Toledo – Muslims, Jews, and Christians so Happy Together…

Saturday marked our program trip to Toledo.  We met at 9:30 and took a charter bus to Toledo (about an hour away).  Toledo was founded in 540 BC(E?) by Jewish settlers at a bend in the Tagus River.  Later the Moors came along and for many years the city sustained large populations of Christians, Muslims, and Jews living happily on the hill surrounded on three sides by water.  The Christians took over in 1085 as an early part of the Reconquista and the three religions continued to coexist until 1492 when the Jews were kicked out of Spain.  The Muslims were later expelled in 1604.  As a result, the city is still filled with buildings from all three faiths, some of which we were able to tour.  Another brief note, Toledo was the capital of Spain until 1561 when it was moved to Madrid.  As such it has lots of old buildings related to a capital (like a huge cathedral) that Madrid lacks.

Our tour started on with a panoramic view of the city from across the river.  It was barely 11:00 in the morning but the heat was already oppressive .  The high was supposed to be near 34 degrees Celsius (which is in the mid 90s for you Fahrenheit fans) but some light rain that started around 2:00 pm kept things cool (and the sun hidden) for the rest of the afternoon.

The escalators…

After driving across the river, we took escalators up the side of the hill to get up to the level of the city.  We walked down winding, narrow streets lined with tall buildings (to provide maximum shade) to the city’s cathedral.  While not as large as Sevilla’s it seems to have more decoration and a more open layout  which makes the building look bigger.  I was particularly impressed with a mural on the ceiling in one of the side rooms that appeared almost 3D.  Also notable is the use of strategic openings to let in natural light and accentuate important art or areas of the building.

For lunch, we ate at a place near the city center.  I had gazpacho for the first time in Spain; it was great (I actually preferred it to my main dish).  Topping it off with flan for dessert and I was set for the rest of the day.

Stephanie, Sam, Tanya, Ryan, and I wandered around the city a little more and saw the Christo de la Luz mosque.  Originally built in 999, it was converted to a church after the Muslims were kicked out.  The building is pretty small, but was pretty neat to look around (especially considering the fact that it has survived for more than 1000 years).  It’s currently undergoing an exhaustive archeological dig looking for the original floorplans and other pre-church things.  The entire floor and ground around the mosque had been removed, forcing us onto scaffolding over the pits where the ground used to be.

We met up with the group to stop into the Church of Santo Tome and see El entierro del Conde de Orgaz, a famous painting by El Greco, who lived in Toledo later in his life.  It was a very cool painting, but no photos were allowed.  You can see it on Wikipedia, but the online version doesn’t do the real thing justice.  The painting is about 15 feet tall and 11 feet wide and has a kind of surreal feeling due to the darkness of the room surrounding it.

Our final two stops before heading back across the river were two old synagogues: the Synagogue of El Transito followed by the Synagogue Sant Maria la Blanca.  Both abandoned around 1492 and converted into churches, they have since been semi-restored (they at least removed most of the crosses though there’s still a huge altar in Sant Maria).  El Transito also has an interesting museum of Sephardic judaica and a really cool Moorish-style paneled ceiling in the main sanctuary.  Sant Maria La Blanca still looked and felt like a small church.   On one wall they had stripped back the gold and whitewash the Catholic church had added to reveal the original brick walls, making for a nice "rolling back the years" effect.  Perhaps there was more of interest to the Sant Maria, but by that time of day, we were all tired and the guide had begun whispering inaudibly; it was time to go.

We walked back across the river to the bus and back to Madrid.  Toledo is a very cool city given its geography and immense history of religious tolerance, which we got to see firsthand.  Now if they could only figure out how to do that in Israel…

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