As a bridge between Europe and the Arabian countries, between Occident and the Orient, Sicily has been touched, changed and marked by a myriad of many different cultures who have taken turns in occupying and colonizing this large Mediterranean island in the last 3000 years. It has to be pointed out that all these occupations and invasions in the past were unfortunately brought forth on the backs and at the cost of the traditional Sicilian population, who nonetheless still possessed the tireless strength and passion to rise up again and again in horrific violent rebellions against their invaders.
This multi-faceted historical development is the origin of Sicily’s enthrallingly unique mix of art and architecture, and its status as a melting pot of cultures and races.
It is believed that the first culture to emerge in Sicily was Neolithic, and quite similar to the early cultures of central and western Europe. Around 5000 BC, the Siculi and Sicani cultures appeared, giving the island their name, and around 900 BC the Phoenicians began to colonize the area, founding Carthage in North Africa and Mozia, Solunto and Palermo in Sicily.
Greek colonization of Sicily probably began around 750 BC. Soon Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula would be completely colonized by Greeks, becoming known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece). Sicily was highly prized for its fertile lands (olives and vines) enabling very profitable trading, but unfortunately this also led to many internal battles that became more frequent and more violent as manifold rivalries developed on the island. This caused the Greek settlements, initially democratic in nature, to evolve into tyrannical groups, resulting in the creation of many hostile fractions. In BC 480, at the battle of Himera, the Carthaginians were defeated, heralding what would be known as 'the Golden Age'. In time, however, Carthaginian invaders gained a foothold in West Sicily from North Africa and attained control over more than half of the island. Sicily became a battleground for these rival empires. A century of fierce antagonism between Greeks and Carthaginians followed, but came to no peaceful conclusion as the conflict between Romans and Carthaginians had just begun. The Roman Empire was successful in driving out the Carthaginians, marking the beginning of more than 500 years of Roman rule in Sicily.
Roman Sicily was supposed to become the ’grain chamber’ of the Roman Realm and, in realizing its potential, should have been a very wealthy region, but corruption and mis-management depleted and strained Sicily’s resources causing chaos for Sicily’s economy.
Around 313 AD, the Rise of Emperor Constantine’s influence and the rise of Christianity in the region saw to the gradual decline of the Roman Empire. A brief Germanic Showdown occurred as Sicily was invaded and fought over by Vandals from northern Africa, Ostrogoths and Byzantines. By the ninth century it was the turn of Arabs, Berbers and Spanish Muslims, classed collectively as Saracens, to rule Sicily..
Under the Arab Kalbid dynasty, Palermo was made the Capital of what became known as the ‘Emirate of Sicily’. It is said that at its peak over 100 mosques stood in Palermo. Under Arab rule Sicily experienced a large bloom in its economy and development owing to the more advanced Arab culture. Literature, arts, philosophy and other achievements of Arabian civilization like Arabic numerals spread from Palermo over Europe. It is during this time that oranges and lemons are believed to have been introduced and grown commercially (as it still is today). An advanced system of irrigation was put in place among many other improvements and a period of relative religious tolerance is witnessed.
The Normans conquered Sicily in the second half of the 11th Century, but instead of driving the Arabs off the island they allowed a society in which Muslims, Byzantines, Jews and Christians lived together. This unique amalgamation produced a Norman architectural style (particularly in west Sicily) that combined the north French Romanesque with Byzantine and Arab Saracen elements. As a testimony of the time, evidence of this unique architectural fusion can be seen in the cathedrals and churches of Cefalù, Palermo and Monreale, in the Palace of the Normans (Palazzo dei Normanni), the Palatine Chapel (Cappella Palatina), the Martorana Church (also known as Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio) and the Zisa Castle, a hunting and leisure summer castle built by Arabian craftsmen that showcases Arab, Norman, Egyptian and North African architectural styles.
Under the Normans Palermo became wealthier than the England of its day, but after only a century the Norman Hauteville dynasty became extinct and the rule of Sicily was assumed by the south German (Swabian) Hohenstaufen dynasty in 1194. Local Christian-Muslim conflicts fueled by the Crusades were escalating during this period even though reigning Friedrich II. of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (Italian born) was known to be tolerant of Islam and its practitioners. Friedrich II grew up in Palermo and spoke Italian and Arab fluently and is reported to have surrounded himself with numerous Arab scholars and erudites, contributing heavily to the constant pressure, conflict and disapproval with the Papacy.
Soon after the death of Friedrich II. in the year 1250, Sicily fell to Charles I., Duke of Anjou (modern day Western France). The Frenchmen’s reign lasted only a short term as in 1282, due to opposition to French officialdom and taxation, King Peter III. of Aragón (Spain) successfully invaded the island.
After King Peter III, Sicily was ruled as an independent kingdom by relatives of the Kings of Aragon until 1409 and then as part of the Crown of Aragon.
From 1479, the Kings of Spain ruled Sicily.
From 1713-1720 Sicily came under the rule of the crown of Savoy, followed by the Austrian Habsburgs. In 1734 this led to a union with the Bourbon-ruled kingdom of Naples as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Under Bourbon rule, Sicily was lost to a revolution but regained again, and it wasn’t until the year 1860 that Giuseppe Garibaldi marched with his army of irregular troops to join Sicily with the other Italian regions to create what we now know today as modern Italy.
But conflicts continued in 1866 when Palermo revolted against Italy. As a response, the city was soon bombed by the Italian navy, which disembarked on September 22nd 1866. Under the command of Raffaele Cadorna the Italian soldiers summarily executed the civilian insurgents and took possession once again of the island of Sicily.
In 1945 and 1946, a strong separatists movement campaigned for Sicily to be admitted as a U.S. state (It would have been the 49th state, preceding Alaska and Hawaii). Appeasing this movement the Italian government awarded Sicily with a special status, and to this day Sicily is declared an autonomous region of Italy.
With a present day population of over 5 million, the Sicilian people are a unique blend resulting from their colourful ancient and medieval past. They are a people aware of their unique heritage and every day in Sicily is a celebration of their artistic and cultural heritage.
We at Sicily4u.co.uk would like to cordially invite you to join us in exploring and discovering this fascinating island, as Sicily is not just a destination but also a unique experience and an entire way of life.