Call it what you like – a thirst for knowledge, insatiable curiosity, or simply a keen desire to learn and know more, education is an aspirational element of the human spirit. For more than 900 years students from Spain and around the world have been attending classes at what is now Universidad de Salamanca, Spain, one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world.
But a considerable amount of time – and history – would pass before a university at Salamanca could be firmly established under Spanish rule. The area of western Spain was long considered a desirable place since its founding in ancient pre-Roman times. In 220 BC Hannibal conquered the area. The Romans then captured it from the Carthaginians. (A bridge still in use in the city was built by Romans in the 1st Century AD.) Other conquerors included Alans (thought to be of Iranian origin), Visigoths, Moors, and finally Christians would settle what is now Spain. (As late as 1492, Spain was still in the process of consolidating her borders.)
For many people, 1492 is a well-known date; in October of that year Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, claiming it for Spain, and setting off centuries of conquest, murder, and the pillaging of lands and riches from indigenous people. The gold that flowed from South America fueled Spanish wealth and ambitions, and the reverberations in the Americas are still being felt today. Prior to setting sail Columbus spent years traipsing across Europe trying to convince a wealthy patron he could get to the East by sailing west. His ideas were occasionally heard and his proposals were dismissed more often than not.
In late 1486 or early 1487 Columbus pleaded his case at the University of Salamanca before a body of scholars who had been asked by the king and queen to evaluate his proposal. Ultimately the assembled body rejected his ideas, based in large part on Columbus’ assertion that an Atlantic crossing would be a relatively short and easy task. Surprisingly, Columbus’ ideas never considered the existence of the Americas, only that an ocean lay between Spain and the Far East.
By the time Columbus left Salamanca empty handed, the university had already become a highly respected institute of learning. In 1218 Alfonso IX of León (king of León and Galicia), granted the university a royal charter, even though students had been attending classes there as far back as the early 1100’s AD. By the 16th Century AD there were approximately 6,500 students attending the university in the city that had a then-population of about 24,000 people. The university is considered the third-oldest continually operating institute of higher learning in the world.
Over the centuries Salamanca University has contributed to a number of important academic milestones. For example, it was here that Medieval notions of law were replaced by concepts that people had a right to life, the right to own property, and there was an acceptance of freedom of thought and basic human dignity. Today the university is home to colleges of medicine and science, law, humanities, and liberal arts, and it offers more than 250 academic programs. There are now almost 32,000 students in attendance and the city of Salamanca has a population of approximately 170,000 people. The university and tourism account for major sources of revenue in the city.
Visitors – as well as students – find much to enjoy in the city. It goes without saying that Salamanca, approximately 120 miles west of Madrid, has the feel and vibrancy of a university town. Its popularity as a first-rate venue to learn Spanish results in a large international student population. And the centuries of successive peoples who have called the place home blends in a rich tapestry of cultures. Fans of architecture can find throughout the city excellent examples of Roman, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. In 1988 UNESCO designated the city as a World Heritage Site.
Salamanca may be an old city, but one with a young heart. Visitors will leave with a lasting appreciation of the history and importance this city along the Tormes River has had on Spain, the world, and the ideal of advanced education.
For more information about the history of Salamanca, Universidad de Salamanca, click over to these websites: