History of Toledo, Spain

Category: Toledo

With over 2000 years of history, the city of Toledo has the special designation of being a melting pot, a place where the various cultures and eras of Spain have converged and congregated, and which together comprise a rich model of the country’s history.  Historians have often referred to it as the City of Three Cultures; a label which refers to the Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures that united and intermingled within its borders, with each group adding their own stamp on the city’s history and traditions.  Many examples exist regarding the cooperation between the groups, most notably, the School of Translators of the 12th and 13th centuries, which helped to preserve and distribute a significant amount of knowledge regarding the Spanish and Arab cultures.

The origins of Toledo can officially be traced back to Roman times when it was an important Celtiberian city and urban center. Evidence of the city’s existence in this era includes the ruins of an enormous circus, the remains of a water supply system within the dam wall, and the ruins of the aqueduct across the Tagus River.  Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Toledo was conquered first by Northern European barbarians in the 5th century AD, and later by the Visigoths in the 6th century, who moved their court to the city.

Following the city’s conversion to Catholicism (from Arianism), which occurred in the latter part of the 6th century under the Visigoth king, Recaredo, Toledo became the religious and political capital of Hispania.  It was during this era that the Councils of Toledo took place—assemblies with political, legislative and religious functions.  Sadly, only a few physical relics remain from this era, but those that do have been preserved nicely by Toledo’s Museum of the Councils and Visigoth Culture.

In the year 712 AD, the same year in which the Jewish presence in the city became known, Toledo was conquered by the Moors.  A Muslim group of people, they would dominate the city for only 373 years, but their influence on Toledo’s architecture was monumental and is still palpable today.

In the year 1085, Toledo was retaken, without bloodshed, by the Christians under Alfonso VI.  Many of the Muslim inhabitants decided to stay with the Christians and Jews, however, the latter having prospered during the Muslim period.  This convergence and relative harmony between the three cultures, which continued until the 15th century, helped shape Toledo’s identity—an identity that is still evident today.

During the middle of the 15th century, the Moorish legacy of Toledo began to fade, and with it the cooperation and harmony between the three cultures.  In 1492, under the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Jews were expelled from Toledo, a decision that deeply affected the social structure of Toledo.

When Charles V was crowned in 1519, Toledo became the most important city in the world, known as the Imperial Capital.  Although this period, and the status it brought, was brief, it was a time of great opulence for the city; a time in which the Renaissance was embodied in important works carried about by the Royal Patronage.

The period of political decline that followed this era was severe; so severe that in 1561 King Philip II decided to move the court permanently to Madrid.  This was devastating to the city from an economical perspective, but fortunately it had very little effect on the city’s religious, cultural and artistic aspects.  It was in this period, in fact, that the famed painter, El Greco, Toledo’s most famous resident, decide to settle here.

Today Toledo is one of Spain’s most popular cities from a tourist standpoint.  It was named the capital of the Autonomous Community of Castile-La Mancha in 1982, and in 1987 it was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, due largely to its concentration and wide variety of historical monuments, most of which are religious in nature and demonstrate the city’s diversity over the centuries.