The historic City of Toledo is located on a sheer mass of rock that is surrounded and almost entirely isolated by a bend in the River Tajo, a unique meander created by this watercourse as it passes through the countryside. The city's considerable strategic and defensive importance, as well as its favourable setting, replete with rivers, fertile lands for cultivation, pastures and forests, explain why this spot has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Toledo was an important Celtiberian city, which was later conquered by the legions of Rome. Various remains have been preserved from the Roman era, such as the circus, part of the sewerage and water-supply system, as well as remains of various villas and a necropolis. In the sixth century Toledo became capital of the Visigoth Kingdom and the centre for the Toledan Councils, assemblies that had ecclesiastical, political and legislative powers. Various remains have also been preserved from this period, such as the Church of San Román, today a Museum for the Visigoth Councils and Culture, as well as numerous decorative elements that were made good use of in subsequent constructions.
A Moorish influence is especially obvious in the design of the city, which consists of a labyrinthine network of steep, narrow lanes and blind alleyways, many of which are roofed to make covered passages. From this period, a number of important buildings have been handed down to us today, such as the Mosques of El Cristo de la Luz and Tornerías and the Gates of Alfonso VI, Alcántara and Bab-al-Mardón. Following the Catholic conquest of the city in 1085, Toledo was incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile, with King Alfonso VI undertaking to respect the Moorish inhabitants and Moorish property. The Jews, who had been established in the city since the Visigoth era, made up a prosperous community thanks to the general policy of tolerance applied by the Moors. Testament to the Jewish community in Toledo is provided by the Synagogue of El Tránsito, today the Sephardic Museum, and the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, part of the Palace of Samuel ha-Leví, (who was treasurer to King Pedro I ) located at the Casa de El Greco and the Mikwad or ritual baths, located close to Santa María la Blanca.
Toledo became the City of the Three Cultures, one in which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side in harmony. This led to instances of cultural exchange as interesting and fruitful as what was known as the "Escuela de Traductores" or "School of Translators" in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which played a decisive role in conveying Greco-Latin and Moorish culture, as well as the building style known as Mudéjar. This style characterises many religious buildings throughout the city, such as the Church of Santiago del Arrabal, the Churches of San Andrés and San Vicente and the tower of the Church of Santo Tomé. Among the civil buildings of Mudéjar style, we might mention the Palace of Fuensalida, the Taller del Moro or "Moor's Workshop", the Casa de Mesa, the Palace of Galiana and the "Puerta del Sol" or "Gate of the Sun". All of these buildings were constructed with brick or edged masonry, covered with beautiful wood coffered ceilings and decorated with plasterwork and decorative tiling. In 1226, at the behest of Fernando III and Archbishop Rodrigo Ximénez de Rada, work began on the Cathedral, the only purely Gothic building from this period.
As of the fourteenth century, the climate of tolerance that had been enjoyed in Toledo over the two previous centuries would gradually disappear, especially in relation to the Jewish community, which was accused of being the cause of all of the misfortunes that arose during a period of grave economic and social crisis. The Catholic Monarchs, who sought to achieve political and religious unity throughout the kingdom, took two decisions that would affect the make-up of Toledan society: the creation of the Holy Inquisition, which was set up in Toledo in 1485, and the Edict of Expulsion of 1492, which expelled the Jews from their domains. Among the buildings that have been preserved from their reign, we might mention the Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, constructed in Gothic style, which was built to commemorate the Battle of Toro. The City of Toledo reached its era of maximum demographic expansion in the sixteenth century, when Emperor Charles V (Carlos I in Spain) made the city the capital of the Spanish Empire. This was a brilliant period in which Toledo adopted the Renaissance as its flagship style, with a series of great works being carried out under the auspices of imperial patronage. To this we might also add the work of the Toledan archbishops, who were great patrons and promoters of different constructions.
All of this was made possible thanks to the existence of magnificent architects such as Alonso de Covarrubias, not to mention sculptors, painters and artisans who continued the local traditions. The most outstanding Renaissance buildings throughout the city include the Hospital de Santa Cruz, the Hospital of Tavera, the Alcázar ("Fortress"), the Puerta Nueva de Bisagra or "New Bisagra Gate", the Puerta del Cambrón or "Cambrón Gate", the Archbishop's Palace and the Convent of San Clemente. Nevertheless, this period of splendour was not to last, given that Philip II decided to move the capital to the town of Madrid in 1561. This initiated a period of progressive decadence, be it one in which one of the most outstanding painters of all time pursued his work and career: El Greco (1576-1614), whose works are preserved as various churches and convents, such as Toledo Cathedral and the Churches of Santo Tomé and Santo Domingo el Antiguo. His creations are also preserved at museums such as the Museum-House of El Greco and the Museum de Santa Cruz.