The building called Santa Maria La Blanca has windows of translucent golden stone.
Light falls softly down its rows of rounded arches. I stood in the quiet room, absorbing the oldest elements of the room, and wanting lost voices.
This building with the name of a church began as the Ibn Shushan Synagog in 1180. And when it was built -- when the silver rings in the antique shop across the street really touched the hands of brides -- the people who worshipped here lived freely with church bells telling the hours and muezzins calling the faithful to the mosques five times a day.
The old walled town is a hilltop of stone buildings and steep streets I feel I can almost span with my arms.
It feels contained and quiet. My sister and I can walk around it in an afternoon, in a soaking warm rain that slicks our clothes to us so the locals in doorways and umbrellas give us amused looks as we dash past, and a class of boys on a field trip whistle at her on the stone bridge on the far side.
Once, the people of this city spoke Hebrew and Arabic and Castilian and Latin. And people of different faiths met over coffee to translate stories and poetry, holy books and treatises on astronomy from one language to another.
I have walked through Toledo, looking for the School of Translators.
I don't mean a building. The school was a gathering of people. And I don't mean people in the tappas bars today, though I'm sure people are there now, as I write this on a train in the Taconics -- people talking about the flavor of wine and the rhythm of words, the storks in the chimneys and the color of the light on the walls.
If I were there, sampling homemade pate in a lamp-lit room of white-washed brick, I might miss the conversations, because I don't speak Spanish. And if I were looking for those conversations now, I would start in Seville, and in Saragosa near the University and in Granada when the student musicians improvise in the squares.
But in 1085 A.D., they were here. Arabic scholars, Arabic-speaking Christians and monks translating the books from Arabic into Latin.
When my family planned this trip to Spain, five years ago now, I learned for the first time about the centers of learning in the Islamic Spanish empire. I had known vaguely that the Islamic Empire had touched Spain.
But here I stumbled on 700 years of history I never knew existed. While Europe fragmented after the fall of Rome, scholars in Spain were inventing the astrolabe, writing to Baghdad and preserving Aristotle.
In 1085, Toledo held astronomers and engineers, irrigation systems and scribes, musicians and poets, and much of what remained of the 400,000 books -- printed on paper, not on vellum -- that once lived in the caliphal libraries of Cordoba, at the heart of the empire.
I walked up cobbled streets with foot-wide sidewalks, and baskets of flowers hung along the old walls to celebrate a saint's day, and I wanted voices raised over cups of sweet, strong coffee, talking about the words of the Quran, Persian fairy tales, Greek philosophy, Arabic theological debates, the scientists who understood navigation, landscape design, mirrors.
Toledo seemed a quiet city when I walked through it. The historic mosque was under renovation. The owner of a local antique shop showed us the Roman walls in his cellar and the mikvah, the ritual bath where the Jewish head of the family would once have bathed before he went to worship. (I don't yet know, but I would like to know, whether his wife would have bathed there too, in her turn.)
Today I can find traces of that vanished city -- a historical society exhibit in Spanish. The Mozarabic chapel where the Christian community who lived and worshipped within the Islamic kingdom worshipped in Arabic.
But Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, and the Muslims in 1609, and the Ibn Shushan Synagog is a museum now.
I hope some day I will go back -- and find students there writing poems to the month of Elul, and looking forward to Rosh Hashana.