Casa Islamica – Toledo

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Built during the 10th century, during Spain’s Islamic period, the Casa Islamica shows it’s heritage in it’s double horseshoe arches, herringbone pattern brick floor, and other, smaller details.

One of my favorite spaces in all of Toledo is the Museum of Magic Spain (El Museo de la España Magica). Built in the 10th century, the interior of this unassuming building is an enchanting example of Mudejar architecture on a human scale. I prefer it’s other common name, the “Casa Islamica”. It’s just on the other side of a narrow street (one of the wider streets in the historic center actually) that runs along the south wall of the short side of the transept of the Cathedral. From the non-descript appearance of the building facade, one would have no idea that the house that they are walking past was built in the 10th century (some recent estimates put it earlier than that even), which probably has something to do with the reason that I find this place so fascinating. There are whole neighborhoods in the historical center of Toledo where hundreds of square meters of incredible underground spaces like this lie hidden underneath the twisting mazes of simple, albeit charming, vernacular architecture. The kind of cute, Southern-European townhouses that, while they might elicit genuine, slightly fawning tones from friends and family when posted on Facebook, hide thousands of years of history below their cloistered courtyards and down their dark, dank stone stairways.  I’ve had the good fortune to descend some of those stairways. Sometimes by chance, sometimes by invitation. Some are open to the public (Las Cuevas de Hercules is another fascinating example, look for a post on that soon) and some, well… it’s good to smile at people.

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Move along folks! Nothing here but Mazapan and cheap t-shirts!

I took some time this morning to visit one of those that is still opened to the public, though how long it will remain so is unknown, as it is currently up for sale. If you have a million euros sitting around gathering dust, I can hook you up.

These days, the space houses a kind of half-campy, half historical, one-hundred percent interesting collection of things related to the occult side of the world of magic, “magic” in Spain referring more to a type of mysterious dark art and lore than the slight-of-hand kind of magic that Americans might think of. It’s a far cry from the days, 500 years ago, when this space was part of a storage complex belonging to Cardenal Francisco Jimenez de Cizneros, a fascinating figure who had, at various times, served as Grand Inquisitor, founded one of the world’s oldest research universities (Complutense University of Madrid), and who was, for a short period, the most powerful man in Spain, ruling over the kingdom as Regent during a dangerous period of transition.
Entering the house, I walked down a narrow hallway to the front desk, where I was greeted by a pleasant young woman who asked me if I spoke Spanish. I replied, in Spanish, that I was only there to see the architecture. She offered me a discount and put away the pamphlet that she had been ready to hand me. As I turned around to head down the tight spiral staircase that would take me not just 5 meters below the street above, but some 1100 years back in time, a small, elderly, hunch-backed woman opened a door off the side of the hallway, stepped out in front of me while looking around me as if I wasn’t there, and belted out something in deeply accented Castilian to the girl behind the desk. I couldn’t make it out, but as they moved further into their verbal exchange, I got the impression that they were neighbors, or relatives, and that they both lived in the building. I waited for the old woman to finish and move out of my way. I stood there with an amused look on my face, looking down on the top of the old woman’s head and laughing to myself inside, when the Señora took notice of the bulk of denim and cheap cotton pattern fabric looming over her. She looked up with a start and jerked back slightly, her eyes shooting open. She raised her hand up, even with her head, and made a snappy motion, like an orchestra conductor trying to pull that last tremolo out of his strings section. She popped off one last brief sentence at the girl behind the desk, and disappeared back into her dark passageway. “Ooooo kay!” I said to no one really, and looked back to the girl, shrugging my shoulders and curling the edges of my mouth down in the universal gesture for “I have no fucking idea what just happened, but I don’t care either.” She chuckled and answered “Nah!” shaking her head. I headed down the stairs.

The first thing that greets me when I enter the space is a sense of age. Or rather, a sense that the place that I just entered is absolutely disconnected from the place that I just came from. Every one of the stair risers that I place my foot on represents a step back in time of 50 years. 2000… 1950…1900…1850… 4 steps, and Americans are engaged in a bloody civil war. 1800… 1750… 1700… 3 more steps and the Salem witch trials are just wrapping up in the American colonies. 1650… 1600… 1550… 1500… The Catholic monarchs have expelled the last of the Jews from Spain and reconquered all lands that were under Islamic domination since the invasion of 711. 1450…1400… 1350… 1300… 1250… I can smell the dampness quite strongly now, the smell of incense that met me in the doorway has been replaced by the smell of mildew. 1200… 1150… 1100… Angkor Wat is under construction in Thailand. 1050… 1000… 950… One more step. 900. My feet land on the brick and bare earth floor with a crunching sound.

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Original, 1100 year old brick floor.

The brick and earth floor is original, and very uneven. Roman style bricks are laid on their sides in a pleasing and rhythmic herring-bone pattern. Where the floor was just too far gone to restore, one of the more recent owners had filled the empty spaces with smooth and level cement, creating a contrast that exaggerates the rustic (the word seems like a ridiculous understatement considering the age of the place) look of the brick pavers.

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Space left by missing pavers has been filled with concrete.

The most striking feature in the room is an Islamic double horseshoe arch, supported by a slender column that rises up from an understated base nested humbly into the brick floor. I have no understanding of the various socioeconomic strata of the time during which this place was constructed. I do know, however, due to its proximity to the cathedral, which was previously the main mosque of the city, that this home was no peasants home. Yet neither was it the home of a powerful family. Perhaps the fact that most of the plaster covering the brick and stone walls was gone, (it would have been that plaster that would have carried the bulk of decorative pattern that would tell the more complete story of the social position of the builder and occupant of this house) was throwing me off. “Best not to try to infer too much in the absence of any meaningful information.” I thought. I made a mental note to get in touch with one of my more scholarly friends.

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Double horseshoe arches

Standing in front of the arches, the heighth of the space is surprising. Vertical shafts of eerie blueish light graze the rough faces of the brick walls, highlighting the texture and lending an even deeper air of antiquity to the space. It looks almost as if the set designers for Raiders of the Lost Ark had been hired to design this place. Or, more likely, had visited Toledo for inspiration. In fact, Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford, visited Toledo last year around this time, and I can’t help but wonder if he visited this place. If he did, he may have felt a familiar chill as he stepped through the arches and under the shaft of light. I must confess that, every time I come here, every time I pass under the hole in the ceiling that creates this shaft of light, I hear Jones’ unheeded admonition to his (unfaithful) jungle guide: “Stay out of the light.”. I must also admit that, when I do pass under it, I step quickly. You just never know…

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“Stay out of the light.”

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Household cistern. Not a well, but an underground water storage system
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