• Registration Year


  • Registered Sector

    University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

  • Historical Function

    University city.

Location and site

Alcalá de Henares is located north-east of Madrid, in the middle of the Iberian Peninsula. The city rises in the valley of the Henares River, a Tajo tributary.

Urban Morphology

The area inscribed on the World Heritage List includes the old medieval city and the university district. The cathedral (“Iglesia Magistral”), a Gothic building whose construction was completed around 1515, rises in the centre of the network of small streets in the medieval Alcalá. North-west of the historic centre is the episcopal palace surrounded by its own enclosure. Construction began in the 14th century and the palace was extended and decorated in the following centuries. The university district, which includes the former Jewish neighbourhoods, stretches north-easterly from the “Plaza Cervantes” (the former “Plaza Mayor”). The imposing main building called “Universidad y Colegio Mayor de San Ildefonso” is the heart of the university city.

Built between 1537 and 1553 it testifies, with its impressive Plateresque facade, to the splendour and intellectual and political influence of the university of Alcalá in the 16th century. The “Patio Trilingue”, a 16th-century colonnade ambulatory named after its function i.e. the teaching of three languages, is located on the east side of the university district. Designed for ecclesiastical purposes, the university of Alcalá also has several churches, including the “Capilla de San Ildefonso” with its wood carved ceiling which is a perfect example of the city’s mudejar style. The college and the church of the Jesuits built in a more sober style show the strong connection between religion and education. With its many ecclesiastical and university monuments, Alcalá de Henares illustrates in a unique way the humanist spirit of the 16th century.

Registration Criteria

Alcalá de Henares was the first city to be designed and built to become the seat of a university. It was to serve as a model for other learning centres in Europe and the Americas. (criteria ii) The concept of the ideal city, the “Civitas Dei” (city of God), was first applied in Alcalá de Henares before spreading throughout the world. (criteria iv) The contribution of Alcalá de Henares to the intellectual development of humankind finds expression in the materialization of the “Civitas Dei” concept, the linguistic advances that took place there, namely the definition of the Spanish language, and the masterpiece of its greatest son, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Don Quichotte). (criteria vi)

Historical Reference

  • The valley of the Henares River has been inhabited since the Neolithic. At the time of the Romans, a city called Complutum was founded at this strategic location in the heart of the Iberian Peninsula. In the 4th century, the site of a Christian martyrdom near Complutum became a sanctuary and determined the permanent location of the Christian city.
  • Episcopal see during the Wisigoth period, Complutum was taken by the Moor in the 8th century and annexed to the Cordoba emirate. The Arab built a fortress there called “Al-Qal’at” (the castle) that gave the city its name from that moment on.
  • Alcalá was recaptured by the Christian empire in 1118 and became the seat of the archbishop’s palace of Toledo. The influence of the episcopal authority led to the development and prosperity of the city, which was not solely Christian however. A large Jewish community lived there from the Middle Ages up to 1496 when a royal edict expelled the Jewish from Spain.
  • Seeing that the expulsion of the Jewish had left the city economically weakened, cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros decided to turn Alcalá de Henares into a university centre. Most of the colleges were set up in the buildings formerly occupied by the Jewish.
  • Cisneros designed the university city as a functional entity – something that had never been done before in Europe in the 16th century. The Complutesian university (derived from the Roman name), including all its components, was entirely planned. Any city development project had to take the university into account. The cardinal saw the city as a “Civitas Dei” (city of God), an ideal community that would be used as a training centre for the leaders of the Church and the Spanish empire.
  • The university of Alcalá was quickly set up at the beginning of the 16th century and immediately welcomed a large number of students, which was estimated at more than 12 000 in the middle of the 16th century. The academy instantly established itself as Iberian intellectual centre.
  • Although theology was the main subject, other disciplines such as law and medicine were also taught in Alcalá, which became a humanist centre. A polyglot version of the Bible (Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic) was prepared between 1510 and 1520. Among the celebrities who were born in Alcalá de Henares is the famous author of “Don Quichotte”, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547).
  • At the beginning of the 17th century, the university of Madrid surpassed that of Alcalá, and the process continued until the 19th century. In 1836, the faculties of Alcalá de Henares were added to the university of Madrid. The deserted university buildings were saved from destruction and deterioration thanks to the extraordinary initiative of the “Sociedad de Condueños” (a co-owner association) that bought them with a view to bringing the university back to the city.
  • However, the return of the Complutesian university to Alcalá de Henares and its inauguration on the historic site did not take place until 1977. It is because of the “Sociedad de Condueños” that the Renaissance university city still exists today and has returned to its original function.
Sr. Javier Rodríguez Palacios
Alcalde de Alcalá de Henares
Ayuntamiento de Alcalá de Henares
Plaza Cervantes, 12
28801 Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, España
+34.91 888.1790

Sr. Luis Miguel García Guillén
Jefe de Obras del Ayuntamiento
Ayuntamiento de Alcalá de Henares

Alcalá de Henares, España


Centro de Interpretaci—n "Burgo de Santiuste"
Capilla del Oidor
Museo Casa Natal de Cervantes
Corral de Comedias
Casa de Hippolytus
Museo Arqueológico Regional
Palacio Laredo
Plaza de Cervantes
Plaza Cervantes
Universidad de Alcalá
Plaza de la Universidad