Predated by earlier settlements (oppida) on the left bank of the Henares, the city has its origins in the Complutum settlement founded in Roman times on the right bank (north) of the river, that became a bishopric seat in the 5th century. One of the several Muslim citadels in the Middle Mark of al-Andalus (hence the name Alcalá, a derivative of the Arabic term for citadel) was established on the left bank, while, after the Christian conquest culminated circa 1118, the bulk of the urban nucleus returned to the right bank. For much of the late middle-ages and the early modern period before becoming part of the province of Madrid, Alcalá de Henares was a seigneurial estate of the archbishops of Toledo.
The city has a long university tradition. Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros founded the Complutense University in Alcalá de Henares in the late 15th century. The city currently hosts the (refounded) University of Alcalá. It is the native city of Miguel de Cervantes.
The city today
The center of the city remains essentially medieval, with many winding cobbled streets, and many historic buildings. The city centre surrounds the Plaza de Cervantes and is traversed by a long pedestrian main street, the Calle Mayor. The city includes the Moorish quarter, the Jewish quarter, and the Christian quarter. These distinct neighborhoods have given Alcalá the reputation of “the city of three cultures.”
The old city centre has been largely preserved, unlike the suburbs. There has been no clear planning by the city councillors regarding expansion, and the sprawling suburban areas are irregularly constructed, with the addition of 1970s-style high rise blocks in many places.
One of the most important streets in the city is the Calle del Cardenal Cisneros which takes tourists from the Madrid Gate at the entrance of the city, to the old city center and the cathedral in Santos Niños Square. The main park of Alcalá, Parque Municipal O’Donnell is a major recreational center for city residents and lies along a main road of Alcalá, Vía Complutense.
Recent archaeological excavations have opened up the city’s Roman forum where a large complex comprising a basilica, public baths, a cryptoporticus, a market and a large monumental façade stands out. Alongside the forum is the Domus with an extraordinary collection of Roman domestic mural paintings. On the outskirts is the House of Hippolytus, an old school. In turn, the Regional Archaeology Museum (MAR) holds highly valuable mosaics.
The city hosts a large population of international students due to the presence of the university, and in particular its Spanish language and literature programs for foreign students. Alcalingua, a branch of University of Alcalá, is one of the major foreign language learning centers for students from abroad.
Alcalá is well known for its population of white storks. Their large nests can be observed atop many of the churches and historic buildings in the city, and are themselves a significant tourist attraction. Situated in the lowlands of the Henares river, the city is an attractive home for the migratory storks due to the wide availability of food and nesting material in the area.
For over twenty years, Alcalá’s storks have been counted and studied, and the active protection and maintenance of their nests is by official policy. Although once in danger of disappearing, with only eleven pairs counted between 1986 and 1987, the population has grown to around 90 resident pairs today, many of which have shortened the distance and duration of their typical migrations to remain in the city nearly all year.