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The glorious history of Sicily under the Arabs


As-Salamu `Alaykum” would have been a common greeting in Sicily a thousand years ago! Why? Because from 827 to 1061, Sicily was under Arab rule, a period of enlightenment whose cultural, social and economic reforms had a profound and long-lasting influence that is still felt today. 

After the birth of Islam in the early years of the 7th century, the teachings of Mohammed quickly spread, not least towards Egypt and North Africa. Soon the Arabic world rose to a position of dominance in many fields, such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, farming, cartography and poetry. Their military might was no less significant, and it was only a matter of time before Sicily, the crossroads of the Mediterranean, fell into Arab hands.

After several aborted attempts, Ziyadat Allah seized control of Mazara del Vallo, in the south-west of the island (coincidentally, modern Mazara hosts a large population of Tunisians and Algerians living in an area known as the Casbah). The invasion continued towards Palermo (or Panormus as it was then known) which fell some five years later. Bal’harm, as they renamed the town, was to become the capital city and seat of government. Over the next fifty years, most major towns fell into Arab hands, the last being Syracuse in 878.

Arab rule in Sicily passed through three North African dynasties: the Aghlabids, the Fatimids, whose power base was in Cairo, and then the Kalbids. In 948 Hassan al-Kalbi declared himself Emir of Sicily, though soon rival “emirates” were established in Enna and Syracuse. The island was divided into three administrative districts, whose names survive still today: Val di Mazara, Val di Noto and Val di Demone. Val does not, as we might think, refer to valley, but rather to the Arabic word for province.

What have the Arabs ever done for us?

As noted earlier, the Arab world was arguably the most advanced civilisation of the time and Sicily benefitted greatly from becoming part of it.

In the field of agriculture alone, the Arabs worked wonders. They divided the large estates and diversified production. While continuing to exploit Sicily’s potential as a wheat producer, they introduced a whole variety of crops, including one of modern Sicily’s major players: citrus fruits. Sugar cane, cotton, dates and hemp were also cultivated in considerable quantities, nurtured by the implementation of highly effective irrigation techniques. Surviving examples of these are the “qanats” in Palermo, subterranean waterways that brought water through the city.

In the field of agriculture alone, the Arabs worked wonders. They divided the large estates and diversified production. While continuing to exploit Sicily’s potential as a wheat producer, they introduced a whole variety of crops, including one of modern Sicily’s major players: citrus fruits.

The Arabs had strong trade links with the mid and far east, and soon cultivated new ones in Europe. Textiles, sugar, rope, silk and objects crafted in the souks were sent all over the known world, turning Sicily into an important commercial crossroads.

The Arabs were also great builders and town planners. Most of Sicily’s main towns and cities underwent considerable changes during Arab rule, not least Palermo, where the Kalsa and Cassaro districts were established. Markets too sprung up, several of which, such as the Capo and the Ballaro’ in Palermo still thrive, souk-like, today.


What’s left?

Unfortunately, not many buildings have remained from Arabic times with the exception of the baths at Cefala Diana, just south of Palermo. The exterior of Palermo’s Cathedral, for a time converted into a mosque, bears some Arabic inscriptions and fine examples of non-representative Islamic art. The Normans greatly admired Arabic architecture, however, and continued to use Arabic architects, artists and craftsmen for their new constructions. As a result several of Palermo’s churches are surmounted by red domes or covered in decorative art (the Capella Palatina in Palermo’s Norman Palace and the Cathedral of Monreale being two wondrous examples). The Castello di Zisa and La Cuba, also in Palermo, are in pure Fatimid style and surroundeded by Arabic gardens.

Sicilian cuisine was also strongly influenced by the Arabs, who added almonds, aniseed, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio, pomegranates, saffron, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, watermelon and rice to the local palate. Today, raisins and pine kernels are fundamental to a host of pasta and fish recipes, many sweets are of obvious Arab extraction, while sorbets and granitas also owe their popularity to North African ingenuity. One of the most common dishes in western Sicily is cous cous, an obvious hangover from Arab times, celebrated each year at the end of September when San Vito Lo Capo hosts an international cous cous fest. The Zibbibo grape, used to make Passito di Pantelleria, the supreme dessert wine, was introduced by the Arabs. And if all that weren't enough, Sicilian Arabs were the first to mass produce dried pasta - an undertaking of huge importance for the world as a whole!!


What’s in a name?

Wherever you go in Sicily, you will come across towns and villages bearing names of Arabic origin: Caltagirone, Caltanisseta, Caltabellotta and Caltavuturo all derive from the Arabic calta for castle, the gibil in Mongibello, Gibilmanna and Gibellina’ denotes mountainous locations, Regalbuto, Racalmuto and Regaliali all stem from rahl, meaning area or village, and Mislimeri signifies the resting place of the Emir (Manzil-Al-Emir). Marsala, or Mars’Allah is God’s Port, and Alcamo was founded by the Muslim General Al-Kamuk…

Arabic surnames survive too, with Salimbeni, Taibbi, Sacca’, Zappala’, Cuffaro and Micicchè fairly common reminders of Sicily’s partly North African geneology.

And when Sicilians choose to communicate in dialect, their conversations are strewn with words of Arabic origins, a few examples being cassata (qashata - cheese), gebbia (già-bìa – water tank for irrigation), zagara (zahr – orange blossom) and mischinu (miskin –poor/unfortunate person).

 Sicily's multidimensional magic springs from its eclectic DNA: Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman, Spanish and French all rolled into one fascinating whole that will tempt you back again and again...

 ...Insha'Allah (as they might have said once in Palermo!).