Segovia, Spain lies about 50 miles north of Madrid in the Castile and León region. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this medieval town of 55,000 residents boasts a Roman aqueduct, a castle, numerous churches, and a Gothic cathedral, with the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains as its backdrop. Segovia was founded by the Celts but was captured and ruled by the Romans around 80 BC for 500 years. Spending a day in Segovia reveals its historical importance for the Romans and the Spanish Catholics; however, a deeper look illuminates a less obvious level of importance, one that illustrates the complex historical intersection of three religions in Spain.
The Old Town of Segovia and its Roman aqueduct were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The aqueduct, known as “El Puente,” stands as one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Visitors from around the world travel to Segovia to see this marvel in ancient Roman architecture. The 2,000-year old aqueduct is an imposing 100 feet high, spans 2,500 feet wide, and contains 118 arches. It is crafted of 20,000 granite blocks stacked on top of each other without the use of mortar. The aqueduct was built to transport water ten miles from the Frio River to Segovia and was used until 1950. According to UNESCO, the aqueduct “is the symbol of the city and can in no way be separated from Segovia as a whole.” It stands proudly at the entrance of the old town in Plaza del Azoguejo.
Alcázar de Segovia
At the opposite end of Segovia, through the maze of winding streets, numerous Romanesque churches, and architectural facades of times past, lies Alcázar de Segovia. Although it looks like a Disney-inspired castle, it is actually the opposite. It is believed Walt Disney modeled Sleeping Beauty’s castle after Segovia’s Alcázar. The name Alcázar means “fortress,” indicative of its Moorish roots. Built between the 7th and 9th centuries, the structure was originally a Moorish stronghold. In the late 11th century King Alfonso VI conquered and expelled the Muslims and took control of the Alcázar. The Muslim fortress was expanded and converted into a castle, becoming a favorite residence of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II. Today this museum stands as an architectural reminder of the complex history of the Iberian Peninsula, with stunning views that cannot be missed.
During the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand the Spanish Reconquista via the Spanish Inquisition reached its peak, and its home was Segovia. Subtle evidence of such still lingers, though it must be sought with a keen eye. San Millan, a Romanesque-style church, was constructed in the 12th century outside the old city in what was once the poor area of the Segovian Moors, where Mozarab artisans once worked. Although its floor plan is designed after the Cathedral of Jaca, it contains Islamic influences including Caliphate-style decorations and vaulted ceilings and includes a tower from a previous Mozárabe building. A look inside illustrates how the cultures intertwined over the centuries.
During the Middle Ages leading up to Reconquista, Jews and Muslims lived in Aljama communities in Spain. These were self-governing quarters where they were free to live in a manner that supported their lifestyles but still required to pay taxes to the Iberian government. During this time Jews were not kept in mandatory isolation; rather, there is evidence of daily interactions with Christians, including gambling. In 1481, ten years before Isabella and Ferdinand issued the Edict of Expulsion ordering all Jews to convert to Christianity or leave Spain, Jews were ordered into a Jewish “ghetto” within Segovia; look closely as remnants of the ghetto remain today.
The Jews were forced to live inside the ghetto with its seven delineated iron gates. The gates have since been removed but their archways remain. As you stroll through this part of town, imagine these decorative archways housing iron gates used to enclose the Segovia Jewish community in isolation from the rest of the city. Further evidence of the Jewish Ghetto is seen by keeping an eye out for old Jewish Quarter street signs as well as Hebrew markings on the ground indicating the ghetto’s borders.
Prior to the Edict of Expulsion, Segovia housed five synagogues. The Convent of Corpus Christi, in the former Jewish Quarter, was originally built as the principle synagogue. But in 1419, the Church confiscated it and appropriated it into a church in dedication of Corpus Christi. In 1421, it was used as a monastery and later became a convent, which is how it remains to this day. To further add to Segovia’s intertwining of the world’s three largest religions, some believe the principle synagogue was actually constructed on top of a mosque. A visit inside provides unique insight not typically seen. The original Jewish architectural style remains, as is evident with its décor of pineapples, scrolls and artwork, juxtaposed by the altarpiece which is dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi.
A short walk from Corpus Christi is the old Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately, the graves have been excavated in an attempt to seek information about the community. The cemetery also has been looted over the years, but spending a few minutes here is worth the time. Take a moment to view the different burial styles and notice the graves point east toward Jerusalem, with the heads oriented to the west.
Cathedral of Segovia
A visit to Segovia is not complete without taking in the Cathedral of Segovia. Located in the Plaza Mayor in the center of the Old Town, construction on the church began in 1525 and represents Spain’s last Gothic cathedral. This church is a testament to grandeur, with an exterior of flying buttresses and pinnacles, and an interior embellished with stained glass windows, historical art, sculptures, a beautifully crafted choir loft, Baroque organs and eighteen chapels housing numerous altars. The tower stands over 300 feet high and a climb to the top offers a bird’s eye view of this picturesque town.
Along with its medieval charm, Segovia offers modern artisanal shops, quaint cafes and popular restaurants serving the local favorite, suckling pig. Strolling through this picturesque town reveals a mosaic of architectural facades, providing evidence of times long past as well as societal hierarchies. There is much to see and enjoy on the surface, but take a step closer, look a bit deeper, and Segovia will unveil its role in the complex history of Spain.
If You Go
Visit Segovia is a tourism site to help you plan your day in Segovia, including maps, guided tours, accommodations, and restaurants.
UNESCO World Heritage Site provides insight to the criteria used to determine Segovia’s universal value.