Spain is awash with historic cities, so what makes Toledo special?
Barcelona, Seville, Granada, Córdoba, for example, all have their historic quarters, but these are swallowed up by the modern city. Toledo, on the other hand, is all history with its narrow, winding, cobbled streets (that sometimes lead nowhere), steep gradients, and ancient buildings, all circumscribed by the old city walls. Anything else? Well, you might also hear that “Toledo captures the essence of Spain,” or that “Toledo is the soul of Spain.” The city has been compared to Jerusalem and its landscape called biblical. Like Jerusalem, it was a city of three religions, with Muslims (more commonly called Moors in Spanish history), Jews and Christians all adding to the mosaic that made up Toledo.
However, it is the Christian churches, monasteries and convents that now dominate, although Moorish influences are everywhere, and there are two historic synagogues. Overshadowing the city, and almost in the centre, is the huge Gothic cathedral, built on the site of the former Grand Mosque. Not far away (nothing is far away in old Toledo) looms another massive building, the Alcázar (fortress, now military academy). Cross to the other side of the river Tagus, where the Parador (state-run hotel) of Toledo stands, and look back and you can see how the cathedral and the fortress dominate the skyline.
They symbolize perfectly the decisive role the church and military had in shaping Spain’s history. And Toledo was at the centre of much of that!
Early History of Toledo
Toledo stands virtually in the centre of Spain. It is strategically situated on a rocky bluff dominating a gorge, and surrounded on all sides but the north by the fast-flowing Tagus. The Romans captured it in 192 BC, but it was the Visigoths who launched it into prominence when they established it as their capital in middle of the 6th century. By doing so, they located political power in the centre of the peninsula for the first time in Spanish history. A series of church councils in Toledo from 589 also established the city as the country’s religious centre. This, together with Toledo’s political status, set in motion the symbiotic relationship between Church and State that has –with some exceptions in modern times—been a constant of Spanish history. It‘s here that we have the beginning of the myth that identifies Toledo with the “soul of Spain.” But not all Spaniards are happy with that generalization. Many Catalans, Basques, Galicians, even Andalusians and Extremadurans equate Toledo with Castile and Castile’s historic penchant for centralization to the detriment of their cultures.
Toledo was taken by the Moors (who called it Tulaytula) in 712, but a significant number of Jews and Christians remained and enjoyed freedom to practice their religions. The Christians (Mozárabes) continued practicing their Visigothic church rites, a pre-Latin liturgy that is still celebrated today in the Capilla Mozárabe of the Cathedral.
With the collapse of Córdoba, capital of al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), in 1031, Toledo enjoyed a brief period of relative independence as a small Muslim kingdom (taifa) before being reconquered by Alfonso VI of Castile in 1085. As the southernmost Christian city, jutting into the heart of al-Andalus, Toledo’s strategic position made it the most important city in Christian Spain. Its conquest meant that the centre of the peninsula was back in Christian hands for the first time since the early 8th century, and it was the return of Visigothic Spain’s capital and spiritual centre. Under Alfonso it now acquired the title of Imperial city (a designation that it has claimed ever since); he styled himself Emperor of Toledo, King of the Three Religions and as if that were not enough, Emperor of all Spain.
The tradition of tolerance continued under Christian rule and a famous school of translators was soon formed in the city, taking advantage of the wealth of Arabic libraries and its established Jewish population, which was fluent in Arabic. Indeed, the role of the Jews was so significant at that time that Toledo was even called “the Jewish city.”
Although the Christians tolerated the Muslims and Jews who remained after the conquest, they quickly established their authority converting mosques into churches, and then adding monasteries and convents.
Their biggest undertaking, however, was the great Gothic Cathedral, begun in 1227. Built on the site of the former Great Mosque, the cathedral was the definitive statement that Christianity was back to stay in the heart of the peninsula.
Other impressive buildings followed, including the late 15th–century monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, intended by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, as their burial place (they are actually buried in Granada).
Charles V, their grandson and Holy Roman Emperor, made the city his main residence and rebuilt the massive Alcázar as a royal palace. A surge of building –palaces and hospitals as well as more monasteries, convents and churches– confirmed the city’s imperial status, especially appropriate now that Spain had an empire stretching across much of Europe and into the New World.
During the 16th century, Toledo enjoyed its most prosperous period and built up an enviable reputation. Its swords were the best anywhere, its silk and tile industries the finest, its women the most beautiful and cultivated, its men ascetic, proud and gallant, and the Spanish spoken there the purest. The painter El Greco arrived in 1577 and his visions of tortured saints and his other-worldly views of Toledo have indelibly linked the city with mystical fervor. Perhaps so, but it also had a lively red light district, and conspicuous clerical wealth and corruption to judge by the comments of 16th-century contemporaries.
Decline of Toledo
In 1561 Toledan pride suffered a blow when Philip V named lowly Madrid (only 70 kilometers to the north) as capital of his empire. Many reasons have been put forward for Philip’s decision, ranging from his dislike of the arrogance of the Toledan clergy to the tortuous narrow streets, steep gradients and cramped location that made it unsuitable for Philip’s imperial vision. Toledo was still a centre of intellectual activity –El Greco painted there, an Academy of Mathematics was founded in 1582 — and as late as 1619 the perceptive economist (arbitrista) Gonzalo de Cellórigo could still comment favorably on Toledo’s condition compared to other towns in the country.
But in the long run Madrid’s gain was Toledo’s loss. By 1640 Toledo had lost half its population; by the 18th the Church enjoyed a virtual monopoly with almost a quarter of the city’s population being ecclesiastics. The 19th century brought no improvement. The French ransacked it during the Peninsular War, monasteries which had been forcibly closed in the 1830s were sold and converted to other uses, and the population dropped to about 13,000. The city was dead, observers said, and its inhabitants buried in the past.
Toledo limped into the 20th century and remained a provincial backwater until 1936 when it suddenly hit the headlines after General Franco diverted his Nationalist forces from their advance towards Madrid during the Civil War. Symbolically it was important that the city, indelibly linked with Spain’s Catholic soul since the times of the Visigoths, be saved from the “godless” Republicans and remain in Catholic hands. And so, in cinema newsreels across the world, people were informed of the heroic defense of the Alcázar in the face of fierce Republican attacks and of Toledo’s salvation by the Franco Nationalists. In 1940 the city was declared a national monument, a move that probably spared it the building atrocities that many towns suffered under the Franco regime.
Toledo is now the capital of the autonomous region of Castilla-La Mancha and, as such, has recovered some of its political lustre. But it’s not for its political role that we go there. Toledo thrives on tourism. In 1986 it was named a World Heritage Site. Thanks ironically in part to its easy access from Madrid, sightseers flock by day through the twisting streets visiting its national monuments, purchasing imitation swords, damascene shields, El Greco reproductions and Talavera tiles; by night Toledo recovers its silent magic, and its brilliant past is easily evoked by shadows cast in those dimly lit laneways and by the echoing footsteps of some lonely night owl.
Useful English web site: www.go-toledo.com