Aliatar’s Horse

El caballo de Aliatar
Sultán Muley Hacen

As we explained in the story of the infatuation between Sultan Muley Hacen and his prisoner Isabel de Solis (known as Zorayda), this king of Granada wanted to favour the children he had with his beloved second wife. Before the imminent change of heir to the throne of Granada, the spiteful Sultana Aixa defended the rights of her son Boabdil by allying with the clan of the powerful Abencerrages, who strongly hated Muley Hacen since – being the crown prince 29 years earlier – he had massacred their parents and relatives in a room in the palace The Alhambra. In the winter of 1482 Boabdil and his allies managed to control the city of Granada (in addition to the part of the kingdom occupied by his supporters).

In this context of civil war occurs the so-called Legend of Aliatar’s Horse. But given the numerous historical coincidences – and understanding the normal exaggerations of a chivalric story like this – we understand that there is a lot of credible history in this legend. But let’s continue with the historical characters, the places and the story.

Monumento a Aliatar (Loja).

In addition to the support from the Abencerrages, the young Sultan Boabdil had the help of his father-in-law Aliatar, the prestigious and feared Muslim General who was the Governor of Loja. This beautiful city was at that time particularly strategic, since it was the last one remaining between the advance of the Christians and the capital of the Kingdom of Granada. Being considered “the key of the city of Granada”, Aliatar had strengthened the city’s fortifications remarkably and had accumulated there numerous Moorish warriors ready for anything. For his part, the deposed Sultan Muley Hacen controlled other areas of the kingdom and sought support to reconquer the capital that his son and his first wife had taken.

King Ferdinand the Catholic was trying to take advantage of the civil war between Muley Hacen and Boabdil. He considered the Fortress of Priego de Córdoba as the departure base of his army, whose defense was entrusted in the Order of Calatrava. In that dangerous place were allocated the most powerful knights. In the month of July 1482, an impressive army personally led by King Ferdinand went from Priego to Loja, with a great convoy of troops and auxiliaries necessary to mount the siege to an almost impregnable fortress. Among the important knights who accompanied the King on such a risky expedition were the Count of Castile Pedro Fernandez de Velasco, the Duke of Medinaceli, and the Grand Master of the Knights of Calatrava; whom at their disposal had about 5,000 knights and 10,000 infantrymen, as well as a powerful siege artillery and thousands of countrymen needed to dig trenches, erect walls, cut wood, and ensure the victualling of thousands of combatants and horses.

Rey Fernando el Católico

The Castilians began to mount their camp on the banks of the Genil River, in a complicated area of hills, olive groves and ravines; and the chosen site did not facilitate the positioning and the maneuver of the numerous Castilian cavalry. But before the Christians were properly organised, Aliatar and his warriors made a surprise attack in which they defeated the Christians and forced them to retreat in haste. Among the dead was Rodrigo Téllez Girón, who was Grand Master of the Calatrava Knights and Governor of the Fortress of Priego. This victory was a great joy for Boabdil, not only it had prevented an invasion, but it had also reinforced his position. It also increased Aliatar’s prestige, which went from defending Loja to attack the Castilian border with its triumphant Moorish cavalry.

Because of the defeat of Loja the stronghold of Baena acquired greater value for the Christians. Its Governor was knight Don Pedro Manrique de Aguilar, whose mission was to defend that part of the border of the Moors that controlled the Fortress of Carcabuey. One day in November 1482, a troubled Christian settler appeared before the Governor to warn him that he had seen a large group of knights hidden in the vicinity. To ensure whether they were Christian or Muslim bandits from Carcabuey, Pedro Manrique went alone to locate the group. Upon arriving at the stated area he was surrounded by a group of about 40 Muslim knights commanded by Aliatar. As both knights knew each other from previous fighting, they greeted each other. The Moorish Governor told Manrique to surrender his arms and to accompany him as a hostage to Carcabuey; also mentioning to him that he had hidden there to avoid being captured by the Count of Cabra, who had been chasing him with many more knights.

Castillo de Carcabuey
Castillo de Carcabuey.

To avoid meeting with the army of Count of Cabra, Aliatar decided to take the path of Las Navas; which is a very narrow, abrupt and dangerous route that had become very slippery due to the rains. To avoid falling over, all of them dismounted from their horses and advanced carefully. The Moorish chief Aliatar and Don Pedro marched at the forefront of the group, chatting about other war encounters.

At one point, both were ahead of the rest of the group, a circumstance that Don Pedro took advantage of to give Aliatar a push; and this one fell by the slope rolling into an area with a very dense vegetation. Don Pedro came down behind him, snatched his dagger and put it on his neck, ordering him to remain silent – or that otherwise he would kill him. When the rest of the Muslims arrived at the height of the slope and began to look for them between the weeds, the Count of Cabra and his knights appeared; interrupting the Muslim warriors’ search and causing them to flee.

The Count of Cabra, Aliatar and Manrique gathered together began to speak of what had happened and of past meetings; the Moorish leader complained that his companions had fled without fighting, and compared that cowardly attitude with the nobility of his horse called ‘Leal (Loyal)’ (who had stayed nearby, waiting for his owner). Aliatar also lamented that, being their prisoner, he would lose his beloved horse forever. The conversation became so sentimental that both Manrique and the Count of Cabra decided to return their prisoner’s liberty, authorising him to return to Loja with his beloved horse. All mounted on their horses to get out of the intricate place in which they were; Aliatar paving the way for the large group of knights. At one point, they encountered a very high and dangerous river; but when they were about to cross it at a certain ford, the horse Loyal surprised everyone by refusing to pass by there and insisting on going to another place to cross it. This place turned out to be better, and there they all crossed the river; and from that moment on they called it “the ford of the Moor”.

El caballo de Aliatar

When they arrived at the place where they had to separate to continue to their respective fortresses, an Aliatar moved by the behaviour of the Christians, told Don Pedro that he was so thankful for his gesture that he had decided to give him his horse as a memento of that day. Don Pedro then gave him his horse, as an exchange. The Muslim Governor returned to his fortress and Manrique returned to his house riding ‘Leal’. In the following days ‘Leal’ refused to eat, dying of grief. How much is truth and how much is exaggeration or invention? Is it imaginable to give up a ransom as important as that of Boabdil for a gesture of chivalry? Can a horse know better than its rider where to cross a river?

This story continues with the following performance of the liberated Aliatar, accompanying King Boabdil in the invasion of Christian territory: the story of the Battle of Lucena.

Texto de Ignacio Suarez-Zuloaga e ilustraciones de Ximena Maier.

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