The build: Malaga was transformed into a military stronghold by Muslim leader Yusuf I and his successors in the 14th century. Situated in Granada in modern-day Spain, the city’s defences were built to protect its key port against Christians from Aragon and Castile during the Reconquista. Designed to guard a kingdom against annihilation, the city boasts not one, but two fortifications: Gibralfaro Castle – or Castillo de Gibralfaro – and the Alcazaba of Malaga. Its unprecedented military passageway, vast underground chamber system and brilliant watchtower network are testament to its role as the eye of an empire.
The siege: The castle was attacked by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1487 as part of a massive offensive against the city. Commanded by the King’s elite soldier, the Marquis of Cadiz, and defended by Hamet el Zegri, a Muslim warrior fuelled by the desire for revenge, the stronghold was hammered by powerful “lombard” cannons – a weapon that would change the nature of warfare forever. The city and its citizens were also targeted, and for months, the battle raged on. This sustained onslaught would prove to be the bloodiest siege of this centuries-old conflict. And its outcome would change the future of Europe.
- The war that led to the siege of Malaga began with a frontier incident – a Granadan raiding party that targeted a neighbouring Christian territory. Ferdinand and Isabella were already looking to complete the Reconquista – this relatively small clash led to a bloody ten-year campaign.
- After the Middle Ages, Malaga’s fortifications were neglected and fell into disrepair. For several years, the city’s Alcazaba served as a makeshift shantytown, home to squatters and the underprivileged poor.
- Ferdinand and his Christian army assaulted Malaga with several cannons, but they employed classic catapult-style bombardment as well. In fact, it’s believed that this siege was the last time a trebuchet was ever used in large-scale warfare.
- As the Christian forces closed in on the city of Malaga, the Muslims demolished residential structures located near Gibralfaro Castle in an attempt to force the enemy to attack in the open and ensure the castle garrison had a clear line of fire.
- Malaga’s people are said to have suffered great hunger during the siege. They were reportedly forced to eat horses, donkeys, dogs, skins, and tree leaves. When it came to provisions Hamet el Zegri – the city’s defender – put fighting men first. As the battle dragged on, he ordered that all available grain be gathered and fed only to his soldiers.
- Malaga’s Alcazaba and Gibralfaro Castle were built out of brick, stone … and ruins. The Muslims used whatever they could find – including materials from an old Roman amphitheatre that sits just metres away from the fortifications. The most obvious evidence of this are marble columns that support archways in the Alcazaba.
- Widespread use of the cannon has been partially attributed to the shock and fear that swept across Europe following the fall of Constantinople, which occurred more than three decades before Malaga was attacked.
- Gunpowder – composed of charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter (otherwise known as potassium nitrate) – was the first chemical explosive ever invented. When ignited, the mixture could produce temperatures up to 2,700 degrees Celsius.
- Ferdinand bombarded Malaga with a special class of lombard (also known as bombard) cannon. Seven in particular, known as the Sisters of Ximenes, were said to have wrapped the castle in smoke and flame. Naval guns, taken off the ships that were blockading Malaga, were also used against the city.
- At the time that Malaga was besieged, the city was completely fortified. The city walls, combined with the Alcazaba and Gibralfaro Castle, boasted a total of approximately 200 defensive towers.
Featured Structure: Battlement
The term battlement is used to describe the top portion of castle walls. Most are crenellated, which means they consist of openings called embrasures alternating with sections of wall called merlons. Crenellations are designed to provide archers with cover and at the same time allow them a wide range of motion to fire at the enemy. In medieval England, castle builders were sometimes required to ask special permission before adding these defensive features to their fortifications.
Though crenellations predate the Middle Ages, they became much more elaborate and complex during this period. Originally, merlons tended to be rectangular in shape. Over time many different forms appeared, often influenced by regional architecture and culturally-specific design. Malaga’s distinctly-topped merlons serve as a poignant reminder of the Muslim peoples who raised this mighty castle. Due to their aesthetically-pleasing nature, crenellations continue to be constructed as decorative features even though they are militarily obsolete.
The dramatic backstory to the bloody siege of Malaga and the rise of Hamet el Zegri defender of the Kingdom of Granada.