Located just 35km northeast of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares was awarded the title of World Heritage site for its beautiful city centre and university in 1998. The city is the world’s first planned university city and thus a model for other university towns worldwide.
It stands out for its rich archaeology and was one of the first bishoprics founded in Spain. Locally, it is generally known simply as “Alcalá”, but “de Henares” is appended when needed to differentiate it from a dozen Spanish cities sharing the name Alcalá. The Latin name, Complutum, is sometimes used. The city is the capital of its namesake region, Comarca de Alcalá.
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.
When the Moors arrived in 711, they subdued the Visigothic city and founded another site, building an al-qal’a, which means “citadel” in Arabic, on a nearby hill, today known as Alcalá la Vieja. 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 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.
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.