The History of Sicily

Sicily The Arabs (Saracens)

In 663, wishing to exert greater influence on the western part of the Byzantine Empire, Constans II (652-685), aka “Constantine the Bearded,” established his capital at Siracusa, which was still a very Greek city. He remained there for five years, placing enormous pressure on the Sicilians in the form of heavy taxation and extortion. After Constans was assassinated by one of his servants, his son moved the capital back to Constantinople, for the Arabs were now threatening the Empire’s homeland.

In 827, the last Greek governor of Sicily rebelled against the Byzantine Empire and called upon assistance from the Saracens. When a their army (composed of Berbers, Arabs, and Spanish and Cretan Muslims) arrived, they promptly murdered him and moved across the island, taking Palermo in 832 and Siracusa in 878.

To their Christian subjects, the Saracens extended a great deal of religious toleration. As a result, Greek culture continued to flourish, while Arab culture also made its mark on Sicily. The invaders brought oranges, lemons, and limes with them, as well as papyrus, sugar, cotton, and other agricultural products. Little architectural evidence of Saracen rule remains, but the Arabs did influence later monumental building on the island. An Arab lookout tower can be seen in Porto Paolo, near Menfi in the province of Agrigento. But better known examples of the Arab influence are in Palermo. Perhaps the most famous is the Zisa Palace in Palermo, designed by an Arab architect during the reign of the Norman king William I (1155-1189). Palermo also boasts the Church of San Cataldo and the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti; the latter was begun in the sixth century, converted into a mosque, then re-consecrated as a Benedictine church under King Roger II (1095-1154). It is one of the finest examples of Arab-Norman style on the island.

Even more important is the influence of Arabic on the Sicilian language, especially in regard to place names. For example, Marsala derives from the Arabic Mars Allah or “God’s Harbor.” Niscemi derives from nesheme, the name of a kind of tree. Caltagirone, Sicily’s ceramic capital, derives from Qal’at Ghiran, or “Castle of the Vases,” and Caltanisetta comes from Qal’at al-Nisa or the “Castle of Women.”


Saracen Lookout Tower, Menfi