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A literary trip through Toledo’s historical labyrinth

Visiting the Manchegan capital accompanied and guided by the opinions of some formidable Hispanists lent a short tour around the city a rich flavour and revealed plenty of surprises.


Interior of Toledo's Iglesia de San Lucas.

Even before I moved to Spain, and particularly before I started reading about Spain, I was  fascinated by the clash between the idea of Catholic Spain and the other peoples, cultures and faiths who’ve lived here. The more I travelled around the country, and the more books I read, these others – particularly Moors and Jews – emerged as not just temporary alien visitors, but an enduring presence through the centuries. A plan formed, slowly, to visit Toledo, bringing these books along as guides, to see how this story of Spain might be written into the buildings of one of the country’s most famously Catholic cities, a place described by Jan Morris as the “repository of all that is proudest, oldest and most private in the national consciousness.”

On July 1, I finally put this plan into action and took the short train trip out from Madrid. Foolishly ignoring the €2 tourist bus from the train station, I hauled my backpack of books under a burning sun and over the medieval bridge into the city’s cobbled centre. Toledo’s imposingly gothic cathedral, started after Alfonso VI took the city from the Moors in 1085 and completed in the late 15th century under the most Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella, seemed like the obvious place to begin my own quest.

Once inside it didn’t take long to find references to Spanish Catholicism’s long but ultimately victorious struggle against those who lived from the eighth to the 15th century in what they called Al-Andalus. A plaque on the wall near the Cathedral’s entrance celebrated 1492 as the year of both the reconquista‘s culmination and the Jews’ expulsion from Spain. Prominent among the royal and saintly figures gathered around its main altar was the anonymous peasant who guided the Christian forces through the mist to win the pivotal 1212 reconquista battle of Naves de Tolosa. In the nearby side-chapel consecrated in his name, Santiago Matamoros (or St James the Moor-Slayer) brandished his mighty sword, as infidels were crushed beneath his horse’s feet. Each wooden stall of the coro had a scene of vengeful Christians routing Moors in a different Andalusian town carved into its back. It seemed clear why Morris writes that the cathedral is “a great hall of triumph, a victory paean for the Christian culture”.

Also, in a chapel in the south-east corner of the building, I could see – through some bars – a mural of the fearsome Cardenal Cisneros, archbishop of Toledo from 1495 to 1517, personally leading an army attacking the north African city of Oran. Another sign of Christianity’s victory over infidelity, it seemed. But then I noticed that, just here, the cathedral’s otherwise heavenly white ceiling was painted an Arabian Nights-esque gold-star-strewn dark-blue dusk. The books came back out and I read that Cisneros, although head of the Inquisition at its bloodiest, was also a doughty defender of Toledo’s Mozárabe community.

The Mozárabes were Christians who kept the Visigothic beliefs and rites alive during the centuries of Islamic rule. Cisneros ordered the Capilla Mozárabe built for them in the mudéjar style, using  skills and lore developed in Moorish times to design and build Christian and Jewish places of worship. Post-reconquista, the mudéjar was “the signature style of Toledo in every respect for generations, and for nearly every purpose, including synagogues and churches,” according to María Rosa Menocal.

A closer look around the Cathedral uncovered plenty more of these subtle continuities. The carved wooden honeycomb design of the doorway to the 1510 completed Sala Capitular appeared plenty Arabicky to me. The wooden ceiling of the cathedral’s Tesoro Mayor featured a set of extremely oriental-looking geometric lines, which Alistair Boyd reckons “ingeniously combines Moorish geometry with renaissance coffering”. Stepping back outside I noted the cathedral’s Puerta de los Leones was a conscious or not echo of the Patio de los Leones at the Alhambra, one of the signature buildings of Al-Andalus. Toledo’s Cathedral was giving off some very mixed messages.

San Roman’s mosaic of styles

After a short climb uphill, keeping to the shadowy side of the narrow street, the medieval Iglesia de San Roman presented more similar puzzles. Its nave has three bays (gothic) supported by horseshoe arches (islamic) resting on visigothic column bases. There’s a white plaster domed cupola (renaissance) over the altar, while the nave ceiling has dark wooden panels (mudéjar). Walls were decorated with reddy-brown byzantine-style frescoes of haloed saints and also slogans written in Arabic-looking script. Menocal points out the strangeness of designing this building at that moment – “Christians of the 12th century paid an ambiguous tribute to the culture of the enemy … [a] triumphant Christian church inscribed with its love for the Islamic arts.” This tribute now doubles as Toledo’s Visigothic Museum and has a few mildly interesting glass boxes showcasing bronze bits and pieces from the sixth and seventh centuries. I gave these a quick glance, but spent a good while longer sitting and working out which of the different elements of the building was inspired by whom.

Over lunch, I read Jason Webster arguing that the Spanish love for eating pigs comes from a subconscious need to prove themselves neither Moorish nor Jewish. Jamón, chorizo, lomo, lacón, salchichón, secreto, jabalí and especially suckling whole pig, he says, are “a delicacy of Christianised central Spain, a potent symbol of religious ownership of the land”. Then it was back out into the mid-afternoon sun, with still plenty more meaningful sights to see. If I could find them. One of the delights of Toledo is just a ramble around the maze of narrow winding streets getting lost and found and lost again and hopefully found again. Gerald Brenan writes that “the best way to see Toledo is to forget about directions and town plans and follow any street that takes one’s fancy”. It possibly wasn’t 35 degrees out when he visited though. After more than a few wrong turns I eventually found the Transitó synagogue, where I was headed to fill in the Jewish part of the Toledo story.

The Transitó, built in the 1360s by Pedro the Cruel’s treasurer Samuel Ha Levi, is something else. The main synagogue part had gleaming white walls bare most of the way up on three sides, and then beautifully delicate off-white plasterwork and little carved arched windows just at the top. The fourth wall was covered with even more intricate plasterwork in the by now familiar mudéjar style. The impression is peaceful, and maybe melancholic. Or as Brenan puts it – “no interior of a religious building could be simpler, yet every time I have seen it I have felt an intense and peculiar emotion.”

Toledo’s Museo Sefardí is now housed in rooms around the Transitó’s main prayer space. Upstairs, in the former women’s gallery, are traditional Sephardic clothes and household and religious implements, while downstairs are maps, archaeological remains and explanations of the Jewish role throughout Spanish history. Jimmy Burns reckons this runs a long way back. “The very name Toledo has its roots in the Hebraic word ‘Toledoth’, meaning ‘generations’,” he writes. That’s not something mentioned by any Spanish guidebooks I’d seen.

Toledo’s religious “cohabitation”

There was by now only time for one more building, the nearby Santa María de la Blanca, so I hefted my bag, which seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, back up on my shoulder. Despite its clearly Catholic name, the interior was dominated by 24 dazzling white columns making rows of horseshoe-shaped Moorish arches. Arabicky friezes further up the walls were another clue to muddled origins, as were the now tell-tale mudéjar pine cones clustered around pillar tops and the conch shaped chapel ceilings. Posters on the pin-board by the door advertised this year’s Easter ceremony, and also the Jewish holiday of Purim. A quick check of Menocal told me the building was first a 12th century synagogue. By this stage of my journey, a synagogue built by a Jewish community, working in an Islamic architectural tradition, living in a Christian kingdom, did not seem odd at all. Medieval Toledo was emerging as a city where people of different faiths and backgrounds lived peacefully side by side, accepted each other as they were and blended the best of their complementary traditions.

As Menocal put it, Toledo’s mudéjar buildings were the physical representation of an intermingling of cultures which made 12th century Toledo “the radiant intellectual capital of Europe, a Christian city where Arabic remained a language of culture and learning”. Webster said this place was home to “the single most important jewel in the legacy of Al-Andalus: the school of translators”, where Christians discovered ancient Greek texts thought lost after the fall of Rome, but in fact saved by Islamic scholars in Baghdad. A line ran from antiquity through medieval Toledo to 21st century Europe, bringing us still very relied-upon concepts like democracy, tolerance and isosceles triangles.

Santa María de la Blanca’s practical usage today seemed to chime nicely with these harmonies. It’s now a gallery space where the current exhibition is ‘Mística y Símbolos’ from Abraham de la Cruz, a Jew-turned-Catholic monk whose work shows the deep links twixt the two faiths. By a side wall sat a wimpled nun selling DVDs of recent Christian and Jewish concerts and ceremonies which had taken place right here.

Flicking through James Michener though, I discovered that not everyone had always approved of such elaborately decorated melting pots. In the early 15th century, San Vincent Ferrer, a firebrand preacher from Valencia, visited Toledo. His sermon inspired an angry mob to march on the city’s Judería, where they grabbed “all the Jews they could find, dragged them to the promenade overlooking the river, cut their throats and threw them onto the rocks below.” This shock came as a perhaps necessary corrective to my daydreams about mutual understanding and blissful harmony. I’d got a bit carried away with mudéjar as a beautiful symbol, and forgotten that, while these buildings were being erected, the reconquista was still bloodily raging just a few hundred kilometres south. The Spanish Inquisition had yet to get properly burning, with Cisneros at its head. I was again reminded of Brenan’s description of Toledo as a “strange, dark, almost ominous city” and of Giles Tremlett writing that “the expulsion of the Jews was just the first stage in a process of ethnic and religious cleansing”. But then I remembered that Michener said Cisneros had “by force of character held Spain together” while protecting Jewish translators working on biblical projects. Still though, didn’t he help expel the Jews so the Spanish crown could take their wealth? There was a lot to get my head around.

There was no time to linger thinking though, as the last train back to Madrid was leaving soon. While trying to find the Plaza Zocodover (where the souq used to be) to get the bus out to the RENFE station, I was thinking that in one full day I’d managed to see only four of Toledo’s dozens of meaningful places. The exploring, accompanied by my learned friends Brenan, Boyd, Burns, Menocal, Michener, Morris, Tremlett and Webster, had provided some answers, but opened up many more questions. I’m going to have to return to Toledo, and to keep on reading.

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Published: Jul 7 2011
Category: Culture, Featured, Books
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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2 Comments for “A literary trip through Toledo’s historical labyrinth”

  1. Nice article. Gone into my Toledo folder.

    Interestingly, in the cathedral in Santiago, of all places, you can no longer see the Moors that Santiago/St James is (not) slaying. So as not to offend the sensibilities of visiting Muslims (of which there must be many thousands) the bottom half of the statue in his shrine is obscured by pots of tall irises . . .

  2. Hi Colin,

    Cheers for the comment.

    It’s a tough one alright, staying sensitive to current visitors while also keeping true to the moment the buildings were designed.

    I’ve not been to Santiago yet, but will definitely keep an eye out for the irises…

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