A photograph – and a painting. Toledo now, and Toledo four hundred years ago. Toledo, as the camera reveals it. Toledo, as the artist, El Greco saw it, filtered through his own experiences, religious beliefs, mission as an artist, and, perhaps, what he knew of history.

The sky conditions in the two images are similar, showing a coming storm, or one just passing. In the photograph, it’s quite possible to see that soon the sun will break through. The painting, however, speaks of a sunny day gone by, now past, and perhaps long past. The horizon is black. Toledo’s history was black, too. Was the artist trying to convey that message? Possibly not; he was in thrall to the ruling religious powers of his time. It had been 100 years since the city of Toledo, capital of Spain until 1560, had tolerated anything else.

Titus Livius (59 BC-AD 17), a Roman historian better known as “Livy,” was the first to record any mention of Toledo. Two thousand years ago, he described it as a “small fortificated town.” When the Romans arrived in Toledo in the First Century A.D., they found a very well-defended city, situated on a mountain and surrounded by a river. Several centuries later, they built a massive wall that kept Toledo safe from invasions for centuries.

The Visigoths invaded Toledo and expelled the Romans in the Fifth Century A.D. and were the first Christian residents of Toledo. The Visigoths stayed in Toledo from the Fifth Century A.D. until 711, when the Muslims, with their vast armies, new religion, and powerful weapons obliterated them.

The Jews were a part of Toledan history since the last years of the Roman occupation. They came with the Romans, and the two groups coexisted peacefully. Though the Jews were never the dominant group in Toledo, they were always an important part of the city. They became known as money-lenders, merchants of fine cloths and precious metals, and intellectuals and were generally well-respected by the other peoples of Toledo. When the Visigoths took over, they forced the Jews to stop practicing their religion openly. The Muslims, in contrast, basically left the Jews in peace and only required them to pay taxes, just as they did to the remaining Visigoth Christians in Toledo.

Heritage Tours Online (website) says of Toledo:

During its heyday as capital (before it was moved to Madrid in 1561), Toledo was one of the most enlightened cities in Europe and a famous center for medicine, translation and manuscripts. While the rest of Europe was suffering through the Dark Ages, Toledo was shining bright and prospering.

Toledo was a society of great tolerance that attracted Muslim, Jewish and Christian men of learning and commerce. It was the scholars of Toledo who kept the works of the Greeks and Romans from becoming lost to future generations. Prominent schools of science, mathematics, theology and mysticism developed here, as well as schools of the occult and alchemy.

“Enlightened,” “shining bright,” “great tolerance,” words and phrases celebrate Toledo’s proudest place in history. Then, things changed.

When competing ideologies take up arms against each other, they can be just as vicious as any other type of warfare. My idea is right; yours is wrong. My religious sentiment is correct; yours is false. My God is the one true God; yours is a heathen fallacy.

I, ME, MY, where religion is concerned, is always in the context of WE, US, OUR and stands in contrast to OTHER, which includes all people not of the same religious persuasion. The thoughts, US and THEM, have a way of becoming US versus THEM, and THEY are suddenly the enemy.

The Jews in Toledo became the enemy.

After centuries of peace, a mob acting irrationally, as mobs always do, massacred Jews in Toledo in 1391. The same hysterical thirst for blood was unleashed in other parts of Spain, and nothing would ever be the same. The final horrific scenes in this long-playing tragedy would not take place for a century, but in the end, in 1492, Jews would be expelled from Spain. Along the way, many were tortured, many murdered, many driven out just ahead of the executioners.

The expulsion of the Jews heralded the political and economic demise of the city, which culminated in the Royal Court being moved to Madrid in 1561 in the reign of King Philip II. Toledo in the 21st century has tourism as its chief industry. Visitors can see the sad remnants of a glorious past, but it takes a knowledgeable tour guide to point them out. To really know Toledo, one must read the more honest of the history books. One could also study El Greco’s “View of Toledo.” Look closely; man’s dark side is suggested there.


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