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Sicily from the Arabs to the Normans


With the Arabic conquest the Greek-orthodox population was subdued to the Arabs and the Berbers in condition of slavery or of "protection".

The Normans freed Sicily and allowed Christians and Muslims to live together freely. It was allowed to the Muslims to maintain places of great importance in the public administration, in the army and in the Navy.

But many Muslims didn't accept the new situation and returned to North-Africa.

Their place was taken by Italian and French immigrants that Europeanized the island.

Place: Sicily

Epoch: from 878 to 1091 AD

The Arabs conquer Sicily (827-965)

With the conquest of Syracuse (878) the Arabs became masters of great part of Sicily, but it will be necessary several decades to eliminate the hotbeds of resistance. Only in 965, with the fall of Rometta, the last fortress of the Byzantines, Sicily will be completely subdued. 138 years had passed from the landing of the Arabic army at Mazara del Vallo (827).

The long and hard war had produced vast voids in the Sicilian population. The Arabs didn't make prisoners. The cities that withstood the Arabic advance were destroyed, the males killed, the women and their children reduced in slavery. The cities that surrendered without fighting were put under "protection" (see Mediterranean Sea: from Centumcellae to the Garigliano).

The North-Africans immigrate in Sicily

The vast voids of the population were soon filled by the immigrants from North-Africa.

The soldiers who had plundered and devastated Sicily established there. Some hundred thousand of Arabs and Berbers arrived looking for luck.

The immigrants became the new masters and the Sicilians worked, both as slaves and as "protected" ones, to enrich the North-Africans.

Sicily colony of Tunisia (878-1071)

Sicily was included in the economic area of the Muslim world. Considerably vast area (from Spain to North-Africa, from Egypt to Syria, from Iraq to Persia) and richer than Christian Europe.

The commerce had great advantages from that. The exchanges multiplied. Sicily, colony of Tunisia, furnished to North-Africa agricultural produce, timber and slaves.

The agricultural production had a substantial boost. The Christians provided labour at low cost. The availability of land was vast and the Arabs didn't have to pay for becoming owners of it. The intensive exploitation gave good results for its masters.

The production of oil, in competition with that of North-Africa, was abandoned to a large extent.

Sicily, in those days, was covered by wonderful forests that alternated to ploughed fields. The Arabs began to cut the trees to sell its timber in the markets of North-Africa, notoriously poor of forest trees.

To the deforestation due to the production of timber joined the deforestation made by the new immigrants who put the forests on fire to have more land.

Besides many of the immigrants were shepherds of goats, that prevented the growth of new vegetation with their diffusion.

The Sicilian ecosystem was upset and it began a rapid environmental degrade. Sicily, that had been for 1500 years the granary of Italy, ran into the progressive impoverishment of its ground.

Sicilian timber was requested also by the shipyards where the ships of the Arabic fleet were built. With those ships aggressions were carried out to the Italian coasts. The inhabitants of the coastal towns became a remarkable resource for the commerce of slaves. The Christians were captured and sold on the markets of North-Africa. The commerce of slaves became one of the principal economic resources of Sicily.

Italy under the Arabic threat

The Arabs did not stop in Sicily, they started to create some bases on the islands and on the Italian coasts, they attacked a lot of maritime places, they also pushed themselves in the inside sailing up the rivers (see Mediterranean Sea: from Centumcellae to the Garigliano).

The Italians had to build some towers of guard along the coast. The seaside towns were fortified and the towns withdrew toward the inside. A lot of coastal places were abandoned.

The aggression of the Muslims continued for centuries. Still in 1799 the island of Giglio, in the Tuscan archipelago, was attacked by a North-African fleet. Its inhabitants saved themselves finding refuge in the castle in the center of the island.

It was only during the XIX century, after one thousand years, that the raids had an end, when the French troops arrived in North-Africa.

The Byzantines again in Sicily (1030)

After 1030 the kalbit emir, in consequence of inside rivalry in the Muslim world, found himself in difficulty and made a treaty with Byzantium. The general Geroge Maniaces disembarked near Messina with an army composed by the varhegy guard and by mercenary troops. Among the mercenaries there were many Normans, among whom Harald Hardrade, who would invade England in 1066.

Maniaces occupied great part of oriental Sicily, but he was called back to Byzantium and his work went lost.

The Normans free Sicily (1060-1091)

Toward 1060 Arabic Sicily was divided. Various families tried to create some independent emirates at Mazara, Girgenti and Syracuse. Ibn at-Tumnah and other Muslims of Syracuse and Catania asked help to the Christians to fight against their rivals.

The Norman Roger of Hauteville disembarked with about sixty cavalrymen to verify the situation. Then he organized an expedition of great proportions and conquered Messina.

In 1064 Roger, with a thousand cavalrymen, had seized north-oriental Sicily. Roger put the capital at Troina, a Christian community that had survived two centuries of Arabic domination.

In 1071 Robert the Guiscard put the siege to Palermo. After five months the city surrendered. Guiscardo granted to the inhabitants to keep on practising their religion and a certain autonomy.

Roger continued the work of liberation of Sicily offering advantageous conditions to the Arabs who held their tasks in the administration, their goods and their castles.

The Arabic soldiers entered in the army of Roger and were employed also against other Normans.

In 1075 Roger stipulated a treaty with the zirid head of Tunisi and sent some wheat to Mahdia.

In 1088 Castrogiovanni surrendered and in 1091 Noto, the last Arabic fortress.

Sicily was again in Europe, after two centuries of Arabic domination.

From Arabic Sicily to Latin Sicily

Roger found the Sicilians of Christian Greek-orthodox religion ostracized and practically starving. Nicodemus, the bishop of Palermo officiated in a small church in the outskirts of the city. Few Greek monasteries, in a bad state, had survived in the north-east.

The local Christian population was called Greek by the Normans, who instead gave the name of Latin to the new Norman, Frank and Italian immigrants.

It was allowed to the Arabs to go on working in the public administration, in the army and in the Navy.

The coins continued for a long time to be coined with Kufic inscriptions and some of them to be dated by the hegira.

The Norman governor of Palermo had the title of emir.

Arabs and Hebrews had to pay a special tax, but they maintained their special judges.

At court different languages were used: Arab, Greek, Frank-Norman, Latin.

Despite the good conditions offered by the Normans many Arabs emigrated respecting the obligation, provided for by their law, not to be able to live in a state dominated by an infidel.

Other Arabs, mainly merchants, progressively emigrated because the conditions of privilege that guaranteed lucrative business had come to a stop.

At their place people arrived from every part of Europe.

The process of Latinization of the island gradually progressed between 1090 and 1250.

After Greek-orthodox Sicily and after Muslim Sicily, Catholic-Roman Sicily was born.


Bibliographical references:

Arborio Mella F. A.

Gli Arabi e l'Islam

Finley M. I.

History of ancient Sicily

Lindsay J.

The Normans

Mack Smith D.

History of medieval and modern Sicily

Ostrogorsky G.

History of the Byzantine empire