Returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1184, the famous Muslim traveler Ibn Jubair was shipwrecked in the Straits of Messina off the coast of Sicily. The inhabitants of Messina, hearing calls of distress, immediately launched their boats, hoping to profit from the situation by charging large fees for rescuing the passengers. The poorer Muslim pilgrims were unable to pay the high fees demanded, and were at a loss to know what to do.
At that point, Ibn Jubair reports, an authoritative figure rode down to the shore and issued an order. And the Muslims found themselves carried to shore free.
Bewildered by this turn of events, Ibn Jubair went to thank their deliverer, and discovered that he was the ruler of Sicily himself who, although a Norman Christian, welcomed Ibn Jubair and the other Muslims and promised them protection during their sojourn in his dominion.
As the Norman Christians had ruled Sicily for 100 years, Ibn Jubair was astounded at this reception. And there were other surprises to come. He found that even the Christians spoke Arabic, that the government officials were still largely Muslim and that the heritage of some 200 previous years of Muslim rule of Sicily was still intact.
The Normans, originally were from Scandinavia. In their search for new lands to conquer, and sun to bask in, they had wandered into southern Italy, and seen that the land was to their liking. Although their numbers were small, the Normans were formidable military men: they did not hesitate to take what they wanted, and what they wanted above all was that beautiful and productive island that had been ruled by the Muslims for some 200 years.
The Norman kingdom of Sicily is a bright spot in the turbulent history of the Middle Ages. Although Norman rule coincided with the very period that produced the Crusades - the first took place four years after the Normans conquered Sicily - they governed their ethnically, religiously and linguistically mixed population with a degree of tolerance and sympathy unequaled in the Middle Ages and rarely found today. But their achievements in statecraft, administration, learning, architecture, agriculture and science were largely an inheritance from Sicily's Islamic past Credit must certainly go to the imagination and energy of such men as Roger II, sponsor of Islam's great geographer al-Idrisi (see Aramco World, July-August 1977), but they could have accomplished little without the Muslim inhabitants.
Muslim interest in Sicily goes back to the very threshold of Islamic history. The first military expedition against the island took place during the caliphate of 'Uthman, only 20 years after the death of the Prophet, Muhammad, when Mu'awiya, the governor of Syria, sent a naval expedition. This was an extension of the battles that were taking place in the east, where the most formidable enemy the Muslims faced was the Byzantine empire. Sicily was a Byzantine province and from its strategic location in the Mediterranean the Byzantines were able to control shipping and launch naval attacks against the coastal cities of the Muslim Levant and North Africa.
Through the years, many efforts were made by the Muslims to invade Sicily, but it was not until June of 827 that they finally obtained a foothold by taking Mazara on the western end of the island.
That first attack was launched from the Muslim province of Ifriqiyya - roughly corresponding to modern Tunisia - which was then governed by the Aghlabids, a dynasty going back to the days of Harun al-Rashid. Unable to tolerate Byzantine control of the seaways, and learning that Sicily was torn with internal strife, the Aghlabids decided the moment was propitious for a full-scale attack. Oddly, the man chosen to lead this expedition had never wielded a sword in his life, still less led men into battle. His name was Asad ibn al-Furat ("Lion, son of the Euphrates"), and he was a respected qadi and scholar from the dry of Kairouan. Before embarking, Asad ibn al-Furat addressed his troops in the ribat - the fortified religious hospice - of the port of Sousse in what is surely one of the most remarkable exhortations ever given by a military commander:
"There is no god but God alone, Who has no peer! I swear, O soldiers, that I have not been appointed to this command by my father, or my grandfather, nor do I know of anyone to whom such a thing has happened, for I have been given this appointment because of my achievements with the pen, not the sword. I urge you all to spare no effort, no fatigue, in searching out wisdom and learning! Seek it out and store it up, add to it, and persevere through all difficulties, and you will be assured of a place both in this life, and in the life to come!"
Unlike Spain, which fell like ripe fruit, the conquest of Sicily, after Mazara fell, took 75 years. But immigration and settlement on the land began almost immediately. The island was divided into three administrative districts, the names of which survive to this day. Val di Mazara, the first to be established, comprised the western end of the island; its capital was Palermo. The central regions, including Syracuse, were called the Val di Noto, while the remaining area of the island - the last to be conquered - was called the Val Demone, and included Catania and Messina. The word "val" is derived from the Arabic word meaning "province"
The history of Sicily under Muslim rule reflected the political changes that were taking place in North Africa and further east. The Aghlabids were succeeded by the Fatimids, who in turn gave way to the Kalbids. But the unique achievements of the period were not political, and are hardly mentioned in the works of the historians. Under the Muslims, Sicily once more became a granary to the world, as it had been under the Romans. While both the Byzantines and the Romans before them had been interested almost solely in the cultivation of grain, however, the Arabs introduced many new crops: cotton, hemp, date palms, sugar cane, mulberries and citrus fruits. The cultivation of these crops was made possible by new irrigation techniques brought in by the conquerors. These innovations, especially the breaking up of the large estates and the redistribution of land, meant an end to the long years of economic and social depression. Sicily began to bloom.
The revolution in agriculture generated a number of related industries, such as textiles, sugar manufacture, rope-making, matting, silk, and paper - the latter introduced to Europe by way of Sicily. The beautiful silks of Sicily became internationally known, and garments made of them were the prized possessions of both Muslim and Christian rulers. This industry continued to flourish under the Normans - and Sicilian silks carried an embroidered mark, the tiraz, that guaranteed their provenance. One example which has survived - the "Mantle of Roger II" now housed in the National Museum of Vienna - suggests the richness and quality of this work.
As they had wherever they went, the Muslims also extended and beautified such cities as Messina, Syracuse, Sciacca, Mazara, and Castrogiovanni. But the finest was Palermo, called Al-Banurmu or simply al-Madina, "the City," which Ibn Jubair described in glowing terms:
"The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor."
Although dimmed by age, modern Palermo still retains traces of that splendor - not only in the few surviving monuments of the time, but in the layout of the streets. The plan of the Arab city has been meticulously reconstructed by Professor Rosario La Duca. The center of the Norman city was the Palazzo Reale, still known locally as "il Cassaro" from the Arabic word al-qasr, meaning "fortress." Not far from the port is the area known as the Kalsa. It dates back to the year 937, when an outer line of defense was built against any attack from the sea. In Arabic it was known as al-Khalisa - hence Kalsa. It was encircled by a high wall with four gates, and formed the administrative center of Sicily. Inside the walls were a richly decorated mosque, barracks for the troops, the arsenal, and the headquarters of the government ministries.
Nowhere is the feel of Arab Sicily more alive than in the outdoor markets of Palermo. Although the number of these has been reduced by later town planning, the ones that survive - particularly those of Capo and Ballaro - are organized like the suqs of North Africa. (See Aramco World , September-October, 1978). If one imagines the inhabitants of modern Palermo in long flowing robes, the illusion is complete, for the features of the people, their methods of salesmanship, the sights and smells, all are evocative of the Arab world.
The markets are not the only palaces that preserve a living trace of the past. Many street names are still recognizably Arabic, and in some cases not only the original name, but the function, has been preserved. The district of the Lattarini has harbored perfumers and grocers since the ninth century. The Arabs called it suq al- 'attarin, the market of the perfumers, and it was situated near the mosque of Ibn Siqlab, described by Ibn Hawqal in the 10th century.
The Muslims' architectural legacy is more difficult to detect; as with so many other things, Sicily's architecture is a melange of styles and periods. The Palazzo Reale, for example, rests on Phoenician foundations, on top of which the Romans built, to be followed by the Byzantines, then the Arabs, then the Normans, the Swabians, and finally the Spanish. And the Palermo Cathedral, originally a Byzantine church and then a mosque, still bears - on one of the columns at the entry to the Cathedral - a verse from the Koran. The column itself once supported the roof of a Roman temple.
There are only two wholly Arab works of architecture left in Sicily today. One is the castle known as La Favara, from its Arabic name al-Fawwara, the gushing spring. It was the residence of the Emir Ja'far (997-1019), whose name is commemorated in a street sign that leads to the Castle. It was restored by King Roger, who built a small church within its precincts.
The other surviving example of Arab architecture is the baths of Cefala Diana, 30 kilometers outside Palermo on the road to Agrigento. Although now in poor repair, these baths were still in use as recently as 50 years ago. They were built in the 11th century, and were visited by Ibn Jubair.
The Arab presence in Sicily was the stimulus for the tremendous upsurge in artistic activity which characterized Norman Sicily, especially during the reign of Roger II. But as Arab and Norman activity were so inextricably intertwined, it is clearer to call the results 'Arabo-Norman," althouth in fact it did not end with the collapse of Norman Sicily.
Earlier generations of scholars were inclined to consider the art and architecture of Norman Sicily as more Norman than Arab. But Professor Giuseppe Bellafiore, dean of architectural history at the University of Palermo, has written in a recent book: ". . . the purely Norman element in Arabo-Norman architecture is less than the name might suggest. The Norman rulers had the tact and the foresight to accept, and even like, what they found. Yet they retained the tenuous links which they had with the land of their origin. The strength and efficiency of the Norman administration derived from its policy of deliberate flexibility toward the existing Muslim order on the island. Thus culture in general, and artistic tradition in particular, owed little to the Norman's own land of origin."
With this in mind, it is easier to understand the legacy of the Arabs in the arts and architecture. Virtually all monuments, the cathedrals, the palaces and castles built under the Normans were Arab in the sense that the craftsmen were Arab, as were the architects. One must also remember that there was a third element in the mixture - the Byzantine, for the Byzantines too contributed to creation of the architectural style so characteristic of Sicily. The Cappella Palatina in the Palazzo Reale is a good example of how all three strands combined to create something new and exciting. The marvelous ceiling with its carved and painted decoration is the work of Arab craftsmen, while the glowing mosaics which adorn the walls of the chapel are purely Byzantine.
One of the most splendid residences of the Norman kings is the Zisa, whose name conceals the Arabic word al-Aziz, "the mighty". It is currently being restored. The Cuba and the Cubula are now within the city limits of Palermo, but when they were built were in the countryside, and probably served the Norman kings as hunting lodges or summer retreats. Their names are apt, for they are cube-shaped.
Throughout the Val di Mazara are visible traces of the Arab past. The plans of cities like Trapani, Marsala, and Mazara itself recall the men who built them. One district of Mazara is still called La Kasbah, and in recent years this quarter has been occupied by Tunisian and Algerian immigrants. The wheel turns full circle.
Sicily of course abounds in Arabic place names, such as Alcantara (from the Arabic qantara, bridge), Gibellina, from the Arabic word jabal, mountain, and so forth. The dialect spoken in Sicily is full of Arabic words, as one would expect, and some of these, such as zagara, the orange flower, have entered standard Italian.
But the Arab past of Sicily which must now be painfully recovered from the few material remains which survive, is nowhere more evident than in the intellectual and scientific legacy which was passed from the Arabs of Sicily to Italy and then to all of Europe. Under the rule of the extraordinary Roger II, Sicily became a clearing house where eastern and western scholars met for the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, and in an atmosphere of tolerance and beauty exchanged the ideas that were to wake Europe from the dark ages and herald the coming of the Renaissance. The Arab tradition of tolerance toward other religions, perpetuated under the Norman kings, led to free discussion and a climate of intellectual freedom that was the envy of the world. Astronomy, medicine, philosophy and mathematics were the subjects of discussion, and books on these subjects were translated into Latin and became the standard textbooks in the universities that in the 12th century were beginning to be founded throughout Europe. The University of Salerno, founded in the 13th century, became the most famous medical school in the world, and it was there that Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was translated into Latin, and the first scientific dissections were performed.
The people of Sicily have not forgotten their Islamic past. It lives on in the puppet shows, in which beautifully dressed two and three-foot puppets enact the great battles of the past, the legends that were told so long ago in the market places of Palermo and Messina. Professional story tellers - like the rawis who until recently throughout the Arab east told the tales of the Banu Hilal and Antar ibn Shaddad (see Aramco World , July-August, 1978) - still exist in Sicily, and hold their audiences enthralled as they sit before lively folk paintings depicting the heroes and heroines of their tales.
In Italy the subject of Sicily's Arab past, long neglected despite the pioneering work of the great 19th century historian Michele Amari, has suddenly flowered once more. In 1959 the University of Palermo established once again a chair in Arabic language and literature.
The brilliant past of Sicily is all too often ignored, and still inadequately assessed. But the visitor to the island is immediately touched by a breath of that far-away and exotic culture that once flourished so near the heartland of Europe. The great Sicilian Arab poet Ibn Hamdis, who in his life knew the pain of exile from his beloved island, wrote, more than seven centuries ago:
"I spoke the word Sicily and longing troubled my heart. A man exiled from a paradise can do nothing but tell of the things he has lost."
Gian Luigi Scarfiotti studied classics in Italy and economics in Switzerland. After six years as director of a company he turned to free-lance writing and photography.
Paul Lunde is a staff writer for Aramco World specializing in Islamic history.