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5 Apr 2015

Moorish Spain: Toledo and Seville

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April 5, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:


By Renée S. Gordon

“I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.”  –El Greco

Toledo was a Celtic settlement long before it entered the pages of history around 193 BC during the time of the Roman conquest. Tito Livio documents the city as “Toletum,” meaning “raised aloft,” because of its position atop a rocky cliff above the Tagus River and surrounded by it on three sides. When the Visigoths gained power in the sixth-century, they located their capital in Toledo and it became both the Visigothic political and religious center, a position it held until the capital was moved to Madrid in 1561.

Moorish occupation of Spain began in 711 and they controlled Toledo for 374 years being reconquered by Alfonso VI in 1085. During the period which the Moors occupied Spain their influence was vast and nowhere was it more apparent than in Toledo. Much of it can still be seen in the architecture, literature, adornments, art, culture and music. They were also tolerant of both the Christian and Jewish presence and religions, a situation that led to the city being known as “the city of three religions.” After Alfonso VI took the city many Moors decided to remain. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella set out to establish religious unity and instituted the Tribunal of the Inquisition in Toledo in 1485 and the Jews were expelled seven years later.

Toledo was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 based on its history and architecture. The historic district, one of the largest in the country, has numerous monuments and examples of Mudejar architecture. This form of architecture is unique to Spain and was created by the Moors beginning in the 11th-Century. It incorporates Moorish techniques, traditions and features in the construction of non-Moorish buildings. Elements such as horseshoe arches, ribbed cupolas, geometrical strapwork, limited windows and a central courtyard are repeated designs. A wonderful way to begin your visit to Toledo is by taking a panoramic drive on Circunvalacion Road that winds for two-miles around the Tagus River. There are several viewpoints that are great for photographs and allow you to see how medieval the old city still looks. It is filled with meandering streets so small they defy traffic. Visitors should park outside the city walls and walk into the historic district because that is the best way to really experience the walled city of Toledo.

The Moors constructed the original portion of the stone Puerta Bisagra, the main gateway to the old quarter, during the sixth and seventh centuries. It was expanded and altered in 1559. The double-headed eagle crest above the gate denotes that this was an Imperial City.

The 1,798-ft. rectangular Alcázar is situated at the loftiest point in the city and is the skyline’s iconic structure. It began as a third-century Roman palace and afterward was used as a fortress. King Charles I ordered the construction of the building we see today in the mid-1500s. The structure has a large central courtyard set amidst two galleries. The castle suffered devastation several times and was reconstructed in 1940. No king ever lived there but King Charles I held an audience with Hernán Cortés after Cortés Aztec conquest.

San Eugenio, Toledo’s first Archbishop, established the Cathedral of Toledo on a site that held religious significance from the time it was a sixth-century Visigothic church. Later it was the location of the Great Mosque. The High Gothic cathedral was built over a 226-year period and is an eclectic mix of styles. The 394-ft. long and 194-ft. wide cathedral was destroyed in the 15th-century and reconstructed on its original foundations with a roof supported by 88 columns. The North Tower rises 295-ft. and houses the 17-ton Campana Gorda, a bell cast in 1753.

Two unusual features on the exterior should be noted before entering. A heavy chain surrounds the cathedral’s perimeter. It marks the boundaries within which an individual can claim sanctuary. Shackles are hung on the sidewall. When the Christian monarchs entered the city they found Christian prisoners bound by Moslems within the cathedral. Queen Isabella ordered that they be released and their chains suspended on the exterior wall.

Visitors enter through the Puerta de Mollete, Muffin Door. Traditionally food was given to the poor here. A tour of the interior reveals splendors including paintings by El Greco, Titian, Raphael and Goya, 16th-Century stained glass windows, the gigantic, gilded, altarpiece High Altar and the magnificent Mudéjar Chapterhouse ceiling.

The choir is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe. Set within a 1548 grill crafted by Domingo de Cespedes are Renaissance choir stalls. Rodrigo Alemán carved 54 scenes on the lower stalls in 1495 to depict the battles and surrenders leading to the surrender of Granada. Alonso de Berruguete and Felipe Vigarni are responsible for the 72 ceremonial chairs in the upper stalls. Completed in 1543, they feature Biblical scenes. A Romanesque figure of the Virgin Blanca graces an adjacent altar.

The Treasure Room, beneath the north tower, is an absolute must. The most significant treasure is the 10-ft. high, 380-pound Monstrance of Arfe carved by Juan de Arfe in 1524 and adorned with 260 figures. It was originally silver but was gilded in 1595. The custodial in the middle is crafted from gold Columbus brought to Spain from America. It rests atop a hexagonal base, is crowned with a cross, and has been carried in the annual feast of Corpus Christi of Toledo since 1595.

King Alfonso X and the Archbishop of Toledo sanctioned the establishment of what would become the School of Translators of Toledo in the 12th-Century. In 1085, when the city was conquered Alfonso IV found that the city contained numerous Arabic works that preserved portions of Greek, Persian, Indian and Arabic science and philosophy as well as volumes that were recovered from the library of Al-Hakam II in Cordoba said to hold as many as 400,000 works.

Scholars traveled from all over the known world to mingle with the scholars who resided in Toledo. Originally, Arabic scholars read aloud the texts and Jewish scholars penned the translations. Eventually this method evolved into one in which a single individual would complete the translation sometimes in several languages. The school was responsible for preserving and later making available pivotal works in mathematics, medicine, science, Greek philosophy, astronomy and astrology.

There is documented evidence that the Jews were persecuted under the rule of the Visigothic kings after they were Christianized in 587. Five years later, they passed laws criminalizing intermarriage between Christians and Jews and preventing them from holding public office. When the Moors conquered Toledo they established a culture of religious tolerance, the Jews prospered, assimilated and grew to be 10 percent of the city’s population. In several cases, Jewish authors wrote in Arabic and some synagogue documents were kept in Arabic until the 1200s.

The Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, in their efforts to unify Spain’s religion, supported the Inquisition and the expulsion of all non-Christians both Muslims and Jews. On March 31, 1492 they issued the Alhambra Decree demanding that all Jews leave the country by the end of July. Estimates say that 165,000 Jews migrated and 50,000 converted. The Spanish government invited the Sephardic Jews to return in 1924 and Franco allowed more than 25,000 Jews to pass through Spain to escape the Holocaust. The descendants of the expelled Jews are now eligible for Spanish passports. 

Santa Maria la Blanca Synagogue is the oldest extant synagogue in Europe and is located in the Old Jewish Quarter. There were once eight synagogues, but only two remain. Built in 1203 by Mudéjar architects, it reflects a Moorish influence. Most of the interior is original including the seven horseshoe arches and alabaster windows and of particular note are the frescoes. In the 15th-Century it was converted into a church and has been subsequently used as a stable by Napoleon and a home for “bad” women. A video interpretation of the site is presented in Spanish only.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco, was born in Crete, then part of Venice, in 1541. He moved into a house in the Jewish Quarter in Toledo in 1577. The El Greco House and Museum is situated inside a 16th-century house closely resembling the one he owned. The museum opened in 1912 to display his artworks and furnishings from the era. Highlights of the collection are the View of Toledo and Christ and the Apostles. It should be noted that El Greco always signed his work with his real name on a white space. He died in poverty in Toledo on April 7, 1614.

Browsing along the narrow lanes of Toledo affords visitors an opportunity to watch craftsmen at work as they fashion the weapons and armor they have been renowned for since 500 BC. Historically they supplied the Roman Legions and today they forge weaponry for movies, collectors and tourists.

Settlement of Seville dates back to pre-historic times and it is documented that the Romans besieged and took the city in 205 BC. Julius Caesar conquered what they called Hispalis in 42 BC. The Visigoths were next in the fifth-century until the Moors took control. The Almoravid Muslim Dynasty ruled Seville in the 12th-Century until the Christians reconquered Seville in 1248.

The city’s golden age is closely tied to the discovery of the New World and the ensuing trade monopoly. It was the only port city in the country and in 1503 a special government office was set up in the city to regulate the trade. Magellan and Amerigo Vespucci set sail from the Port of Sevilla. At that time, because Columbus believed he had reached the Indies, they referred to the New World as Las Indies. The city would experience unimagined growth and prosperity until the late 1600s when the river became difficult to navigate, the ships began to load and unload in Cadiz and the Casa de Contratación, the regulating agency, closed its doors in 1717.

The Archive of the Indies was constructed in 1584 as a trading house. Carlos III had all the documents relating to the New World gathered and stored in the archive in 1785. There are more than 86 million documents including correspondence, journals, drawings and maps. Temporary exhibits are featured.

Spanish Square was constructed in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exhibition. A 1,690-ft. canal borders this magnificent 656-ft. in diameter plaza and two towers bookend the red brick edifice. The entire complex is decorated with azulejos, the brightly colored ceramic tiles Seville is noted for. The most unique features are the azulejos covered, benches that pictorially represent the Spanish provinces. They are alphabetical and are inscribed with the coat of arms of the province.

Seville’s Great Mosque and minaret was constructed from 1184-98 of brick. In 1248 the mosque was consecrated as a cathedral and in 1434 the building of a stone, Gothic, cathedral began. It is the largest Gothic cathedral and the 3rd largest church in the world. The Gothic portion of the structure is 413-ft. long and 272-ft. wide. The Giralda bell tower rises 322-ft. in height. The Seville Cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

“Let us build a cathedral so immense that every one on beholding it, will take us for madmen,” so the decision to construct the cathedral is said to have been made. The existing mosque was torn down in 1401, leaving only the Orange Tree Courtyard, used by the Moors to wash their hands and feet prior to worship and the minaret. The building was completed approximately 100-years later. It is a Gothic structure with Renaissance elements.

Highlights of the interior are a 4500-sq. ft. altar covered in two-tons of gold and the Tomb of Christopher Columbus. Four kings personifying the four kingdoms, Aragon, Castile, Leon and Navarre, support the coffin. The four figures are bronze with alabaster faces. The body has traveled almost as much as he did when alive and there is still controversy about the authenticity of the remains. He was moved several times before finally being placed in the cathedral in 1899.

The Spanish Inquisition was headquartered in Seville at the Castillo San Jorge from 1481 to 1785. Today it houses a museum that fully interprets the experience through exhibits, video and informational materials.

Religious unity was so important to the Spanish monarchs that, even though they sanctioned African slavery, it was illegal to take African Muslims or Moriscos to Las Indies because their religion might contaminate the native population.

Next week we travel to Cordoba and Granada to visit two architectural masterpieces. Join me as we continue our journey.

I wish you smooth travels!

Travel Tips:

Celebrate the birth of Rome at Penn Museum on Saturday, April 18th from 11 AM to 4 PM. Immerse yourself in a Roman holiday with gladiatorial contests, lectures, tours and demonstrations including legionary tactics, toga wrapping and historic crafts. Two remarkable legions from Maryland and New Jersey, Legion XX Valeria Victrix and Legion XIII Gemina, will maintain imperial order and invite visitors to join their ranks and Ludus Magnus Gladiatores, The Great School of the Gladiator, will engage in gladiatorial combat at 1 PM and 3 PM. A complete schedule of events is available online. and

Clayton, Georgia’s Tallulah Gorge Skywalk Celebration will showcase the outdoor wonders of Rabun County from June 19th-28th with ten days of activities, concerts and events. The gorge, one of Georgia’s Seven Wonders, is 2-miles long and 1,000-ft. deep with spectacular views provided by overlooks and an 80-ft. high suspension bridge. This is the perfect time to experience all the wonders of the “Niagara of the South.”

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