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1 August 2019

The Arab conquest of Sicily

A painting depicting a ninth century Arab ship of the kind that would have invaded Sicily
A painting depicting a ninth century Arab ship
of the kind that would have invaded Sicily

Fall of Taormina put island in Muslim control


The Arab conquest of Sicily, which began in 827, was completed on this day in 902 with the fall of Taormina, the city in the northeast of the island that was the last stronghold of the Byzantine Empire, which had been in control for more than 350 years.

The island had been coveted by powers around the Mediterranean for centuries and raids by Saracens, as the Muslim Arabs from Roman Arabia became known, had been taking place since the mid-7th century without threatening to make substantial territorial gains.

However, in 827 the commander of the island's fleet, Euphemius, led a revolt against Michael II, the Byzantine Emperor, and when he and his supporters were at first driven from the island by forces loyal to Michael II, he turned to the Aghlabids, the rulers of Ifriqiya, the area of north Africa now known as Tunisia, for help.

The Aghlabids saw this as a strategic opportunity too good to miss and, with Euphemius’s forces to supplement their own, completed a successful landing on the southern coast and began to establish fortresses.

Gustave Léon Schlumberger's 1890 illustration of the Saracen army on the move in Sicily
Gustave Léon Schlumberger's 1890 illustration
of the Saracen army on the move in Sicily 
An attempt to capture Syracuse, which was then the capital, was beaten back, but when they turned their attention to Palermo it was a different story. With reinforcements from the Muslim area of southern Spain they captured the western city in 831 and made it the capital of a new Muslim province on the island.

Over the next three decades, they were able to claim more and more parts of the island, taking advantage of the Byzantine preoccupation with defending other frontiers from Arab attack.  They took the important stronghold of Enna in the centre of the island in 859 and made a successful second assault on Syracuse, which fell in 878 following a long siege.  Byzantine resistance held onto territories in the northwest for the next two decades, while the effectiveness of the invaders was undermined by a conflict between rival Muslim groups.

After the rebel Muslims had been suppressed, however, territorial advances gathered pace again and in 902 the Aghlabid leader, Emir Ibrahim II, laid siege to Taormina and claimed victory on August 1, after which the remaining Byzantine fortresses quickly capitulated.

Sicily then enjoyed a period of prosperity lasting 250 years, during which time a population of Christians and Muslims brought about important cultural, economic and social reforms, until the island was captured again in 1061, this time by the Norman invaders from northern Europe.

Arab rule in Sicily actually changed hands three times as the Aghlabid, the Fatimid, and then the Kalbid dynasties assumed control. In 948 Hassan al-Kalbi declared himself Emir of Sicily.

The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo is an example of the fusion of architectural stars
The Church of San Cataldo in Palermo is an example
of the fusion of architectural stars
Although there are a number of pockets of Muslim populations in Sicily today, there are few physical remnants of Arab rule. Few Arabic buildings remain, although the Normans used Arabic architects on a number of projects, as is evidenced by the red domes of the Church of San Cataldo and the Saracen arches in the Cappella Palatina.

But the legacy of the period is visible on the map in the form of Val di Mazara, Val di Noto and Val di Demone, three areas of Sicily that reflect the names three administrative districts into which the Arab rulers divided the island. Val is thought to derive from the Arabic word wilayah, meaning province, rather than the Italian word for valley.

Some place names have Arabic roots also, such as the many towns and villages whose names begin with calta, meaning castle, such as the central town of Caltanissetta, or which include gibil, meaning mountain, as in Mongibello, which is an alternative name for Mount Etna.

And Sicilian cuisine owes much to the Arabs introducing almonds, apricots, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pine kernels, raisins, saffron, spinach and watermelon to the country’s diet, among other things.  The famous Sicilian dessert cassata, which traditionally contains sweetened ricotta cheese, takes its name from qashata - the Arabic word for cheese.

Saracen arches decorated with Byzantine Mosaics inside the Cappella Palatina
Saracen arches decorated with Byzantine
Mosaics inside the Cappella Palatina
Travel tip:

The Cappella Palatina - Palatine Chapel - is the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Sicily within the Palazzo Reale in Palermo.  Commissioned by Roger II of Sicily in 1132, it took eight years to build. The chapel combines several architectural styles. The overall design is Norman, yet it features six pointed arches of Arabic style and eight-pointed stars of Muslim tradition are arranged on the ceiling in the shape of a Christian cross. The dome and mosaics are Byzantine, the mosaics among the most elegant in Italy.

The Cathedral of San Nicoló in Noto, one of many cities in southeast Sicily rich in Baroque architecture
The Cathedral of San Nicoló in Noto, one of many cities in
southeast Sicily rich in Baroque architecture
Travel tip:

Val di Noto is an historical and geographical area encompassing the southeastern third of Sicily.  The first known settlement in the area was the ancient town of Akrai, near the present-day town of Palazzolo Acreide, which dates back to 664BC. The area nowadays is known for its wealth of Sicilian Baroque architecture, the result of a lavish rebuilding programme instigated by the Spanish rulers following the massive earthquake of 1693. Churches, cloisters and palaces were built along streets radiating out from a central square in what in many cases were virtually new towns and cities in their entirety.  Such is the architectural splendour of these towns and cities that Caltagirone, Militello in Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo Acreide, Ragusa, and Scicli are all UNESCO World Heritage sites.

More reading:

How the Sicilians threw out the French in 1282

The Sicilian earthquake of 1693

Pietro Novelli, the Sicilian artist killed in a riot

Also on this day:

1464: The death of Cosimo, founder of the Medici banking dynasty

1776: The birth of Francesca Scanagatta, the girl who dressed up as a man to join Austrian 
army

1831: The birth of operatic baritone Antonio Cotogni


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