Muslim Sicily The Disappearance of Antiquities and the Wailing of Palm Trees


Muslim Sicily The Disappearance of Antiquities and the Wailing of Palm Trees

To the superpowers looking for expansion, the Mediterranean islands were just small stations on the way to the other banks, as whoever owns the sea owns the maritime trade routes.

Sicily, Cyprus, Malta, Sardinia, Corsica and other islands attracted a succession of colonial powers seeking marine domination and reaching outlying areas taking a short cut with the least costs. The largest island, Sicily, became a key base for the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Muslims who made it a second channel, after Andalusia, for cultural communication with Europe in the Middle Ages after establishing a great civilization which continued even after the demise of its state.

Let s begin with what anyone who visits Sicily for the first time cannot conceal: the stereotyped image of the island as the home of the Mafia which has been created by The Godfather trilogy, which presented the life of Italian families in New York in the late 1940s. The trilogy, the first part of which was screened in 1972, gave an extensive coverage of the gangs, revenge, brutal killings and strong Italian family ties in Sicily. The second part, in particular, depicted the environment of the Mafia and the internal system of absolute obedience which in New York is more or less the same as that in Sicily.

Some Sicilians who knew that I am a journalist were extremely alarmed at their international negative image as killers carrying guns all the time. They asked me to write about the injustice done to them by the film, particularly the fact that some tourists look for the homes of the Carleonie family, the role of their chief was played by the celebrated actors Marlon Brando and Al Patcino. Interestingly, the Sicilians are astonished when they see tourists looking for Carleonie s grandson who falsely think he is still alive.

Salmo, a Sicilian in his mid-thirties, sighed heavily and controlled his deep anger when I said that the negative reputation of the film brought countless tourists to Sicily saying, We don t want this miserable reputation. We have enough historic landmarks and antiquities to better present ourselves to the world . After hearing these convincing words I expected to see a better image of Sicily, but media coverage of the daily murder incidents in which the Mafia gangs are involved doesn t help change the negative image.

Wonderful Catania

It was an adventure to go to a place we don t know much about. We left Italy in its entirety and went to its largest island, ignoring its capital, Palermo, and proceeded to Catania which we used as a base for reaching the surrounding area: Syracuse, Taromina and Mount Etna, which the Arabs called the Fire Mountain because of its awesome sight and the many stories about its eruptions. Catania, an ancient Greek colony, looked more wonderful to the photographer than it did to me. He had already visited Palermo and didn t find much worth shooting there, whereas it was the other way round in Catania whose buildings and lively people looked almost similar to me as those of the suburbs of Paris, the city of light and beauty; that s why it deserves to be called the financial capital of Sicily.

Sicily, (Sicilia in Italian), is an extension to the Italian mainland, like a baby girl clinging on her mother. It is 25,710 km2 in area divided into nine provinces, mainly the capital Palermo, Messina and Syracuse. It is an Italian autonomous region. It has a mild climate in summer and winter. We experienced this on the high top of Mount Etna in winter as I wore just a light shirt and my companion a half-sleeved one, with the wind blowing from all directions. Most of the island is mountainous except for a few plains such as Catania, with no shortage of water or rain. Like all islands, Sicily is famous for its restaurants which serve tasty fish dishes. There is virtually no demand for pizza, which shows that the nature of the place influences people s customs and traditions.

The strangest thing I heard about the Sicilians is that they are short-tempered and their lifestyle is different from that of the residents of Milan and Rome, but I noticed that they look like Easterners in that they are talkative and use their hands a lot; European in their features and relative coolness. What struck me much is that car drivers give priority to all pedestrians, not only tourists, but, on the other hand, they have their own interpretation of traffic lights: Green and orange are the same to them, and red does not always mean to stop, as in the final seconds of the red light vehicles start to move regardless of the consequences of going through it.

The Sicilians and the residents of north Italian cities have mutual disrespect. As for the Sicilians themselves we heard that the inhabitants of Palermo envy those of Catania for the many tourists and major urban development. This is particularly seen during Italian football league matches in which the teams of Palermo and Catania play. The last wonder is the fact which I myself ascertained. There are no extremely beautiful women in Sicily and probably in all Italy, in contrast to most of Europe. But for girls grace and sweet smiles, we would say Sicily is the store of Europe s ugly women.

Syracuse and Taromina

Syracuse is a one-hour drive from Catania and has many historic landmarks, mainly the Roman amphitheatre and Syracuse Cathedral. The prominent Roman orator Cicero described it as he most beautiful Greek city as it was founded by the Greeks. Two rivers cross it :Ciani and Anapo. Taromina is a small town and has a legendary atmosphere as it lies on top of Tower Monte hill, near Mount Etna.

Sicily: Conquest and Departure

The conquest of Sicily is nominally credited to the Abbasids who failed to emulate the Umayyads in expanding their empire and concentrated on consolidating their rule with knowledge, urban development and military power. The Aghlabs, an Arab dynasty who ruled an African province in Qayrawan (800-909), are credited with the conquest of Sicily. The Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid, alarmed by the emergence of the Alawite Idrissi state in westernmost Morocco, decided to stop that expansion and Berber raids and appointed a favourite of his, Ibrahim Ibn Al-Aghlab, as hereditary governor of the African province of Qayrawan under Abbasid nominal suzerainty. Ibn Al-Aghlab succeeded in his mission and made a non-aggression pact with them.

Having destroyed the Aghlab and earlier the Idrissi dynasties, the Fatimids took over Sicily and entrusted the Kalb family with the rule of the island under the umbrella of the young caliphate whose rule covered the entire Maghrib, and they founded Cairo as heir second capital after Mahdiyya, in present-day Tunisia. Muslim attempts to conquer Sicily had started during the age of the governor of Syria, Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan, who sent a campaign led by Muawiya Ibn Khadij Al-Kindi in 653. Other unsuccessful attempts continued until the Aghlab conquest. Sicily had been under Byzantine rule for three centuries, and before the Muslim conquest it witnessed such a sate of turmoil for Byzantine mismanagement and internal conflict that Byzantine leaders invited the Aghlab prince, Zayadut Allah, to invade Sicily.

At first, the prince hesitated long, as such a campaign required a strong navy and unending supply lines. The Maliki scholar Assad Ibn Al-Furat kept urging the prince to go ahead with the invasion, and the prince finally agreed and appointed Ibn Al-Furat, a brave man with a military background, to lead a campaign for the conquest of Sicily. The African prince contributed ten thousand warriors and seven hundred cavalrymen whom seventy ships carried. The campaign was launched on 14 June 827 and the Aghlab army won its main battle Balata. Ibn Al-Furat was martyred the following year. The Sicilian cities fell one by one, including Palermo which the Arabs made their capital. Other areas remained outside the control of the Aghlabs until the Fatimids put them under their control.

The early period of the Fatimid rule of Sicily was marked by upheavals and revolts as a result of governors tyranny and refusal of the Muslim inhabitants, mostly Sunnis, to adopt Ismaili Shia, the Fatimids sect. The third Fatimid caliph Al-Mansour Bellah followed the Abbasids approach by maintaining nominal suzerainty of certain regions through governors who are in fact kings to ensure the stability for the caliphate, particularly in outlying areas. Accordingly, Al-Hassan Bin Ali Bin Abu Hassan Al-Kalbi was appointed the first governor of Sicily.

At the end of the Kalbi rule Sicily witnessed a brief period similar to that of the last kings of Andalusia which soon afterwards gave way not to an Islamic power (Al-Murabitoon) but to the Normans whose age, fortunately, was marked by tolerance under Roger I (1092-1101) and his son Roer II (1101-1154), who was said to wear Muslim clothes. Both kings followed this policy of openness to the Muslims at a time calls for the Crusades, in which Roger I refused to share, were very strong .The Arab-Muslim influence in Sicily remained under the new rule.

Mount Etna, the Fire Mountain

Mount Etna is the most active volcano worldwide; almost four hundred eruptions have taken place since 475 BC. It is located on the eastern coast of Sicily, about 3,323 metres above sea level, and is the biggest in Europe. Its base is 140 km surrounded by fertile land. In 1669 it killed 20,000 people, a heavy loss of life, said to be due to an earthquake which coincided with its violent eruption. Climbing its uppermost top is not allowed, and on one of its lower tops we saw a big rock ejected by the volcano like an empty matchbox. As our tourist guide explained, these flying rocks are as destructive as bombs and explosives. Mount Etna was thought to have one crater, but during our tour we saw tens of dormant craters which most probably will not be active again as they are blocked with rocks and lava at the end of an eruption, and in case of a new eruption this happens through weaker spots in other places. That s why there are adjacent craters.

On our way up by a Land Rover to the highest allowed point on top of Mount Etna with thick clouds around us we stopped for a while at certain points which gave us a glimpse of this strange, dangerous place. One of the points is where the molten rocks solidify showing different colours : The blackest are the most recent ejected by the 2002 eruption; the white are the oldest. After this point we saw a large open workshop where volcanic rocks are crushed and loaded onto trucks to be used in construction. After passing by many inhabited houses and open shops we talked about the dangers of living and working in such places, and the tourist guide said, We ll shortly reach a place where you ll find answers to your queries. We actually stopped at a deserted house buried under lava. We went down the house and saw its poor condition inside. That was just one of hundreds of similar houses, and what is worse, the tourist guide ridiculed those who insist on living under danger, but he hastened to add that most of them are adventurous tourists or dedicated scientists who don t want to miss the chance of having a close look at volcanic activity in spite of intervention by the police. He who does not die from melting dies from underground poisonous gases.

The most exciting moment was when we entered the cave inside Mount Etna. We wore safety helmets fitted with bright light and entered through a small aperture and walked for two hundred metres inside the cave without being able to be fully erect. The tourist guide explained the kinds and colours of metals that mixed with the molten rocks to form a natural geological picture we were only able to see as photographs or in a TV documentary. He surprised us by making us see his friends, namely bats sleeping above our heeds each having a special name. Before we left the place I took some small pieces of Mount Etna rocks as a souvenir of this unusual exploratory visit.

Obliterated history

Our task in Sicily was not to look for antiquities or lament the loss of past glories as some people do when they look at Cordova Mosque or Al-Ahmars places in Granada or the great Rowanda arch; that s all past history. However, what astonished us is the absence of any vestiges of the Arabs or Muslims ,in contrast to those who conquered Sicily before and after them. Where are the antiquities of those who ruled Sicily for two and a half centuries? Were they all that period busy reciting poems about the beauty of this island? Where have the palaces, castles, mosques, hospitals and busy markets which they built gone? In his book The Image of the Earth the traveller Ibn Hawqal describes the island s capital, Palermo, which he visited during the Kalbi rule and records more than three hundred mosques which the Muslims hurried to build and name after themselves. He also records a large number of students. Where has all that gone? Unfortunately, there is a big gap in Sicily s history. But for some antiquities in Palermo, such as the Grand Mosque and the names of some towns, like Marsala (meaning the berth of Allah), we would say the Arab-Muslim presence in Sicily is the work of a creative novelist.

The history of the Arab-Muslim presence in Sicily has disappeared because of fanaticism and cultural isolation and all that remains are the palm trees which the Arabs introduced to act as a witness bewailing an age that has gone and left nothing but stories and events recorded in the annals of history.


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


A beautiful sunset in the town of Taromina, near Mount Etna

Having settled in Sicily, the Aghlabs brought palm trees which entered the island for the first time. They also introduced a number of crops, such as grain, olive, cotton, saffron, sugar care, etc

The remains of the sixth century AD Syracuse Cathedral which was damaged by an earthquake in 1908

A narrow street in a pedestrian precinct in the old part of the town of Catania whose dwellers always keep it clean and beautify it0 with roses

The Aghlab conquest of Sicily was not a picnic, but a tough military operation due to the Byzantine fortifications and rocky Sicilian shores, as seen in this picture

One of the many fish markets in Catania where people love seeing and smelling fish

The ancient Apollo Temple, one of Syracuse’s famous landmarks. It was converted into a church under the Byzantines and into a mosque during the Muslim rule

Ships of various sizes dock in this small Syracuse bay. A large ship designed as an old sailing ship to attract those who want to go on a short cruise

Triangle-like, Sicily is 177 miles long, 157 miles wide, with a mild climate most of the year. Most of the island is mountainous, an extension to the Italian mainland, relatively near North Africa

Catania is more bustling with life than Palermo, Sicily’s capital, with fierce competition, particularly in the Italian football league

A memorial to the Itlian soldiers who died in their African wars

Access to the sleepy town of Taromina is only through Catania’s old gate. Taromina is famous for its elevation which makes it cool in summer. The well-known Greek theatre attracts many tourists

Sicilian handmade necklaces and rosaries

But for a few pretty women, we would say that, in contrast to most of Europe, beauty is virtually missing in Sicily

But for a few pretty women, we would say that, in contrast to most of Europe, beauty is virtually missing in Sicily

The sea is still the best listener to people’s secrets and agonies. The relationship between this man and the sea seems very old indeed

Through said to be short-tempered, the Sicilians have good road manners; however, they toot car horns too much

The Paulo Orsilli Museum, in Syracuse, so named after the Italian archaeologist who was famous for his excavations of prehistoric Byzantine antiquities in southern Italy

When Mount Etna ejects lava to a height of 1,600 metres, this is not something serious in the eyes of the Cicilians as that means it will fall near the volcano area, as the rock in the pictures shows

A house buried under lava in the latest eruption of Mount Etna in 2002. Many Sicilians obstinately insist on having their homes near the crater of this ever active volcano

A panoramic view of parts of Mount Catania with the crates of dormant volcanoes

An open workshop near Mount Etna where large volcanic rocks are crushed and loaded onto trucks to be used in construction

We moved with enormous difficulty for 200 metres through this cave-like hollow which formed after Mount Etna’s lava solidified

A bat sleeping above our heads inside Mount Etna cave

Fishing is very dear to the Sicilians who boast of their island’s fish and prefer it to the pizza made in the North. Picured are fishermen collecting their catch from the Mediterranean and preparing their nets for the following morning

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