As-Salamu ‘Alaykum would have been a common greeting in Sicily a thousand years ago. Why? Because from 827 to 1061, Sicily was under Arab rule. It was a period of enlightenment, whose cultural, social and economic reforms had a profound and long-lasting influence still felt today.
After the birth of Islam in the 7th century CE, the Arabic world soon rose to a position of dominance in many fields, such as medicine, mathematics, farming and cartography. Their military might was no less significant, and it was only a matter of time before Sicily, the crossroads of the Mediterranean, fell into Arab hands.
Ziyadat Allah seized control of Mazara del Vallo, and the invasion continued towards Palermo. Bal’harm, as they renamed the town, was to become the capital city. Over the next fifty years, most major towns fell to the Arabs, the last being Syracuse in 878.
In the field of agriculture, the Arabs divided up the larger estates and diversified production. While continuing to exploit Sicily’s potential as a wheat producer, they introduced a whole variety of crops, including citrus fruits. Sugar cane and hemp were also cultivated in considerable quantities, nurtured by highly effective irrigation systems. And if all that weren’t enough, Sicilian Arabs were the first to mass produce dried pasta – an undertaking of huge importance for the world as a whole.
Markets too sprung up, several of which, such as the Capo and the Ballarò in Palermo, still thrive, souk-like, today.
The Arabs had strong trade links with the Middle and Far East, and soon cultivated new ones in Europe. Textiles, sugar, rope, silk, and objects crafted in the souks were sent all over the known world, turning Sicily into an important commercial hub.
The Arabs were also great builders and town planners. Most of Sicily’s main towns and cities underwent considerable changes during Arab rule, not least Palermo, where the Kalsa and Cassaro districts were established. Markets too sprung up, several of which, such as the Capo and the Ballarò in Palermo, still thrive, souk-like, today.
Not many buildings have remained from Arabic times with the exception of the baths at Cefalà Diana, just south of Palermo. The exterior of Palermo’s cathedral, for a time, converted into a mosque, bears some Arabic inscriptions and some fine examples of non-representative Islamic art. The Normans continued to use Arabic architects, artists and craftsmen for their new constructions and several of Palermo’s churches are surmounted by red domes or covered in decorative art. The Castello di Zisa and La Cuba, also in Palermo, are in pure Fatimid style and surrounded by Arabic gardens.
Sicilian cuisine was also strongly influenced by the Arabs, who added almonds, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachio and watermelon to the local palate. Today, raisins and pine kernels are fundamental to a host of pasta and fish recipes, many sweets are of obvious Arab extraction, while sorbets and granite also owe their popularity to North African ingenuity. One of the most common dishes in western Sicily is cous-cous, an obvious hangover from Arab times.
Wherever you go in Sicily, you will come across towns and villages bearing names of Arabic origin: Caltagirone, and Caltanisseta derive from the Arabic calta for castle; the gibil in Mongibello and Gibilmanna denotes mountainous locations; Racalmuto and Regaliali all stem from rahl, meaning area or village; and Marsala, or Mars’Allah means God’s Port.
Arabic surnames survive too, with Salimbeni, Taibbi, Saccà, Zappalà, Cuffaro and Micicchè fairly common reminders of Sicily’s partly North African genealogy. And when Sicilians choose to communicate in dialect, their conversations are strewn with words of Arabic origins.
Sicily’s multidimensional magic springs from its eclectic DNA: Greek, Roman, Arabic, Norman, Spanish and French all rolled into one fascinating whole that will tempt you back again and again… Insha’Allah (as they used to say in Palermo).