Having harbored different civilizations for centuries, the gorgeous island of Sicily offers unparalled cultural richness bearing both Islamic and European heritage
A big island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily looks like a ball that the boot-shaped peninsula of Italy is about to kick. Lying at the intersection of trade routes, the island has fertile lands.
Historically, Sicily has experienced a different development to northern Italy. The people of Sicily do not even come from the same ethnic group as the north Italians. The two regions were officially unified in the 19th century, but even today a Sicilian and someone from Milano will speak in different Italian dialects. As the biggest and most crowded island in the Mediterranean, Sicily is closer to the African and Middle Eastern world geographically.
In antiquity, Phoenicians and Greeks established trade colonies there. The island was then ruled by Romans. Muslim Arabs began to sail around Sicily's coasts from 652. At first, they conquered the island of Pantelleria in 700 and then the entirety of Sicily in 827. The conquest took 75 years to complete. The island was called "Siqilliyya" and an independent kingdom was formed on its southwestern, centered on Mazara del Vallo, a harbor town. In the meantime, Muslims conquered Italy's other harbors including Ragusa, Bari, Reggio and Benevento as well as the islands of Ponza, Ischia, Malta, Gozo, Sardinia and Corsica. Muslims rebuilt some war-torn cities like Palermo while Islamic works of art influenced European architecture. Many plants grown by Muslims were also introduced to Europe through Sicily.
Over the years, Islamic rule weakened in the region and Muslim rulers fell out with one another. In 1606, Normans took over the island. They not only gave Muslims freedom, but also did not interfere with Islamic law. Frederick II of Sicily, who assigned Muslim scholars as advisers and later became the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was accused of adopting Islam and excommunicated by the pope because he entitled the provisions of Islamic law in 1231. Nevertheless, Muslims did not want to live under the rule of non-Muslims and a revolt broke out. They, however, failed and resorted to leaving the island. Even so, Muslims left an indelible mark on the island as well as in Europe. Normans adopted the Muslims' palace administration, correspondence principles, army regulations and coining system. Arabic works were also translated into Latin. Many great scholars were raised on the island.
The island of Pantelleria was the last Sicilian land that the Muslims lost, in 1149. Even in the 16th century, half of the island's population was Muslim. When Italian unity was formed in 1860, Sicilian intellectuals such as Amari proposed the island's liberty by pointing out the heritage left from Islamic civilization.
Following the invasion of the Normans, southern Italy and Sicily turned to the West and adopted Catholicism. Yet, Sicily could not escape the influence of the East, Arabs and Byzantines. Today, women living in Sicily's villages cover their heads like Muslim women do. There are even women who do not show their face to men. Funeral ceremonies and pudicity practices are similar to those adopted in the East. Currently, around 30,000 Muslims, most of whom are North African, live on the island.
The legacy of the East may even appear where few would expect. In the 11th century, Hasan al-Sabbah established a sect and independent state in Iran, favoring the argument that Islam has both a visible and an invisible side. Sabbah was told to drug his soldiers with hashish to make them loyal to him. His soldiers assassinated many Sunni statesmen and scholars who considered Sabbah an enemy. He collaborated with the Crusaders and in the 13th century, Sabbah's sect, which had survived for about two centuries, was finally eliminated by the Mongols and some of its members took refuge in Sicily. It was told that the "Mafia," a criminal group opposed to France and then becoming bandits, was formed from them. The word "Mafia" is believed to take its origin from the Arabic word "mahfiyya," which means secret. Today, this serene and poor island is renowned for the Mafia and draws many tourists thanks to the movie "The Godfather."
The capital city of the island, Palermo, is a typical Mediterranean city with narrow streets. Built on the foundations of Great Mosque, the city's cathedral still bears the traces of Muslim craftsmanship. Arabic text located at the entrance column of the main building is a testament to the past. The main building of the Norman Palace in Palermo was also inherited from Muslims. The arabesque-ornamented "masjid" of the palace now serves as a magnificent chapel. It is possible to see the influence of Andalusia in the Maghreb architecture on columns and ceiling ornaments of palaces and churches in Sicily. The city doors of Porto Nuovo in Palermo feature sculptures symbolizing Muslims. The most interesting place in Palermo is Catacombe dei Cappuccini (Catacombs of the Capuchins). In 1599, a Capuchin monk mummified his dead friend and put him in the vault of the monastery. Afterwards, other priests in the monastery followed in his footsteps. In time, being buried in the monastery's vault became a symbol of social status and the wealthy of the city had their dead bodies mummified for a fee, and their relatives visited the vault and prayed for them.
The dead body was first dried at a temporary resting place, after which the mummified body was put in its permanent place on the wall while some were put in glass coffins. However, once relatives of the dead stopped donating money to the monastery, the mummified body was taken to the shelves.
The last person who was mummified and buried in the vault was Monk Ricardo, in 1871. When the vault and the burial rituals surfaced, it caused a sensation and the vault was closed upon the orders of the Pope. Astonishingly, the burial rituals must have continued in secret as mummified bodies dating back to the 1920s were discovered. The dampish halls are categorized as men, women, virgins, children, priests, monks, lawyers et cetera. There are about 8,000 bodies, and some of them have not yet decayed.
Some 1,252 dead bodies in the vault were mummified, and a number of them have been identified. While we were touring, experts were trying to determine the ages of the bodies based on their teeth using special devices. The body which was the last to be buried belongs to a 2-year-old girl named Rosalia Lombardo and her body has been preserved incredibly. Her embalming was performed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia. He used glistering for excessive dryness, formalin to exterminate bacteria; alcohol to keep the body dry and salicylic acid to kill fungus. He also used zinc salt to achieve the stiffness of the body.
Syracuse is the most beautiful city of Sicily. It was established on the foothills of Mount Etna, which is still an active volcano. The city is also the homeland of Archimedes. Everything on the city is located on a piece of land that is connected to the main land with three bridges. The bones and belongings of Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy), the saint of the blind, who was killed by the Romans in the fourth century, are preserved in the Syracuse Cathedral.
The town of Taormina, near Syracuse, is worth seeing. The town, which was conquered by the Arabs in 902 and named "Tâbermine," has an incredible view of the Mediterranean. Corjava Palace, originally built by Muslims, still stands there.
On the other hand, there is nothing much to see in Catania. The city which is called "Qataaniyya" by Muslims has one of Italy's largest harbors, and is perhaps the biggest harbor in the whole of Europe. The city is the homeland of well-known composer Bellini and the city features an opera building named after him.