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Art & Culture | Sicily

Treasures from Three Millennia

Phoenician defense towers, Ancient Greek temples, Ancient Roman mansions, Byzantine mosaics, unique Norman churches, monastery complexes, fortresses and palaces in Catalan Gothic, displays of baroque splendour and an entire Liberty-quarter in Palermo: many civilizations left their cultural traces in Sicily during their attempts to conquer the island in the last 3000 years.

Opera House Teatro Massimo

As a result of being an intersection of Orient an Occident in the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily is a vault filled with innumerable historical treasures to be discovered time and time again.

In the east of the island lies Taormina on a geographical terrace, 200 metres above the Ionian Sea, a popular climatic health resort among English noblemen in the 19th century. Up to 150.000 tourists annually visit the main historical sight of Taormina, the amphitheatre, an impressive structure built by the Ancient Greeks 3000 years ago and redesigned and restructed by the Romans as an arena for gladiator fights 3 centuries later.

The southern wall partly collapsed 200 years ago, opening a view on Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe, but otherwise the theatre has remained comparatively intact and is considered to be one of the best-preserved and definetly most beautifully located amphitheatre in the world.

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Greek theatre at Taormina

To the west lies Palermo with its beautiful examples of the unique Norman style, which unifies Arabian, Roman and Byzantine, an architectural style that only exists in Sicily.

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Zisa of Palermo

The Cisa, a hunting seat dating from the 13th century, the golden mosaics of the Cappella Palatina, the church San Giovanni degli Eremiti and the cathedrals of Monreale, Cefalù and Palermo all bear testimony of the period of glory western Sicily experienced about a 1000 years ago, although no traces can be found of the more than 100 mosques that existed in the city at the time it was the capital of the Kalbiti emirate’s caliphate. During this period Palermo prospered thanks to the superior achievements of Arabian civilization in the fields of science, mathematics, philosophy, architecture and agrarian techniques that spread through Europe from Sicily.

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Kashba in Mazara
del Vallo

The influence of Arabian times are still evident in the present. The tangle of narrow streets and alleyways in the old town centres of Palermo or Trapani show the imprint of Arabian town planners, the name of the town Marsala was derived from the Arabian expression Marsa Allah (harbour of God), and Mazara del Vallo, the biggest fishing port in Italy, is the only European town with a Kashba, an Arabian dealers’ quarter. The island still functions as a bridge between the continents, with almost two thirds of its foreign trade dealt with nations of North Africa.

Futhermore, Sicily is the island of baroque, predominantly in the south-east. The small town of Noto (23,000 inhabitants) was rebuilt at a new location after a devastating earthquake in 1693, and has no less than 23 churches, 19 monasteries and 15 palaces, almost all of the min the exuberant style of the baroque. Other cities with examples of baroque architecture are Modica, Ragusa and Avola.

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The magnificient younger cities of the 17th and 18th century reflect the distinctive sense of pleasure and art of Sicilian nobility, often realized on the backs of the population, but the simple people developed their own art, evident in everyday life, e.g. the artfully designed donkey carriages, a diverse production of ceramics, colourful costumes of traditional fairs and the solemn processions on church holidays. 

Sicily has 3 universities in Palermo, Catania and Messina, as well as an institute for architecture in Syracuse. The latter is a city of 120,000 inhabitants that 2500 years ago was the capital of the island and the most powerful city in greater Greece, the city where Archimedes lived and worked.