The historic city of Toledo sits atop a steep-cragged
rock, encircled by a wide meander of the Tajo river (Tagus). This
position gives the city great strategic and defensive value, which
together with geographic surroundings offering abundant water,
forests, grazing and arable lands, has favoured its use as a permanent
human settlement since prehistoric times.
The first written historic document which mentions Toledo dates from the Roman period, a testimony of the conquest of the city in the year 193 BC, when it was already an important Celtiberian city. During the Roman era, Toledo became an important urban centre. Evidence of this period include the ruins of a monumental circus, and the ruins of the water supply system with the dam wall and some remains of the aqueduct across the deep ravine of the Tagus River.
Following the decay and fall of the Roman empire, the city was conquered in the 5th century AD by the northern barbarians. In the 6th century, the Visigoths moved their court to Toledo, converting it into the political and religious capital of Hispania. During this period, the Councils of Toledo took place here-assemblies with ecclesiastical, political and legislative functions. Only a few material vestiges remain of this era-some ruins of chrismons, capitals and pilasters, together with some gold and silversmith work, which are on display in the Museo de los Concilios y Cultura Visigótica (Museum of the Visigothic Councils and Culture), and others found in various parts of the city, which had later been re-used and remain enbedded in walls and towers.
The conquest, without a fight, of the city by the Berbers of Tarik in the year 711, began the period of Muslim domination which lasted for almost 4 centuries. This is a relatively short period, but it left its mark in important ways, both in the labyrinth-like layout of narrow and steep alleyways, of parapet walks that go nowhere, often with covered passageways on top, and in important architectural remains, such as the Bab-al-Mardum mosque, today known as Cristo de la Luz (the Christ of Light), built by Musa ibn Ali, among others.
The religious tolerance of the Muslims allowed the Christians to co-exist with the Moors, and led to the appearance of the so-called Mozárabes-"Mozarabs"-who created a unique culture which would have far-reaching effects on architecture and decoration, as well as customs, vocabulary, literature and music. This situation also allowed the Jews to form a prosperous community, although their presence dated back to the Visigoth period.
King Alfonso VI conquered the city from the Muslims in 1085, and Toledo became part of the Kingdom of Castile. The King promised to respect not only the Muslims and their property, but also allowed them the use of their language and the freedom to practice their religion. This maintained the stability of a large portion of the population. The Christians who had taken part in the conquest. and their religious orders, also became part of this plural society, and received houses and orchards in the city as rewards from the King.
The City of Three Cultures
Toledo became a city of three cultures, where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in relative harmony. There were various important examples of intercultural exchange, such as the so-called School of Translators of the 12th and 13th centuries, which was decisive in preserving and disseminating knowledge of the Greco-Latin and Arab cultures. This plurality of traditions was most evident in architecture, in which the habitual artistic styles of each culture intermingled, exchanging influences and forming a new style with its own personality-Mudéjar-which predominates in the city, and combines Roman models with purely Muslim elements.
In 1226, Fernando III and the Archbishop Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada decided to build the Cathedral, the only purely Gothic building from this period.
In the 14th century, due to the economic and social crisis at the time, the atmosphere of religious tolerance which characterised Toledo in previous centuries progressively disappeared, especially affecting the Jewish community, which was accused of being the cause of all the ills. In the 15th century, the "Catholic Monarchs"-Ferdinand and Isabel-who sought the politicial and religious unity of the Kingdom, established the Tribunal of the Inquisition in Toledo in 1485, and decreed the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. These decisions deeply affected the social structure of Toledo.
In 1519, Carlos I made Toledo the capital of the Spanish empire. This period, although short, brought Toledo an era of splendour in which the Renaissance was manifested in important works carried out under royal patronage, together with that of the archbishops of Toledo, who were great promoters and sponsors of buildings.
In 1561, Felipe II decided to move the capital to the town of Madrid, and thereafter, a period of progressive decline began. However, Toledo maintained its status as Spain's religious capital since Visigothic times, and seat of the Cardinal Primate of Spain, a status which it still holds today.
In the second half of the 19th century, the arrival of the railway brought growth outside the city walls, in the areas with the easiest terrain, and the appearance of extensive neighborhoods of new buildings where most of the city's population lives today.
In 1982, Toledo was named the capital of the
Autonomous Community of Castilla La Mancha, returning to the city
some of to its former political and administrative importance.