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The keys of Toledo

Finding echoes of a lost home in Kashmir in the locked doors of a Spanish neighbourhood

Toledo’s Santa María La Blanca, a former synagogue turned church, is now a museum. Photo: Alamy
Toledo’s Santa María La Blanca, a former synagogue turned church, is now a museum. Photo: Alamy

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Toledo was an unexpected entrant on my Spanish holiday itinerary. I had researched magical-sounding places like Alhambra and Seville and put them on my must-visit list, but of Toledo I didn’t know much beyond that it was an ancient town. But going in without research or expectations meant that Toledo could surprise me.

In the tiny church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, The Burial Of The Count Of Orgaz by Renaissance painter El Greco took my breath away. On a leisurely walk through the town’s uneven, cobble-stoned lanes, I admired its centuries-old buildings. Their weathered façades combined Moorish and Spanish elements, bearing evidence to the influences Toledo has embraced over the centuries.

And then there was the museum that was a church, and before that a synagogue built by Muslim workers for the Jewish community under a Christian regime. Not so unusual for a town that had the distinction of hosting Muslims, Jews and Christians in the 12th and 13th centuries and giving all three the freedom to practise their individual faiths. They lived in such harmony that Toledo was known as the “city of three cultures”.

Built in the late 1100s, the structure’s architecture is pre-dominantly Moorish, while incorporating the needs of the Jewish faith. The central arch with a scallop design has a place beneath it for the storing of Torahs.

Around the 1400s, anti-Semitism gathered speed, and Jews began to be persecuted in this region as in many other Christian kingdoms. The synagogue was converted into a church, the Santa María la Blanca, and now a museum and a national monument. The lone Star of David on a beam is the sole reminder of its earlier avatar.

The Jews were given three options—conversion, expulsion or summary execution—and soon the whole Jewish Quarter was deserted. The Jews left with the hope that their exile was temporary, and that they would soon return to their homes and businesses and resume their old lives. They left their homes intact, taking away only the barest of essentials. But a futile, lifetime-long wait did not see them return and so they handed over their house keys from Toledo to the next generation, and then the generations after, keeping the hope of return alive in the community.

As the guide finished his narrative, the other tourists drifted away, but I remained rooted to the spot. “Did they ever return?” I asked the guide, “any of their successors?” Never, he told me.

I looked at the silent streets and houses of the Jewish Quarter with new eyes but a familiar pain. Behind those doors must be umpteen stories of fear, loss, despair and all other emotions that my community also felt, when we were compelled to leave our homes in the Kashmir Valley 28 years ago.

We left clothes hanging in cupboards, books on their shelves, and attics full of grain and bedding stored for winter. We left behind a hundred things that make up a home, reminders to ourselves that we would return at some vaguely-defined point in the future. The doors were secured with locks and the keys safely pocketed for that day of return.

Over the years, many of the empty houses fell to vandalism, arson and neglect. My parents’ house, my childhood home, was burned twice, and just the stone framework survived.

That sunny afternoon, in an unexpected corner of a distant land, I had run into a parallel of my past. It didn’t matter whether the lane or the houses were in Spain or in Kashmir, or whether the communities had been targeted centuries or three decades ago; for pain and anguish strike everybody alike.

A few days later, I Skyped my parents and told them about Toledo. I asked my dad whether he still had the keys to our house. There was a pause. Mom said slowly, “A key has no value without a lock.” My dad, who’d stepped away after my query, returned and said, “Except when it is not just a key but a link to your heritage and legacy, a link between your past and your present, a reminder of your roots.”

With that, he lovingly held up the old key in his hand. It was shining, he kept it polished.

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