I traveled to Toledo with the job of lecturing my colleagues on Santa María la Blanca, surely one of the oddest buildings in Spain.
Plaques and encyclopedias tell you Santa María la Blanca is a synagogue owned by the Catholic church. Nothing too weird about that, but it begs a few questions. “Why does the Catholic church own synagogue?” comes to mind.
But trying to learn about the history of this building becomes immediately frustrating.
Older history books tell different stories about the building’s origins, but as time went on those descriptions stopped being printed. I kept digging and discovered these stories were either 1) being conflated with the histories of another nearby synagogue, or 2) that they relied heavily on unreliable stories or documents we have lost. To sum up my research: there doesn’t appear to be a single document that explains where the building came from.
But I was in for a real shock when I arrived and saw it in person. Somehow, none of the books mentioned that the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca is shaped like a mosque, complete with the niche used for Muslim prayers. (Some of us, scratching our heads, wondered if we had wandered into the wrong building and went back out to double-check the sign.) Despite the design, there’s no record of the place being used as a mosque.
All relevant scholarship claims that Muslims built Santa María la Blanca, even though we can’t identify the patron. Did these Muslim builders, being unfamiliar with synagogues, design Santa María la Blanca to be similar to their own places of worship? That’s one theory, but no one knows.
Disappointingly, none of the books I read explored the idea of medieval Jews worshiping in a mosque-shaped building, but it paints a fascinating picture.
It’s been used by nuns for centuries, and they use it for training younger nuns and selling hand-made crafts.
Another oddity: no one’s fighting over the building’s origins. Every other old building in Toledo comes with a mountain of scholarship explaining why it belongs to one group or another, and there’s usually an ongoing academic battle over which culture should claim it. But Santa María la Blanca somehow avoids this mess, even though it contains a piece of every part of a medieval Iberia. No one could explain to my why this building alone escapes that academic contest.
I think Iberian scholarship has long accepted Santa María la Blanca as an outlier; as an newcomer to the subject, I found myself asking questions that researchers had long give up on answering.
I had to content myself with appreciating the miracle of a Christian building that was once a synagogue built by Muslims. There was a time when these three great faiths lived together in medieval Spain, maintaining an impressive, if sometimes troublesome, alliance. Santa María la Blanca reminded me that peace is not a hopeless pursuit if I’ll just remember to love my neighbor.