Toledo—A Fascinating Mixture of Medieval Cultures
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SPAIN
IN THE center of the Iberian Peninsula lies a granite hill surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River. Over the centuries the river has carved out cliffs that protect the hill’s flanks. On this strategic outcrop arose Toledo, a city that has become synonymous with Spain and its culture.
Today, the narrow, winding streets of old Toledo transport the visitor back to the Middle Ages. The city’s gates, castles, and bridges all maintain their medieval flavor and bear silent witness to the days when Toledo was one of the most important cities of Europe.
Toledo, however, is not a typical European city. Even the railway station has an Oriental air. A closer look at Toledo’s monuments and crafts reveals a city that has absorbed the skills of several civilizations that flourished here over the centuries. During the golden age of Toledo, some 700 years ago, the city truly became a melting pot of medieval cultures.
Before the Romans came to Spain, Celtic and Iberian peoples had already built a town at this strategic location. The Romans renamed it Toletum (from tollitum, meaning “raised aloft”) and made it one of their provincial capitals. Roman historian Livy described Toledo as “a small city, but fortified by location.” When the Visigoths conquered Spain after the fall of the Roman Empire, they chose Toledo to be their capital. It was here in the sixth century that King Reccared rejected Arianism, a step that paved the way for Spain to become a center of orthodox Catholicism and Toledo the seat of its foremost archbishop.
The religious panorama changed when Toledo became a part of the Muslim caliphate. The narrow streets of the old city date from this period, which lasted from the 8th century to the 11th century. Muslim tolerance permitted the coexistence of Christian, Jewish, and Moorish cultures in Toledo. Finally, in 1085, King Alfonso VI (a Catholic king) conquered the city. Despite the change of rulership, these cultures continued to exist together for several centuries.
Many of Toledo’s most impressive monuments date from the medieval period. Catholic rulers converted the city into their capital, Jewish citizens employed their skills in crafts and commerce, and Muslim artisans contributed their talents in architecture. Scholars of the three different creeds worked together in the School of Translators. During the 12th and 13th centuries, they translated a great number of works of antiquity into Latin and Spanish. The vast scientific store of Arabic civilization likewise became available to the West thanks to these translators.
Religious tolerance came to an end during the 14th century when thousands of Jewish citizens perished in religious pogroms. By the time Columbus discovered America, the Spanish Inquisition had set up a tribunal in Toledo and both Jews and Muslims had to choose between forcible conversion and exile.
Monuments to Past Glory
Today the city center of Toledo is home to over a hundred monuments. That historic wealth led the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization to declare it a World Heritage City. Two of the most impressive medieval structures are the bridges that span the Tagus River, one providing access to the city from the east and the other from the west. And few visitors will fail to see the massive gate Puerta Nueva de Bisagra, which guards access to the old walled city.
From a distance, two monuments dominate the skyline of Toledo. A massive square fortress called the Alcázar lies to the east. Over the centuries it has been a Roman praetorium (governor’s residence), a palace for Visigoth monarchs, an Arabic fortress, and a residence of Spanish kings. It now houses the Army Museum and an extensive library. But since Toledo is above all a religious city, it is the huge Gothic cathedral that dominates the city center.—See the box on page 17.
The cathedral and other churches in Toledo boast paintings by a famous artist who settled in Toledo. He is known as El Greco, meaning “The Greek.” His full name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos. In the area where he lived in the old Jewish quarter, there is now a museum containing a number of his paintings.
Perhaps Toledo appears most majestic when viewed from the hills that overlook the city from the south. However, the charm of Toledo can best be savored by wandering through its narrow streets. The visitor may temporarily get lost, but he will soon find himself fascinated by the quaint passageways, ancient buildings, ornate balconies, and tempting souvenir shops.
Although this ancient city seems timeless, the tourist must eventually bid farewell to Toledo. The best place to do so is on the southern bank of the Tagus River. As the day draws to a close, the setting sun casts a warm glow over the city, whose proud monuments seem to reflect once more its golden age.
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THE THREE CULTURES OF TOLEDO
During the Middle Ages, Toledo was divided into three different quarters, where Catholics, Jews, and Muslims lived according to their own laws and customs. Some of their ancient places of worship have now become principal tourist attractions.
➤ A tenth-century mosque, now known as Cristo de la Luz, illustrates the brickwork artistry so typical of Muslim craftsmen. It stands in the Medina area of the city, where wealthy Muslims used to live.
➤ Though later transformed into Catholic churches, two medieval synagogues remain, testifying to Toledo’s large Jewish community, which at one time constituted a third of the city’s population. Santa María la Blanca is the oldest, and its interior, like the mosque above, has ornate multiple columns. A more spacious synagogue, El Tránsito (right), now houses a Sephardic museum of Jewish culture.
➤ Construction of Spain’s largest Gothic cathedral began in the 13th century and took over 200 years to complete.
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SPECIAL SWORDS, AND SWEET MARZIPAN
For over two thousand years, the city’s blacksmiths have made swords, and the name Toledo has become synonymous with fine steel. Both Hannibal’s armies and Roman legions used these swords, forged alongside the Tagus River. Centuries later, Muslim craftsmen introduced damascene engraving to embellish their Toledan swords and armor. The replica of a Toledan sword shown at left is an example of this. (See the article “Patterns of Gold on Steel,” in the January 22, 2005, issue of Awake!) Nowadays, most of the city’s souvenir shops have an ample selection of swords, along with the inevitable suit of armor. Apart from serving as collector’s items, these swords are likely to be seen in a movie, not on a battlefield.
Another tradition in Toledo is the production of marzipan, whose origin dates back to the Arabic conquest of the city. Spain already had extensive fields of almonds when the Muslims arrived, but sugar—the other essential ingredient—was missing. Within 50 years of the Muslim conquest, fields of sugarcane sprang up in southern Spain. By the 11th century, marzipan had become a specialty of Toledo, and it has been the delight of connoisseurs ever since. Entire shops in Toledo are now devoted to marzipan, which is often made into small figurines. No visit to Toledo would be complete without tasting those mouthwatering morsels.
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San Martin Bridge