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Some of the most important descriptions of Norman
Sicily (1071-1200) come to us from Arab and Muslim
sources. These are especially important in their objectivity because, unlike
visitors from northern (Christian) Europe, those from Muslim regions brought
to their observations a somewhat more sophisticated point of reference.
They weren't easily impressed by the more superficial aspects of a wealthy
kingdom. Most of the greatest literary and scientific achievements of the
Middle Ages emanated first from the East (the Byzantine Empire) and subsequently
from Arab influences. Sicily was fortunate to be touched by both of these
flourishing cultures. Idrisi is the best known of the Arab geographer-poets
to have visited Sicily, but another is equally distinguished.
Abu Hussain Muhammed ibn Ahmad ibn Jubayr (or Jubair) al-Kenani
was born around 1145 in Valencia, then a thriving region of "Moorish"
Spain, and by 1182 was high secretary for the Emir of Granada. The following
year Jubayr left for a Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca. His travels took him
across the Mediterranean, reaching Alexandria in Spring 1183. En route back
to Spain, in January 1185, he reached Sicily. He described the volcanic
"At the close of night a red flame appeared, throwing up tongues
into the air. It was the celebrated volcano (Stromboli). We were told that
a fiery blast of great violence bursts out from holes in the two mountains
and makes the fire. Often a great stone is cast up and thrown into the air
by the force of the blast and prevented thereby from falling and settling
at the bottom. This is one of the most remarkable of stories, and it is
true. As for the great mountain in the island, known as the Jabal al-Nar
(Mountain of Fire), it also presents a singular feature in that some years
a fire pours from it in the manner of the 'bursting of the dam.' It passes
nothing it does not burn until, coming to the sea, it rides out on its surface
and then subsides beneath it. Let us praise the Author of all things for
His marvellous creations. There is no God but He."
His description of Palermo is a vivid one:
"It is the metropolis of the islands, combining the benefits of
wealth and splendour, and having all that you could wish of beauty, real
or apparent, and all the needs of subsistence, mature and fresh. It is an
ancient and elegant city, magnificent and gracious,
and seductive to look upon. Proudly set between its open spaces and plains
filled with gardens, with broad roads and streets, it dazzles the eyes with
its perfection. It is a wonderful place, built in the Cordoba style, entirely
from cut stone known as kadhan (limestone). A river splits the town, and
four springs gush in its suburbs... The king roams through the gardens and
courts for amusement and pleasure... The Christian women of this city follow
the fashion of Muslim women, are fluent of speech, wrap their cloaks about
them, and are veiled."
He also described the Martorana church, and specifically its bell tower
(higher then than now), shown here with the church of San Cataldo, and the
city of Messina as predominantly Greek Orthodox (rather than Catholic or
Muslim). Jubayr recorded the story of the words of King William II to his
subjects following an earthquake in 1169: "Let each of you pray to
the God he adores; he who has faith in his God will feel peace in his heart."
Yet the subtle storm of religious intolerance was gathering force even
in the days of Jubayr's visit, and by the time of the Vespers uprising a
century later the Muslims of Sicily had converted to Christianity (usually
Catholicism) or departed the island.
Jubayr's record is useful for establishing the continuity of the Palermitan
cultural atmosphere over the centuries. It is, in effect, a link in a chain.
Writing in 972, the geographer Ibn Haukal (actually a merchant from Baghdad
with a penchant for writing) described an Arab-Byzantine Sicily in the time
long before Idrisi and Jubayr, and a Bal'harm (Palermo)
just as prosperous as in the time of Jubayr a century later. Jubayr also
visited Jerusalem and other places, and wrote about these. He died in Alexandria
in 1217. We do not know precisely what Ibn Jubayr looked like; the painting
shown here is speculative.
About the Author: One of Sicily's foremost historians, Luigi Mendola is the author of two books.