerful combination of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castilla finally overwhelmed Boabdil. Dramatically, he turned over the keys to Alhambra and passed meekly into exile, his last order as Caliph being to block the gate through which he retreated into obscurity. Trudging sorrowfully away from Alhambra, the dejected Muslim community passed through a gap in the mountains where they paused for one final, poignant look at their former home. At the moment of Boabdil’s greatest anguish, the unfortunate Caliph tearfully lamented his misfortune in front of his entire flock. With a stone face, Aisha, proud wife and mother of Caliphs, turned to Boabdil and uttered the words that still echo throughout Spanish and Islamic history: “You do well to weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man.” A sharper and more brutal reproach has never been made.

The Sacred Mountain

Six decades earlier, a small caravan rattled into the Albayzin neighborhood of Granada. The road-worn looks of the travelers, their strange clothing, and their Catholic religion set them instantly apart from their Muslim hosts. Seeking to put their neighbors at ease, the newcomers identified themselves as being from Egypt, a half truth that gave them the moniker “Gypsies” —Gitanos in the local dialect. The Gitanos quickly found a place in society as entertainers, gamblers, and indeed swindlers. Uninterested in farming or perhaps incapable of it, they settled in a part of town no one else wanted, the steep north side of the Darro River gorge facing the massive facade of the Alhambra palace complex. The drastic terrain and communal poverty of the Gitanos forced them to excavate their homes rather than build. The resultant “cave houses” were an innovation that gave a unique cultural identity to what became a Christian ghetto in the capital of the Caliphate. Somewhat conspiratorially, Gitanos called the place Sacromonte, the Sacred Mountain.

Gitanos, through their music and dance, became a fixture in the Caliphal court. A protected minority under the Caliph, the Gitanos flourished alongside Granada’s substantial Jewish population, a happy circumstance that fell apart with Boabdil’s exile. Despite promises of tolerance from the victorious Ferdinand and Isabella, proponents of the Inquisition demanded, and received, revenge. The Crown reversed its magnanimous policies and forced Boabdil’s Muslims to choose between conversion or exile in Africa. Eventually exile gave way to murder and the dragnet expanded, fed by the paranoia it generated. Very quickly all manner of real and alleged heresies came to be lumped together and Granada’s Jews soon found themselves targets of the Inquisition. Many were slaughtered alongside their former Muslim sponsors. Those lucky few that could, sought refuge among the Gitanos of Sacromonte.

Nothing captures the agonizing complexity of women more than Flamenco…Is she happy, angry, sad, all three?! I love her. I can’t stand her. She is amazing. -Taken in Sacromonte in March 2016

Together, their art and style influenced what later became part of the cultural identity of a unified Spain. The “Zambra,” once a dance for wedding celebrations, became also a lamentation of pain. Nowhere was this more true than in the cave houses of Sacromonte overlooking the towering beauty of the Alhambra, a place that once guaranteed their peace and now housed the agents of their terror. In Sacromonte, Muslim, Jewish, and Gypsy music blended together into an art form that came to be known as Flamenco, its name a perversion of the Andalusian Arabic word for “escapee peasant.” Flamenco features every emotion, from the primal intensity of love born under extremes of fear and persecution and secrecy, to the harrowing depths of loss and grief. Without doubt, the primary conduit of this feeling is the beautiful female dancers that somehow, with only movement, communicate the dizzying blur of the human experience. Perhaps most of all, they capture the essence of women; managing to simultaneously display anger, ecstasy, despair, and passion. The best of them have the power to leave one breathless and, like Boabdil, in tears.

The Unlucky

After leaving Granada, Boabdil retired with his family and closest advisors to an estate granted to him by King Ferdinand. There he spent his days in luxurious obscurity, hunting and fishing, and calling proudly upon the few villages bequeathed to him in the deal. But his steadfast refusal to convert to Christianity made him a growing irritant to the Spanish regent who remained busy quelling Muslim rebellions in the still unsettled Andalusian countryside. For this reason Ferdinand sought to undermine the stubborn and unlucky Caliph, finally engineering a sale of Boabdil’s estate; a deal dishonestly brokered by the Caliph’s perfidious vizier, Aben Comixa. Heartbroken and betrayed, Boabdil retreated with 1200 of his followers to a small but fertile domain in Morocco granted to him by his relative, the Caliph of Fez. There Boabdil used his remaining wealth to construct a lavish palace in the style of Alhambra but it was not to last. Facing a Berber invasion, he marched to battle under his cousin’s banner and died valiantly; defending — like a man — another’s kingdom. If the razor-tongued Aisha had anything positive to say about her son’s glorious demise, it is lost to history. 

Stranger PicLino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and an enthusiastic spectator of Flamenco. 

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