Best of Sicily
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Aragonese - People and dynasty of Aragon in northeastern Spain.|
Inquisition - ecclesiastical tribunal and judicial system established in 1233 but popularized in 1400s to suppress heresy and other 'crimes,' often through torture.
Jews - Semitic ethnic group originally identified with Judaism as religion and Palestine as homeland.
Latin - Language of Rome, also Italic culture of Rome, the Western Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
Orthodoxy - Relating to the original Christian Church and its traditional teachings maintained in the East, as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church of the West.
Roman Catholic - Church of Rome, particularly following the Schism of 1054.
Spain - Nation of the Iberian peninsula except for Portugal and Andorra, established in late 1400s.
The Jewish community of Syracuse, which was
thriving when Paul preached there, was one of Europe's
oldest, and traces of it can still be seen in the "Giudecca" of
the Ortygia district. Rome's Jewish congregation still exists, and it is
the oldest religious congregation in Europe today. By 1400, Palermo's
thriving Jewish community probably boasted the greatest number
of Jews in any Sicilian city, perhaps eclipsing Syracuse
in that regard, yet the history of Palermo's Jews has often proven elusive to scholars.
Today, what little survives of Palermo's Judaic legacy is concealed by
layers of concrete and centuries of the same ignorance that has obliterated
much of the city's Muslim history. An example
of the latter is the column on the cathedral's gothic portico bearing an
inscription of the first sura of the Koran. A similar column is preserved
at the entrance of Palazzo Steri, but a church
seems a stranger place than a castle for a Koranic verse. It is quite possible
that by the Late Middle Ages, when both structures were built, nobody
in Sicily could translate the Arabic text; indeed it is altogether possible
that none of the architects or builders even recognized it as Arabic!
The same ignorance led to the street next to the site of the synagogue eventually
being named Meschita (the Spanish for "mosque") instead
of something more appropriate. The misnomer reflects the fact that the
Palermitans identifying the square knew precious
little of either Judaism or Islam, faiths which once formed the foundation
of their city's culture and society, and perhaps even confused one religion for the other.
What we find in Palermo is the occasional Hebrew inscription in a church
or palace that was standing in 1492. The site of the chief synagogue - where
a church now stands - is readily identified. Although the mikvah (ritual
bath) of Syracuse is older and better-known, Palermo's, which dates from the tenth century, has also been conserved.
Fortunately, the archival record is well preserved. In fact, it is possible
to identify many Jewish families and anusim (the "conversos"
called neofiti in Sicily) who lived into the sixteenth century.
What do we know of Palermo's Jews? Though they were certainly present
from Roman times, it was after the fall of the Western Empire, at the dawn
of the Middle Ages, that the earliest records known to us emerge. In 598
the Patriarch of Rome subsequently known as Pope Gregory the Great sent
a delegation to Panormus (as Palermo was then known) to resolve a
dispute involving the city's Jews; since 535 Sicily had been part of the
Byzantine Empire but for a few decades its clergy
answered to Rome rather than to Constantinople. We know that some local
Christian priests were trying to convert the Jews, and had confiscated one of their synagogues,
and that Gregory's papal bull Sicut Judeis put a stop to the coercion
without discouraging voluntary conversions. Gregory, whose mother was from
Palermo, took a special interest in the city but Victor, the local bishop,
seems not to have heeded his orders; this should be considered in light
of the fact that Sicily's hierarchy was increasingly looking to the East. In Sicily
as elsewhere, the fate of the Jews was often determined by events shaped by the larger
community among which they lived as a tiny minority.
When Palermo fell to Arab
control in 831 the Jews, like the Christians,
were considered "People of the Book." They were required to wear
a distinctive badge (usually a yellow cord), pay special taxes and so forth.
Jews could not hold public office or serve in the military, nor could they
erect new synagogues, but otherwise they were respected. Like Muslim ladies,
most Jewish women wore some kind of veil in public.
The vernacular dialect of the Jews of western Sicily was similar to Arabic.
In 972 Ibn Hawqual, a traveller from Baghdad, visited Palermo - now called
Bal'harm or simply al-Madinah (the city) - and described the
Jewish community in some detail.
The arrival of the Normans in 1071 saw the abolition of most restrictions, and a few Jews
ended up in public administration. Certain Jewish leaders, notably the outspoken Joseph ben Samuel,
initially opposed the Normans because Christians usually attempted to convert
Jews, whereas Muslims didn't. Most of Palermo's Jews were traders, dyers, scribes
specialized in translation, or goldsmiths. Of particular distinction we find
David Ahitub (floruit 1286), a leading scholar, and
Isaac Al'dahav (fl. 1380), an astronomer. The Normans and the Swabians sought to protect this religious minority. Perhaps
6% of the city's residents were Jewish. Most of the Jews lived in a partially-walled
area, and until the sixteenth century a "Jewish Gate" stood in
this part of the city. It is quite possible that this was the same gate,
or perhaps a newer one at the same location, seen by Ibn Hawqual. During the Norman
period this area was bordered by a Greek quarter and an Arab souk called Bah'lara
which survives today as the Ballarò street market.
Into the twelfth century the Normans permitted Greeks (Orthodox Christians),
Muslims and Jews to be judged by their own courts and laws - halakah
in the case of Jews. (Seeking a more uniform legal code, Frederick II greatly altered
It was during the Norman period that Benjamin of
Tudela, himself a Jew, visited Sicily and described Jewish life as well
as providing an informal census. According to his information, there were
at least 1,500 Jewish families (each with a male head of household) living
in Palermo around 1170, which implies at least 4,000 people. In 1492, the jurats
of Palermo claimed there were some 5,000 Jews.
A near-contemporary description of Palermo, this one through Muslim eyes, was recorded by Ibn Jubayr,
who visited in 1184. He wrote that, "the Christian women of this city
appear similar to the Muslims, like them they speak Arabic correctly, and they
wear the veil." Comparing Palermo to Cordova, he described
such features as its four rivers and - more importantly - the tower
of the Martorana Church near the Jewish Quarter. Historical context and what
descriptions have come down to us suggest that the basic structure of the
main synagogue (which was modified over time) resembled this squarish Greek Orthodox
church built nearby in the Norman-Arab style - being simple Romanesque with
graceful arches and a cupola, not unlike coeval temples in Jerusalem and Constantinople. Considering
their similarity of style, the exterior views of many places of worship
present in twelfth-century Palermo would not permit ready distinction
of synagogues, mosques and churches.
The Constitutions of Melfi of Frederick II standardized
Sicilian law for all subjects and addressed the specific needs of the Jews,
permitting them to lend money. There had been isolated cases of forced conversions,
such as a case in 1220 involving some 200 Jews, and Frederick, who was often at odds with the Papacy,
sought to end such persecution. Over time the Jews began to practice ever more specialized
professions; by 1400 it appears that many of the best physicians in western
Sicily were Jews. At least a few Jewish men owned landed estates, mostly small feudal manors
rather than larger holdings such as baronies. While Sicily was dotted with
small Jewish congregations, those in Palermo, Siracusa, Trapani and Messina
were important points of reference for the more isolated ones.
Rule by Aragonese and Spanish dynasties began with the Vespers
in 1282. By then, with the Muslims gone or christianized, and most of the
Greek Orthodox Christians having over time become Roman Catholic, the Jews
were the last ethno-religious minority in Sicily (though a few communities of Albanian
refugees were established in Sicily late in the fifteenth century). Unfortunately, their rights
were gradually curtailed. No longer could they be said to be treated as the equals
of their fellow citizens. Early in the fifteenth century, for example, yeshivas
came under stricter control by the Crown, and in 1467 a heavy fine was levied
upon Palermo's Jews for having restored the chief synagogue - the construction
and restructuring of synagogues having been outlawed unless prior authorization
was granted. Moreover, they were highly taxed.
Yet in 1487 the visiting Ovadyah Yare of Bertinoro wrote a description
that began, "Palermo's synagogue is without equal the world over..."
Observance of Sicily's earliest Jews, part of the Diaspora, was akin to that of the Mizrahim
of Tunisia. Their identification today as Sephardic would not be very accurate historically before
the reign of Peter of Aragon (1282) and subsequent Spanish
monarchs, which facilitated closer ties to the Jews of Spain. At first, under King Peter,
Aragonese rule posed no particular threat to the Sicilian Jews and their culture,
but within a few decades certain of Peter's descendants, ever anxious to curry
favor with the Papacy to legitimize their dynasty's rule of Sicily, began what can only be described as a policy of repression.
In 1312, for example, King Frederick (Peter's third-born son), expelled the Jews
from the walled city of Palermo for a short time, forcing them to live outside the walls in a kind of
ghetto; when they returned they were obligated to live exclusively in their own quarter.
In 1393 King Martin decreed Palermo's Jewish community to be the main one in Sicily, with authority over the others, and
in 1405 the Crown nominated a Judaic supreme court and other officials, though this was abolished in 1447.
It is unclear whether Palermo's Jews then outnumbered those of other cities.
Absentee rule (from Spain) and the zealousness of the Inquisition,
among other factors - such as an aristocracy bent on exploiting the island's
poor - left Sicily in an intellectual stupor by 1400, threatened by a frightening
level of illiteracy that worsened over time, reaching 85% by 1800. Matters were equally
deplorable throughout Italy. The Jewish communities were a stark, welcome exception to this
The infamous edict of 1492 prompted the expulsion or - perhaps just as
often - conversion of Sicily's Jews, who by then
numbered at least 20,000 (and perhaps as many as 40,000). Their absence
has been felt ever since, and tracing Jewish roots in Sicily remains
Several riots by converted Jews broke out in the years to follow, with
a particularly violent incident reported in Palermo in 1516. The road to Christianity
and the Catholic Church was often a difficult one, and not always a desired one.
Editor's Note: The picture (above) shows what the
principal synagogue probably looked like during the Norman period, before its modifications two centures later, which were likely consistent
with the Catalonian-Gothic style then in vogue. This image is based on Palermo's Norman-Arab architecture and what we
know from contemporary descriptions of the structure and its gardens.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written for various publications, including this one.