Last year, my husband and I published an article about the history of Islam in Southern Italy in the Italian edition of the National Geographic Magazine, which was published unter the title Quando Eravamo Arabi (“When we were Arabs”). Below is the English original text.
Doing research for this article inspired me to write the novel “The Emir’s Trace” which is set in Puglia.
When the Andalusian traveler, historian and poet Muhammad Ibn Jubayr visited Palermo in Sicily during the holy month of Ramadan 1184, on his return from his pilgrimage to Mecca, he was astounded by the familiar sights. Palermo had been the capital of the former Emirate of Sicily for about 130 years and was now, by the time of his visit, ruled by Christian Norman kings:
“The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. (…) It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba (…). 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.”
Nowadays Islam is, at around 1.4%, the second-most widely practiced religion in Italy after Roman Catholicism, a percentage that is actually lower than it was 1000 years ago.
Muslim presence in Italy dates back to the 9th century, when Sicily came under control of the Abbasid Caliphate. A significant Muslim presence was visible already since 827, when Mazara del Vallo and Marsala (Marsa Allah – “Port of God”) in Sicily were taken by invaders from North Africa, and it lasted until 1300 when the last Muslim settlement in Lucera was destroyed.
The seizure of Palermo in 831 marked the beginning of the Emirate of Sicily. According to Arab historian Ibn Al-Athir, Palermo’s population was reduced from 70,000 to 3,000; most of the survivors were sold as slaves. Palermo, now renamed Balarm or simply al-Madinah (“the City”), became the emirate’s capital. Within a few decades its population recovered, and only 100 years later, Palermo with its 300,000 inhabitants and 300 mosques was the most populous city in the whole of Italy. A Byzantine church was converted into the Great Mosque on exactly the spot where today’s cathedral is situated.
The merge of cultures produced a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional state. Christians and Jews were subjected to jizya, the tax for non-Muslims. Whether to avoid extra taxing or by genuine belief, many Sicilians converted to Islam and adopted the Arabic language.
The Arabs initiated land reforms and improved irrigation system. They introduced artichokes, orange, lemon and pistachio trees to the island, now the Sicilian main export crops. They also introduced mulberry trees to feed silkworms and established a silk industry which later spread northwards to mainland Italy.
Sicily has always served as a bridge between Mediterranean cultures. It was a gateway to Europe for immigration from North Africa already in the 9th and 10th century. In fact, before the advance of fast land transport, the sea was regarded as a uniting, not a dividing entity.
The Emirate of Sicily lasted until 1061, when the island was conquered by the Normans. Initially, Norman troops had arrived to assist the emir in a local uprising. Instead they set out to conquer the entire island and, in 1072, seized Palermo. They soon found out that the prevailing Arab culture suited them well to represent their high ambitions.
Nevertheless, only a reduced Muslim population remained in Sicily under the Norman kings. Many Muslims either left the island, or (re-)converted to Christianity. Here, again financial benefit will have played a major role, as now Muslims instead of Christians were obliged to pay a minority tax, based on the Islamic precedent.
Part of the population, however, Muslim or not, remained Arabic-speaking until the mid-13th century. Peter of Eboli, poet, cleric and medical doctor, noticed in his chronic of Sicily written around the year 1200 the trilingualism of the people of Palermo. Even personal names were not necessarily an indicator of ethnic origin or religion: A house sale contract dating to 1169 mentions a certain Christodoulos, son of Abul-Sayyid and Sitt al-Husun, daughter of Peter of Castronuovo (who signed in Latin). The deal was witnessed by Simeon, son of Andrea al-Rahham (who signed in Arabic) and Theodor, son of Leo al-Khanzari (Arabic for “Leo the pig-farmer”, who signed in Greek). The Jewish population of Sicily spoke Arabic, too, but wrote it in Hebrew characters.
The heritage of the Arabic language can still be found in numerous terms still used in the Sicilian dialect, as well as in place names. The Sicilian term taibbu for a good wine derives from the Arab word tayyib, meaning “good”.
The Norman Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II and his successors was characterized by its multi-ethnic nature and religious tolerance. The king himself spoke Arabic fluently. He had Islamic poets, scientists and soldiers at his court. He indeed had to employ the former elite, because the entire administration had been Muslim. The so-called “Palace Saracens” continued to practice Islam at the Norman court for at least another 100 years.
The Norman kings also continued to strike coins in Arabic with Hijra dates, the Muslim calendar dated after the prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina in 622. The registers at the royal court were written in Arabic. Roger mobilized Arab architects to build monuments in the new Norman-Arab-Byzantine style, a synthesis in art and architecture.
The Palazzo Reale originally constituted the emir’s palace at Palermo. Inside the palace, Roger commissioned the construction of the Capella Palatina which served as chapel and royal reception space. The chapel is a melting pot of cultures: The painted wooden ceiling with its honeycomb vaults, geometric designs and Arabic calligraphy is clearly Middle Eastern, dome and mosaics are Byzantine and the marble floor had been laid out by Italian craftsmen. The mosaics depict religious scenes but the ceiling’s paintings are of thoroughly worldly nature: chess players, women dancers, banqueters and drinkers, combatants and hunters. The services within were probably held in three languages: Latin, Arabic and Greek. In the years of the chapel’s construction, the Harley Trilingual Psalter was created at Roger’s court: It lays out the texts of the Psalms in parallel columns of these three languages. The very same languages were used to mourn the death of a certain Anna, mother of the clergyman Grisanthus on her marble epitaph.
Also Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, is said to have spoken Arabic fluently, besides Latin, Sicilian, German, French, and Greek. Though he has been frequently stereotyped as an open-minded multiculturalist, he probably was just a diplomatic pragmatist, admittedly a good one. He was able to gain guardianship over Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth without any bloodshed, merely by five months of negotiation with the Ayyubid sultan. The treaty guaranteed Muslim control over the holy sites of Islam in Jerusalem. Other crusaders condemned this compromise as a betrayal of the cause of the crusades.
During Frederick’s early years as a king, while he was still a child (he was crowned as King of Sicily at the tender age of two), the void of power led to a Muslim revolt. From 1221, Frederick suppressed the uprising and ultimately decided the deportation of Muslims from Sicily to the Italian mainland.
Thus, until the mid-13th century, around 20,000 Muslim Sicilians were deported to Lucera. They were recruited, however, in the army and constituted Frederick’s faithful personal bodyguard, since they had no connection to his numerous political rivals. Frederick granted the Muslim community full freedom of religion. The city had a mosque, Koranic schools, and a Muslim judge.
The reasons for the deportation of Sicily’s Muslims to mainland Italy has been thoroughly disputed. Most probably, Frederick’s intentions were – pragmatist that he was – mainly economical: In Sicily, since the rule of Frederick’s predecessor William II, the majority of Muslims were dependents of episcopal churches who exercised jurisdiction, collected taxes and demanded labour obligations. After the expulsion of Muslims, church representatives actually complained to the king about having deprived them of a part of their income. Instead, the king wanted to tie the Muslim community to himself as direct dependents. This improved the Muslim’s situation considerably: tax and workload were substantially reduced. Under Frederick’s successors, the Muslims of Lucera gained an unprecedented autonomy, including full town privileges. The choice of Lucera as place of resettlement, again, was due to economic reasons: The region surrounding Lucera was one of the bread baskets of Southern Europe. The Sicilian Muslims, famed for their agricultural knowledge and skills, were now in charge of feeding the empire and managing the wheat trade not only to Northern Italy and the Balkans, but also to Northern Africa.
The final, and for its inhabitants totally unexpected, blow came in 1300. The count of Altamura, with the support of Charles II of Naples, seized Lucera and killed, exiled or sold into slavery its entire population, bringing an end to the medieval Muslim presence in Italy. Although Charles vindicated the destruction of Lucera with religious motives, there are doubts about his motivation. More likely is that Charles wanted to gain power over the precious grain market.
The legacy of early Islam in Italy has largely be forgotten, and negative aspects have been emphasized, at least partially due to attacks on Southern Italian coastal towns by Arab and Turkish fleets and pirates centuries later. The expression “Mamma, li turchi!” remains anchored in Italian collective memory.
Ótranto’s yearly festival “La Festa dei Martiri Idruntini” commemorates its citizens who died at the hands of Turks. The victims’ bones are piled up inside a chapel within Ótranto’s cathedral. In 1480, an Ottoman fleet invaded and occupied Ótranto. The „Martyrs of Ótranto“ were more than 800 inhabitants who were decapitated by the Ottoman force, according to the tradition for refusing to denounce their faith. For this reason they were canonized by Pope Francis in 2013. But historical records cannot confirm the religious reason for the men’s killing. Dr. Hubert Houben, professor for history at the University of Lecce states:
“A witness interviewing 1539 should prove that the 800 were killed because they refused to renounce the Christian faith; from the evidence is clear, however, that they were executed because they had not surrendered. (…) None of the interviewed witnesses reported a call for conversion to Islam.”
The legend nevertheless goes on to tell that one of the men, a certain Master Grimaldo, called his fellow prisoners to let themselves being executed to become Martyrs. He himself, the legend goes, was beheaded first, but his headless body remained standing upright until the last of the men was executed. Seeing this miracle, the executioner is said to have converted to Christianity, for which he, in turn, was impaled.
Until today, various towns in Southern Italy hold yearly celebrations to commemorate liberation from or victory over Saracen or Ottoman raiders, as in Ótranto, Fasano, San Pietro Vernotico, or Scicli.
19th century eclectic mysticim saw Islam in a different light. The Camera delle Meraviglie, a room covered in wall paintings dating to the 1860ies, was recently rediscovered during the renovation of a private home in central Palermo. The brilliant blue walls are covered in Arabic calligraphy. Scientists from the University of Bonn analyzed the inscriptions and concluded that the painter copied the writing without any knowledge of the language, even mirroring some of the calligraphies, while repeating the same symbols all over the walls. As Dr. Sarjoun Karam states, the interest in Arabic calligraphy did not derive from the interest in the language or its content, but as merely aesthetical elements. The design and motives cause him and his colleague Dr. Sebastian Heine to suggest the use of the chamber as a place of masonic initiation rites.
Though Sicily was the primary Muslim stronghold in Italy, other, rather short-lived emirates were established in Bari, Brindisi and Taranto in the 9th century. The Emirate of Bari for example lasted from 847 to 871. Reports from the time suggest that the city flourished under Arab rule due to vivid trade activities. Mosques and palaces were constructed during this time, non of which remain today.
One man from Asia Minor, though, remains a central figure in Bari: Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a.k.a. Santa Claus. At the Fiera di San Nicola in Bari, clouds of incense and a mystical atmosphere surround the nightly procession of re-enactors who celebrate the traslazione, the “rescue mission” by 62 Bari citizens to retrieve the reliquaries of Saint Nicholas from Turkey and bring them to Bari in 1087. The rescue of the saint from Muslim hands seems to have been rather a pretext to secure a safe and rich income to the city by the resulting flow of pilgrims. Until today, pilgrims from all over Europe make their journey to visit the saint’s tomb.
The history of Islam in Italy is an ambivalent story of conquest and struggle for power but also of valuable knowledge transfer and peaceful co-habitation. History shows us how trade and migration can lead to transcultural networks, but it shows at the same time how political and economic power struggles can transform these contacts into conflict, and end co-habitation and tolerance in the wink of an eye.