Trio of cultures leave indelible mark on Toledo

Senior editor Dinah A. Spritzer recently explored Toledo, Spain. Her report follows:

ven during a brief visit here, it's easy to see why Toledo was once known as la ciudad de las tres culturas: the city of three cultures. A medieval monument to 300 years of harmony among Christians, Jews and Moors until the latter two groups were expelled in the 15th century, Toledo still retains traces of all three civilizations.

If that did not make the city already a compelling stop for day-trippers from Madrid, Toledo also was the longtime stomping ground of the painter El Greco, whose works still adorn the walls of churches where he worshipped.

If you want to understand Toledo's unique position among Europe's many medieval gems, a good place to start is the Jewish Quarter.

One of two surviving synagogues here is the 14th century Synagogue del Transito.

The restored prayer room has a Mudejar decor, that is, it has Moorish-style columns and carvings that show just how close the Jewish and Moorish sensibilities were during this period.

The room itself is stunning, but what keeps visitors here is the adjacent Sephardic Museum (Museo Sefardi), which provides a detailed account of Jews -- called Sephardim -- who came to Spain and Portugal during the first centuries of the Roman Empire to escape persecution in Palestine.

Among the highlights are a room that outlines Jewish traditions through artifacts such as an ancient menorah and Talmud, the book of Jewish law.

There also are descriptions of Jewish practices such as circumcision, holidays such as Hanukkah and the eating of kosher food.

A series of photographs outlines the role of women in Judaism and shows the life of Sephardim in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In contrast to the dark woods of Synagogue del Transito, the nearby Synagogue de Santa Maria La Blanca is a blinding, bright-white structure and its one room of traditional Islamic arches seems right out of an ancient mosque.

The building served as a mosque, synagogue and finally a church. Nothing can be stranger than to see the Catholic altar adorn what so clearly seems to be made for Moslem worship.

If you tip the guard, he will show you where a hidden Star of David is carved into one of the pillars.

North of the Jewish district is a Franciscan monastery, San Juan de los Reyes, that is arguably the most enchanting building in Toledo.

Incorporating Moorish-style courtyards and arches, the 15th century monastery has the aura of a sultan's palace.

If you want to see a Christian edifice that looks as one would expect of a Gothic house of worship, the cathedral in the center of town is the place to go.

Taking up a large square, the monumental stone building is heavy and somber. The main hall is even overwhelming in its austerity, but the cathedral chapels contain a floor-to-ceiling sacristy of pure 18-karat gold as well as a trove of works from El Greco.

To understand what El Greco meant to Catholic Spain, you must make a pilgrimage to the tiny Church de Santo Tome.

Inside is what experts hail as the 16th century Greek painter's greatest work, "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz."

I never understood the painter's passion for long faces until a curator at Santo Tome explained that what El Greco was trying to show, particularly in this painting, was the spiritually that Catholicism lent the faces of its true believers.

She then described how each person in the painting, a town official or priest, also was representative of the saints and their ability to revive Christianity after it had been soiled by the overzealousness of the Inquisition.

The ascension of the count into heaven inspired worshippers with a deep and metaphorical tale about Catholicism's rebirth in the face of the encroaching Protestant Reformation.

By expressing so much in just one work, it is no wonder just the name El Greco draws thousands of tourists to Toledo each month.

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