The Arabs and Normans ruled Sicily in medieval times, and left a legacy I see all around me in Sicily today.
I see Arabs in the girls with big dark eyes and thick black hair, or in the little boys on the beach with nut brown skin. I see Normans too, in the fishermen with piercing blue eyes whose fair hair is bleached by the sun. I hear the Arabs in the Sicilian language and the place names, and I taste their foods in the pistachio ice cream and the citrus fruits I eat. I feel the Catholic legacy of the Normans in the passion that fills the religious processions, and the churches that crowd every town.
The Arabs and the Normans created modern Sicilian society, yet also gave Sicilians an identity crisis from which they have never recovered. Are Sicilians African or European? Most of them will tell you they do not know.
The Arabs came to Sicily from the south, after first establishing themselves in Africa and mingling with the local Berber tribes. From their empire in the desert sands of Africa they fought a hundred-year struggle to dominate Sicily. They obeyed the strict rules of jihad as they established themselves on the island, and then conquered far enough north to sack Rome.
During their 200-year domination of Sicily they built potteries, factories, and underground and surface irrigation channels to cultivate the vast variety of crops and citrus trees they brought with them. To the Africans of the desert, the lush greenery and extraordinary fertility of Sicily made it a paradise on earth, like the lush gardens that the Koran promised them in the afterlife.
They invented dried pasta and ice cream, they built sea salt factories, and their precious foods, ceramics and textiles turned Sicily into the cornucopia of the Mediterranean and one of the richest trading centres of the medieval world. They founded cities all over the island, gave them city walls and fortresses to protect them, and filled them with mosques, public baths, and offices of local government. As India was the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, one could say Sicily was the Africans’ “Jewel in the Turban.”
Then came the Vikings from the snowy north. After raiding and ransacking Britain and areas of Europe, some had established themselves in France and were better known as the Normans. Still the most fearsome warriors Europe could muster, the Pope felt they were the ideal nation to “reclaim” Sicily, and of course all its material wealth, for the Papacy. The Africanised island of Sicily, once a forgotten backwater of Europe, was by now too appealing to pass up.
After a ten-year war fought by guerilla tactics, the Normans possessed Sicily and her invaluable resources. They threw up defence towers and fortresses all over the island in a feverish frenzy; yet vast numbers of them still pepper the island today.
The warlike Normans are often held up as paragons of tolerance and enlightenment, who allowed all religions to remain and practise freely in Sicily. This is simplistic, and decidedly anachronistic.
The Norman kings were indeed impressed by the more technologically advanced and artistically refined Muslims, but the concept of religious tolerance as an ethical ideology did not exist at that time.
Economics, on the other hand, was well understood. The Normans allowed the Muslims to stay because their advanced agricultural techniques made the wealthy island of Sicily a prize worth having. They hired Arab architects to design so many of their buildings because there was a grave shortage of Norman architects in this far-flung and infernally hot border territory. They needed the Jews as they were the only literate members of society who were capable of writing contracts and book-keeping; they were also the only polyglots who could interpret for the various ethnic groups on the island. The Normans would have thrown Sicily into economic collapse if they had expelled any of them from the island’s shores.
Although the Normans needed the skilled Muslims, it seems many had good reason to flee. It broke their hearts to leave their lush green paradise.
The poet Ibn Hamdìs, native of Sicily, wrote this deeply poignant poem about leaving his homeland:
I think of Sicily and the memory brings pain to my heart.
A place of youthful folly, now desolate;
enlivened once by the flower of noble minds.
If I am expelled from paradise, how do I tell of it?
If my tears were not bitter,
I would believe them to be the rivers of that paradise.
Rulers of an island whose wealth depended on trade over a vast area, the Normans were in reality as much influenced by Egyptians as they were by the Arabs they had conquered. They also continued to take artistic and cultural influences from the Byzantines whom the Arabs had previously conquered and enslaved, from the Greeks who remained on the island, and from the Italians who had made it their home generations ago.
The Normans did not, however, adopt Muslim culture wholesale. It has been claimed they started to keep their women in harems, yet the roles of powerful Norman women in government and politics show that the Normans did not adopt this aspect of Arab culture.
The early Norman kings did adopt many of the ways of Eastern potentates, though. They lived with a material luxury they had not known before they reached to Sicily. They copied the Arabs’ government structure, maintaining the government offices the Arabs called Diwàn. The Arab rulers in these offices lay about on couches and this word has given rise to the English word divan. Under the Normans the name of this institution morphed into Dohana and its focus was narrowed down to fiscal matters. This word eventually entered the Italian language as Dogana – customs and excise.
As these groups were augmented by Norman migrants, the religious minorities progressively ceased to be indispensable. The Normans built churches in a new, uniquely Sicilian style. They restricted the freedom of the Muslims and, as one generation gave way to the next, they eventually hardened their hearts and started to expel the Muslims their fathers had so passionately admired. Gradually, Sicilian society was Europeanised.
The early medieval period, in which Sicily was ruled first by the Africans from the hot and sultry south, then by the warlike Vikings of the harsh and freezing north, probably represents the island’s cultural, economic and intellectual zenith. It was certainly during this time that Sicily underwent the greatest degree of man-made change.
Even today, Sicilians seem to look upon this period of their history as the golden age. They delight in pointing out the legacy in thir culture and the monuments around them from this period. No wonder the Sicilians cannot decide if they are Europeans or Africans. They are, rightly, so proud of being both.
Much of the information in this article, and all of the images, come from Arabs and Normans in Sicily and the South of Italy by Adele Cilento and Alessandro Vanoli.
It is a gorgeous book packed with lavish photo illustrations which take you on a virtual tour of Medieval Sicily. http://www.riversidebook.com/arabs.html
41 Comments Add yours
My father’s family disowned him after marrying my mother in 1945. They are Romans and Spaniards and Catholic. My mother was Sicilian and Presbyterian(Mt Olivet on Staten Island , New York was probably the first Italian Presbyterian church in America). The mainlanders will always consider Sicilians half-breed low class Africans. Appreciate the history lesson.
That reminds me of an Italian colleague who warned me, shortly before I got married and noved here, that I would not survive here as the Sicilians are still living in the middle ages.
Mind you, some of my female Sicilian friends from the smaller villages make similar complaints!!!
Did you father’s family ever reconcile with his new family?
No, that could never be.
That’s very sad. Your grandparents have missed out on so much family. Poor them. 😦
We had the same situation three generations back in my family. People who make that choice mostly punish themselves, I think.
My Fathers parents were affluent, wealthy Northern Italian that spent their time jaunting back and forth between homes in NY City and Milan. My Dad married my 100% 1st generation Sicilian American mom in 1958. My Dad’s family fell madly in love with her and her big loud, lovable working class Sicilian family. Each family was enamored with how different the other was and it was very good times growing up for everyone. I’m sorry you experienced such negativity in your family.
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Very informative – I forwarded to my granddaughter so she would learn about her Sicilian heritage – Growing up I was always told because I was Sicilian that I was African not Italian
I have heard a lot of North Italians saying it as an insult.
Maybe they don’t realise the Africans in Sicily invented pasta, ice-cream, majolica ceramics, modern agricultural methods and a great deal else that they think is “Italian.”
The Sicilians know it, and they don’t regard being called African as an insult.
Great bit of history – reminded me of the Norman and Saracen puppets I saw in Catania last year. I wonder, are they part of popular culture, a story telling that reflects the multicultural history of the island?
Yes, they still are. Children love them and they are still very popular.
The Arab and Norman period of Sicilian history is the one that plays by far the most prominent role in popular history and is most vividly remembered in the living culture.
The scenes you see in the puppet shows are also portrayed on the traditional carri Siciliani (yellow wooden carts) and they wonderful fruit and nut stalls that appear at the village festivals.
Terrific encapsulated account of an era, and area, about which I previously knew nothing! Thanks so much! 🙂
Glad you enjoyed it!
I learned a lot of new info from the book I linked to at the end.
It costs 40 dollars but if you feel you deserve a present, it really is gorgeous.
Thank you for a most informative post. I learned a lot!
Great history lesson!
Thank you both – I am glad you liked it.
I find this period so fascinating as the history of Sicily at this time explains so much of what went on all over Europe in the following centuries.
There are many parts of Europe where the mixing of various civilizations occurred. Span is a prime example of miscegenation with Arabs on a grander scale than Sicily. And England is made of people who do not descend from the original Celts. In my opinion Sicily is but a concentrated crucible that is very very visible. I come from the North of Italy where at one time in the 40s and 50s anybody south of Rome was “african”. Fortunately such prejudices do die out.
Sicily has made a great contribution to Italian letters and music. Without speaking of Salvo Montalbano…
Another Montalbano fan!
Sicily has, as you say, been a real cultural mix, and a crucible of culture and science.
I have been researching an article on the most famous Sicilians for quite a while, and that really shows how important the Sicilian contribution has been.
Hm, Palermo was founded by Phoenicians: Asians! The Elymians in this region allegedly came from Turkey: Asians! The Arabs themselves, to be precise, once came from Arabia which is part of … Asia!
But it would be interesting to know how far the Islamization reached in Sicily. In the short time of Muslim rulership I imagine that most Sicilians stood Christians – what was perfectly allowed under Muslim rule (you only had to accept certain – errr – humilations and a pizzo for non-believers). It would be interesting to know how many Arabs moved to Sicily: I assume rather few, only a ruling elite, so the black hairs are no sign of Arab heritage. There are black hairs everywhere in Sourthern Italy. Furthermore I miss some critical words about other Arab customs like honour killings, mafiotic family structures, booty and pizzo economy and the like, living on until the 20th century.
From Syracusians I heard that such customs exists only in the West of the island “where the Muslims live” (imagine this spoken with a very veeeery bad laughter). Yes, the Syracusians know of a different Golden Age without Arabs and Normans …
A ha! All very interesting.
Palermo was founded by Phoenicians from Carthage, which is in Africa! 😛
Whether to call the Muslims who conquered Sicily Arabs or Africans has triggered a debate before on my blog! They had their own empires in North Africa, ruled from Africa and politically independent of the Middle East. They were also ethnically Arabic people mixed with African tribes – so again, not pure ethnic Arabs. On that basis I consider them Africans, like I consider the Tunisians and Libyans of today Africans rather than Arabs. But of course the have far more incommon with Arabs of the Middle East then with Sub Saharan Africans – to me that doesn’t mean they are not Africans.
The Muslims were here in Sicily for 200 years, which is about 8 generations (or maybe more, since they made the girls get married when they were about 13 in those days. In fact they still do. :P) That tends to go beyond meaningful human /oral memory and, on that basis, I think they could have achieved a major transformation in the culture and mentality as well as the physical changes they made by creating so many different industries. If I try to imagine what my country was like in about 1814, the only things I know were from history books. My parents and grandparents had no information to share about that time and I don’t believe the average SIcilian in those days read history books at all.
As for all the honour killings, pizzo economy etc, I know that the Byzantines who ruled before the Arabs were just as bad, if not more so. Do you know the adjective “byzantine” (with a lower case b) used in the English language? It means operating in an incredibly devious, secretive and complex way in order to cheat. When you read the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, the descriptions of how the Byzantine rulers operated are so shocking they just make you laugh! I really doubt the Arabs were worse!!!
By the way, a few Sicilians have told me they had themselves tested for genetic heritage and they had as much as 20% Arab genes in them. Apparently the average is 6%, but if you look at Sicilians you can see some of them are very pale and probably descended from the Franks or the Normans and probably have zero African.
You really can see African in some people here. Sicily is the only place I have ever seen white people with Afro hair!!!
T Franke…DNA testing is easy (bit expensive). my sicilian side came back with 15% west asian and 3% north african. I was surprised (figured it was a mistake) but found a website documenting the DNA % by province. Lot of west asian DNA on the island. The Caucasus genetics probably adds to the hair/skin/eye color mix. My eyes are the weirdest green, yellow, brown.
@The Sicilian Housewife:
I fully agree that the Byzantines were as bad as the Muslims … to be precise, I read in Tom Holland’s wonderful book “In the shadow of the sword” that the Muslims took over many ideas and customs of the Byzantines. It is a veeeery good book about Late antiquity and what is really behind the foundations of Islam.
Oh that sounds REALLY interesting. Thank you for the book recommendation! 🙂
The Byzantines were as bad as the Muslims,really…
I don’t know about the Byzantines but at least overall,the Muslims were merciful conquerors and didn’t perpetrate genocide on a large scale and exterminate half the people who have the misfortune to fall between their hands the way judeo-christians did for centuries.
As far as honnor killings are concerned,it has never been a feature of the Islamic religion nor the arab tradition.Furthermore,it has always been a very rare occurence(more so in the present days).Same practice different wordings,in the judeo-christian world,honnor killings do happen(more so than you would imagine)but society wouldn’t admit it and call a spade a spade and would rather invoke a moment of madness or some kind of a mental illness,when for instance,an “inconsolable” husband or boyfriend have just butchered his unfaithful wife(girlfriend).Surely,it happens a lot more than in the arab world as much as rapes,violence and homicide towards women ect…are much more widespread in judeo-christian societies than in their muslim counterparts.
P.s:Sorry for the rant “Veronica” but I find it ludicrous when some bigot tries to take up a moral high ground and single out others instead of having a good look at himself and the tribe where he comes from.
fascinating as ever Veronica
Glad you liked it. I am getting more and more interested in this period of history.
While I was in Siracusa last month I asked about all the oval windows and I was told that they are an Arab influence. Love Sicily. Three weeks was nowhere near enough. Best food too.
The food is just way to good, isn’t it? I am trying to diet but I think it is physically impossible to be on a diet in Sicily!
Hello, found your blog randomly and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far. I’m an American woman married to an Indian man and we live in London, so I love coming across other multicultural couples! Will keep reading 🙂
Glad you’re enjoying the blog. 🙂
Ah, I do miss the good Indian food in London!! Is your hubby any good at cooking?
Haha no. Indian mothers never let their sons in the kitchen. 🙂
The food is simply the best ! It is classic Mediterranean, mostly Southern Italian, but has its rich French, Arab and North African influences that make it so wonderful and unique !
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Here in New York City, Neopolitans verses Sicilians there is a never ending insults that Sicilians are the “n” word and not Italian. UFFA!
Both of my parents were tested for their genetic make-up. Mom is Calabrese and Dad is Sicilian. Dad is 40% Middle Eastern, Mom is 40% Middle Eastern. Dad is also 6% English (guess it was one of those wine people from England) and the rest is pretty much southern European. Mom has a bit of northern European in her and the rest is southern European. We thought the tests were wrong until I started reading your blog.
That’s interesting about the Middle Eastern percentage. We had our family DNA tested too – I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about it for ages.
My husband turned out to be mostly Italian, but also part Spanish, part Scandinavian (those Vikings!) and also about 4% Arabic and 2% sub-Saharan African. Also his and our son’s haplotype – the main gene that passes from father to son – is an exclusively African one that is shared by African tribes including the Zulus.
It’s interesting how much variation there is in the Sicilian and southern Italian gene pool. Though when you look around Sicily and see how varied the people look, it makes absolute sense.
Meanwhile my ancestry was really boring!! It just said British British British British British!
My Sicilian maternal grandfather was tall and well built and strong, he had kinky hair and big grey eyes. My grandmother was mostly Irish though her first ancestor to the US came from England in 1600’s and was a Quaker ! What a seemingly odd match -what worked was their love for each other and the Catholic religion. My dna came back with the highest percentage being Berber and the second being Spanish ! My father was 100% Irish (Black Irish type with blue eyes) so I believe the Berbers and Spaniards (under the Spanish Celts) were on the island of Ireland very early –way before the Armada stories etc. But certainly the Sicilian Berber and Sicilian Spanish influence is in my dna. Who would think that an Irish Anglo woman and a Sicilian man would have similar dna — and perhaps this contributed to their dedication to each other.
Wow, that’s fascinating that you had so much Berber DNA and Spanish. My hubby and son turned out to have a really even, representative smattering of DNA from all the groups and nationalities who invaded Sicily, but of course there must be people with a particularly heavy load of one in particular. I wonder how much variation there is from one Sicilian to another?
I’m fascinated by the Irish-Spanish connection too. I read a few article online saying the number of Spanish Armada survivors who reached Ireland was negligible and that the name Costello – which I always thought came from Spain – was well known in Ireland before the Armada. So maybe there were earlier “landings” that entered the gene pool? One of the connection that fascinates me is the Basques of Spain. Their folk music sounds so much like Celtic music, especially Welsh, and they have traditional sports very similar to the Highland games (pick up a rock and throw it, pick up a tree and throw it, that type of thing.) There were some major invasions/migrations around Europe in ancient and early medieval times which took tribes from one end of Europe to the other, so maybe there was migration between Ireland and Spain in very early times?
i think all of you are wrong! and hollywood is to blame because it made everybody think the whole of africa only consists of black people when in fact north africa is berber and white. You have more redheads in morocco alone than in most european countries, execept for ireland maybe.
Race-mixing in the mediterranean happened long before any norman or arab or byzantine ever ruled sicily. Even before the romans who considered north africa more part of their empire than spain or france. The romans and greeks and phoenicians had colonies all over north africa from where they imported wheat and other raw materials.
The ptolemies who ruled egypt for hundreds of years were greek.
The meditteranean race has its origins in pre-historic times.
Calling sicilians africans was invented by the north italians who themselves are outsiders and descendants from the franks and kelts and other northern barbarians who sacked rome and took over the north of italy. Thats why they are lighter in skin color. Its the north italians who are from outside and not the southern italians who are of mediterranean race and look like the greeks and spaniards and albanians and arabs.
It seems lately everybody is discovering Sicily: movies, television, books, casual conversations, etc. etc.etc. I was born in Sicily – I am Sicilian from the Siracusa province. I moved to the United States when I was 13 years old. I am now retired and I go “home” every year for a couple of months to visit other members of my family that never crossed the Atlantic. In 2019 I travelled across Sicily from Siracusa to Trapani. What a ride; the countryside as seen from the Catania/Palermo highway reminded me very much of California, where I currently live, but on a smaller scale. The Trapani province was amazing…..the landscape, the architecture, the food, the dialect, the history, the people. I met Sicilians that still spoke old “Greek”, imagine that? . But it was the architecture that fascinated me the most. Where I was born it’s all “Sicilian Baroque” with some ancient greek theaters in the mix, but in Trapani and surrounding area the arab (and I suppose norman) influence was very prevalent and of course I enjoyed eating couscous. Next year I am going on one of those Sicil Tours to visit ALL the historical places I have read about and never seen. Isn’t it great to have been born in such a multi-cultured land. Folks, let’s not get so hung up on DNA findings that we fail to truly appreciate our Mediterranean ancestry/heritage (Europe, North Africa, and the MIddle East). AND WHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD CAN YOU SIT AT AN. OUTDOOR CAFE, HAVE A CAPPUCCINO WITH GRANITA AND CROISSANT FOR BREAKFAST, AND ENJOY THE VIEW OF MOUNT ETNA AND THE IONIAN SEA .
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Much of the contempt the mainland Italians have for us is that being the crossroads of the Mediterranean we must certainly have African blood as well as many other ethnicities.
This article leaves out everything the Romans and Greeks did in Sicily which goes back @1000 years before the Arabs showed. The Romans were building aqueducts and the Greeks amazing temples. Perhaps the Muslims learned what was going on Sicily and brought infrastructure ideas and engineering back to Africa?
Yes of course there was a multi-way cultural exchange throughout the Mediterranean.
You can’t write the whole history of Sicily in one blog post, though.
Before the Greeks came to Sicily there were also the Phoenicians.
Use the search box to read my articles about them.
This will get you started
What the ancient Romans brought to Sicily was probably less than they took away. Look up Verres the Roman governor to find out about that.