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Volume 14, Number 1January 1963

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Islamic Sicily

Just two miles off the toe of the Italian boot lies a sunny island once dedicated to Muslim accomplishment.

"It is a fair kingdom, is it not, sir?" asked King Roger II of Sicily, lifting his blond-bearded head and gazing round him in the summer morning.

"It is indeed," answered Idrisi, his Arab geographer, a shorter man with a swarthy skin, but nonetheless noble, descended from African caliphs and princes of Malaga. "And especially your capital here, known for its elegance. Palermo turns the heads of all who see it."

The two men stood together on a rocky hill in the Cassaro, the walled inner city, and gazed over the roofs and towers below them to the shimmering plains and far-off foothills wooded with cypress, chestnut and stone pine. Close around the Cassaro circled the outer city, also walled. Beyond lay the villages and market gardens providing all manner of succulent food—corn, melons, tomatoes, celery, onions, cucumbers, herbs and salad greens unknown in Europe, come from the Old East, as Idrisi's people had come. The Muslims, too, had devised the system of narrow canals for irrigation, the tall tapering giarre or water towers standing up everywhere. Beyond the villages stretched broad arable lands, criss-crossed with little rivers. Great fish swam in these rivers, both men knew, and mills rose along their banks. Windmills spread their arms above wide wheat fields. As in Muslim times, this island just to the south of Italy waxed rich in the Mediterranean.

Idrisi turned his head and looked backward at Roger's palace from which he had just come. Now, in 1145 A.D., he had dwelt here for 20 years, and he knew it well: the turrets and courtyards, the gardens where grass and flowers spread smooth as carpeting, the orange, lemon, olive and palm trees, their branches full of singing birds. He knew, too, the Tirâz or royal weaving house that had existed since the days of Saracen rule, the golden palace proper, and the Moorish fountain where stone lions poured out the waters of Paradise. He was an honored member of the cosmopolitan group Roger had gathered round him: Greek men of affairs, learned lawyers, French and Provencal troubadours, Arab poets, administrators and story-tellers. An Arab cook ruled in Roger's kitchen. Truly, he thought, Norman Sicily had preserved much of Arabic Sicily after all.

He turned back to Roger and spoke again. "You sent for me, sire. I am at your command."

Roger smiled at him. "I command my armies, my servants, but not my scholars, artists, friends. I sent for you, Idrisi, to enquire about your progress on your great geography book, then to ask you to come with me to inspect the work on my chapel ceiling, which our Moorish painters render more splendid every day."

Idrisi bowed, but there was honest pride in his reply.

"My universal geography which I think to call The Book of Roger progresses as you commissioned it. I have sent emissaries into all the known world to bring back practical accounts of what they see: streets, monuments, buildings, customs, religions, ornaments, dress, language, exports and imports. I have divided the world into 77 segments for easy consideration and transported the whole to a huge planisphere of silver, which I hope to present to you shortly. There has never been an account like it."

"That I know," mused Roger. His eyes were on a donkey cart piled with a load of gourds and sugar cane, winding up the stony street from the river marshes below the town. "Ah, but look here! It seems that everything in Sicily, from cathedrals to donkey carts, is ornamented with your Saracen arabesques and similar Eastern designs. Your folk are old and persistent here. I have advanced them for their own worth. What can you tell me of the Arab past in Sicily?"

Idrisi bowed again. "It is soon told, sire. A brief story, yet an attractive one.

"When the star of Islam was rising, our sea rovers arrived here in full force from Africa. Palermo fell to our arms in 831, but it was fifty years more before the Byzantine government fled and left us in control.

"Gradually through our skillful political administration, our agricultural techniques and our gifted artisans, we turned the fertility of this island to great account and made it the richest part of the Sultan's realm. We turned the churches into mosques, just as you turned the mosques into churches when you invaded and conquered us in 1072. Palermo had then as now an outer and inner city. Within the walls were some 300 mosques and the Sultan's court, prison, arsenal and council chambers. Beyond the four gates lay the fondaks—caravansaries—and the merchants' quarters. There were oil vendors, money changers, grocers, tailors, armorers, coppersmiths and corn sellers. It was a meeting place for traders from every clime—Greeks, Sicilians, Lombards, Arabs, Berbers, Persians and Tartars. Palermo was no small city even then."

"I can well believe it," murmered Roger. "Many of the arts we enjoy today must have existed there."

"Indeed, oh King. Arab Sicily 200 years ago abounded in exquisite carving and metal work, costly vases of gem-like glass, silken veils and hangings woven with gold, engraved bronze censers, precious carpets, and books ornamented in rich color. Our beautiful Arab inscriptions curled feather-like about the tops of palaces, halls, trays, caskets, bottles, jars, and even gems. We had a university where the best of Arab medicine was taught. We had poets and the music of flutes and tambourines. And our celebrations were lit by torches like branched trees of yellow wax hung with flowers of fire. Our system of government and land tenure was so successful that your folk have permitted much of it to remain, and our language, too, continues, besides French, Latin arid Greek. Your father when he conquered us changed much, but you have preserved more."

King Roger smiled at his praise and touched Idrisi's hand. "Come," he said. "Let us look at the new ceiling."

Together the two friends ascended the marble steps toward the half-finished Cappella Palatina. Already complete was the Western basilican nave with pointed Saracen arches, the gleaming mosaic of the dome above. White Parian marble, gray granite and deep red porphyry rose up everywhere, decorated with scenes from the Old and New Testament and various Christian symbols.

But high overhead soared the marvelous Moorish ceiling. Craning their necks to look upward, Idrisi and the King could see the little figures of turbaned artists high on the scaffolding. Busy servants ran about below, ready to serve the needs of those above.

The vast honey-colored, coffered vault hung there like a vision from the Arabian Nights. It combined carving, painting and gilding. A design of interlocked stars enclosed a double row of rosettes with eight concave petals in wood over which white linen had been stretched for painting in tempera. Everywhere exquisite figures were colored in white, black, green, buff, blue, and Oriental vermillion. There were houris and winged genii, gazelles and antelopes. Here two gentlemen sat cross-legged in front of a tent playing chess. Others jousted, hunted, or played the flute. A lady rode an elephant. Camels bore sumptuous litters and bright-costumed riders. Tall white birds with stiff appletree tails mingled with dragons that terminated in luxuriant scrolls.

"Magnificent," breathed Idrisi. "It is the true spirit of Islamic art reproduced here in this Christian church on this Western island."

"It is beautiful," said Roger. "A gift from your people to all the world."

Both men bowed before it silently. Overhead the carvers chipped away, the painters and gilders wielded their brushes. Below, on the temporary plank flooring, the servants and artists' helpers walked warily, lest drops of gold or vermillion spatter down.

King Roger and his royal geographer both died in 1154, and after that the Moorish influence in Sicily declined. But left behind were varied treasures. These treasures spread from there and also from Spain to permeate and become a part of Western life. The Arabs brought to Sicily cotton, sugar cane, oranges, lemons, paste (macaroni), peanuts and many drugs. They introduced silk weaving and Moorish styles in pottery, embroidery, brilliant jewels and fine dress. From them came the pointed arch and other decorative motifs, many details of fountain construction and design; some say the windmill, the use of the olive as food, and the game of chess. They brought many words into the Italian language, such as carciofo, artichoke, and fetronciana, vegetable marrow. Other words also passed into English. Idrisi's geography book is said to have inspired the Christian navi gators who began the great age of discovery. And even today donkey carts wind through the fields of Sicily, through the stone lanes of its cities, decorated with humble arabesques, just as King Roger II and the royal geographer Idrisi beheld them 800 years ago.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the January 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January 1963 images.