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