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The Peoples of Sicily: A Multicultural Legacy. Full of Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Germans
and Jews, the most significant general history of Sicily ever published is about much more than an island in the sun. Can the eclectic
medieval experience of the world's most conquered island be a lesson for our times? Find out as you meet the peoples! (368 pages on acid-free
paper, ebook available) Read more.
Women of Sicily: Saints, Queens & Rebels. Meet a timeless sisterhood of pious Roman
maidens, steadfast Sicilian queens, and a Jewish mother who faced the horrors of the Inquisition. Find an island's feminine soul
in the first book about Sicily's historical women written in English by a Sicilian woman in Sicily. (224 pages on acid-free paper,
ebook available) Read more.
A.D. - Anno Domini. After the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also C.E. for "common" era.|
Arabs - Semitic, Arabic-speaking peoples of Arabia and other regions. Also Moors and Saracens.
B.C. - Before the traditional birth of Jesus Christ. Also B.C.E., before the "common" era.
Berbers - Nomadic and trading peoples native to northwest Africa.
Byzantine - Pertaining to Byzantium or its culture. Relating to medieval successor of the Eastern Roman Empire until 15th century.
Byzantium - Constantinople (see below).
Christianity - Religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ (c. 4 BC- c. AD 28) as Son of God (and Messiah), revealed particularly through the Bible, including the New Testament.
Constantinople - Later name for Byzantium, city founded by Greeks on the Bosporus strait.
Goths - Germanic tribe of central and eastern Europe, divided into Ostrogoths and Visigoths.
Islam - Religion founded by Muhammad (570-632) in Arabia as Prophet of Allah (God), whose message is revealed in the Koran. Islam is Arabic for "surrender" or "submission."
Jews - People whose religion is rooted in Judaism (see below). Often, those whose ethnic origins are Hebrew and Jewish.
Judaism - Monotheistic religion of the Hebrews, based on the Biblical Old Testament and Talmud. From "Judea," a kingdom and later a Roman province.
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Longobards - Tribe of Baltic origin that settled in northern Italy (Lombardy) and established feudal towns in the South.
Middle Ages - Period dated from fall of Rome (AD 476) to Goths until fall of Constantinople to Turks (1453), or from 500 to 1500.
Moors - Also Saracens. Arab peoples, usually Muslim, who conquered medieval Sicily, Spain and northwestern Africa.
Normans - People of Frankish and Nordic (Viking) origin in Normandy who conquered parts of Italy and Britain in 11th century.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.
Romans - Citizens of the extended Roman Empire.
They ruled Sicily for two centuries and a few decades but their
influence was nothing short of monumental. Under their administration, the
island's population doubled as dozens of towns were founded and cities repopulated.
The Arabs changed Sicilian agriculture and cuisine. Their scientific
and engineering achievements were remarkable. More significantly, they changed
society itself. To this day, many Sicilian social attitudes reflect the
profound influence - often in subtle ways - of the Arabs who ruled a thousand
years ago but who (with the Greeks and others)
are the ancestors of today's Sicilians.
The Arabs, who in medieval times were sometimes called "Saracens"
or "Moors," have been identified since antiquity (in Assyrian
records dated to circa 850 BC), but until the Middle Ages they were not
unified as a people. In the Early Middle Ages, it was Islam that united
the Arabs and established the framework of Islamic law, which may have
influenced European legal principles as far away as the Norman Kingdom of England and its common law. Initially, most Muslims
were Arabs, and during the Arab rule of Sicily their Islamic faith was closely
identified with them. (Even today, many principles believed to be tenets
of Islam are, in fact, Arab practices unrelated to Muslim ethics.) The rapid
growth of Arab culture could be said to parallel the dissemination of Islam.
Except for some poetry, the first major work of literature published entirely in Arabic
was the Koran (Quran), the holy book of Islam, and one may loosely define
Arabs by the regions where Arabic was spoken in the Middle Ages and afterwards.
Arabs were a Semitic people of the Middle East. The Berbers of northwest
Africa and the Sahara were not Arabs, though many converted to Islam, adopted
Arabic as their language and assimilated with Arab society. Though most
parts of Sicily were conquered by Arabs, certain areas where settled by
people who, strictly speaking, were Muslim Berbers. Like many Berbers, some Arabs were nomadic.
With the emergence of the Byzantine Empire,
groups of Arabs lived in bordering areas in the Arabian peninsula and parts
of what are now Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt. Their language, Arabic,
is a Semitic tongue of various dialects related to Hebrew and Ethiopic,
written in script from right to left.
Muhammad (the Prophet of Islam) was born in Mecca around AD 570 and his religious community
at Medina eventually grew to dominate the entire Arabian peninsula. Following
Muhammad's death in 632, caliphs (civil and religious leaders) succeeded
him. Three families from Muhammad's tribe ruled the expanding Arabian empire
for the next few centuries, namely the Umayyads (661-750), the Abbasids
(750-850) and the Alids (Fatimid dynasty in northern Africa
from 909 to 1171). In practice, certain regions - including Sicily - were actually controlled
by particular (if minor) families, or often under local emirs (there were
several in Sicily when the Normans arrived in 1061).
Initially, the Arabs aspired to little more than some productive land in coastal areas and around the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, but within decades of the Prophet's death their objectives grew greater. With the growth of their society supported by conversions to Islam, the wealth sought by Arabs was precisely that which the Koran (3:14) discouraged: "The passion for women, the desire for male children, the thirst for gold and silver, spirited horses, and the possession of cattle and land, in fact all the pleasures of life on earth." Sicily offered all of these things in abundance.
By 650, the Arabs were making their way through Libya and Tunisia, and
what remained of the once-prosperous city of Carthage was destroyed
in 698. The Byzantines had already lost these areas,
but they retained control of Sicily - despite numerous raids by Arab pirates -
until 827. In that year, Euphemius, a Byzantine admiral and resident governor
of Sicily who found himself at odds with the Emperor, offered the governorship
of the island to Ziyadat Allah, the Aghlabid Emir of Al Qayrawan (in Tunisia) in exchange
for his support. This fiasco resulted in the landing of over ten thousand
Arab and Berber troops at Mazara in the western part of Sicily. Euphemius
was soon killed and Sicily's Arab period had begun.
Three Arab dynasties ruled Sicily - first the Aghlabids (a "minor" family based in
Tunisia which had broken away from the Abbasids of Baghdad) and then, from 909, the Fatimids,
who entrusted much of their authority to the Kalbids in 948. In that year, Hassan al-Kalbi became the
first Emir of All Sicily. By 969, the Fatimid dynasty (descended from the Prophet's daughter, Fatima) were
moving their geographic center of power to Cairo, leaving their Tunisian capitals (Madiyah and Al Quayrawan)
and western territories to the care of what in Europe would be called "vassals."
Islam spread quickly across the Mediterranean but in Sicily the Arabs'
conquest was a slow one. Panormos, which was to become the seat of
an emirate as Bal'harm (Palermo) in 948, fell in 832. Messina was
taken in 843. Enna (the Arabs' Kasr' Yanni, also an emirate) was
conquered in 858. With the violent fall of Syracuse in 878, the conquest
was essentially complete, though Taormina and several other mountaintop
communities held out for a few more years.
Byzantine society, culture and government were closely identified with
Christianity, and the law was based largely (though not entirely) on Judeo-Christian
ideas, but it would have been mistaken to consider the Byzantine state a
theocracy. Moreover, as Christianity already existed in many regions (such as Sicily) in the Byzantine Empire, there was not always a need to introduce (or impose) it. Islam, however, was a way of life that could not easily be separated from society itself, and it was a religion formerly unknown in Sicily. This obviously influenced Arab society in Sicily and elsewhere, though efforts were made to retain something of the established order. In the early ninth century, Islam itself could be said to be in its formative stages socially, with certain literary sources (collections of hadiths containing sunnahs or "laws") still being written.
Arab administration, if not particularly enlightened, was not very harsh
by medieval standards, but it was far from egalitarian. Sicily's Christians
and Jews (Sicily was at least half Muslim by 1060) were highly taxed, and
clergy could not recite from the Bible or Talmud within earshot of Muslims.
Christian and Jewish women (who like Muslim ones were veiled in public)
could not share the public baths with Muslim women -many of whom were ex-Christians
converted to Islam to contract financially or socially advantageous marriages
to Muslim men. Non-Muslims had to stand in the presence of Muslims. New
churches and synagogues could not be built, nor Muslims converted to other
faiths. A number of large churches, such as the cathedral of Palermo, were
converted to mosques. (The Arabic inscription shown above is still visible on one of its columns.)
A degree of religious tolerance prevailed; there were no forced conversions.
Yet, a new social order was soon in place. Except for a few merchants and
sailors, there had been very few Muslim Arabs in Sicily before 827, but Byzantine
legal strictures imposed upon them, and upon the Jews living across the
island, cannot be said to have been as rigid as those imposed upon non-Muslims
by the Arabs after about 850. At first, however, many Sicilians probably
welcomed the prospect of change because they had been overtaxed and
over-governed by their Byzantine rulers.
The Arabs introduced superior irrigation systems; some of their underground qanats
(kanats) still flow under Palermo. They established the Sicilian
silk industry, and at the court of the Norman monarch Roger
II great Arab thinkers like the geographer Abdullah
al Idrisi were welcome. Agriculture became more varied and more efficient,
with the widespread introduction of rice, sugar cane,
cotton and oranges. This, in turn, influenced Sicilian
cuisine. Many of the most popular Sicilian foods trace their origins to
the Arab period.
Dozens of towns were founded or resettled during the Saracen era, and
souks (suks, or street markets) became more common than before. Bal'harm (Palermo) was repopulated and became one of the largest Arab
cities after Baghdad and Cordoba (Cordova), and one of the most beautiful. Construction on Bal'harm's al-Khalesa district built near the sea was begun in 937 by Khalid Ibn Ishaq, who was then Governor of Sicily. Despite later estimates of a greater population, there were probably about two hundred thousand
residents in and around this city by 1050, and it was the capital
of Saracen Sicily. Bal'harm was the official residence of the Governors and
Emirs of All Sicily, and al-Khalesa (now the Kalsa district) was its administrative center. As we've mentioned, in 948 the Fatimids granted a degree
of autonomy to the Kalbid dynasty, whose last "governor" (effectively a hereditary emir), Hasan II (or Al-Samsan), ruled until 1053. By then, Kasyr Yanni (Enna), Trapani, Taormina and Syracuse were also self-declared, localized "emirates." (This word was sometimes used rather loosely to describe any hereditary ruler of a large locality; in law Sicily had been a unified emirate governed from Palermo since 948, but by the 1050s the others had challenged his authority over them.)
Naturally, Arabic was widely spoken and it was a major influence
on Sicilian, which emerged as a Romance (Latin) language during the subsequent
(Norman) era. The Sicilian vernacular was in constant evolution, but until
the arrival of the Arabs the most popular language in Sicily was a dialect
of Greek. Under the Moors Sicily actually became a polyglot community; some
localities were more Greek-speaking while others were predominantly Arabic-speaking.
Mosques stood alongside churches and synagogues.
Arab Sicily, by 948 governed from Bal'harm with little intervention from Qayrawan (Kairouan), was
one of Europe's most prosperous regions --intellectually, artistically and
economically. (At the same time, Moorish Spain was comparable to Sicily
in these respects, but its prior society had been essentially Visigothic
rather than Byzantine.) With the exception of occasional landings
in Calabria, the Sicilian Arabs coexisted peacefully with the
peoples of the Italian peninsula. These were Lombards (Longobard descendants)
and Byzantines in Calabria, Basilicata and Apulia, where Bari was the largest
Under the Byzantines' empire, Sicily enjoyed some contact with the East, but
as part of a larger Arab empire having greater contact with China and India, Far Eastern
developments such as paper (made from cotton or wood), the compass and Arabic numerals
(actually Indian) arrived. So did Arab inventions, such as henna - though today's middle-class Sicilian
obsession with artficial blondness is a twentieth-century phenomenon. Under the Arabs, Sicily
and Spain found themselves highly developed compared to England and Continental northern Europe.
Byzantium hadn't forgotten Sicily, and in 1038 George Maniakes, at the head of an army of Byzantine-Greeks, Normans, Vikings and Lombards, attempted an invasion of Sicily without success. By the 1050s, the Pope, and some Norman knights from this failed adventure, were casting a long
glance toward Sicily with an eye to conquest. This desire was later fueled
by dissension among the island's Arabs, leading to support by the Emir of
Syracuse for the Normans against the emirates of Enna and Palermo. Most
of these internal problems developed after the ruling Fatimids moved their
capital from Tunisia to Egypt, where they established Cairo (near ancient
The Normans conquered Messina in 1061 and reached the gates of Palermo
a decade later, removing from power the local emir, Yusuf Ibn Abdallah, but respecting Arab customs. Their conquest of Arab Sicily was slower than their conquest
of Saxon England, which began in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings. Kasr
Yanni was still ruled by its emir, Ibn Al-Hawas, who held out for years.
His successor, Ibn Hamud, surrendered, and converted to Christianity, only
in 1087. Initially, and for over a century, the Normans' Sicilian kingdom
was the medieval epitome of multicultural tolerance. By 1200, this was beginning
to change. While the Muslim-Arab influence continued well into the Norman
era - particularly in art and architecture - it was not to endure. The Normans
gradually "Latinized" Sicily, and this social process laid the
groundwork for the introduction of Catholicism (as opposed to eastern Orthodoxy).
Widespread conversion ensued, and by the 1280s there were few - if any -
Muslims in Sicily. Yet, the mass immigration of north-African Arabs (and
Berbers) was the greatest Sicilian immigration since that of the ancient
Greeks, leaving today's Sicilians as Saracen as Hellenic.
While Norman government and law in Sicily were essentially European, introducing institutions such as the feudal system, at first they were profoundly influenced by Arab (and even Islamic) practices. Many statutes were universal, but in the earliest Norman period each Sicilian --Muslim, Christian, Jew-- was judged by the laws of his or her own faith.
When did the various Sicilian localities cease to be Arab (or Byzantine Greek)? There was not an immediate change. Following the Norman conquest, complete Latinization, fostered largely by the Roman Church and its liturgy, took the better part of two centuries, and even then there remained pockets of Byzantine influence in northeastern Sicily's Nebrodi Mountains.
Had the Normans not conquered Sicily, it might have evolved into an essentially Arab society not unlike that which survived in some parts of Spain into the later centuries of the Middle Ages, and the Sicilian vernacular language (as we know it) would have developed later. It is interesting to consider that general functional literacy among Sicilians was higher in 870 under the Arabs and Byzantines than it was in 1870 under the Italians (at about seventeen percent). In certain social respects, nineteenth-century Sicily still seemed very Arab, especially outside the largest cities, well into the early years of the twentieth century.
About the Authors: Luigi Mendola is the History Editor of Best of Sicily and author of several books. Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno, who contributed to this article, has
written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.