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Palermo’s Arab Heritage

posted on: Jul 25, 2015

 Sicily-Palermo-Cathedral-Former Mosque   

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

“Sicily is the noblest island in the sea”, so wrote the Arab author Abi Ibn Dinar.

Like other historians and travellers who had the fortune to visit Arab Sicily, he was impressed with its people and their advanced way of life. This was not strange since in architecture, agriculture, and industry and in all the fields of learning the island had little competition in that epoch of history.

This Sicily of long ago we had come to explore was deep in my thoughts as our ferry carried my daughter and myself across Messina Straits toward the island. It seemed that in no time at all, we had landed on the island and were on our way driving toward Palermo to investigate the Arab relics still to be found in this historic city – once called the ‘beautiful bride of Islamic Sicily’. Our appetite had been sharpened to explore its Islamic remains after visiting Andalusia a number of times and being overwhelmed with what was left in that land from the golden age of the Arabs. We had decided then, to visit the other Mediterranean countries where the Muslims once had a thriving civilization.

It was late in the day and we were tired after the long drive from Naples when we reached Milazzo and went searching for a roadside inn. Turning the corner we were amazed. In front of us was a charming Moorish type hotel – our first introduction into Islamic Sicily.

After spending the night in this Arabian Nights’ abode we drove along the northern coast until we reached Celafu. Here we stopped to view its splendid Cathedral with its Arab influenced decorations and arches. We did not tarry long for Palermo beckoned.

Leaving the winding country road behind we drove toward our goal on a perfect motor way through a rich hilly land of terraced mountain sides dotted with Moorish style homes. Even to the eyes of an unsophisticated traveller it was evident that the land had a firm connection with the lands of the East.

The Phoenicians then the Romans followed by the Byzantines first settled Sicily the largest island in the Mediterranean. However, it was under Arab rule (827 to 1094 A.D.) and their Norman conquerors (1094 to1194 A.D.) that the island reached its pinnacle of glory.

The Arabs gained their first foothold in Sicily in 827 A.D. Building a base at a spot they named Marsa Allah (the harbour of God) or as some historians have indicated Marsa al-‘Aali (the high harbour) that in later centuries became Marsala, they intended to occupy the whole of Italy. However, in the ensuing centuries they were only able to conquer Sicily and bits of the Italian Peninsula. The island remained under their rule until 1094 A.D. when the Normans occupied it. Nevertheless, in that short period of history the Arabs made Sicily an earthly garden paradise.

With their origin in a desert land, the Arabs had a reverence for water and green fields. Hence, they extended the ancient irrigation works they found on the island and built a vast number of reservoirs and water towers. At the same time as they built up the water resources, they introduced many new plants from the countries of the East. Fields of cotton, date palms, lemons, limes, melons, mulberries, oranges, papyrus, pistachio nuts, sugar cane and sumac, first cultivated on a large scale by the Arabs, enriched the agriculture of the country. Travellers in that era have indicated that in this period of its history, Sicily was one huge prolific garden.

Sicily-Palermo-Park Outside Palace of the Normans

Besides their improvements in the method of agriculture, the Arabs’ development of the sciences gave them the impetus to evolve and increase the industrial products of the country. They improved the fishing techniques, especially the evolution of tuna fishing and, after introducing sugar to the island, built sugar-refining plants. They also developed the mining industry and laid the foundation for the Italian silk production that was to flourish in later centuries. As the Arabs had done in Arab Spain, the Muslims in Sicily raised the living standard of the inhabitants to one of the highest in the world of that age.

Forming the base of this prosperity was the wide dispersal of education. Even the small villages had their madrasas (Qur’anic schools). Travellers who visited the island during the 10th century have written that almost everyone could read and writes.

Between 989 and 998 A.D., when under the Amir Abu al-Futuh Yusuf ibn ‘Abdallah, Arab Sicily had reached its apex of achievement, students came from many countries to study at its advanced schools. When they returned to their homelands they put the knowledge they had gained to work. In this fashion Sicilian Muslims were instrumental in passing on much of the Arab/Islamic knowledge to Europe.

When the Normans conquered Arab Sicily they found a much superior culture to their own. Unlike many other conquerors in history, they did not destroy the flourishing civilization they had inherited. Rather, they incorporated Islamic knowledge and culture, flavoured with Byzantine influences, to produce an Arab/Norman civilization that glowed for at least a century.

In the first few decades of the Norman enlightened rule, religious tolerance was widespread. All religions lived in harmony. During the reign of the Norman King Roger II, one of the most tolerant rulers of all times, Arab scholars produced some of the finest contrib­utions to Islamic culture. Arab influences were so overwhelming that some of the Norman kings became fluent in the Arabic language and took on Arab titles. Roger II, who was a great admirer of the Muslims and their way of life, labeled himself al-Mu ‘tazz bi-llah (the one honoured by God).

Sicily-Palermo-Street in Kalsa -Former Arab Quarter

In education, architecture, dress and food the Norman court differed very little from that of the neighbouring Muslim kingdoms. Arab builders and artisans under Norman rule constructed some of the most splendid churches and palaces ever erected. These edifices dotted the whole island. However, Palermo was the city where they were to be found in abundance. An Arab historian wrote that the palaces of Roger II were “strung around the city like a necklace on the neck of a charming maiden”.

Ibn Jubayr, an Arab traveller who visited Palermo in the 12th century and admired this Arab/Norman city with its sublime setting and magnificent palaces, wrote:

“Ancient and elegant, splendid and passing fair, she rises before you like an enchantress, enthroned among her open spaces and her fertile plains that are like unto one garden. With spacious avenues and main thorough­fares she dazzles the eye with rare loveliness”.

As Palermo drew near we thought of these majestic palaces and wondered if anything of them remained. We approached the city filled with anticipation for we desperately wanted to believe that they were still there, these gems which once made Sicily the pearl of the Mediterranean.

Situated on the island’s north coast, Palermo is today, as it was during the Arab and Norman rule, Sicily’s capital. The city was occupied by the Arabs in 83l A.D. and in the subsequent years they expanded and embellished it until it became one of the most illustrious cities in the world. In the 10th and 11th centuries it was a splendid metropolis with at least 300 mosques and a population of 250,000.

Sicily-San Giovanni Church-Former Mosque-Palermo

During this epoch it was larger than any Christian city in Europe except Constantinople. A Muslim chroniclers in his glowing description of the city wrote that with its magnificent mosques, breathtaking gardens and rich palaces, Palermo vied in splendour with Muslim Cordova – considered in that period the greatest and most civilized city in the world. In the succeeding centuries, after it became the prize of numerous conquerors, the town lost to a certain degree this splendour, developing an atmosphere that was a mixture of occidental and the oriental.

The city today is full of a fascinating blend of East and West. Arab arches are intertwined in a pleasant fashion with Gothic arches; and the massive Norman buildings combined with the decorative richness of Islamic art produce an intriguing and enticing effect. Palermo’s luxurious gardens and the count­less domes which dot the skyline give the town a Thousand and One Nights flavour – a legacy bestowed by the Arabs, they add an exotic touch to the modern city.

Leaving the surrounding orchards of Palermo, first planted by the Arabs, behind, we stopped in the outskirts to ask directions. After we greeted him, a man repairing his motorcycle welcomed us to his city in a hospitable manner. He then climbed his vehicle and motioned us to follow, showing us the way into the heart of the old city.

During the day as we searched for Arab remains we must have asked dozens of people for directions. Everyone was friendly, hospitable and helpful, some even inviting us to their homes. It appeared to us that the generosity and hospitality of the dwellers of the Arabian desert have never been forgotten by some of their descendants in Sicily.

However, the customs of the inhabitants are only a part of the heritage retained from their eastern forefathers. The physical characteristics of the people in the majority of cases show features of their Middle Eastern origin. A cosmopolitan population they reflect traces of Phoenicians, Arabs, Africans, Greeks and Persian. Retaining a little from all these races and their later northern European conquerors, they are today a people who truly have a varied past.

Our first stop was the Palace of the Normans or as it is sometimes called Palazzo Reale. A masterpiece of Arab/Norman architecture it was built by the Arabs in the 9th century then rebuilt by Roger II in the 12th century as a royal palace. Its most charming part is the Cappella Palatina with its Arab arches and a ceiling full of scenes painted in brilliant colours – an exquisite creation of Moorish workmanship.

The magnificent glowing mosaic decoration of the whole Cappella that blends marvellously with the architectural elements creates an atmos­phere of intense pictorial effect.

Experts have indicated that the Cappella is a triumph of Islamic decorative genius and one of the world’s great architectural wonders. A sparkling jewel of the Arab/Norman age, it is the finest work of art of its kind in Italy. Travellers who have viewed the splendour of this Cappella have written that to enter its portals is to walk into a radiant gem.

Outside the Cappella is a column with an inscription in Greek, Latin and Arabic that makes reference to a water clock built by Roger II – a testimony to the multi­culturism of the Norman court.

Another enchanting part of the palace is the Hall of Ruggero, an attractive picturesque wing of the royal apartments. Its mosaic decoration and the delicate ornamentation of the vaults and arches are a fine example of the handiwork of the Arab/Norman artisans. It is said that to look at this elegant richly ornamented room brings emotions of sheer pleasure.

On the outside, the Pisan Tower, a prototype of the North African minaret, is another aspect of0 the palace’s Arab heritage. This tower, added to the pendentives and alveolus of the whole building, brings to mind the palaces to be found in Damascus and Granada.

Another Arab type palace whose origins go back to Norman times is La Zisa, a name derived from the Arabic aziza (the beloved) – a structure with an Arab air. A delightful pleasure palace built by Arab artisans for the Norman kings, it is still amazingly beautiful on the inside. Yet, when one first glimpses the building, this beauty is hidden. From the outside the palace is rather more awesome than attractive. However in its days of glory it was a different story. In his book The Kingdom of the Sun, J. Norwich quotes Romuald of Salerno who wrote:

“King William built near Palermo a palace of considerable height, constructed with superb artifice, which he called Zisa; and he surrounded it with beautiful fruit-bearing trees and pleasant gardens, and with divers watercourses and fish pools he rendered it delectable.”

From that splendid building there remain today a few parts that tell the tale of its faded charm. A hall with bees-nest vaults and walls covered with attractive mosaics still catches the eye. A wall fountain that once spilled its waters on marble paving, shattering the silence with its cool water-drops, also still exists. Beside it the nobles and scholars in the court of the Normans spent relaxing hours.

The Arab artisans who decorated the palace must have been delighted with their creation. As quoted by J. Norwich, an inscription round the entrance arch, which today has some parts missing, r0eads:

“Here, as thou shalt wish, shalt thou see the loveliest possession of this kingdom, the most splendid of the world and the seas.

The mountains their peaks flushed with the colour of narcissus…

Thou shalt see the great King of this century in his beautiful dwelling-place, a house of joy and splendour which suits him well.

This is the earthly paradise that opens to view; this king is the Musta iz (the glorious one) this palace the aziz.”

Like La Zisa, La Cuba that gets its name from the Arabic gubbah (dome) and is today located in the middle of a barrack compound, was a former Norman palatial residence. It was built as a palace of delight by Arab artisans, protected by the munificence and tolerance of the Norman kings. There is not much left from its illustrious days. Only here and there are a few arches and an Arabic inscription over a blocked doorway – a tiny leftover from the time when much of the palace was decorated with Arabic calligraphy. Also, in its gardens are the remains of the Cubola and the Cuba Soprana which were once small pavilions.   Now a mere shadow of its former self, La Cuba is still a fine reminder of Sicily’s Arab heritage.

Although in the past poets sung the praises of all these palaces, today they are sadly neglected. Without restoration, these once dazzling homes of pleasure will soon fade away.

In the period of Norman splendour a number of the kings, besides building palaces, were animal lovers. By the shores of an artificial lake built by the Arabs outside the suburbs of Palermo, they created a charming park complex. This site of an earlier Arab palatial residence thatwas surrounded with orchards and flowering gardens became a sanctuary for birds and animals. The Normans named this animal playground Favara, from the Arabic name for lake, buhayra. Today, the lake has dried up and only traces of the sanctuary remain. The structures of the once renowned pleasure park are uncared for and homes have been built among the ruins.

Some historians have argued that, perhaps, Palermo’s religious buildings more than its palaces reflect the city’s Arab heritage. At the apex of these houses of worship is the Palermo Cathedral. With its numerous arches, domes, towers and turrets, it is very oriental in appearance. Erected in ll85 by the Normans on the foundation of an earlier mosque, it still retains a number of relics from its Muslim past. A section of the mosque with a replaced ceiling still stands. Also, a column at the main entrance has an inscription from the Qur’an which reads, “Our Lord God created the day and after the night.”

No less intriguing in its appearance is the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti (Saint John of the Hermits), erected in 1130 A.D. by Roger II. Built around the rudiments of a much larger mosque from which a small part remains, it is charming and delicate in its architecture and vivid colours. Inside are a number of Arabic inscriptions that date from the time the church was a mosque. Its five bright red domes that appear to be gigantic pomegranates and the Islamic style of the building make it an almost pure oriental structure. A romantic church with a Muslim past and built in the midst of a charming garden, it appeals to visitors. However, the church has been deconsecrated and is now an empty shell, only of interest to historians and tourists.

A twin of Saint John of the Hermits is the Church of San Cataldo. Erected by the Normans on the remains of a former mosque, it is a pleasant and graceful ancient house of worship. The Moorish element in its architecture is obviously predominant. Its three red domes, honeycomb windows, graceful arches and Arabic inscriptions give it an Islamic appearance. The Arab influence is apparent from both the outside and inside of what is considered one of the oldest churches in Sicily.

The remains of Arab built structures are only a part of Sicily’s Islamic heritage. In food, language and, especially place names, the Arabs have left their everlasting mark. Throughout Sicily there are at least several hundred Arab place names that dot the island. In Palermo the Piazza della Kalsa is derived from the Arabic khalisa (pure) and Siracaldi from sari al-qadi (the judge’s bastion); Baida is the Arabic bayda (white); Alcamo, al-Kamuk (name of an Arab fortress); Alcantara, al-qantara (bridge); Caltabellotta, qal’at al-ballut (citadel of the oak); Caltagirone, qal’at and gerun (castle and cave); Caltanissetta, qal’at al-nisa’ (the fortress of women); Castrogiovanni, gasr Yani (the fortress of Yani); Cassara, qasr (palace or fort); Gibelmanna, jabal manna (mount of desire); Marzamemi, marsa Muhammad (the harbour of Muhammad); and Zappala, zalamat Allah (God’s man).

Also, in the everyday Sicilian dialect there are a good number of words whose origin goes back to Arabic. Animiragghiu(admiral is derived from the Arabic amir; baitu (a place for merchandise), bayt; bazzariotu (a market square), bazar; cangemia (tax paid by barbers), hajjam; carcioffa (artichoke), khurshuf; carvana (caravan), qayrawan; defetari (registers of lands), dafatir; filusi (money), fulus; fúnnacu (lodge), funduq; malaźźéni (warehouse), makhzan; ráys (skipper), ra’is; sciabica (net), shabka; zecca (minting house), sikkat; and zubbio (rubbish heap), zubbala.

In food it is a similar story. The Sicilian kitchen has an unmistakable Arab touch. The Arabs brought with them citrus fruits and cultivated them on a wide scale. Lemon (Italian limone from the Arabic laymun) and orange (arancia from the Arabic al-naranjah) orchards were to be found in all parts of the island. Today, they are so wide­spread that the aroma of their flowers, which still carry an Arabic name, zgara, originally zahr, hovers over every path and road. Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Basayr, a 11th century Arab-Sicilian , enamoured with the products of these orchards wrote “Come, delight in the orange you have gathered: it brings happiness with its presence.”

From the repertoire of plants found in their former homelands, the Arabs also introduced into the island, among others, a great number of the fruits, spices and vegetables, many of which still carry their Arab names. ­Buckwheat (Italian saraceno), from the Arabic sharqiyin; brush palm (giummaragimar); carob (carrubo – kharrub); cumin (cuminokammun); jasmine (gelsuminu – yasmin); prickly pear (zabbaraubar); pistachio (pistacchio – fustuq); spinach (spinacio isbanakh); sugar cane (canna da zuccherosukkar); saffron (zafferanozafaran); sumach (sommaccosummaq); tarragon (targne – tarkhun) and its crushing in mills; and a type of grape vine which is also a name of a well-known wine (zibibbozibib) are some of these food plants.

When the Arabs introduced sugar to the island they made possible a whole series of deserts. Sweets made from almonds, ice cream and sherbet were brought by the Muslims to Sicily and from there spread to the remainder of Italy, then all of Europe. Sicilian sweets based on honey, found in all parts of the island, are of undeniable Arab origin.

During the last years of Norman rule and for hundreds of years thereafter attempts were made to erase Islamic customs and Arab style architecture. However, this attempt to a great extent failed. The pierced stone or plaster windows with their intricate geometric patterns one sees today are of pure Arab origin.

Arab style architecture even spread to other parts of Italy. The Cathedral of Pisa with its famous Leaning Tower that was built after the Muslim demise in Sicily is as Arab as is the Mosque of Cordova. To an onlooker, Arab features in the architecture of cities like Amalfi and Salerno give these towns a charming eastern atmosphere. Architects who have studied the design of the Italian companili (bell tower) have no doubt that the Islamic minaret influenced these towers.

As the years passed and religious intolerance faded into the background, many people in Sicily began to be proud of their Arab heritage. Today, this legacy is being reinforced by new influences seeping in from the Arab world. Driving around Palermo, we noted that some restaurants feature Italian Arab food and some shops were retailing beautiful Arabian ceramics made by North Africans whose ancestors, no doubt, once lived in Arab Sicily. Nearby was a placard advertising an Arab cultural centre – something that could not have been possible in the bygone centuries.

These and other bits of modern Arab influences in Sicily indicate that the interaction of the past when the island was under Arab and Norman rule has been revived. In spite of the fact the Arabs were evicted from this once Muslim land centuries ago, some of their customs taken on by the inhabitants intent­ionally or unintentionally have become unmistakably Sicilian. This and the island’s close proximity to the Arab world makes it quite certain that in the coming years its Arab heritage will be reinforced.


Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian author who, for the last 30 years has been a full-time Author and Freelance Writer  specializing in food, history and travel. Besides 10 books and 20 chapters in other books, as his c.v. indicates, he has had some 3,000 articles published around the world about culture, food, travel, history and homesteading in western Canada.