In-Between Spaces: Following Al-Idrisi Across Faith And Culture In Palermo

While visiting Palermo in the past week, I have followed al-Idrisi’s steps around the city, trying to better understand how the city holds on to its diverse and pluralistic tradition.

As Muhammad al-Idrisi testifies, Palermo once was one the most diverse cities of the world.

“The first of these towns is Palermo, a city that is both remarkable for its grandeur and most illustrious for its importance, among the most celebrated and prestigious centers of preaching in the world. It is endowed with qualities that confer upon it an unequalled glory and combine beauty and nobility.”

— Muhammad al-Idrisi, Kitab Rujar, 1154

Palermo Al Idrisi
Food stalls in Palermo, Corso Camillo Finocchiaro Aprile

In 1154, the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi completed the Nuzhat al-mushtaq, also known as the Kitab Rujar, a geographical book and map of the world for the Norman King Roger II of Sicily. At the time of the Norman conquest of Sicily, Palermo was among the most diverse cities of the world, a meeting place for merchants, migrants, scholars and pilgrims from the whole Mediterranean and beyond. It is not surprising that al-Idrisi exploited this diversity to gather the insights and knowledge necessary to write his geographical treatise.

Today, Palermo sits as the center of the Mediterranean facing new waves of migration, and acting as an in-between space connecting geography, faiths, and cultures. While visiting Palermo in the past week, I have followed al-Idrisi’s steps around the city, trying to better understand how the city holds on to its diverse and pluralistic tradition.

[…] this is the site of the great Mosque which in the past was a church and is now once more a Christian place of worship. It lifts the spirits because of its wonderful workmanship and the originality of the motifs […]

— Muhammad al-Idrisi, Kitab Rujar, 1154

I entered Palermo from the north, crossing its Liberty-style neighbourhoods. While descending towards the sea the clouds kept drawing closer and closer to the flat roofs of the city, with the streets becoming more and more narrow as I approached the Capo market. The old market stretches across a few streets in the old neighbourhood and, with the tension of the storm building up, the stall vendors kept looking at the sky for signs of the sun, whispering to each other in Sicilian dialect, Italian, Bengali, and Arabic.

This diversity reflects the multicultural history of Palermo, Sicily, and of Italy more broadly. Indeed, as described by historian Jeremy Dummett, since becoming the capital of the island under the Arabs, Palermo hosted Latin, Greek, Jewish, Arab, and Norman communities, with each of them sharing their ideas, languages, and products through the streets of these markets, and leaving their mark on the city’s social, cultural and architectural landscape. It was only with the Bourbonic domination and the landing of the Inquisition on the island that the city started to homogenize. Rather than being its natural state, a monocultural Palermo was a forced imposition driven by political and religious motives. Today, centuries later, waves of migration bring the city back to its original diversity.

Leaving the Capo market, slowly walking through a shaded lane, I passed an old Spanish baroque church. The worn down building, with its faded yellow decorations, stood rather anonymously at the centre of a small square, facing a Bangladeshi stall selling sodas and snacks. Next to the church’s door hangs a small green sign, with Arabic, Bangla, and Latin letters on it: Al Falah Jame Mosque.

Palermo Al Idrisi
Al Falah Mosque, Palermo

Places of worship in many other Mediterranean cities, ranging from the notorious Hagia Sophia to the byzantine churches and monasteries portrayed by William Darlymple in his book on Christianity in the Near East, have changed according to the god they served for centuries, often moving back and forth between two different deities, responding to either the spiritual needs of the communities they served or the political aims of the ruling classes.

In Palermo, the Arabs turned Christian churches into mosques as well as building new ones, and after two decades Norman and Spanish rulers converted these buildings, old and new alike, into churches and monasteries. Much like the city’s Cathedral, the Al Falah Jame Mosque is hosted by a building that previously served a different community of faith. Yet, unlike the Cathedral described by Al Idrisi, the Al Falah Jame Mosque seems to be a response not to a change in governance or domination, but rather of a (re)growth of religious diversity in the city.

Palermo Al Idrisi
Ballarò, one of the historical markets in the city

“The Cassaro is an ancient fortress city (qasr) renowned the world over, it is organized around three streets. Along the Central Street there are fortified palaces with high and noble walls and many mosques, hostelries, baths and shops of great merchants.”

— Muhammad al-Idrisi, Kitab Rujar, 1154

Leaving the Capo market I descended down the Cassaro, also known as Via Vittorio Emanuele, one of the central streets of the city, as described by al-Idrisi. Built by the Phoenicians at moment of foundation of the city, this long street used to connect the city’s port with the necropolis that lay just outside the city. Today, it stretches across the city centre, and lies between the port, the Cathedral, and the Royal Palace.

With the rain picking up, I found refuge in an old second-hand bookstore. The owner was a lady in her sixties who welcomed me and guided me through the shelves while complaining about not being able to afford to repair the damaged wooden floor. She explained how books gain their value not just through the written word, but also through the relationship that is created between buyer and seller, their conversations and shared thoughts. I left shop with a book on the history of Sicilian markets, Mercati Storici Siciliani by Orietta Sorgi, an anthropological study analyzing the cultural value of these historical institutions.

The market, the author writes in the introduction, is to be valued not only as a place of economic exchange, but mainly as a place of cultural exchange, where vendors from different cities and countries exchange thoughts and ideas, mixing their languages and traditions in the meantime: in-between spaces where material and cultural exchange depend on relationships and conversations. As the rain lightened, I slipped the book into a plastic bag and walked across the street into one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the city.

Palermo Al Idrisi
Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio and San Cataldo Church, an example of architectural and cultural hybridity

“As for the suburb, this is another town in itself which surrounds the first on all sides. It has an ancient town that bears the name of Khalisa (the Chosen) where the Sultan and his court resided in times of the Moslems.”

— Muhammad al-Idrisi, Kitab Rujar, 1154

I entered the Kalsa neighbourhood through a narrow lane, stopping under balconies from time to time to get away from the rain. The neighbourhood used to be the political centre of the city during the Arab domination and later on merged with the Jewish neighbourhood, and it holds a distinctive feel to this day.

Although becoming more and more rare today, walking through the streets of Kalsa one could still hear the neighbourhood’s dialect, known Kalsitano or Avusitano, which retains a very arabic intonation. Reaching the northern area of the neighbourhood, street signs start to be written in three different languages, Hebrew, Arabic, and Italian, to indicate the area where the Jewish neighbourhood used to be before their expulsion in 1492. Not unlike the city’s markets and its places of worship, the former Jewish and Arab neighbourhood today hosts a diversity of communities that could possibly bring the area back to its original diversity. Bangladeshi, Arab, and African men stand outside their shops as I leave the neighbourhood and walk towards Via Maqueda.

Evidently this rise in diversity does not come without its conflicts, and not everyone would be as enthusiastic about it as I am. Integration of different cultures and traditions is a long and challenging process, one that could result in tension among the different groups. While some politicians thrive and gain popularity by fuelling this tension, learning about the past of an in-between space like Sicily, at the crossroads of the Mediterranean’s cultures and trade routes, would be a first step towards becoming more open to its growing diversity.

Knowing that the apparent homogeneity of the islands’ population is a condition shaped by the inquisition since the 13th century could prevent xenophobic and ethno-nationalist rhetoric from gaining ground. As I walk down Via Maqueda towards the train station, families and groups of men sit in cafes and outside small grocery shops, and I observe a city not too unlike the one al-Idrisi would have seen in 1154.

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