Toledo - The Heart of Spanish History
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Besides the impressive Parador de Toledo just outside of town, I paused to survey Toledo, compact on its hill, shining in all its glory. From my vantage point, the view of the splendid fortress-like medieval town, walled on one side and girded by the Rio Tajo on the other three was magnificent. It was a breathtaking sight of Spain’s most important historic town – a fabulous collection of churches, mosques, museums and synagogues that is a treasure trove of Spanish culture.
Rising from a deep gorge, Toledo is a natural fortress sitting in isolated splendour atop a rocky crag. Its golden battlements, rising from a massive granite escarpment, soaring church steeples, and Terra Cotta rooftops silhouetted against the blue sky form an overpowering sight of exceeding grace and majesty – giving the town its label, ‘City of Grandeur’.
I turned to my daughter standing beside me, “Look! Isn’t this a picture postcard of beauty?” Uninterested, she yawned, “You can have your history. When are we going to have café con leche? It’s the best coffee in the world!” Annoyed, I did not say a word as we walked to our rented auto to begin our exploration of the city.
The most visited and most painted of Spain’s renowned cities Toledo, whose old part has the highest density monumental buildings in the world, appears to be an amphitheatre of heights enhanced by a circular fosse. Dominating the town’s structures and the surrounding plains are the turrets of Alcazar and the spires of the huge cathedral, edged by a tapestry of convents and churches with their towers seemingly reaching for the heavens.
Long the spiritual and intellectual capital of Spain, Toledo, 72 km (45 mi) from Madrid, most perfectly epitomizes the fundamentals of the country’s past – a microcosm of Spanish history. Some say that virtually all that is truly grand about Spain lies within Toledo’s walls. Cervantes called it the ‘glory of Spain and light of her cities’ and to others, this national landmark was the most brilliant summary of Spain’s history.
Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Jews and Medieval Christians all made it a seat of power and embellished it with their handiwork. At the time when the Arabs, who later came to be known as Moors, occupied the city in 716 A.D., it was the Visigothic capital. In subsequent years, it became a renowned centre of learning, religion and crafts such as blue ceramics, embroidery, Damascene (black steel inlaid with gold, silver or copper wire) jewellery, green pottery, tooled leather and woodcarving – vocations very much still alive today.
I was discussing this Arab legacy with an English-speaking shop owner who seemed to be aware of history when he pointed to an almond paste sweet, “Do you want to buy some marzipan? It’s an Arab sweet!” I thought to myself. The merchants worldwide are all the same. All they want to do is sell their products.”
The great tolerance the Muslims showed to both Christians and Jews drew people from all parts of Spain until the city’s population reached 200,000 – more than three times its 83,000 population today. It became a cosmopolitan- medieval town – a powerful magnet for learning and the arts.
The harmony of cultures continued after Alfonso VI, in 1085, captured Toledo and made it the capital of his realm. In the ensuing centuries, it became a major centre of Christian, Jewish and Muslim co-existence. The intellectual activity, inherited from the Moors, persisted and the city became famous for its schools of translators. During the 12th and 13th centuries scholars of all three faiths, under the patronage of its kings, transmitted the advanced culture of the Arabs to the Christian West. In the late 15th and early 16th centuries Toledo attained its zenith, but after Spain’s capital was moved to Madrid in 1561, the city went into decline.
Today, relics from Toledo’s days of glory are to be found in every corner of town. Declared a national monument, the whole city, whose dwellings appear to be frozen in time, is a rich museum of impressive architectural remains. Arab, Mozarabic (style of architecture developed by the Arabized Christians under Muslim rule), Mudejar (a building artwork created by Muslims living under Christian domination), and Gothic and Renaissance architecture mingle and blend, creating a picturesque ensemble.
The two most important monuments that we explored that day were the Alcazar and massive Cathedral. The Alcazar, rising from the La Mancha plains and dominating the Toledo skyline, was once a Roman fortress, later, a Visigoth stronghold, a Moorish fortress then Alfonso’s royal residence after he occupied the city. In the 1930s, following a famous siege during the Spanish civil war, it became a symbol of Franco’s triumph. Today, it is Toledo’s pre-eminent tourist attraction.
The Cathedral was originally a Visigoth church that was converted by the Moors into a mosque. After the Christian conquest, the mosque was demolished and in its place was built the most genuinely Spanish of all the cathedrals in the country. Inside, amid its rich ornamentation, there are museums and collections of valuable paintings by Toledo’s renowned masters.
Of all the town’s artists, El Greco is considered to be Toledo’s most famous son. Born in 1541 as Doménikos Theotokopoulos on the Island of Crete, he came to Toledo in 1572 where he became known as El Greco (The Greek). He spent his life painting religious art for the city’s churches and monasteries. El Greco’s home is now a museum, housing a collection of his paintings.
Capping all these tourist drawing cards, in 2016 Toledo was named Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy. This culinary award coincided with the celebration of its 30th anniversary as UNESCO’s World Heritage site.
In-between our explorations, we shopped for Toledo’s famous Moorish inherited handicrafts, like Damascene jewellery and knives made from the once renowned Toledo steel. After we tired of historic sites and shopping, we stopped at one of the cafes that along with bars line Plaza de Zocodover, the town’s main meeting place and the heart of the city’s nightlife, for a refreshing interlude.
Sipping on our café con leche and nibbling on tasty tapas (appetizers), I noted that my daughter was again, as usual, discussing Spanish coffee with a family on a nearby table . However, for me, their conversation was of little interest. I was dreaming of Toledo, proud, melancholic, mature and mystical – still as the Arabs knew it, Madinat al-Muluk (City of Kings).