The City of Three Cultures
“A mind cannot be independent of culture.” – Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) Soviet Union Psychologist
Toledo has to have been one of my favorite cities in Spain. It is a short trip to the Southwest of Madrid, only around 1 hour by car. When you arrive at the city it is immediately clear why there was a settlement here. The city is wrapped around by the Tagus river making to what would appear to be a near impossible task of sacking before the days of cannon.
For anyone visiting the city for the first time, I highly recommend going to the south of the city on the Camino Valle road and there is a spot that has very impressive views of the entire city. This vie is jaw dropping and will get the blood pumping to what will be an eye popping day of exploring.
Before you even enter the city there is the ancient Puenta de Alcantara bridge, that was built by the Romans around 100 A.D. when they founded the city. I did not have a full appreciation on the advancement of the Romans until I have visited Spain. It is quite remarkable that the Romans were able to accomplish things that could not be recreated for a thousand years. In my mind, I tended to thing of technology as linear, only increasing, but this is not historically accurate.
Once you stroll across the bridge you come to the bridge tower, which would have been used to rain death upon enemies and to extract tolls from people looking to trade with the city. It is easy to imagine how peasants could be held in place by the power of the feudal lords.
Just through the bridge tower, with its murder holes above you, you will see doorway unlike any we had previously seen in our Spanish trip thus far. This doorway was built around the year 1000 A.D. when the city was held under the power of the Muslim Caliphate of Córdoba right before it’s disintegration in 1009 A.D. This gate would have been the location where goods and services entered into the city.
Americans driving into this city will be quite shocked once you have crossed the Tagus river. The roads are impossibly narrow. At some locations, we only had a few inches on either side of the side mirrors of our car. At first, it seems like we must be going the wrong way because how can this street possibly be made for a car?
Luckily, we were assisted by a very friendly Damascene merchant who helped us find our hotel. I even needed assistance parking the car below the 14th century building in what was clearly a converted horse stalls.
I tried to give the kind merchant a tip, but he refused. He did insist though that I visit the shop that he worked. He showed me the area where the craftsman meticulously made this beautiful craft that Toledo is known. I was convinced to purchase a unique souvenir to remember my time in Toledo.
After we checked in to our hotel and ditched the car, we took our stroll around the city. Navigating narrow roads and fully relying on the power of Google Maps (my favorite app) . I found it interesting that it would simply not have been possible for me to complete this trip without the aide of GPS. Yes, it is possible to navigate with paper maps, but it would have been far less efficient. We rarely were lost and unable to find our destination. Walking through Toledo I felt like I was on a Game of Thrones set, except the entire city was the set and has been cultivated over thousands of years.
The first stop on our architectural tour is to the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca. The synagogue was erected in the year 1180 A.D. under the Catholic Kingdom of Castile. It was designed by Moorish architects and paid for by the Jewish community for their worship. The building is seeped in Moorish architecture, with the white horseshoe arches filling the worship space that are topped with Mudéjar capitals. The building is a symbol of the three cultures that have coalesced in the city to give it’s unique character that can still be felt to this day.
There are two opposing stories about the fate of the synagogue. The first was in 1405, the fiery Dominican priest, St. Vincent Ferror, aroused a mob to stand up out of their pews and march to Jewish district and enter the synagogue. They cut the throats and threw them over the parapet to be dashed against the rocks below. They then took possession of the synagogue and transformed it into a Catholic church.
The second story is that St. Vincent Ferror was able to convert the worshipers in the synagogue to embrace the Catholic faith, they then transformed it into a church themselves in 1411. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of these two competing claims. St. Vincent Ferror did convert the scholarly Jew Solomon ha-Levi who went on to become Archbishop of Burgos and Lord Chancellor. In any case, due to impending ruin from neglect, the building was declared a national monument in 1930.
The next stop on our little adventure was to the Synagogue of El Transito. The original name of the synagogue is unknown, but a great deal is known about it’s founder. Samuel Ben Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia was treasurer to Pedro I “the Cruel” of Castile. The place was designed to be a location for private worship by Abulafia and his family and was dedicated in 1356. The synagogue is famous for it’s rich stucco decorations that elaborate akin to the Real Alcazar de Seville. It is a fine example of Mudéjar construction with it’s elaborate design and inscriptions in the stucco, carved wood, and stone.
Unfortunately for the rich Abulafia, King Pedro I lived up to his moniker of the “the cruel” and believed that his servant was involved in a plot to undermine the king. He was arrested in 1360 in the city of Seville where he was tortured to death. All of the possesions of Abulafia were confiscated, including the building. In 1877, the building was declared a National Monument. Today it serves as a museum for Judeo-Spanish Art.
We have visited two of the three cultures that have made Toledo what it is today – Jewish and Moorish. Now, we will enter the last, yet longest lasting of the distinct cultures. After the demise of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 1009 A.D. from Muslim infighting, the tiny Taifa of Toledo was born. The Muslim Taifa’s in Spain did not fair well against their Spanish neighbors to the North. Far from being religiously united with one another against their Catholic enemies, they were fighting each other as much as they were fighting the Catholic kings. The Taifa of Toledo was swallowed piecemeal by the Kingdom of Castile until the final blow came in 1085 A.D. when King Alfonso VI “the brave” was able to take Toledo where it would remain with Catholic kingdom till this day.
Our next stop was to my favorite building that we visited in Toledo. In 1474, King Enrique IV of Castile died which led to a succession crises in the Iberian peninsula. This led to a war between Enrique’s daughter – Joanna, and his half-sister Isabelle. Joanna was backed by the Kingdom of Portugal and Isabella was backed by the Kingdom of Aragon. They broke into hostilities and in 1476 the battle of Toro took place. The battle was not conclusive, but Isabelle was able to propagandize a victory which led to her coronation which had a world-wide impact.
Immediately after her accession to the throne Queen Isabella I “the Catholic” of Castile begin erecting the Franciscan Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes (St. John the King), and she dedicates it for her thanks for the victory at the battle of Toro. The structure was erected from 1477 – 1504 in the style of Isabelline Gothic. This was the dominate style from Isabella’s time till around 1600.
Main doors into the building
Unfortunately, we were not able to enter into the sanctuary, but we were able to walk around the magnificent cloister. The garden at the center is supposed to represent the Garden of Eden, and the cloister was to allow monks and other visitors a place to walk and get some sunshine without have to leave the building.
“The Veronica” – poly-chromed bas-relief of Christ
Above the lower cloister is the upper cloister. This was reserved for royalty. Inscribed on the arches are the Monarch’s motto Tanto Monta (They amount to the same). This refers to the equality of power between Ferdinand and Isabella. I learned while I was in Spain, that in medieval times, ceilings were quite beautiful. I have never seen so many beautiful ceilings in all of my life. Essentially, all of this was destroyed when Napoleon’s army took the city in 1808 and has since been restored.
The Power of Church and State
“The Gothic Cathedral is a blossoming in stone subdued by the insatiable demand of harmony in man” – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) American Philosopher
The skyline of Toledo has been dominated by two structures for the past 500 years – the Primary Cathedral of Toledo and the Alcazar of Toledo. To say the church is large is an understatement. When you enter the structure you are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the size. This is architecturally intentional and it succeeds in its intent.
It is a difficult structure to photograph because of its size. After your mind comes to term with the sheer size of the structure, your senses are overwhelmed by the amount of detail in every nook and cranny. My Dad kept walking around muttering to himself “this is overwhelming…”.
The structure is built in the Gothic style – pointed arches, flying buttresses, and ribbed vaults. The building’s construction began in 1227 A.D. and was not completed until 1493 A.D. – 266 years!
The Alcazar de Toledo is built on a location that was once a Roman palace in the 3rd century A.D. It is highest elevation of all of Toledo and thus makes for a natural defensive point. It was later a Visogothic fortification, then an Islamic one. Today, the structure of the Alcazar to 1540’s where it was restored under Carlos I. It was used to receive Hernan Cortes after his victory over the Aztecs. Unfortunately, it was a long day and we could not fully appreciate the Alcazar. Today, it is used as a military museum.
After a very long day, we were treated ourselves to some fantastic Spanish cuisine, some sangria and cigars, and a very surprising view from atop of our hotel.