Geographically Toledo (Tulaytulla in Arabic) is not part of the land of Andalus, but it was the capital of it until Phillipe II- a very Catholic king who wanted to separate the church from politics- moved it to Madrid. Or did he just realize that the city outgrew itself naturally as the river Tagus did not let it spread anymore? Perhaps a bit of both; regardless of his reasons, even today, Toledo is often called the spiritual, artistic and historic capital of Spain. The train journey is a short 25- minute ride from Madrid, and its Neomudejar architecture of the station is the start of my trip. As you walk through the city, crossing Tagus river and its pin bent shape is already a telling sign that this place was cleverly thought out. This river was the best natural protection for the city from three sides, so it is naturally a well-preserved settlement. Thinking of Toledo without the Tagus River would be hollow. The Tagus defines this city, and you can enjoy a good sweat as you walk up this medieval city revealing itself corner by corner. Toledo is, like many other Spanish cities, a rediscovered gem, hidden for those who bother to make an effort. I am here to bother and want to spend my time burying my head in its rich history.
History of Toledo is complicated, yet ever so simple. The city, while many significant things occurred here, became a flourishing centre after the 11th century. The city always held a strategic position, and the early leadership recognized its importance. As you trace your fingers on the map of Spain, you see that Toledo is like a bottle neck in the middle of the country. Without going through it you cannot understand the rest of the country. The same goes for its history and Toledo is a key to understand al-Andalus, so let us see what it has in store for us.
The story of Toledo is intertwined with a major political and historical event- the formation of taifa kingdoms. But before we get there, we need to remember a man, who started off the idea of Andalusi development early on, around the year 820. Abd Ar Rahman II was born in Toledo and made the city a flourishing centre of agriculture and diplomacy. He later moved to Cordoba to head the emirate from there, but his leadership skills were outstanding and brought many advantages to Andalus. He focused on building a loyal following in the cities around Andalus, especially in Merida, Toledo and Zaragoza and hence he managed to hold up against the Christian armies in the north for an extended period of time. His diplomacy was exceptional and welcomed delegations (one of his guests was Theophilus) as well as sent delegation to Constantinople, headed by Ghazal, the poet and diplomat. See my blog piece on Ghazal here: https://henriettaszovati.com/ghazal-the-most-handsome-diplomat/
After the glory of Cordoba in the 10th century, the emirate fell into small taifa kingdoms (independent governing territories) and Toledo, by then a big settlement, became one of the major taifa kingdoms along with Sevilla, Badajoz, Zaragoza, Valencia and Granada. Alfonso VI took Toledo without resistance in 1085. He took keen interest in all andalusi things material and cultural, including silk and textile production as well as the intellectual knowledge available from early on.
Abbas Ibn Firnas wrote about the taking of Toledo this way- `When morning came Toledo appeared deserted, and like a bird in the claws of a falcon. Its houses uninhabited, its streets without people, the whole city as empty and as silent as a tomb. The wrath of heaven has fallen heavily upon it; even the bridge through which the inhabitants held communication with the Infidels has not been spared.”
The Christian capture of Toledo in 1085 was of much anguish as demonstrated by the many voices of various groups. Al-Assal, an ascetic figure of Toledo lamented: `Oh people of al-Andalus, urge on your mounts Stay here only by mistake. Clothing frays from the edges, but I see the clothing of the Peninsula Coming apart in the middle. We are caught up with an enemy who will not leave us alone How can one live in a basket together with snakes?’ Another poet said: `O people of al-Andalus, return what you have borrowed; it is not customary to borrow without giving back. Do you not see the pawn of the unbelievers has become a queen, while our king is checkmated on the last square?
But let us not dwell on what did not work; we better have a look at what did become a wondrous space in the 11th century, because there was much positivity and progress here, I can tell you that much! While taifa kingdoms meant the fragmentation of a powerful empire in politics, there were some advantages of the separate kingdoms. Every taifa leader wanted to be powerful and they tried their best to stand out to compete with others. Each taifa kingdom was flourishing in its own art – Sevilla became knowns for its poetry, Cordoba was famous for its geography and history, and Toledo grew into the centre of study and practice of the sciences.
There was one specific thing Toledo became famous for: as much as being the cultural hub of the taifa kingdoms, it was the translation project that paved the way for its place in history. Andalus was a hub of learning from the 9th century onwards and many made their way to study classical works translated into various languages- Arabic, Latin, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Greek. As I wander on the streets, I cannot help but feel the pain of losing this intellectual drive in our modern world. Nowadays, we see selfies on the streets, not scholars on the stairs discussing ideas of astronomy, astrology and many other sciences. The place was breeding multilingualism and switching between languages was simply not a political contention. Christians or Jews walking around in Arab-style robes talking in Arabic was a norm of the time and apart from the ruling elite and heads of church, not many even bat an eyelid. Identity was not dictated by politics until much later; instead, people got on with their lives.
This was the wonders of Toledo!
Knowledge had to travelled through Toledo as it was passing through Iberia, and Raymond of Toledo, the archbishop launched a translation project from here. His idea was to collect knowledge that came from the East and through translation make it available to the West. The translators worked on pieces, usually from Arabic, Jewish and Greek into Latin, as Spanish language (Castellano) was not yet developed until the XIII century. Toledo becomes a bustling intellectual city where the elite of knowledge from the courts of Cordoba and Seville gather to translate books, ideas that become the region’s best currency. Anyone from Western Europe with an inclination to become more knowledgeable came to Toledo to have access to Arabic knowledge.
One of those scholars was Gerard of Cremona, who settled in Toledo and as part of his studies of an Arabic text, he make friends with a Muslim scholar, Ghalib. They worked together on translating Arabic material as a team. Ghalib would translate into Castilian, then Gerard would translate it into Latin. Together they translated 88 Arabic works on astronomy, mathematics, medicine, philosophy and logic. This revival of Medieval Spanish learning was the catalyst for the rest of Europe to catch up on its intellectual capacity as many of the works beyond Ghalib and Gerard of Cremona reached major courts in Italy, Sicily and cities in France, mainly those that were in contact with Spain. The revival of knowledge was rooted in this place and many instruments, including the astrolabe became a daily tool for generations to come. We know from sources that the navigation tools Colombus used in his aggressive trips to the Americas were created by Muslims and many of the sailors were Muslims themselves or of Muslim heritage.
Toledo was a vibrant, exciting city throughout history. It gave us its famous translation project that set Europe on fire. Scholars visiting, noblemen sending their children here to study, classical works being distributed from here were just a few things that made Toledo a firmly established city for the right reasons. Let us not forget that without Toledo we would not have had the intellectual movement that led to the Renaissance later. We, humans, build on each other and we must honour each other’s contribution. We must always remember what the previous civilization contributed and elevate the state of our humanity by honouring those who put knowledge before power or fame- wherever they are from.