Palermo was founded by the Phoenicians from Tunisia and called Zyz. They divided the city into quarters, with one long road running south from the sea right through the heart of the city, and another running across it.
These roads divided the city into four quarters or cantieri. The place where they intersect is still called the Quattro Canti, or the four quarters.
When the Greeks conquered, they started calling Zyz “Panormus,” which means “Huge everything”.
Then came the Romans, more North Africans (Arabic speaking and Muslim this time), and then Christian Normans. Somewhere along the line, Jews appeared and made themselves indispensable to government administration and commerce by being scribes and polyglot translators.
Each of these ethnic groups had its own district places of worship, its own laws and legal system, language, style of houses, foods and diet, and its own crafts and trades passed on from father to son.
They all lived together in this one massive metropolis, at the very centre of the known world, called “Huge Everything.” Their districts were separated by these four roads, which cut the city into four pieces.
Traces of them still remain in Palermo. Some of the roads around the Quattro Canti still have signs with their names written in Hebrew. Palermo Cathedral has a passage from the Koran, in Arabic script, carved into one of its walls. Palermo is full of Greek and Roman-inspired statues and buildings.
The four patron saints of Palermo – sacked for failing to cure the plague and replaced by Saint Rosalia – still stand, rather embarrassed at their failure, around the Quattro Canti.
Below them are four Spanish kings – some of them dressed up as ancient Romans – and below these at ground level are the four seasons. It was these Spanish who finally unified the city into a homogenous community…. by bringing the Inquisition. Everyone must be a Catholic, or die.
Some fled, some converted. From then on, everyone lived under a single legal system with one language, one culture and a destructively introverted mentality. The economy never flourished again. Modernisation in agriculture was shunned. The world had an industrial revolution but Sicily didn’t. Once the centre of the world, Sicily slowly became the middle of nowhere.
Nowadays, the Quatro Canti of Palermo is looking fairly cosmopolitan again, constantly filled with tourists from abroad …and Sicilians who want to take them for a ride around town in a horse-drawn carriage. The streets around the Quattro Canti are filling up with immigrants from Bangladesh these days.
Who knows if Sicily will ever again be as cosmopolitan as it once was?