April 25, 2012
I’m on my way to Toledo, I told people. Ohio, not Spain, I added. Then I found out that the two are in fact sister cities.
The association began in the 1920s when University of Toledo President, Henry Doermann, visited Spain, while high school teacher, Russell Brown, encouraged the students in his Spanish club to correspond with their Spanish counterparts. The tie was formalized in 1931, creating the first Sister Cities relationship in North America.
Similarity in name was probably the original impetus, but today that echo has still other resonances. For two millennium, the Spanish Toledo was known as “the city of three cultures,” home to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, honoring all three in its distinctive Mudéjar architecture The Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, the Synagogue of El Transito, the Mosque of Cristo de la Luz – all built before the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492 – speak to that hybrid past in their very names.
Toledo, Ohio, tries to channel some of that. The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, the third Mosque built in the U.S., was open to interfaith dialogue long before 9/11. In 2001 it elected its first woman president, the first in this country, and maybe the first in the whole world. Its iman, not afraid of practicing ijtihad (interpreting Islam for contemporary times), speaks out on subjects like low-interest banking and women’s rights.
Cervantes liked Toledo. His knight of La Mancha wandered through that city quite a few times. Don Quixote, meanwhile, was supposed to have been written by an Arab historian, Cide Hamete Benengeli. An elaborate joke, of course, but not without meaning.