There are places where past and present are only temporarily separated, the divorce decree between then and now is not final. Moments when it seems the planes of past and present have veered toward one another, seeking to reconnect.
Toledo, once upon a time, the seat of the Catholic monarchs of Spain, rises, walled and spired, above the dusty sprawl of farm and light industry in the heart of the interior mesa. The massive, ironclad doors within the towers guarding the bridges are open and in the narrow slits above, where archers watched, only shadows shift, tracking the relentless summer sun. The Celts were here, the Visigoths, the Romans came and went, the Moors swept up from the south and in time were beaten back again. In the layers beneath the city, traces remain of their walls and diggings, their cisterns, stairs, and terraced gardens. In the walls along the streets, carved stone and columns scavenged from the Roman Circus mix with medieval brick and modern steel.
Once home to kings and queens, a destination of armies of conquest and Reconquista, Toledo now plays host to the modern crusaders in search of history, culture and, if not enlightenment, at least a set of selfies.
Along the narrow, cobblestoned streets and stairs popped-eyed Don Quixote statues stand watch outside shops bristling with the wares of the sword makers’ guild. The blades of Braveheart, King Arthur, Lord Aragorn, and Conan the Barbarian are all on offer. A sign in the train station lets you know that Toledo souvenirs must be appropriately packaged and wrapped. In a café in the central plaza an American boy and his grandfather discuss the finer points of scabbards. The box he clutches, first under one arm and then the other, is as tall as he is.
Signs at every intersection point the way to boutique museums and tiny plazas. The dungeons below the justice hall promise a respite from the scorching heat. There, the caballeros brought in the bandits who flourished in the lawless centuries after the Moors were driven out and before the Catholic majesties consolidated their houses and their power. Here, the officers of the Inquisition held converts whose sincerity was doubtful and those accused of keeping other faiths than those sanctioned by the Pope.
Around the corner, in another set of dim, dome roofed cellars, the Museo de Tortura displays the instruments and tools of the Inquisitors’ trade; racks and steel tipped ropes, scold’s bridles, axes, hammers, knives, and pulleys. In 1485 the Inquisition Tribunal set up shop in Toledo, hosting almost thirty ‘auto de fes’ (acts of faith) before 1492, burning almost 500 at the stake as the fires of fervor and righteousness were loosed to purify the faith. Crowds at these events rivaled the throngs for bullfights and other public spectacles of gore and glory.
Maybe it was the joining of the houses of Castile and Aragon or perhaps it was Queen Isabella’s establishment of the Inquisition that marked the end of the fairy tale three part harmony of faiths. But by 1492 it was clear there was room for just one orthodoxy in the land. In that year the Muslim Kingdom of Granada fell and a royal edict was announced expelling the Jews of Spain. Just the day before Colon sailed west to new horizons the Jews of Spain were driven to whatever port or haven they could find.
On the train back to Madrid, I watched the olive groves flash by and remembered:
Beside the rough remains of arches and stairs that marked the lower stands at one end of the once grand Roman Circus, among the grafittied stones, and litter I found a horse’s tooth and for a moment in the flickering sunlight filtering through the pines I felt the crowd rise to its feet, as the charioteers, the idols of their age, thundered up the straight away, jockeying for position as they approached the curve.
Inside the blank and freshly painted walls of the Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca among a throng of Japanese tourists, a moment of pure silence blossomed unexpectedly.
Away from the crowds in the Toledo Cathedral, I wandered into a dusty corner behind the cloister. A massive cart rested beside the iron gate. Studded rings of iron banded the wheels. Axles thick as tree trunks. I heard the metal on metal grate of the gates flung wide. Heard the creak of timbers, the whip’s crack, the thunder of the wheels over the cobbled streets headed down through the gates with the town behind it eager for the thrill of someone else’s agony. A ponderous thing of dread now a play of light and shadow.
Walking home long past midnight, moonlight ghosting the spires above and laughter from the plaza echoing along the narrow ways. I thought of stories started long ago and how, like the streets in this circular town, they wind back upon themselves again.
As much, and perhaps even more, than stone and steel it is history’s hard ironies that remain.