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Although today the poorest part of the Republic of Italy, the relative poverty and reputation associated with the word "Sicily" belies the rich history and culture of the island. From the Dark Ages, Sicily continued to change hands between the Romans and their enemies, before becoming the capital of a nation that stretched from Naples all the way down across the Mediterranean upon the sun-bleached islands of Malta.

Early Sicily[edit]

Sicily was first colonised by Greeks over the 6th and 5th centuries BC, before it then fell to Roman invaders in the 3rd century BC. They, in turn, were followed by Vandals, Ostrogoths, and Byzantines, who were in turn ousted by the Arabs.

Sicily first made its debut under the Romans in 36 BC, after a costly 2-year siege that coincided with an epidemic in Syracuse. It was subsequently renamed "Triqueta" and would remain so until the end of the 3rd century AD, when it began facing invasions by Ostrogoth and Vandal fleets. The Romans retook it in 535 along with many other parts of southern Italy, and Sicily would well remain in Byzantine hands until 827. In that year, an Arab armada landed at Mazara on 17 June, and began a rolling campaign culminating in the middle of the 10th century.

The Arabs and Sicily[edit]

House of worship

Efforts by Muslims to gain control of Sicily are numerous enough, throughout the pages of history, but it was not until 827 that they finally obtained a foothold by taking Mazara on the western end of the island. The Aghlabid sultanate in Ifriqiyya, unable to tolerate Byzantine control of the seaways, and learning that Sicily was torn with internal strife, decided the moment was propitious for a full-scale attack. Unlike Spain, which fell like ripe fruit, the conquest of Sicily, after Mazara fell, took 75 years. But immigration and settlement on the land began almost immediately. The Aghlabids were succeeded by the Fatimids, who in turn gave way to the Kalbids. But the unique achievements of the period were not political, and are hardly mentioned in many works of historians. Under the Muslims, Sicily once more became a granary to the world, as it had been under the Romans, but the Arabs introduced many new exotic crops, such as oranges, and new irrigation techniques to grow them. These innovations, along with breaking up of the large estates and the redistribution of land, meant an end to the long years of economic and social depression. Sicily began to bloom.


The revolution in agriculture generated a number of related industries, such as textiles, sugar manufacture, rope-making, matting, silk, and paper - the latter introduced to Europe by way of Sicily. The beautiful silks of Sicily became internationally known, and garments made of them were the prized possessions of both Muslim and Christian rulers, but economics and agriculture were not the only contributions of Islam to Sicily: its Muslim magnates also extended and beautified such cities as Messina, Syracuse, Sciacca, Mazara, and Castrogiovanni. But the finest was Palermo, called Al-Banurmu or simply al-Madina, "the City," which Ibn Jubair described in glowing terms:

The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor.

Foundation of the modern Kingdom[edit]

Yet, as rich as it was, the time of the Arabs in Sicily had come. The Normans, a race of Frenchified Vikings had a practice of leaving home to strike their own fate elsewhere. In 1066, a Norman, William the Bastard, killed a pretender to the English throne and would be crowned as William I Conqueror, monarch of the English. A Norman churchman of the 12th century would write the following of his forbears:

Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war.

Such were the men who would sail from the north to plunder and carve out the Byzantine provinces of southern Italy into inheritances for its children. Eventually, the Arabs would suffer the same fate as their Byzantine predecessors whom they had previously supplanted. At the end of the 11th century, a Norman adventurer named Robert Guiscard seized the island for his brother, Roger Bosso, creating the so-called "County of Sicily". Roger would take up the title of Roger I of Sicily, and would be the island's first ruler, beginning what would be called the Hauteville dynasty. He was then succeded by his son Simon, who in turn was succeded by his brother as Roger II. Roger II's reign would see the foundations of the modern Kingdom being placed by absorbing southern Italy up to the borders of Lazio by 1154. Norman pretensions did not stop with Southern Italy, but even managed to secure parts of Tunisia and the Libyan coast for a while as Norman outposts under the sway of house Hauteville.

Despite having received the blessings of the Pope to wage holy war against Muslim infidels, the Norman counts of Sicily instead chose to leave their newly acquired Muslim subjects alone and even treated them well. Shipwrecked on the Straits of Messina in 1184 while returning from Mecca, Ibn Jubair took time to explore Palermo and noted that even the Christians spoke Arabic, that the local bureaucracy was still largely Muslim and that the heritage of some 200 previous years of Muslim rule of Sicily was still intact.

The Kingdom in foreign hands[edit]

Such a sunny episode was fated to end given the gloomy history of Europe, however, and Sicily eventually fell into the hands of House Hohenstaufen, then ruling as Holy Roman Emperors. Eventually their line in Sicily would go extinct, and the house was divided up between the Kingdom of Aragon in Spain and the House of Anjou, a line of French nobles.

Duke Charles I would take Sicily along with Southern Italy, and lay claim successfully to its throne, establishing the Angevin dynasty. One of the first things that the latter two did was introduce feudalism to Sicily, which parcelled out land. This practice would eventually cause crop yields to fall, resulting in the island's economic decline.

The next episode to follow was the expulsion of Muslims. Under the direct rule of the Holy Roman Empire, Muslims, who hitherto had formed part of the island's multicultural population, began to dwindle as more and more colonists from Italy were brought to the island. Eventually, after many bloody riots and insurrections, they moved to the mountains and then were deported to Calabria, never to be seen again.

These complications, along with the fact that the Sicilians resented the new taxes and laws imposed on them, did nothing to improve the lot of the island. A revolt in 1282, the Sicilian Vespers, resulted in a mass slaughter of the French throughout the island. A new king was invited, and by the end of the 13th century, Sicily was effectively part of the House of Aragon, and would end up under Spanish rule by the end of the 15th century. The island was now separated from the rest of the kingdom, comprising Sardinia and the southern part of the Italian peninsula, and would not be combined again until the War of the Spanish Succession in the 18th century as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

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  • Belford B et al; Eyewitness Travel Guides: Italy (2005); Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London.
  • Saudi Aramco World magazine; Muslim Sicily.
  • IRSAP; History of Sicily (translated).