Europe: Sicily

The Emirate of Sicily, located in the south of Italy, was a part of the larger Islamic Empire from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, under a variety of rulers. Under Muslim administration, Sicily flourished: its population doubled, people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds co-existed harmoniously, agriculture prospered, exports increased, and irrigation systems improve. The conquerors redistributed large estates into smaller holdings, spurring an end to the economic and social depression. Many new crops were introduced such as cotton, hemp, date palm, sugar cane, mulberries, and citrus fruits. Related industries grew, such as textiles, sugar, rope-making, matting, and paper (which was later introduced to Europe via Sicily). Sicilian silks were also internationally known for their fine quality and beauty.

Notice the Emirate of Sicily in the south of Italy.

Muslims lost Sicily to the Normans in the late eleventh century, but continued to live in the multcultural island peacefully. The Normans preserved the Muslim heritage so much so that Arabic continued to be the lingua franca in Sicily for the next 100 years. King Roger II spoke Arabic and employed Muslim scientists and architects in his court; Muslim soldiers were also a part of his army. He continued to use the agricultural and industrial methodologies adopted by the former Muslim rulers of Sicily. Palermo, the Sicilian hub under Muslim rule, was maintained as the capital under the Normans. Roger II commissioned al-Idrisi to draw a world map; it proved to be the most advanced ancient map. Al-Idrisi also compiled the greatest geographical treatise of the Middle Ages, known as the Book of Roger.

Ibn Jubair visited Sicily in the late 12th century after being shipwrecked on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca. He was very surprised by the warm reception he encountered at the hands of the Normans. Of Palermo, ibn Jubair recounted, “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.”

Unfortunately,this spirit of convivencia did not last. As with Spain, all Muslims were evicted from Sicily and by the end of the thirteenth century, only the traces they left behind showed in Sicilian architecture, Arabized words in the now-Latinized language, and the Arab-style outdoor marketplace, among others.

Muslim presence in Spain and Sicily left indelible marks on the architecture, sciences, philosophy, literature, and astronomy of Western Europe – even though, quite unfortunately, much of it has been forgotten.

4 Comments

  1. Stephen Villano says:

    Architecture, Arabized words and Arab style outdoor marketplaces are not the only things that remain.
    The better part of the culture remains. Could one be truthful in saying that one is not greeted in a Sicilian home with food, drink and hospitality?
    I learned far more about Sicilian culture when I deployed to the Persian Gulf and observed substantial parts of it that mystified me in action and common practice everyplace there.
    While my Arabic is still quite weak and our faiths differed, we got along famously, largely because I had a bit of a head start, courtesy of Sicilian culture that managed to survive my grandparents immigration to the US.
    Some of my wife’s and my dishes are now being served in Arab homes in Kuwait, Saudi and Qatar and the converse is true as well.
    Ramadan Kareem all!

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