A visit to Arab Sicily

David Tresilian , Tuesday 9 May 2023

David Tresilian reports on a trip to the Mediterranean island of Sicily, once part of the mediaeval Fatimid Caliphate and still retaining traces of its Arab heritage today.

Al-Idrisi s Map
Al-Idrisi s Map


Mention the island of Sicily to many people today and perhaps the first images that come to mind might be of parched landscapes and groves of olive trees against a background of the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.

Further reflection might yield memories of history lessons at school, perhaps of the Sicilian Expedition recounted by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides in his account of the Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE or in more modern times of the Italian nationalist Garibaldi gathering Sicilian patriots for his planned march on Rome in the struggle for Italian unification in the 19th century.

Sicily was also the first target for the liberation of Europe from German rule by allied forces in World War II, and even today some of the island bears the scars of that time.

But how many people would mention Sicily’s Arab heritage when asked about the island? The answer may well be far fewer even if Sicily like much of nearby Spain was once under Arab rule and part of an Arab empire that stretched across North Africa and at its height linked Egypt to what are now Algeria and Morocco.

As is also the case with the Andalusia region of southern Spain, the Mediterranean’s Arab history has left significant traces behind it in Sicily today, adding to the historical layering that saw the island ruled by successive civilisations from the ancient Greeks and Romans onwards.

While it cannot boast the kind of surviving Arab heritage to be seen in southern Spain in the magnificent Mosque-Cathedral in Cordoba, a Muslim mosque later repurposed as a Christian cathedral, or the palaces of the Arab Nasrid Dynasty at the Alhambra outside Granada, elements of it are never far beneath the surface in parts of Sicily today.

Sicily was conquered by the Aghlabid Dynasty that ruled what is now Tunisia in the ninth century CE and thus became culturally and politically part of the Arab world. While the Aghlabids were later replaced by the better-known Fatimid Dynasty in Tunisia in the early 10th century, this at first did not affect the Arab presence in Sicily, which continued under a local dynasty until the late 11th century CE.

This dynasty, ruling from what is now the city of Palermo in the west of the island, owed allegiance to the Fatimid Dynasty that had meanwhile been expanding from its original power base and moving eastwards across North Africa. The Fatimid Caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah arrived in Egypt in 969 CE after the country’s conquest, founding the city of Al-Qahera, or Cairo, still the name of Egypt’s capital in Arabic today, and building the Al-Azhar Mosque and laying out Al-Muizz li-Din Allah Street in Historic Cairo, familiar to many from its modern description in Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy.

The Fatimids were thus great builders as well as conquerors, and Egypt reached a new peak of prosperity and cultural importance under Fatimid rule. Some of the magnificence of Fatimid Cairo can still be seen in surviving examples of its architecture today, among them the Bab Al-Nasr, Bab Al-Fotouh, and Bab Zuweila gates in Historic Cairo.

Visiting the city in 1048 CE, the 11th-century Persian writer Nasir Khusraw marvelled at the city’s markets that sold goods from across the known world, including elephant tusks from Zanzibar, animal hide from Abyssinia, rock crystal from Morocco, and polished brass from Damascus. Cairo’s markets “have no other equal in any other country, and one finds there rare and precious objects from all parts of the world,” he wrote.

Some of this grandeur and prosperity would also have been a feature of the island of Sicily when it was under Arab rule. While the sources are few, Ibn Hawqal, an Arab writer known for his work on geography who visited the island in the middle of the 10th century CE, talks in his book Surat Al-Ard (Chapters about the Earth) of the grand palace buildings in central Palermo, the nearby Friday Mosque, and an area containing administrative buildings and thriving markets.

“Among the countries in the hands of the Muslims, Sicily, by virtue of its fine situation, may be put in the same class as Spain,” he says, mentioning the thriving commercial districts of Palermo with its “olive-oil sellers, millers, money changers, apothecaries, smiths, sword-polishers, flour-sellers, brocade-makers, fishmongers, spice merchants, butchers, greengrocers, fruiterers, sellers of aromatic plants, rope-makers, perfumers, tanners, shoemakers, carpenters and potters.”

Describing what was then Palermo proper and the adjoining area of Khalisa, the district of Kalsa today, Ibn Hawqal talks of the city’s 300 mosques and the crowd of over 7,000 people that would attend prayers at the Friday Mosque on the site of today’s cathedral. He mentions the city’s nine gates and surrounding agricultural districts, among them “groves full of papyrus from which scrolls are made.” No papyrus in the world at that time, Ibn Hawqal says, “can be compared with Egyptian papyrus, except papyrus from Sicily.”

While Ibn Hawqal is full of praise of Sicily’s economy and the industry of many of its inhabitants, he picks out one profession for criticism in the shape of Sicily’s schoolmasters. “There are some 300 schoolmasters in Palermo,” he says, “and such numbers are not found in any other place or any other country.” These men are “condemned to inadequacy, ignorance, triviality, and lack of intelligence.” Though they have many pupils, “most of them do not earn ten dinars a year.” It is a “calamity for the people of Sicily” that this crew is allowed “to determine what is permitted and what is forbidden, pronounce judgements and legalise testimony, and act as men of letters and orators.”

Ibn Hawqal does not seem to have been impressed by Sicily’s education system, but he does find much to praise, at least among the pious in Palermo, rewarded as they were by prosperity and high standards of living. He mentions agriculture fed by inland springs, a system of irrigation running fast enough to turn watermills, and fields of “Persian sugar cane, vegetable gardens, and excellent cucumber fields.” However, down by the docks, things were less happy, with Ibn Hawqal writing severely about “fractious idlers and evildoers, shabby and seedy ruffians who have made themselves prayer carpets and get up only to collect alms and defame virtuous women.”

Oranges, lemons, pistachios, and sugarcane were cultivated on large plantations in Sicily under Arab rule, and the period saw the island enjoy both prosperity and economic development. In his Kitab Al-Filaha (Manual of Agriculture), the 11th-century Maghreb writer Ibn Bassal left a detailed description of cotton cultivation in Sicily under Arab rule.

Sown in well-ploughed and fertilised soil early in the year, the cotton is picked in September after a month in which the plants are not watered, he said. “Picking is done in the morning before the sun gets too hot, because if it is picked in the heat of the day, the stalks break and get mixed up with cotton and cannot be separated from it.”


NORMAN CONQUEST: Sicily’s Arab period was not to last, however, and in the mid-11th century the Norman conquest of the island began.

Carried out by Norman soldiers from northern Europe, this lasted until 1071 when Palermo fell to the Normans, who formed a small ruling class much as they did at about the same time in western Europe when the Anglo-Saxon king Harold I of England was defeated by invading Norman forces at Hastings in 1066 CE.

However, unlike in Anglo-Saxon England, where the Normans did their best to root out the former Anglo-Saxon elites, reducing the Anglo-Saxons to peasant status and destroying their language and culture as they did so, in Sicily something different seems at least initially to have taken place with the establishment of an Arab Norman kingdom that practiced a kind of cultural syncretism.

The court of the Norman king Roger II of Sicily was characterised by its Arab, Greek-Byzantine, and Norman officials, with Arabic being one of the languages having official status on the island and used to address its majority Arabic-speaking and Muslim population. Roger welcomed scholars from across the Mediterranean to Sicily during his rule from 1130 to 1154 CE, with one of the best known being the 12th-century Arab geographer Mohamed Al-Idrisi, who was born in what is now Morocco but spent most of his working life at the court of Roger in Palermo.

While in Roger’s service, Al-Idrisi wrote his Kitab Nuzhat Al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq Al-Afaq (The Pleasure of Longing to Cross Horizons), sometimes also called the Kitab Rugar, or Roger’s Book, a work of geography that brought together information about the then known world, including from the classical geographers, with reports by contemporary travellers and explorers.

It is often considered to be the most comprehensive of the works of the mediaeval Arab geographers and includes reports on regions as far afield as China and the British Isles. The maps drawn for Al-Idrisi’s book together make up what is thought to be the most accurate early mediaeval world map, showing the Eurasian continent in its entirety and the northern part of the African continent. Dedicated by Al-Idrisi to Roger before the latter’s death in 1154, the book and its accompanying maps are a fine indication of the cosmopolitanism and cultural openness of the Arab-Norman court in Sicily.

While the two centuries of the Arab presence in Sicily have left fewer material traces behind than are evident in southern Spain, they are nevertheless there for those who look for them and have recently also been underlined as an essential part of the island’s unusually rich cultural heritage.

Travelling around mostly the western part of Sicily on a tour of the island’s heritage sites in March, an Al-Ahram Weekly party discovered that not only has this part of Italy’s Arab-Norman heritage been recognised by the Italian government and the UN cultural agency UNESCO as an important tourist attraction, but that Sicily today also has a significant contemporary population of Arab descent. Arabic signage is in evidence in street signs and on some official buildings and the Tunisian dialect of Arabic can be widely heard in cafés and other public places.

The capital Palermo is the best place to appreciate Sicily’s Arab-Norman heritage, with this being the focus of official tours of the old city centre.

Palermo today is divided into a modern part mostly built in the last century and arranged around broad avenues lined with apartment buildings. Joining this to the old city centre whose street map dates back to the Arab period is the 19th-century city arranged around landmark buildings such as the city’s Opera House, showing standard 19th-century repertoire when the Weekly visited, and the Garibaldi Concert Hall, named after one of Sicily’s most famous (adopted) sons, and home to the Sicilian Symphonic Orchestra.

In the old centre itself, one of the main thoroughfares called the Via Vittorio Emanuele and punctuated by the picturesque Quattro Canti crossroads leads to the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Norman Palace built by King Roger on the footprint of an earlier Arab building and today functioning both as a major tourist attraction and as the seat of the Sicilian regional parliament.

One of the main attractions here, magnificently restored, is a major expression of the island’s Arab-Norman architectural heritage in the shape of the extraordinary Palatine Chapel, consecrated in 1140 during Roger’s rule, which combines a Byzantine plan with decoration inspired by Islamic architecture including in the painted wooden muqarnas ceiling of the nave (muqarnas is a form of ornamented vaulting much used in traditional Islamic architecture.)

On the day the Weekly visited, the parliament did not appear to be in session, and visitors were able to wander unrestricted. Nearby, there is the Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti, the picturesquely named Church of St John of the Hermits, a small church bringing together features of Norman Christian and Islamic architecture in the placement of the domes and treatment of space, and of course the city’s enormous Cattedrale, or Cathedral, the footprint of which follows that of the earlier Arab Friday Mosque mentioned by Ibn Hawqal that once stood on the site, itself occupying the footprint of an earlier Christian church.

In its listing of the World Heritage Site of Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale, UNESCO describes the surviving buildings of Arab-Norman Sicily, among them the Norman Palace, several churches, and the cathedral, as being a collective example “of a social-cultural syncretism between western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures [that] gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration… and the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions,” including Muslim, Byzantine, and Latin Christian.

This syncretism “generated a conscious and unique combination of elements derived from the architectural and artistic techniques of Byzantine, Islamic, and Western traditions,” it says, notably in the use of decorative elements, but also in the arrangement of internal volumes, “creating new spatial, constructive, and decorative concepts through the innovative and coherent re-elaboration of elements from different cultures.”

The decoration on the outside walls of the cathedral is inspired by Islamic geometric designs, and a similar use of Islamic muqarnas and other elements can also be seen in the nearby Zisa Palace, now a small museum of Islamic art, which though much modified since its original construction still signals its Arab origins. The word Zisa comes from the Arabic Al-Aziz, and the name of the originally mediaeval Genoardo area of the city in which the Palace stands is believed to come from the Arabic jannat al-ard, or paradisal garden.

A short bus trip from the old city centre takes visitors to the Norman Cathedral of Monreale, a religious complex that originally also included a royal palace built in the 12th century CE. The description of the interior of this building speaks of Byzantine-style mosaic decoration above a lower register of marble decoration featuring geometric patterning reminiscent of Islamic architecture.

The surrounding cloisters “represent an extraordinary example of a kind of construction that seems in spirit and atmosphere to evoke the porticoed courtyards of Islamic seigneurial residences,” it says.


OUTSIDE PALERMO: The west of Sicily was once the centre of Arab power in Sicily, and the hilly but not mountainous terrain of the west of the island must have reminded its Arab residents of similar landscapes in neighbouring North Africa, being typically Mediterranean in terms of the agriculture and livestock farming they can support.

By taking a bus trip across the western side of the island from Palermo to the small fishing town of Mazara del Vallo on the southern side and then back again via the larger town of Marsala, visitors can enjoy looking at this ancient and strikingly well-cared-for landscape as it glides past as well as out across the deep blue Mediterranean Sea, very close to the coastal roads and almost lapping at the feet of rows of beach houses.

Mazara itself is built on an originally Arab street grid, and visiting the town’s helpful tourist information office in the deadest part of the day between midday and three in the afternoon — some smaller destinations outside Palermo observe the famous mezzogiorno siesta system — and the Weekly party was invited to tour the centre of the old town, a few streets in from the fish market, a local landmark, while waiting for the restaurants to open.

Sicily’s bus system made for a pleasant surprise — fast, on time, and well organised with tickets being sold for numbered seats in a bid to increase reliability and passenger confidence. The train system, having to meet the costs of sometimes creaking infrastructure, seemed less sure, despite the existence of new rolling stock and engines, and the express train to Agrigento on the southern side of the island, the goal of the Weekly’s next visit, was not express by northern European standards.

But few are likely to mind the lack of speed, given the way the train winds its way through the picturesque Sicilian landscape, much of it made up of what look like small hillside farms on rocky Mediterranean soil, with occasional groups of livestock, often goats, now and then coming into view.

Agrigento itself is not an originally Arab settlement unlike the other destinations the Weekly visited in western Sicily, and though the modern town may be mostly 19th century and later, the site has been settled since at least the middle of the first millennium BCE, in other words at the time of the famous Athenian Expedition to Sicily described by Thucydides.

On the coastal plain below the modern town, a group of ancient Greek temples marks the fact that Sicily, like some other parts of southern Italy, was Hellenic territory centuries before it was absorbed into first the Carthaginian and then the Roman Empires in the early centuries BCE.

The largest surviving temple, the Temple of Concordia, was built in fifth century BCE and is probably the best-preserved building of its type in the world today aside from the Parthenon in Athens. Sicily’s later Aghlabid conquerors will have been familiar with classical architecture from similar remains in neighbouring North Africa — Tunisia was once a major part of the Roman province of Africa and even survived the fall of the rest of the Western Roman Empire by several decades.

When the Arabs arrived in Sicily in the 9th century CE, wresting it from Byzantine forces, the Temple would have been being used as a Christian church, in part explaining its survival from antiquity. In few other countries even in the Mediterranean, crossed and re-crossed by successive civilisations, can visitors see major expressions of ancient Greek, Arab, and Arab-Norman history so close together and in such a welcoming and accessible environment in the way they can in Sicily.

A version of this article appears in print in the 11 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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