Being of Sicilian background, the history of Sicily has always been facinating. Its rich Islamic history is not well known among the general Muslim population so I here is a little glimpse of it.
A one-time Arab emirate and jewel in the Moorish crown Sicily is breathing a new wind of Islamic culture. We take a trip through modern Muslim Sicily and discover a land when past and present mix.
Sicily's strategic position in the Mediterranean has made it a cultural crossroads washed over by successive waves of invaders. on this island, between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, two great civilisations - the Arabs and the Normans - met and mingled laying the basis of the Sicily of today.
In Sicily, Islam was inextricably bound to Arab culture, though not all the world's Muslims were Arab. The Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries. Most of the Muslims in Sicily were Saracens (Moors). More precisely, many were the descendants of Sicilian women who had wed the conquering Moors, each of whom, under Qur’anic law, could take as many as four wives. Many churches and synagogues survived (though new ones could not be built), and not every Sicilian woman chose to wed a Muslim, despite the economic advantages implicit in such a marriage. As recently as the 13th century, there were Muslims at the royal court (popes referred to Frederick II as a "baptized sultan"), and the Muslim towns in Sicily were essentially Arabic in every way, not unlike the Muslim towns in Spain. There is evidence to suggest that Frederick II considered his Muslim soldiers more loyal than many of his unruly Christian knights and barons. Certain Muslim customs (veiling, fasting) were essentially similar to practices that had been known among Middle Eastern Jews and Christians, and Islam's Qur’anic scriptures and precepts were not completely divorced from Judeo-Christian ones. Fasting (during Ramadan), almsgiving (zakat), pilgrimage and even Muhammad's ( peace be upon him ) visit by the angel Gabriel are essential elements of Islam.
The Muslims respected Jews and Christians as "people of the book." Adopting a practice of the Muslim emirs, some of Sicily's Norman kings kept harems. In Palermo alone, there were over a hundred mosques and Qur’anic schools, and hundreds of imams, when the Normans arrived. By the time the Jews were expelled or Christianized (1492), there appear to have been very few professed Muslims in Sicily for nearly two centuries, beginning with Frederick II's exile of some of them to Apulia for armed insurrection in 1246. Sicily's Muslims converted a number of churches to mosques, and the Normans, in turn, rebuilt some of these as churches. Arab architects designed these in what has come to be known as the "Norman-Arab" style. (An Arabic inscription is visible around the high cupola of the Martorana Church in Palermo.) on the present site of Palermo Cathedral and its courtyard once stood Sicily's largest mosque, and before that a Paleo Christian basilica. A number of churches in central Palermo were built on the sites of mosques. In keeping with this peculiar architectural tradition, the Archdiocese of Palermo some years ago gave a former church to the city's growing Muslim community for use as a mosque.
In 515, Sicily fell to the Byzantine general Belisarius. Naturally, the Christian Church in Sicily remained Eastern, which is to say Orthodox. It remained so until the twelfth century.
Many Sicilian Orthodox Christians converted to Islam, though precise numbers are not known. However, it must be said Arabic society and culture were advanced; under the Saracens the city of Panormus became Palermo and its splendor was said to rival that of Baghdad. For the first time in Sicily's history, the lemon and the orange were cultivated, complex irrigation systems were developed, and sophisticated mathematics introduced.
The Byzantines again in Sicily (1030)
After 1030 the kalbit emir, in consequence of inside rivalry in the Muslim world, found himself in difficulty and made a treaty with Byzantium. The general Geroge Maniaces disembarked near Messina with an army composed by the varhegy guard and by mercenary troops. Among the mercenaries there were many Normans, among whom Harald Hardrade, who would invade England in 1066. Maniaces occupied great part of oriental Sicily, but he was called back to Byzantium and his work went lost.
The Normans free Sicily (1060-1091)
Toward 1060 Arabic Sicily was divided. Various families tried to create some independent emirates at Mazara, Girgenti and Syracuse. Ibn at-Tumnah and other Muslims of Syracuse and Catania asked help to the Christians to fight against their rivals. The Norman Roger of Hauteville disembarked with about sixty cavalrymen to verify the situation. Then he organized an expedition of great proportions and conquered Messina. In 1064 Roger, with a thousand cavalrymen, had seized north-oriental Sicily. Roger put the capital at Troina, a Christian community that had survived two centuries of Arabic domination. In 1071 Robert the Guiscard put the siege to Palermo. After five months the city surrendered. Guiscardo granted to the inhabitants to keep on practising their religion and a certain autonomy. Roger continued the work of liberation of Sicily offering advantageous conditions to the Arabs who held their tasks in the administration, their goods and their castles. The Arabic soldiers entered in the army of Roger and were employed also against other Normans. In 1075 Roger stipulated a treaty with the zirid head of Tunisi and sent some wheat to Mahdia. In 1088 Castrogiovanni surrendered and in 1091 Noto, the last Arabic fortress. Sicily was again in Europe, after two centuries of Arabic domination.
Sicily - Past & Present
Palermo whose very name - from the Arab Balarm - defines its origins. The city, a one-time Arab emirate, was described in 973 as "the city of the 300 mosques" by the eminent Arab traveller and explorer Ibn Hawqal. Wherever you look there are signs of the city's heyday as a capital of the Islamic, and consequently Norman kingdoms. Modern Islamic culture occupies a much humbler place in Palermo. The 300 mosques have diminished to but 1 which is housed in a church in Palermo's inner city. The church, San Paolino dei Giardinieri, was badly damaged during WW2 and was given to the council by the diocese and is now run by the Tunisian government.
Its a short walk from the Mosque to Palermo's architecturally eclectic Cathedral. Built in 604 AD as a Christian temple it was given facelifts by both Moors and Normans with the last restoration taking place in the 18th Century. If one looks hard at the columns that flank the main entrance, Muslim scholars will recognise verses from the Qur'aan. Perhaps the finest example of Arab-Norman art in Sicily is the Cappella Palatina in Piazza della Vittoria, a few minutes' walk from the Cathedral. The chapel is a magnificent showcase of Arab-Norman art with its breath-taking Byzantine mosaics rivalled only by those in Istanbul and Ravenna.
Another - Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti - which was built on the remains of an Arab mosque. There is La Zisa (from the Arab al-aziz meaning noble and magnificent). This splendid Arab-Norman castle was built in the 12th Century as the King's summer residence. You can visit the museum which houses an impressive collection of Islamic artefacts from the Mediterranean basin.
Mazara del Vallo
This is where the Moors landed in 827 AD when they first set about their conquest of Sicily. Nowadays the town boasts some 5,000 Tunisians - an impressive 10% of the total population - most of whom live in the casbah, the old Arab quarter. The town's Moorish past is still evident in the remains of the original mosque, the streets and courtyards of the San Francesco and Giudecca Quarters, and the domes of two Arab-Norman churches: Sant'Egidio e del Carmine and San Nicolò Regale (which is known locally as Santa Niculicchia).
Catania's modern mosque
Our journey now brings us to Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily and into the modern world of Islam. Indeed Catania is home to Italy's first modern mosque, which was opened in 1980 and was shortly followed by the mosques in Milan (1988) and Rome (1995). The mosque, which is dedicated to Khalif Omar, was designed by an Egyptian architect and financed by the Libyan government but the initial idea was promoted by a local lawyer Michele Papa who recognised the need of the city's Arab population.
|Storia dei musulmani di Sicilia|
La Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia di Michele Amari, la cui prima edizione uscì in 3 volumi dal 1854 al 1872, rappresenta uno dei monumenti più insigni della storiografia europea dell’Ottocento.
Ha inaugurato la nuova serie di "Classici", con la quale i "Quaderni di Storia" intendono ripresentare alcuni dei "grandi libri" che arricchiscono il catalogo storico della Le Monnier.Il lettore contemporaneo potrà apprezzare le caratteristiche che hanno reso il saggio di Amari un vero modello per le ricerche che lo hanno seguito, un’opera poderosa, preparata con scrupolo e pazienza, concepita e scritta con genialità di storico di prim’ordine. Il tutto in uno stile elegante e leggibilissimo, nella sua classicità appassionata.
Nel lungo percorso che si snoda dalla Sicilia bizantina alla nascita della potenza araba, dalla conquista musulmana all’impresa normanna, Amari, erede della grande tradizione storiografica romantica, e in pieno clima risorgimentale, intravede il sorgere di una nazione italiana che assimila le conquiste culturali e scientifiche della Sicilia araba e normanna.L’opera è ora completa nei suoi tre volumi (il terzo è in due tomi) che seguono l’articolazione originaria.
VOL.2pp. XVI-392, € 20,0088-00-85758-2Acquista online su: Bol
VOL.3 - tomo 1-2pp. 320+320, € 32,5088-00-85762-0Acquista online su: Bol