The city boundaries have been inhabited since the Chalcolithic phase of the Bronze Age. Romans conquered the area in the 1st century BC, and built the town of Complutum near a previous Carpetanian settlement, called Iplacea. Thus, it became the only Roman town in the Madrid region. With 10,000 inhabitants, it reached the status of Municipium and had its own governing institutions. After the downfall of the Roman Empire, under the Visigoths, it declined, although it also became a pilgrimage destination in remembrance of the Saints Justo and Pastor.
Tower of the Old Castle of Alcalá La Vieja
When the Moors arrived in 711, they subdued the Visigothic city and founded another site, building an al-qalʿa, which means "citadel" in Arabic, on a nearby hill, today known as Alcalá la Vieja (Old Alcalá). On 3 May 1118, it was reconquered by the Archbishop of Toledo Bernard de Sedirac in the name of Castile. The Christians preferred the Burgo de Santiuste ("Saint Just's borough") on the original Roman site and the Arab one was abandoned. The city was ceded to the Bishopric of Toledo, which granted it ferial rights. Under Christian rule until the end of the Reconquista, the city had both a Jewish and a Moorish quarter and a renowned marketplace. Its central position allowed it to be a frequent residence of the Kings of Castile, when travelling south.
At some time in the 1480s, Christopher Columbus had his first meeting with the Reyes Católicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, who financed the travel for the Discovery of America.
The city suffered severe damage during the Spanish Civil War.
Historic figures and events
Statues of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza outside Cervantes' birthplace
The author Miguel de Cervantes was born in Alcalá de Henares, and baptized in the Church of Santa María in 1547, although his family moved from the city when he was still young. The city celebrates his birthday, 9 October, every year and organizes an annual Cervantes festival. The local university is acknowledged as a global leader in the study of Cervantes and his works.
Every year on 23 April, the anniversary of Cervantes' death, the city of Alcalá hosts the ceremony awarding the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world's most prestigious award for lifetime achievement in literature. The award is presented by the King of Spain at the University of Alcalá's historic "Colegio de San Ildefonso." Speeches about the importance of the Spanish language are customarily given by the King, the Minister of Culture and the laureate. The ceremony attracts a wide range of dignitaries to the city including members of the Royal Family, the Prime Minister, and others. During this ceremony the citizens of Alcalá can be heard singing the city's song, entitled "Alcalá de Henares."
Other notable figures associated with the city are Ferdinand I of Aragon, cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, the mystic John of the Cross, the theologian Gabriel Vázquez, the poet Juan Ruiz, Arcipreste de Hita, and Manuel Azaña Díaz, writer and politician, who was President of the Second Spanish Republic between 1936 and 1939. The historian Antonio de Solís was also probably born here. Ignatius of Loyola was once a student at the university, yet after several confrontations with the Spanish Inquisition, he left the city.
Alcalá hosts an annual "Noche en Blanco." During this festival the streets are filled with music, art, theatre, and dance as the city residents celebrate Alcalá's rich cultural heritage. The festival goes well into the night and centers around the Plaza de Cervantes where stages are set up to host the performances.
Roman mosaic (part of the archeological ensemble of Complutum) representing the four seasons
from the House of Bacchus.
The town of historic importance was one of the first bishoprics founded in Spain.
The polyglot Bible known as the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first of the many similar Bibles produced during the revival of Biblical studies that took place in the 16th century, was printed at Alcalá under the care of Cardinal Cisneros.
A papal bull of 7 March 1885, united Alcalá with (effectively merging it into) the diocese of Madrid which includes the civil province of Madrid, suffragan of the archbishopric of Toledo. The bishop's residence has since been used for preserving historical archives. It was designed by Alonso Berruguete and has a famous staircase.
During Muslim rule, the Jewish community of the city was granted equal rights as the Christians living in it. In the Middle Ages, the Jewish congregation of the city paid taxes to the Archbishop of Toledo. The Jews of Alcala were mentioned in the 14th-century Satire by Marrano Pero Ferrús. During the 15th century, the Jewish congregation of the city was one of the largest in Castile, having about 200 Jewish families. Hebrew studies at the University of Alcala were encouraged by Cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros during the 16th century, bringing some Jews and Marrano Hebraists to work in the city. The location of the Jewish quarter of the city is well known – between Mayor, Santiago, Imagen and Cervantes streets. One synagogue stood in Carmen Calzado street, no. 10. The other was on Santiago street. After the 1492 Alhambra Decree Jews were requested to become Christians to continue living in Castile and Aragon, those who refused had to left these kingdoms and most of them found residence in North of Africa, Amsterdam and the Ottoman Empire.
The origins of Miguel de Cervantes' family are supposed, there is no total certainty, to be Jewish. Because his father worked on the former Jewish neighbourhood, the birthplace was close to the workplace, and also because the surname Cervantes makes reference to a different site in the Northwest of Spain, and geographical surnames were common among the Jewish population.