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Chapter 2: Isabella and Ferdinand

For 800 years, Muslims ruled much of Spain and played a key role in Spanish culture. They were responsible for many of Spain's greatest achievements, including Granada's magnificent palace, the Alhambra.

Learn why Muslims and Jews were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave Spain.

During the epic year of 1492, the war between Christians and Muslims that had plagued Spain for centuries climaxed in a dramatic Christian victory engineered by one of the most famous royal couples in history, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Although they are remembered largely for their role in the discovery of the New World, the great goal of their lives was not to discover a new world, but to conquer Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain.

The Christian Reconquest of Spain

By 1479, Ferdinand and Isabella had come to power as the king and queen of their respective kingdoms, Aragon and Castile. Together, they were able to unite independent Spanish kingdoms by calling for a holy war against their common enemy, the Muslims, and taking the reins of power throughout all of Christian Spain. After the Christian armies conquered Granada "in the name of God and King," Muslim ruler Abu 'abd-Allah Muhannad XII, known as Boabdil, handed Isabella and Ferdinand the keys to the Alhambra in an elaborate surrender ceremony. In return, they promised in writing that the Muslims would always be able to practice their faith in Spain. Within a few years, they broke their promise and ordered the Muslims to convert to Christianity or leave the country.

After the forced conversion of the Muslims who stayed, in 1502 there were a number of measures that historians call “ethnocide,” in the sense that they [the Christian rulers and Church] tried to wipe out all traditions, all customs, and this all got to the point of forbidding them from wearing their clothes, Moorish clothing, from speaking Arabic, and of course, the burning of their religious books. Their ideal was “only one faith.” -Rafael Santaella, historian

Persecution of the Jews

Isabella and Ferdinand took another momentous step in 1492 in pursuit of religious unity: they ordered the Jews of Spain, some of whose ancestors had lived there for more than 700 years, to convert to Christianity or leave the country. Many of the Jews who converted and stayed in Spain, known as "conversos," were still suspected of being insincere in their conversions and arrested on charges of heresy by officers of the Spanish Inquisition.

Even if their conversions were deemed sincere, Christians with Muslim and Jewish ancestors were treated as inferior to Spaniards who had Christian ancestors. Such were the origins of a policy of social discrimination, a caste-like system, which denied conversos access to important positions in church and state and reserved power for a supposedly pure-blooded Christian elite. Spain would later use similar policies in the Americas to keep native peoples at the bottom of the social scale.

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