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Sicily an island of many worlds

Sicily an island of many worlds

Issue 4 Mar / Apr 2004

Whether it’s Il Padrino, Cinema Paradiso, or Il Postino, the movie image of Sicily is of a rustic undying Italian beauty. The allure is unquestionable. However, as Colin Jennings finds, Sicily always has had, and continues to have, a far more varied past than has been previously told.


A one time Arab emirate and outpost of the Moorish Empire, Sicily is one of the lesser known  attractive locations thriving on a renewed wind of Islamic culture; a land where past and present, East and West, Christianity and Islam mix. Its strategic position, in the Mediterranean, near the African and European coasts has made it a cultural crossroads, in constant flux under pressure of invasion. The list of settlers runs from the Greeks, who first settled on the east coast in the eighth century BC, through an array of Romans, Vandals, Arabs,Normans, French and Spanish, to the Bourbons overthrown by Garibaldi in 1860.

Substantial relics of the past remain. Mosques, theatres and churches are scattered  all over the island, but there are more immediate hints of Sicily’s varied past. A Sicilian dialect is still widely spoken in the countryside, and the food is noticeably spicier with more emphasis on fish and vegetables, rather than meat and pasta dishes. Even the groves of oranges, lemons, olives and palms are a sign that Sicily is that little bit different. It is the mixing of people and subsequent isolation that has left Sicilians with a sense of their own independence and uniqueness. Nor are they the only people to consider their island a separate entity. Coming from mainland Italy, it is obvious that Sicily has a different feel, and that socially and culturally you are ‘out of Europe’.

Palermo, under the Kalbid Emirs, developed into a great centre for art and culture, drawing comparisons with Umayyad Cordoba from Iraqi geographer, Ibn Hawqal.  Unfortunately, Kalbid Palermo was completely destroyed by civil wars of that era and then was altered irrevocably by the Norman Conquest of 1060-91. Unusually for the time, Muslims were permitted to keep their property, laws, customs and religion under Christian Norman rule. From 1130-89, the Norman Kings developed a remarkable multi-cultural kingdom in which Arab, Greek, and Latin cultures were all respected. Public documents were trilingual, art and architecture was diverse and abundant. Despite its tolerance, the Norman Kingdom failed, and the Latin population eradicated the Muslim community completely.

Dr Jeremy Johns, Oxford University Lecturer in Islamic Archaeology and Fellow of Wolfson College has completed research into the archaeology and history of material culture in the Islamic Mediterranean, with special interest in Sicily and Jordan. He says “Sicily is an extraordinary example of a missed opportunity. Had the Norman Kingdom lasted longer the process of cultural fusion might have produced a civilisation as rich and lasting as that of Al-Andalus. But despite the tragic end of Muslim Sicily, it is astonishing how much has survived to this day.”

Most people‘s first destination is Palermo, the name of which comes from the Arab Balarm, defining its origins. The city was described, in 973, as "the city of the 300 mosques" by Ibn Hawqal. There are signs everywhere of the city's duration as a capital of the Islamic and Norman kingdoms. Modern Islamic culture, on the other hand, occupies a much lower profile. Only one of the mosques remain, housed in a deconsecrated inner city church called San Paolino dei Giardinieri.

A short stroll from the Mosque is the Cathedral of Palermo, a building of great importance, built in 604 AD. Once the congregational mosque, its porch is beautifully decorated with Arabic inscriptions. It also houses a number of interesting artefacts including Queen Constance’s crown.

Arguably the finest example of Arab- Norman art in Sicily, the Cappella Palatina in Piazza della Vittoria, is not far from the Cathedral. A perfect, preserved specimen of Arab-Norman art with its breathtaking Byzantine mosaics, it is rivalled only by those in Istanbul and Ravenna. Palermo is especially renowned for the palaces and churches of the Norman Kings, built and decorated by craftsmen of Muslim and Christian descent, in the style of Fatimid Egypt. The most spectacular of these is the Palazzo Dei Normanni, built for King Roger II (1130-54). Inside Dei Normanni is the painted ceiling of Cappella Palatina, whilst outside is the fascinating trilingual inscription (Arabic, Greek and Latin), commemorating the water clock built for King Roger II in 1132.

Other interesting urban palaces in the area are those of William II. ‘La Cuba’ (1166-89), was created in the Fatimid style and ‘La Zisa’ which now houses exhibitions relating to the ‘Beginnings of Islamic Art’. The Galleria Nazionale, in Palazzo Abbatellis, is the best place to start for ancient pottery, metalwork, and tablatures containing Arabic inscriptions. South West of Palermo is Mazara del Vallo. It is here that the Arabs landed in 827 AD, using it as the starting point of Sicilian conquests. Today, the town boasts approximately 5,000 Tunisians, most of whom live in the casbah in the old Arab quarter. The original mosque remains in ruins, and coupled with the streets and courtyards of the San Francesco and Giudecca Quarters, signs of a Moorish past are evident.

Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily is home to Italy's first modern mosque, which was opened in 1980. The mosque, dedicated to Khalif Omar, was designed by an Egyptian and financed by Libya, but the man who promoted the cause was lawyer Michele Papa. Unfortunately, the local Islamic congregation were not impressed by the Latin dedication to Papa on the mosque's imposing entrance, so they relocated it to the wings.

Other points of interest are ‘The Arab Baths’ in Cefala Diana which have been undergoing restoration, so do phone ahead to make sure they are open; and the Castle of the Muslim leader Emir Muhammad Ibn Abbad in Entella is a must.

The most obvious alternative trips are to the chic resort of Taormina just outside Catania. Skirt around the foothills, and even up to the craters of Mount Etna. To the south sit Siracusa, once the centrepiece of the Greek Empire. The south coast's greatest  attractions are the Greek temples at Agrigento, and nearby is Piazza Armerina and its Roman mosaics. To the west, a large part of Sicily's fishing industry, and much of the continuing Mafia activity, focuses on the area around Trápani.

The modern Muslim Community of Sicily consists mostly of recent immigrants from North Africa, and is concentrated in the south coast between Agrigento and Marsala. The community, though fairly tight is not quite ‘flourishing’, and it is still quite difficult to get halal or even vegetarian food.

Sicily is a beautiful, vibrant, friendly island with unbeatable countryside, beaches and food. The standard approach for those heading south from mainland Italy is to cross the legendary Straits of Messina, from Villa San Giovanni or Reggio di Calabria. The train and ferry heads between Scylla and Charybdis, the twin hazards of rock and whirlpool that were a legendary threat to sailors. It was here that Ulysses temporarily lost control of his ship and men, after a forced landing on Sicily. The other option is to fly from Italy or on rarer flights from major European cities. Even by plane there are spectacular descents to either of the coastal airports at Palermo and Catania. One significant development is the recent charter of Ryan Air flights to Palermo, so the chances of getting a bargain flight from London are there for the keen. There are also British Airways flights once a day to Catania.

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