The Muslims In Sicily

The memory of the presence of Muslims on the island remains and can be readily seen practically everywhere.

Muslims in Sicily
Photo: Wikipedia, public domain.

The memory of the presence of Muslims on the island remains and can be readily seen practically everywhere.

By Gaetano Cipolla, Arba Sicula

There are many persistent misconceptions about Sicilians propagated by word of mouth and bandied about by the media. One of them is that Sicilians are not Italians, which I have heard many times from Sicilian-Americans. I have always taken this as an affirmation of their pride in being Sicilian rather than a refusal of their Italian identity. Another misconception (heard less frequently and usually couched as a joke), but with enough regularity as to make me think that the thought does not appear farfetched to many Americans, even Sicilian-Americans, is that Sicilians, probably owing to the island’s proximity to North Africa, are somehow Africans themselves.

Having made such a leap of imagination, some people may think that Sicilians are also black. Such a conclusion, as outlandish as it seems, was featured in a movie by Quentin Tarantino entitled True Romance, which aired on television in 1994. While any movie in which the mafia has a role to play is usually offensive, this one seems to me especially pernicious and provocative in its treatment of Sicilians and their collective persona. Though there are many reasons for disliking this movie, I found one scene in which Sicilians are characterized as compulsive liars and descendants of black-skinned Moors particularly misleading.

What convinced me to address the topic was a question that my sister asked me after seeing that film. She said: “is it true we are descendants of blacks?” At first, I was amused, but when I saw the movie, I realized why she had asked me the question.

Mr. Tarantino, who wrote the screenplay, has one of his character say that the Moors who were black conquered Sicily and made love to all the Sicilian women, changing the genetic pool forever. He said that before the Moors arrived, Sicilians were blond and blue-eyed people like northern Italians. Wanting to insult the Mafioso who is Sicilian, naturally, the man finishes his historical reconstruction by saying to him: “You have black blood running in your veins, you are part eggplant!” — to which the mafioso replied “and you’re a cantaloupe,” hardly a clever answer unless I am missing something and cantaloupe is a euphemism for something else. After watching the movie there were so many distortions and untrue statements about Sicily that I simply had to set the record straight for those who like my sister do not know much about Sicilian history and will accept Tarantino’s statements as facts.

The Muslims who invaded Sicily in 827 AD and who eventually gained control of the island were tribes North Africa and the middle East. The majority were Arabs by which historians recognize Caucasians who had come to rule the lands from Persia to Morocco. The second most important group of Muslims were Berbers, also Caucasians. Their darker skin is a question of pigmentation. The Saracens (in Sicily they were called Arabs or Saracens), according to all histories I have read were olive-skinned people from the Middle East much like the present inhabitants of the area. During the long period of warfare required to eliminate local resistance, many different armies were sent from North Africa and other places such as Spain, and among these there were smaller groups of black-skinned Muslims. But their numbers were not sufficient to change the genetic pool of Sicilians.

The second false statement asserts that before the Arabs came to Sicily, the local population was blond and blue-eyed, like northern Italians. This is certainly not true. Until the arrival of the Arabs in 827 A.D., the Sicilian population consisted of many different groups including the ruling Byzantine hierarchy mixed with Greeks, Jews, native Sicilians, and others, none of whom are blond and blue-eyed. He was probably thinking of the Northmen, that is, the Normans who wrested control of Sicily from the Muslims in the eleventh century and who are responsible for the blonds and redheads with blue or green eyes you may see in Palermo. But history does not matter when you want to score a point.

Thus, misconceptions are perpetuated in people’s minds. Myths are created from falsehoods and misinformation. Even Sicilian-Americans who have not made Sicilian history a hobby will have few weapons to use against such an irresponsible handling of history. Therefore, it is important for Sicilians to study the history of their homeland. So, let us look at the Arabs and their Sicilian connections.

Unlike the Jews, whose millenary presence on Sicilian soil was completely erased from the collective memory of the Sicilian people by the middle of the 16th century, the fate of the Muslims has not been quite as drastic. The memory of their presence on the island remains and can be readily seen practically everywhere. While the Jews never occupied a dominant position in Sicilian society and left little in terms of artifacts and physical structures, the Muslims were for over two centuries (from 827 to 1092) the rulers of the island. Their presence, though much shorter by comparison, can be seen especially in the Western part of the island in some of the architectural details of churches and public buildings, in the names still used by the Sicilian people, in their looks, their language and some even say in their characteristic attitudes.

A trained eye can discern traces of the Muslim presence on the island, although the same cannot be said of the general Sicilian population. If, for example, you asked a hundred Sicilians to tell you whether the name of Marsala has anything to do with the Muslim world, it would be surprising if five percent of them answered correctly that the name means “The Port of Allah.” By the same token, it would be surprising if people whose last names end with an accented “à,” such as Fragalà, Vadalà, Mandalà, Crucillà, Zappalà, knew that their names are derived from Arabic names, unless they were interested in genealogy. Similarly, people fail to make the connection between the hundreds of localities in Sicily, small and large towns whose names are an evident link to the Muslim domination of Sicily, or realize that the well-known comic character Giufà whose tales of wit and foolishness have delighted many generations of Sicilians, was part of the narrative oriental tradition brought to Sicily by the Arabs.

Let us take a look at what has remained of the Saracen domination. A good place to start is with names of localities. The Saracens gave name to everything. Some have been changed back to names used before their arrival. Agrigento was Karkint or Kerkent under the Arabs and the local population called it Girgenti until Mussolini ordered it changed to Agrigento. Enna was known as Castrogiovanni from the Arabic Qasryanih. Even Catania and Taormina were known by Arabic names that were abandoned: Madinat al-Filah (the City of the Elephant) [1] and al-Mucizziyah respectively. Three typical prefixes used by the Arabs to identify a place gave birth to hundreds of Sicilian toponyms, which means that their presence was deep and pervasive, especially in the countryside. Indeed, these names survived a number of successive dominations reaching us in their original formulation nearly a thousand years after the Arabs lost control of Sicily. [2] The Arabic word qal’at, meaning castle, fortress is probably the most productive of toponyms in Sicily. From it we derive Caltanissetta, Caltavuturu, Caltagirone, Caltabellotta, Calascibetta, Calatafimi, etc. The Arabic word for a stopping place, a way station, was rahl which gave rise to toponyms such as Racalmuto, Regalbuto, Regalpetra, etc. And the word manzil which also means a stopping place or way station, has given us names of towns such a Mezzojuso, Misilmeri, Mussomeli, etc.

Michele Amari, who wrote the most authoritative work on the Muslim presence in Sicily, counted 328 names of certain Arab derivation spread unevenly throughout the Sicilian landscape: 209 were in the Val di Mazara, the western third of the island that includes Palermo, 100 in the Val di Noto, corresponding to the Southeast corner of Sicily, and only 19 in the Val Demone, corresponding to the northeastern third of the island. [3] The highest concentration of toponyms in the Val di Mazara means that the area had the highest concentration of Muslims. Mazara is closest to North Africa and was the place where the invasion began. In the Val di Noto, the Muslim presence was less pervasive but still substantial. The area in the present provinces of Messina and Catania had the island’s largest remaining Christian population and put up the strongest resistance to Muslim domination, which explains the fewer Arabic toponyms. Expectedly, the last cities to fall under their control were those in the northeastern triangle with Taormina, which fell in 902, and Rametta (Rometta) in 965, which was the last stronghold to fall to the Arabs. [4] From this date, the island was under the total control of the Muslims until the invasion of the Normans in 1061. Roger of Hauteville accomplished in 30 years what had taken the Arabs over a century. By 1092, all of Sicily was under Norman rule. [5]

What is the significance of this for the makeup of the Sicilian population? While many people have dominated Sicily, most of them have come and gone without leaving any trace of their presence on the people of Sicily. Nothing remains of the Goths and Ostrogoths, of the Vandals and the French, of the Austrians and the Piedmontese. Even the Normans, the Aragonese and then the Spaniards, whose role in Sicilian history is a lot more important, cannot be said to have added much to Sicily’s genetic pool. Their numbers were relatively few and represented the ruling hierarchies who did not mingle with the general population. The fact that the Normans were able to conquer Sicily with barely 1500 or 2000 knights against a much larger army of Muslim defenders is even today a source of wonder. The same can be said of the Aragonese and the Spaniards who ruled the island, but did not colonize it as farmers or artisans.

Even the arrival of Lombard and Piedmontese settlers who came at the invitation of Count Roger of Hauteville to populate the towns of Aidone, San Fratello, Sperlinga, Piazza Armerina and Nicosia did not contribute much to the general make up of Sicilians. Nor was it changed by the Albanian colonies of Piana dei Greci, Mezzojuso and others who arrived in the XV century. [6] The people who have left an indelible mark on the native Sicilians, that is, those Sicilians who lived on the island before the arrival of the Greeks — the Sikans and the Siculi [7] — are the Greeks and the Arabs. It has been remarked that there appear to be two different types of people living on Sicily: one type being prevalent in the western part whose general appearance, language and mannerisms reflect the more pervasive influence of the Arabs on the area, and another in the eastern part which reflects the Greek component to a greater degree. [8]

The fact that the Arabs left such a strong imprint on the Sicilian people is probably due to the pervasiveness of their domination. At the height of their domination in the 11th century, the Muslim population may have consisted of half a million people, which represents a high percentage of a population that had been decimated by constant wars, killing, deportation, and slavery. [9] In their two hundred years as rulers of the island, they succeeded in changing practically everything: they introduced their own laws, their religion, their language, their own system of agriculture, new ways of irrigating the land, new crops that have since become closely associated with Sicily such as oranges and lemons. The Arabs, like the Greeks before them, and unlike all the others, came to Sicily to stay, and after the turbulent and bloody period of the conquest, they set to work to make the island a wonderful place in which to live. Accounts of travelers, like the one by Ibn Giubair who visited Sicily in 1184-5, speak of the island as an earthly paradise. [10] Giubair described Palermo as a great city with beautiful palaces and gardens and with 300 mosques — almost as many as the city of Cordoba in Spain — and a population of 250,000. A city of such size would be one of the largest in the world at the time. (Another Arab visitor, Ibn Hawqal, on seeing so many mosques remarked that the Sicilian Arabs were haughty and wanted a personal mosque in which to pray.) [11]

The island, being part of a great empire, thrived on commerce with the eastern world, and enjoyed access to markets for a rich array of goods that it produced, from silk to cotton, from olive oil to sulfur, from sugar cane to dates. Such accomplishments are all the more amazing when you consider that with the exception of the period when Sicily was ruled almost as an independent kingdom by the Kalbite Dynasty (10th century) with only nominal allegiance to the Sultan in Cairo, their history is practically one continuous struggle, first to wrest control of the island from the Byzantines and then for supremacy among themselves. There were always tensions among the various groups of Muslims, especially between the Arabs and the Berbers. [12] In fact, one of the reasons for the astounding success of the Normans who conquered the island with a very small but determined number of knights, lies in the fact that by the middle of the 11th century the Muslims were worn out by their constant internecine wars, assassinations, usurpations of power, and internal revolts.

Nevertheless, the impact of the Muslim presence on Sicily was enormous. For one thing, it severed Sicily from the orbit of the West, separating it from the other Italian provinces on the mainland. Under the Byzantine domination, it had been part of the Eastern Empire’s Italian domain such as Calabria, Puglia and other regions in the north. Under the Arabs, Sicily came to be a part of the great Muslim empire that ran from India to Morocco. Michele Amari viewed the arrival of the Arabs as a positive development in that it freed Sicily from the stagnant and sleepy Byzantine civilization that for nearly three centuries had reduced the island, through excessive taxation and greed, to a poor and unproductive place. [13] Under the Muslims, however, the island began to reap the benefits of the Islamic civilization that at the time was the most advanced in the world. Sicily became the meeting point between East and West, Europe and Africa. Although the Arabs had established a thriving civilization in Spain which was the launching point for their intellectual heritage, part of the credit for introducing to Europe some of their scientific advances in medicine, in agriculture, in geography, mathematics and astronomy, to name a few areas in which the Arabs excelled, rightly belongs to Sicilian-based Muslims. Ironically, the channel for the transmission of the intellectual heritage of the Arabs was opened by the Normans who wrested control of Sicily from the Arabs and by the Swabians who succeeded them.

The Normans adopted a tolerant attitude towards the vanquished Arabs. They organized their new possessions along the same lines as existed under the Arabs. The new fiefs, which were distributed to Norman knights, were basically the same as the military districts the Arabs called iqlim. They maintained key departments for the administration of the island such as the financial department known as the Diwan, the treasury department known as the Diwan al-ma’mur and others. A considerable part of the Norman military forces after the conquest consisted of Muslim soldiers, and the Muslim influence was predominant in the Norman court in terms of its titles, functions, customs, and even ceremonials. Even the Tarì, a coin minted by the Normans was practically the same as the ruba’i of the Arabs and had the same value.

Instead of ousting the Muslims, the Normans embraced their culture. Often the Norman kings assumed Arabic names and lived in opulent palaces like the Oriental Emirs they replaced. Roger II, the most renowned King of Sicily, called himself al-Mu’tazz-bi-lah, William I was known as al-Hadi bi-amri-llah and William II was al-musta’izz-bi-llah. They often spoke Arabic as well as Greek and Latin. The great Emperor Frederick II, son of the last Norman queen, Constance of Hauteville, who was a great admirer of Islamic intellectual and material culture was buried in a wrapping of Arabian draperies encrusted with silver and gold, discovered when his tomb was opened in the 18th century. To the Arabs he was known as al-anbaratur, the Emperor. [14] His son Manfred, who shared his father’s admiration for the Arabs, was denounced by the Pope as “The Sultan of Lucera” and the Lord of the Saracens. Primarily soldiers of fortune with little use for the Oriental refinements and luxuries of their predecessors, the Normans quickly adapted to the ways of the Arabs, repeating what had happened to the Romans when they came into contact with the Greek civilization. The conquerors were conquered themselves, forming the conduit through which the intellectual heritage of the Arabs was introduced to Europe.

Out of this conduit, an architectural style known as Arab-Norman emerged whose monuments are scattered throughout the island, but particularly in Palermo. In Sicily, unlike in Spain, very little remains in architecture that can be called truly called Arabic — the baths of Cefalà Diana is one of the rare examples of it, the Royal Fortress of Maredolce another. But there is a profusion of the style that was born from the collaboration between Arab artists and artisans who built and decorated the structures and the Norman masters who commissioned them. Out of this collaboration came such jewels as the Cathedrals of Palermo and Monreale, the Palace of the Normans, the Cappella Palatina, the Churches of the Martorana, San Cataldo, San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which combine oriental elements, including Arabic inscriptions and motifs, with Christian religious themes and palaces like the Zisa, the Cubba and others.

But the conduit did not just bring forth a new architectural style that is, as far as I know unique, it also brought an incredible number of innovations to the west, as well as a greater understanding of science and philosophy, geography and mathematics, medicine and agriculture. Let us review some of the most important contributions:

In the twelfth century, as Aziz Ahmad wrote, “the language of science was Arabic. Translations of Greek works from Arabic into Latin antedate those made directly from Greek. Arabic commentaries on the works of Greek masters profoundly influenced European thought.” [15] The medical school of Salerno was greatly helped by the translations of Arabic medical texts. The translator of the medical works of Haly Abbas, Stefano of Pisa, wrote that the medicine scholars at the time (1127) were found primarily in Sicily and Salerno and were either Greeks or persons familiar with Arabic.

In astronomy, the Arabs utilized astrolabes, star maps and celestial globes. Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated from Arabic into Latin as early as 1138; also, the works of al-Farghani, whose work was to play a role in Columbus’ discovery of America, were translated at the court of Frederick II.

In geography they pioneered the use of latitude and longitude. The great Arab geographer Edrisi made the first map of the known world for King Roger II.

The Arabs invented algebra and the use of zero. The Arabic numerical system we use was introduced into Europe by Leonardo Fibonacci from Pisa who had studied in Spain and the Orient.

In philosophy, the Arabs found Greek science and metaphysics compatible. They had great admiration for Aristotle, for example, and they were instrumental in translating some of his works into Arabic. Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle were extremely important to Western medieval philosophy. The works of Avicenna and Averroes were translated into Latin. The credit for introducing the works of Averroes to the west goes to Michael Scot, one of the luminaries at the court of Frederick II. Palermo was a center for Aristotelian scholarship. Frederick’s son, Manfred, commissioned Bartolomeo da Messina to translate Aristotle’s Ethics into Latin; he was responsible for commissioning the translation of several works by Plato. Considering the important role played by these two philosophers in the Renaissance, one has to wonder whether the intellectual history of the period would have followed the same course without these translations. [16]

In agriculture, the Arabs introduced a new system of irrigation adopting Persian hydraulic techniques, using large reservoirs known as “gebiah,” a word still used in Sicilian (gebbia) to describe large cement basins designed to collect rain or water from natural springs. Many rivers in Sicily were made navigable and unlike today when water needs to be rationed in many places of the island, it flowed abundantly from springs and rivers, making it possible for the islanders to engage in horticulture and gardening. In Sicily springs or water sources carry Arabic names even to this day. The many cultures introduced by the Arabs — oranges, lemons, other citrus fruits, sugar cane, mulberries, silk worms, papyrus, the sumac tree for tanning and dyeing, dates, pistachio nuts, cotton and hemp — changed the agrarian and industrial economy of Sicily. The silk industry, which became an important monopoly for Sicily had markets outside the island. Silk for export was primarily in the hands of the Arabs who had markets throughout the Mediterranean.

They also introduced the cultivation of rice, giving Sicilians one of their favorite fast food items, the arancina, a deep-fried golden hued — hence the name “little orange” — rice ball sprinkled with saffron and filled with sauce, meat and peas. Gaetano Basile claims that the arancina brought to Milan by Aragonese princesses who married heirs of the Sforza family became the famous risotto alla milanese. [17] But please don’t let the leaders of the Lega Lombarda hear this!

Another important food item that has become a staple no Italian can live without resulted from the Arabs’ introduction of durum wheat. Of course, we know that wheat was always the most important product of Sicily, so much so the Romans conquered it to feed their armies, but the hard wheat was imported by the Arabs and it is from this strain that pasta is made. You may read this with some skepticism — many regions of Italy claim to have made the first pasta. But there is evidence that in the town of Trabia, near Palermo, a kind of pasta called “itria,” which is Arabic for “spaghetti,” was manufactured in the 10th century. [18] So much for the story that Marco Polo brought spaghetti from China in the 13th century. As masters of the milling process, they made semolina from durum wheat and developed another Arab specialty: couscous, which is still prepared in the western part of Sicily. It’s not part of the eastern cuisine at all and that is understandable since the Arab presence was not as pervasive there. [19]

While we are talking about pasta, probably no other dish that’s recognized as more typical of Sicilian cooking than “Pasta cu li sardi.” Basile writes that this delicious dish, made in many different ways in Sicily, was created during the Arab conquest by the chef of the Byzantine general Euphemius who was responsible for the Arab invasion.20 Having to feed an army, the cook needed a dish that could be nutritious without being expensive. So, he combined sardines, which are plentiful in Sicilian waters, with fennel — Basile slyly adds that the fennel was added to counteract the smell of the sardines — and pine nuts — to guard against food poisoning. [21]

The Sicilian sweet tooth was inherited from the Arabs. Once sugar was introduced into Sicily, people created an array of delicacies that make a trip to Sicily worthwhile just to taste them. The Arabs invented sherbet, which eventually gave Sicilians their famous ice cream, their fruit granite, their sciauni [22] and even their famous cassate. In fact, the Arabs used to mix sugar and ricotta cheese in copper pots known as quas’at, which probably was the origin of the cassata, even though its ingredients have been expanded considerably.

In fishing, the Arabs introduced a more efficient system of catching tuna. Before them, tuna, which in Sicily comes near to shore to spawn during May, was traditionally caught individually with a hook. The Arabs instituted the system whereby the schools of tuna were allowed to enter a series of underwater chambers that led to “the chamber of death” where the nets were raised by men in boats tied together to form a large square pool. When the nets bring the tuna to the surface, men simply harpoon them and drag them onto the boats in a frenzy of killing. This system of fishing which has lasted more than a thousand years has given way to more “efficient” methods by the Japanese fleets which scoop up the ocean’s fish indiscriminately in mile-long nets. This practice, known as the “Mattanza,” is coordinated by a Rais, an Arabic word meaning “Chief”, and has developed a tradition rich in songs and rituals that are still practiced today on the island of Favignana. Now, however, it is largely an event enacted for the entertainment of the tourists. The tuna fishing industry which in the past provided jobs to thousands of local fishermen in the Egadi Islands and on the western coast of Sicily, has all but disappeared. Some of the old tuna canning factories have been turned into hotels.

Under the Arabs, the island’s metal mining industry was expanded, and silver, mercury, lead, and other minerals were extracted. Sea salt production, an industry that continues to this day in the salt pans of Trapani and Marsala, became an important addition to the economy of the island as well. The production of Sicilian wine, which today represents a growing and important source of income for Sicilians, was neglected for religious reasons and then reinstated for religious reasons: the Arabs because they are not allowed to drink wine and the Christians because wine is an important element in the celebration of the mass. The production of olive oil, which had been important at the time of the Greeks, also fell, but both regained their ancient importance once the Arabs were out of power.

An important outgrowth of the application of the Muslim practice of paying their soldiers with land resulted in the breakup of very large estates known as latifundia owned by few individuals who often did not live on the land that characterized the landscape under the Romans and the Byzantines. [23] The Arabs provided incentives to small farm owners to cultivate every bit of land at their disposal with a system that reduced taxes to encourage productivity. For example, they did not tax ownership of animals used for work in the fields. The Arab system of taxation was also less repressive than the one imposed by the Byzantines. They instituted an efficient system of government, dividing the island into three sectors: the Val di Mazara, Val di Noto and Val Demone, each ruled by a kadì, (in Sicilian gaitu) who was responsible to the emirs who had made Palermo their capital instead of Siracusa that had been the capital under the Byzantines. In their administration, the Arabs followed a policy of toleration towards the Jews and the Christians. As expected, these groups were subjected to many restrictions on their personal freedoms: they had to pay a personal tax known as giziah and a land tax called harag both of which varied depending on individual circumstances. The giziah could be avoided by converting to Islam.

There were other advantages in converting to Islam and many Christians did exactly that. The Christians and Jews who did not convert had to wear distinctive clothing: the Jews a white patch on their back with the image of a monkey on it. The same for the Christians except that their animal was a pig. The same patches had to be affixed on the doors of their dwellings. Although the Christians were free to practice their religion without interference from the authorities, they were not allowed to show the cross in public, ring church bells, hold processions, or proselytize, and they could not recite prayers aloud within earshot of Arabs. Even the slaves seem to have been treated better. They could become free men by converting to Islam or go from areas that had to pay a tribute to Muslim areas where no tribute was required. In general, it can be said that once their power was consolidated and all rebellions crushed following the long and bloody period of the conquest, the Arabs did not oppress the population unduly through religious intolerance and persecutions, though as we noted earlier there may have been some pressures to convert to Islam as the following two lines from a popular Sicilian poem confirm:

C’è lu gaitu e gran pena ni duna: — The Kadì is here and gives us great woes:

voli arrinunziu a la fidi cristiana. — he wants us to renounce our Christian faith. [24]

One aspect we have barely touched upon is the influence that the Arabs had on the language of Sicily, not a simple task. We do not know with any degree of certainty what languages were spoken by the Sicilian population during the Arab domination. We know that documents were written in one of three languages Arabic, Greek or Latin. At the entrance to the Cappella Palatina in the Norman Palace of Palermo there is an inscription written in these three languages testifying to their widespread use in religious rites, written documents, correspondence, etc. And we know that any document written in any of these languages was considered legal for a long time. [25]

The first generation of Arabs spoke Arabic, of course. A smaller percentage of the Christian population probably spoke or at least understood Latin. A larger percentage of them, however, probably understood and probably spoke Greek. They celebrated their religious rites in Greek. Whether they spoke Greek in their everyday life is difficult to say. My own feeling is that alongside Greek, Arabic and Latin a fourth language that can be identified as an early form of Sicilian was probably spoken by many people in everyday situations. Varvaro calls this form of Sicilian “mozarabico” in analogy with the language that developed in Spain during the Moorish domination. This was not an early form of the modern Sicilian that came into being in the 13th century, but rather an evolution of the Latin spoken before the Arabs’ arrival. He claims that the Sicilian language, as we have come to know it, developed after the arrival of the Normans.26 The Sicilian language as we know it today preserved numerous idiomatic expressions, grammatical features and lexical items that come directly from Arabic.

We have already mentioned the numerous Arabic toponyms that have been Sicilianized. A few examples will suffice. Mount Etna is known to Sicilians as Muncibbeddu, which is an interesting mixture of Latin and Arabic both of which mean mountain: the Latin mons and the Arabic gebel. The word literally means “mountain mountain.” Some Sicilians like to pay homage to their volcano by translating Muncibbeddu as “the mountain of mountains.” The river where I learned how to swim is the Alcantara which is Arabic for “The bridge;” in Palermo one of the major arteries of the city is still “Cassaru” in Sicilian, which is derived from qasr meaning “castle.” The street leads to the Norman Palace, built by the Arabs. An interesting verb was derived from this: cassariarisi which can be translated loosely with “ambling leisurely up and down the main street.” Such words as calia, (roasted chickpeas), zibbibbu (elongated green grapes which were imported into Sicily from Cape Zebib), zotta (whip), giarra (large clay container for oil, wine) naca (cradle), bazzariotu (hawker) and many others are all of Arabic derivation. F. G. Arezzo in his informative text Sicilia: studi storici, giuridici ed economici sulla Sicilia has compiled a 77-page vocabulary of Sicilian words derived from Arabic that testifies to the pervasiveness and depth of its influence.

From a structural point of view, Sicilian also has many affinities with Arabic. Arezzo listed some of them. Not knowing Arabic, I will rely on his authority for the veracity of what follows, although I can vouch for the Sicilian part. Arezzo claims that in both Sicilian and Arabic,

  1. The future tense basically does not exist. In both languages the present tense is used to convey a future idea.
  2. The preterit is used instead of the present perfect, which does not exist.
  3. The repetition of a noun, adjective or verb to signify a number of things, for example in Sicilian “furriau casa casa” means “he searched around from one room to the next”; the repetition of “schirzannu schirzannu” means “as I was joking around” and “parrannu parrannu” means “as I was talking”.
  4. The initial h changes frequently but not always in c, which exists only in Sicilian and Arabic, and not in the other European languages, as for example in hama, Homisu which become cama, Comisu;
  5. Subject pronouns are attached to the end of the verbs as in manciastivu, bivistivu. (you ate, you drank).
  6. The use of the pejorative suffix in azzu-azza, in both Sicilian and Arabic denotes connotation of grandness, largeness without the negativity. Thus, in Sicilian, “un carusazzu” does not mean only a “bad boy” but also a “tall and impressive boy”; “na fimminazza” does not mean only “a bad woman” but also “substantial, large woman.” This feature is not shared by Italian, for example, where the pejorative “accio-accia” means just that.
  7. The diminutive used in a derogatory sense as in razzina, which does not mean little race, but bad race. [27]

Arezzo also listed a few gestures that are common to Arabs and Sicilians:

  1. Pointing the thumb backward over the shoulder indicating that there are others following.
  2. Placing your finger on your cheek and turning it to indicate something is chic or tasty.
  3. Winking as a conventional sign.
  4. Turning your hand in the air to say that you don’t care. [28]

Clearly the Arabs who made a home in Sicily were not like the other adventurers. They found the island congenial to their spirit and their nomadic tendencies were won over by the beauties of the land. Their feelings of security, especially after the conquest was complete, allowed them to devote themselves to pursuits other than war. Thus, the Sicilian Arabs grew to participate at the highest level in the intellectual pursuits that characterized the Arab civilization, contributing to scholarship in science, philosophy, law, religion, poetry and even as military commanders. It was, in fact, a Sicilian-born Arab general who succeeded in conquering nearly all of North Africa for the Fatimid dynasty. His name was Jawahr as-Siqilli. He conquered Egypt and even founded the Azhar University there. Arabic scholars of Sicilian origin, such as the philologist Ibn Makki, the jurist and theologian al-Mazari, the linguist Ibn-Rashiq, the translator of Dioscorides’ treatise on Botany Abd-Allah, wrote important books on many subjects and were regarded in the Islamic world as revered authorities. [29]

Many of the Arab leaders, whether born on Sicily or outside it, enjoyed wide recognition as scholars and poets in their own right. Indeed, the 70 year old general who commanded the Arab landing at Mazara in 827, Asad b. al-Furat, was a scholar and one of the foremost jurists of Islam’s first three centuries. [30] The emirs themselves were often learned men and poets who fostered intellectual pursuits. Under them, and especially under the Kalbite dynasty which enjoyed almost complete independence from the Caliphs based in Cairo, Sicily became an important center of learning and scholarship that rivaled the renowned centers of Spain. But the Sicilian Arabs developed a different relationship with the land they ruled than their counterparts in Spain. In Sicily, they represented a substantial percentage of the population, by all accounts more numerous than their subjects. In Spain, the Arabs were surrounded by a sea of Christianity, which certainly was not conducive to developing that sense of exclusive possession Sicilian Arabs had for the island. The Arabs living on the island came to consider themselves Sicilian and Sicily their homeland. To the outside world, the Arabs living in Sicily were Sicilians.

Poetry was for the Arabs a crucial instrument of knowledge, a privileged way of expressing one’s relationship with the world. The poets used it to extol their leaders’ heroic deeds, to transmit history, to sing of the pleasures of wine and food, the passions of love from the courting of the beloved to the final joining, expressed with rare sensuality. The poets whose work has survived, however, have left us touching accounts of their affection for the island. Of these, no one was more gifted or sang with more feeling about Sicily than Ibn Hamdis, a poet born in Siracusa in 1056. He fought against the Normans and took refuge in Spain at the court of Al-Mutamial, the poet Prince of Seville. He wandered through many Arab lands and although his poetry encompasses a wide range of feelings, the most genuine note of his song is the bitterness of his exile and the heart-rending longing to return to his lost paradise, his homeland in Sicily, as the following poem demonstrates. [33] I am pleased to share a few lines from it:

First glow of dawn please bring the light!

O wind, when you bring rain to satisfy

the thirsting fields, push the dry clouds my way

that I may fill them up with my own tears.

If I could weep upon the island where

I spent my youth, oh, life of woes, it’d be

Forever moist with tears.

Wind, run after the clouds, don’t go away!

Don’t let that hill of my home suffer thirst.

Do you know it? If not, know that the Sun

That burns so hot perfumes the growing branches.

What marvel? In that place, minds in love

Emanate scents that glide upon the breeze.

There beats a heart so full that I stole all

the blood that flows inside my veins from it.

Secretly my thoughts go back to those shores

like a wolf that’s returning to its forest.

Here I friend was to lions running in the wood.

Here I gazelles found hiding in their lairs.

Across you, Ocean, lies the paradise

where I lived, not in woe, but happily.

I saw the dawn of life there. Now as dusk falls,

you have forbidden me from living there.

Why did they tear me from what I longed for?

Why does the sea keep me from my beloved shore?

I would have galloped over the Moon’s crest

to reach it and the sun hold to my chest.

Although many Arabs remained in positions of importance in the Norman court and their knowledge continued to be exploited for more than two centuries following their loss of Sicily, the bulk of the Saracens were enslaved, replacing the Christians at the lowest rung of the social ladder, and were eventually driven out of Sicily completely by a man who ironically admired Islamic culture, Frederick II. Following a rebellion by the few Arabs still remaining, crushed in 1243, he ordered all the Saracens out of Sicily, sending them to the town of Lucera in Calabria, where twenty years before, he had exiled an even greater number of rebellious Arabs. Thus, the Islamic presence on the island came to an end. But while their physical presence ended completely in 1243, their spiritual presence lingers to this day in the names, faces, foods and sounds of the Sicilian people. [35] So much so that many foreigners coming to the island for the first time cannot help associating with the Arabs the sounds and colors of Sicily, the flavors of its ice cream and marzipan fruits, the bittersweet taste of its sauces, the nasal tonalities of its songs, the unique sounds made by street vendors hawking their wares, and the bazaar atmosphere of their open air markets.


1 The symbol of Catania is an elephant made of lava stone with an obelisk on its back. The monument sits in the center of Piazza Duomo in front of the Cathedral dedicated to Saint Agatha.

2 For a discussion in depth of the question of names see Alberto Varvaro, Lingua e storia in Sicilia, Sellerio editore, Palermo 1981.

3 Michele Amari, Storia dei mussulmani in Sicilia, Ed. by C.A. Nallino, Catania 1933-9.

4 The island was essentially under Arab control by the time they took Taormina in 902.

5 The conquest of Sicily was accomplished essentially by Roger with occasional help from his brother Robert Guiscard. There is a vast literature on the Norman conquest of Sicily: the following are essential readings on the subject: Michele Amari, Storia dei Mussulmani in Sicilia, op. cit.;  J.J. Norwich, The Normans in the South, London, 1966 and the Kingdom in the Sun, London, 1970; D.C. Douglas, The Norman Achievement, London, 1960; S. Tramontana, La monarchia normanna e sveva, Turin 1986; D. Mack Smith, A History of Sicily, Medieval Sicily, 800-1313, New York 1968; Donald Matthew, The Norman Kingdom of Sicily, Cambridge, 1992; Edmund Curtis, Roger of Sicily and The Normans in Lower Italy, New York, 1912.

6 The Lombards and the Albanians were brought into Sicily primarily to counterbalance the presence of the more numerous Muslims. They constitute islands within an island. They have managed to keep their distinctive language and traditions that are different from Sicilian. Today, however, those who speak the Gallo-Italic dialect lament the fact that Sicilian has made some inroads and has basically altered it. In Piana degli Albanesi they continue to speak Albanian.

7 The Elymians who founded Erice, of whom little is known, represented too small a percentage of the population to make any difference.

8 F. G. Arezzo, Sicilia, Palermo, Flaccovio Editore, 1950, p. 7.

9 Aziz Ahmad, A History of Islamic Sicily, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Univ. Press, p. 23.

10 See Giuseppe Quatriglio, I viaggiatori in Sicilia, Palermo, 2001

11 A reference to the geographer Ibn Hawqal who regarded the Sicilian Sufism with disdain because of its excesses and preoccupations with earthly concerns. See Ahmad, op. cit., p. 40.

12 There were profound differences between these two groups. The Arabs who may be identified as nomadic people of North Africa tended to live off the work of the slaves they had gained in the conquest. The Berbers tended to farm the land they conquered.

13 Michele Amari, op. cit.

14 Constance of Hauteville was the heir to the Normans. She married Henry VI of the Hoenstaufen dynasty, Frederick Barbarossa’s son. She gave birth to Frederick II in Iesi in a tent in front of many people so as not to quell any doubts that the heir was really her son. Many people questioned her ability to produce a child because she was over forty at the time, twice the age of her husband.

15 Ahmad, op, p. 88.

16 In the Renaissance the two philosophers were considered the pillars of philosophy. A famous fresco by Raphael in the Vatican known as “The School of Athens” shows Plato and Aristotle at the center of an active world of intellectual speculation that represents the ideals of his age.

17 Gaetano Basile, Sicilian Cuisine through History and Legend, Legas, New York, 1998.

18 Basile, p. 24.

19 The couscous made in Trapani, Marsala and Mazara is made with fish, not meat, as it is normally prepared by Arabs far from the sea. This is probably because the Arabs who came to Sicily were from coastal areas of North Africa.

20 Euphemius was a general who rebelled against the Eastern Emperor because he had been chastised for his amorous pecadillos — the legend says he married a nun against her will — Instead of submitting to punishment he declared himself Lord of Sicily until he was defeated by one of his subordinates. He fled to North Africa where he enlisted the aid of the Arabs with the understanding that he would remain in charge of Sicily and pay a tribute to the Arabs once the conquest was accomplished. He was killed in battle during the siege of Siracusa. The Arab became masters of Sicily through an intermediary and they lost Sicily when one of their leaders enlisted the aid of the Normans. Machiavelli a few centuries later was to coin one of his fundamental principles according to which a weak leader should never enlist the help of stronger allies!

21 Basile, p. 25.

22 The sciauni is a deep fried, thin pastry shell filled with ricotta cheese and sprinkled with sugar that probably has different names throughout the island. But the ingredients and the technique of preparation are likely of Arab origins.

23 Michele Amari, op. cit., p.

24 The lines are from a poem quoted by Santi Correnti, Storia di Sicilia, come storia del popolo siciliano, Milano, Longanesi, p. 83.

25 See Varvaro, op.cit., p. 162.

26 Varvaro, op. cit., p. 116-24.

27 Arezzo listed some thirty points of affinities between Arabic and Sicilian, op, pp. 21-4.

28 Ibid.,

29 The list of Sicilian-born scholars would be too long to include. See Ahmad, op. cit. pp. 88-104.

30 Ahmad, op. cit., p. 42.

31 For a discussion on the languages in use in Islamic Sicily, see Alberto Varvaro, op.cit.

32 Poeti arabi di Sicilia, op. cit., p. 6.

33 The surviving poetic texts of the Sicilian Arab poets have been collected and translated by Michele Amari in his companion work to the Storia dei Mussulmani in Sicilia. We are referring to the Biblioteca Arabo-Sicula, III Vols. Torino-Roma 1881. Small pocket editions of some Sicilian Arabic poetry are available such as Poeti arabi di Sicilia, ed. by Carlo Ruta, Palermo, 2001.

34 Interesting parallels can be drawn between the fate of the Jews and the Arabs as regards Sicily. The year 1492 marked a bitter day for both, when Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain defeated the last Arab stronghold in Granada and signed the edict expelling the Jews from their realms, which included Sicily. The Arabs and the Jews who got along very well in Sicily (in fact, under the Arabs, the Jews were somewhat better off than the Christians) shared a common fate. But whereas the Jews never returned to Sicily, Arabs from across the Channel of Sicily are returning in boatloads as illegal aliens to Mazara del Vallo, the city they first conquered. See Francesco Renda, La fine del giudaismo in Sicilia, Palermo, Sellerio, 1986, for an excellent treatment of the subject.

35 It is tempting to see the “Opera dei pupi,” the Sicilian puppet theater, as another remnant of the Arab presence on the island, but, in spite of the ubiquitous references of the struggle for the possession of Europe between the Knights of Charlemagne and the Saracens, these chivalric legends were imported into Italy by the Normans and became a topos of Italian literature later in the Renaissance with Boiardo and Ariosto. This form of entertainment grew in popularity in the 18th century. Still the decorations on the panels of Sicilian carretti often display menacing Saracens in battle with Christians. And their faces probably remind Sicilians of the time when the Arabs lived on their island.

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