Toledo – Spain

Over the desert that is Castile, along an immense landscape done in sepias and swept bare as by some great wind, under a sky bare as the world, with every cloud washed away, you come upon the rock of Toledo. The yellow-gray walls of the fortress city are so blended in the grayyellow of the rock and the surrounding sands that they seem to have been made by nature, not man, and to have been corroded into the outline of roofs and towers by the action of immeasurable years. The town partakes of the desolation of the desert of which it seems a part, and town and desert are blended into one, and into a. part of the far sweep of painted landscape by the hot sun perpetually burning the world to dull browns and tawny yellows.

Along the great height of this central plateau of Spain the winds are ever sweeping, and long streamers of dust mark where over an undistinguishable road some peasant, priest or cavalier is urging forward his donkey toward the city gates. Sometimes a denser column of dust shows where a heavy, gypsy-like wagon is drawn through the sand by a long train of mules in tandem; and sometimes a pack-train of mules, each almost buried from sight beneath his load, toils up from the plain. Save for these signs of life, the treeless waste is empty, and lonely in a vast old age Toledo appears to sit and brood upon her mighty past, her insufficient present, and the problems of her future.

I have never been so fascinated by a town. She does not seem human, but like some wild thing of the desert, crouching on a rock, bereft of her children, too old to at tack, but untamed still. She seems to have endured forever; to have been created with the rocks; to know all things, but with a wisdom she cannot express. Nothing I have ever seen seemed so old, so a part of eternal nature. She is the Sphinx of Spain.

Not beautiful like Segovia, nor bright like Seville, she differs from all other cities, and in that difference lies her compelling spell. She is absolutely romantic; her storied yesterdays are yet so palpable, so apparent, that her history, with all its splendid color, becomes very real and very present. Around her rock the yellow Tagus crawls, and you come to her gates across one of the beautiful bridges of the world. For centuries through its embattled entrances have come and gone races and peoples and civilizations. Only the Twentieth Century has not yet entered in.

First came the Goths, and from that dim and warlike age a bit of the ancient wall still survives; then, in the Eighth Century, sweeping up from the South, came that irresistible tide of Moslem invasion that made of Spain a Mohammedan possession. It is now twelve hundred years since the Caliph of Damascus laid his iron hand upon the land and converted it into an Arabian province. Geographically the westernmost country of Europe, its history, tradition, architecture, and the atmosphere these things create, are of the East, the East of the Arabian Nights, of romance and of beauty.

And the conquest of the Moors was really that of civilization over barbarism, for the scattered tribes of Spain were in no sense a coherent nation, while the victorious Saracen brought a culture, an art, a. refinement that was then at its very flower. Only in the far north did the Christian power remain unshaken. ” Men of Damascus were assigned to Cordova, Algeciras was settled by people from Palestine, Egyptians were given western Portugal, Syrians were located at Granada, and followers of the Prophet from Arabia and Persia came to live in Toledo.” For three hundred years this exotic people and civilization flourished here, and even to this day there are little shops where still is made the exquisite work of inlaid gold on steel known the world over as Toledo ware, an Oriental art that is elsewhere largely lost.

But in 1085 the armies of the Christian kingdom of Castile, under the leadership of the great Alfonso, drove out the crescent from Toledo, and began that four hundred years of warfare which was finally to end with the total expulsion of the Moor from the peninsula.

In 1492 Granada fell, and thus, just at the moment when Spanish valor overthrew this empire of the east, Spanish courage was giving the world an unknown empire in the west. But during all the darkness of the early Middle Ages, when only the monasteries kept alive the light of civilization throughout a barbarous Europe, the Moorish kingdom of Spain stood for the world’s best in art, in literature, in architecture, in agriculture, in poetry, in science, and in those amenities of life that make existence gracious and agreeable.

This northern Spain differs in everything from the Spain of the south, in sternness of architecture, for its cities were built for war; in the racial blood of its people; in its grim, bare landscape, so different from the blossoming land of the south; and in the very language of its inhabitants. The Castilian tongue speaks the purest Spanish, and so different is it from the dialect of Andalusia, that a man from Toledo is not always understood in Seville. In the north, for instance, the word alcazar, meaning fortress or stronghold, is pronounced Al-cath’-ar, with a sort of lisp, while in the south it is spoken as Al-caz’-ar.

But northern Spain and southern have one thing very much in common, both alike give the same two conflicting impressions. Her cities, perfect pictures of medievalism that no other country can show in such numbers, speak of age, and all the land seems old, so old. But, on the other hand, her people seem perpetually young. Young because of the dominant emotionalism of their character, for emotionalism, in race or individual, is the certain test of youth. The Spaniard’s almost trance-like intensity of worship within his great cathedrals that both express and incite emotion; his love of romance, of contemplation; his contempt for commercialism, all bespeak the Spaniard as highly responsive to that emotional appeal which to the Anglo-Saxon comes less and less effectively with the years. No better proof of this could be found than in the act of a Spanish mob which, after the treaty of Paris, stoned a statue of Columbus as punishment for his having discovered the new world they had lost. This was the act of men who will ever be boys.

In Seville I was notified that the steamer on which my passage was booked from Gibraltar had been withdrawn, and it became necessary for me to engage a room on a ship of another line. The agent was not at his office, but at his Club (it was eleven A.M.). I followed him there and explained my errand. ” But I can only issue you a ticket at the office,” he said. I told him I was obliged to leave on an early afternoon train, and would he not take my money and wire the Gibraltar office for reservations. ” But I don’t care to go back to the office today; wait,” said he ” wait till tomorrow.” Of course I did not wait, and of course he lost his commission on the sale of the ticket. Again it was the act of a boy, who had irretrievably fixed a boy’s idea of relative value. So, here in Spain, the most ancient-looking land in Europe, live the youngest, because the most medieval and emotional, race upon the continent.

The most impressive city in Spain is Toledo, and the most wonderful place in Toledo is by the bridge Alcantara. The picturesqueness of its towers is unsurpassed; the view of the river and its wild and somber gorge; the great cliffs on the opposite bank piled high with the city’s walls and buildings; the shattered Moorish castle dominating the city from the hill; the strange, foreign procession continually passing and repassing across the bridge, all combine to make one of the strangest, wildest and most fascinating pictures to be found in Europe.

Toledo’s story is one great romance of pleasure and horror. Back in the remotest days, after Rome had been driven from the city by the Gothic invaders, legend after legend glitters on the page of history. Just as the sunset hour is the most brilliant of the day, so the Gothic kingdom of Toledo reached its most splendid moment just as it fell crashing before the Moslem hosts. Don Roderick, last of the Goths, made memorable his reign by a tournament unequaled in all the gleaming annals of chivalry. From all the known world his guests assembled. ” There was the Duke of Orleans with three hundred cavaliers; also four other Dukes of France with each four hundred armed retainers. Then the king of Poland came with a luxurious train; and six hundred gentlemen of Lombardy. Rome sent three governors and fifteen hundred knights. The Emperor of Constantinople and his brother came, as well as a Prince of England with great lords and fifteen hundred cavaliers. From Turkey, Syria and other parts nobles and princes to the number of five thousand came without counting their followers, and Spain alone furnished an influx of fifty thousand cavaliers.” Palaces were built for the royal guests, and not a visitor was allowed even to furnish his own arms or horses; ten thousand tents were set up upon the plain, and there lived the citizens of Toledo, their homes turned over to Don Roderick’s guests. Feasting and music and the dances that even then distinguished Spain filled out the huge round of pleasure, while daily went on the jousts between the very flower of the world’s chivalry. ” And,” adds the chronicle, ” the slain were all buried at the expense of the State.”

But then a little while, and the Moors were at the gates, and the crescent had replaced the cross upon the city walls. Only half-conquered, however, were the people, and, to punish them, the renegade Christian who was governor some fifty years after the conquest, conceived a punishment so dreadful, so mysterious, so deadly and so still, that history can furnish no parallel. A great feast was planned in honor of the Sultan’s son, a guest of the Governor, and a thousand of the nobles, the chief merchants and the richest men in Toledo were bidden to the castle on a certain night. Velvet carpets strewn with roses led to the door, Arabian slaves caught the jeweled bridles as the guests alighted from their horses. From the ante-room the visitors were asked to pass out, one by one, through the narrow door that led to the dim gardens where the nightingales sang amid the blossoms, and the fountains splashed to the music of the lutes. And back of that door stood a great black mute with gleaming simitar, and, as the nobles of Toledo passed through slowly, one by one, instead of the king’s son, they met Death swift and silent and sure. And at dawn a thousand men lay dead, and Toledo had been punished.

Three hundred years of romance, battle, murder and sudden death, and then the mystic figure of the Cid crosses the great bridge, first governor of the reconquering Spanish power. For succeeding centuries great names move down her history, and stories of incredible romance, and figures of gleaming splendor fill the record of her days. The beauty, the color, the gold and purple of it all! Kings and queens and cardinals, and plots and counterplots in one great matchless, thrilling pageant, like some play that lasts for centuries. And the stage setting is still all unchanged. Dim, empty ways that plunge among tall and toppling buildings; buildings with great blank walls pierced only here and there, with small barred windows that frown down on the narrow, twisting streets; tiny squares where sharp shadows show on the sunlight; the black-gowned priest, the capped peasant sitting sideways far back on the haunch of his donkey, the black-eyed woman with her fan, all is of yesterday, and, truly, when we cross the bridge we go back into the very past, visualized to our Twentieth-Century eyes in all its picturesqueness.

The cathedral is the most famous building in the city, and I had read of it as the most beautiful in Europe. I had pictured it dim and mystical, and had longed for its seven hundred and fifty painted glass windows, famed through the world, those ” jewels aglow through the great cathe dral’s dusk.” But it was a distinct disappointment. To me the glass was crude and raw, and the whole building by far too light. Then, too, whitewash has been horribly applied to the whole interior, thereby stripping it of all that wonderful softness and richness of color that can only be gained by time. Besides this, in common with all Spanish cathedrals, the choir occupies the very center of the building, completely preventing that full view from end to end so necessary to an impression of grandeur.

But in detail it is, like St. Mark’s at Venice, a museum of beautiful things.

There is, however, this difference, that while St. Mark’s is a museum of all ages, all countries, all arts, the Spanish church is more an epitome of the plastic and graphic arts of Spain. All around are the tombs of kings and cardinals and the men who made the history of Spain, for a time, the history of the world. Among the tombs, all covered with the customary pompous words of eulogy, one stands out startlingly. On a plain slab are these words, ” Here lie dust, ashes and nothing,” and it covers the grave of a great cardinal, dead these centuries, the inscription being chosen by him when at the point of death. No name, no date, “dust, ashes and nothing.”

Very different in its vast elaboration of rich carving is the tomb of Cardinal Mendoza, favorite of Queen Isabella. The great Queen was very near akin in spirit to England’s Elizabeth, and when the Cardinal died she announced that he was to be buried near the altar. But the Archbishop said ” No.” And for many a day Queen and Prelate were at deadlock over the matter. But one night Isabella gathered masons and stone-cutters in vast array, and, taking the Cardinal’s body with her, she went at midnight to the dark cathedral, and, as the flaming torches cast weird halflights about the sacred spot, she directed the workmen and paused not till a suitable tomb had been excavated, and the Cardinal laid at rest within.

One of the strangest of things in this strange city is the little church, the Christo de la Luz. Apparently the building (it is only some twenty feet square) is entirely Moorish, and, small as it is, is said to be as perfect a bit of Oriental workmanship as can be found anywhere in Spain, and yet, beneath the Moorish tracery can be seen quite a bit of crudely drawn SixthCentury work of the Christian Goths. There is a legend of this church which, though told by every writer, must be repeated. Before the Moorish conquest, when the tiny church was used for Gothic worship, there hung upon the altar a miraculous image of the Virgin. When it became plain that the city must fall, the attendant priest broke open the wall, and within he placed the image and the lamp that burned before it, and, replacing the stones, departed. Three hundred years and more passed by, and the Cid led the conquering soldiers of the cross along the street where stood the church. Suddenly his horse refused to move, and, when pricked with the spur, knelt in the dust before the bare wall of the chapel. The Cid immediately ordered the wall to be opened, and there was the image and before it the light still burning.

Strong-willed though Isabella surely was, she did not always have her way. She and Ferdinand determined that they would build as their mausoleum the great church of San Juan de los Reyes. But the Arch bishop spoke another no. They could build the church, but buried they must be in the cathedral, the primate church of all the Spains. When that edict of the Church went forth, the work on the building stopped, but it had already neared completion, and here King and Queen would come to hear mass, sitting in a most curious little screened gallery that takes the place of a capital around the top of one of the great pillars that uphold the roof. There is wonderful carved stonework in this church of the kings, carving made possible by the soft character of the Toledo stone, which only hardens after long exposure to the air. On the unfinished-looking facade hang in great festoons hundreds of rusting chains found on Christian captives in the Moorish cells at Granada. And, by the way, the capture of Granada was so culminating an event in the lives of Ferdinand and Isabella that even the Archbishop of Toledo finally consented that the King and Queen might be buried in the cathedral there instead of in the primate church of Toledo.

It is a poverty-stricken population of some twenty thousand that now lives within the city walls. There is no industry save the making of Toledo blades, and the fashioning of bracelets, pins and buckles in the beautiful work of gold on steel for which the town has so long been famous. Much of this work is done in small shops, but there are two or three factories where the art is carried on upon a larger scale, and here the ordinary workman receives very small pay indeed, while an artist, a man who can originate the wonderful designs and deftly execute them, is paid three or four times as much. The hours are from seven in the morning till noon, and from three to seven in the evening, the three hours’ intermission being spent in sleep. Laborers on the street get as high as one peseta, and housemaids seven or eight pesetas a month. And the price of necessaries is high. How do they live? I do not know, and yet there seems to the casual observer greater happiness, more laughter, more lightheartedness, and less care than among men and women here at home, whose wage scale is infinitely higher.

It is a simple life, a primitive one. At one point where two streets meet, a cross upon the wall marks as curious a shrine as can be found in Europe, a shrine to the Madonna of the Pins. Underneath the cross is a glass box, in the lid a narrow slit is cut, and a padlock holds down the cover. To this shrine resort girls who want husbands. With a prayer they drop in the box a long pin for a tall husband, a short pin for a short husband, a black pin for a rich one, and if a very rich one is desired a lit tle piece of money. Every evening the box is emptied by a priest. The afternoon I saw it I counted twenty-six white pins of all sizes, three black ones, and two copper coins.

No one who has felt the magic of this worn and ancient city, and who has seen the quaint and medieval life that still lingers there, but can indorse the wish of that poet who over its gates wished to write these words: ” In the name of poets and painters; in the name of dreamers and students, civilization is prohibited from laying her destructive and prosaic hand upon a single one of these stones.”