The Almudena Cathedral was once where the mosque stood, very near the granary in which Alfonso VI discovered a carved image of the Virgin Mary. He consecrated the mosque as a church and installed her image on the altar. Later, the church was destroyed by fire and centuries later rebuilt in the current form.
When you reach this site, you can see why it was the original Muslim fortress’ building site in the 9th century, taking up the best lookout point in the city. Given that Muslims established Madrid as a defense town to protect their interests further south, especially in Toledo, this gave the best strategic view of any approaching forces. This hilltop was a part of a complex network of surrounding hilltops that used fires signals to alert allies of an approaching threat.
The current Cathedral’s building itself is fairly modern; the first stone was laid in 1883 under King Alfonso XII’s direction, but it took until 1993 to complete. The Cathedral may be young but it stands on the more ancient church and mosque and bears the name of an important and equally ancient lady, La Almudena.
La Almudena was a statue of Mary that according to legend came to Spain with St. James or one of his followers around AD 38. When Muslims invaded in 711 and conquered most of Spain, including Madrid, this icon, along with many others across the Peninsula, were hidden or simply vanished to be rediscovered later (often, curiously, as the Christian conquest of the
Peninsula gained steam in the mid-Middle Ages.)
This particular Mary’s hiding place was passed down by word of mouth. But when Alfonso VI conquered Madrid in 1083, the only person who knew the Virgin’s hiding place was a little girl, named María, who under pressure, forgot. Days later, under duress to locate the ancient lady, a miracle occurred and the wall surrounding the fortress on the Cuesta de la Vega crumbled, revealing within La Virgen de la Almudena.
Discovered near the old Muslim granary to the fortress, known as almudin, this Virgin derives her name from her hiding place. The current sculpture on public display is a 16th century replica of the older 11th century one. No one can be sure if the original icon really came from Palestine in the 1st century AD.
It was in this cathedral in which crown prince, Príncipe Felipe and his bride, Princesa Letizia, were married in 2004.
Given its location, this is also a great place to watch the sunset over Madrid.