Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The story of Arab Sicily

The British Museum held a  panoramic exhibition on the history of Sicily, once the seat of a unique Norman-Arab kingdom, writes David Tresilian in London

The story of Arab Sicily
The story of Arab Sicily
Al-Ahram Weekly

Visitors to the British Museum in London this summer will doubtless want to head directly to this year’s blockbuster exhibition, “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds,” a presentation of the underwater archaeological excavations of the lost Ptolemaic cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus that once lay near the mouth of the River Nile near Alexandria.
The exhibition was reviewed in the Weekly in 26 May, when Nevine El-Aref commented on “Britons with umbrellas queuing outside the classical portico of the British Museum to enter this summer’s blockbuster exhibition.” Two months later and the Britons are still there, this time queueing in the summer sunshine and vastly outnumbered by foreign tourists. But they are as keen as ever to explore the treasures of ancient Egypt.

It would be a pity if Britons and others did not find time to take in the Museum’s other summer exhibition, however, which is on the Mediterranean island of Sicily. Over the course of its long history, this has played host to Phoenician, ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab Islamic and Christian civilisations. The British Museum exhibition, entitled “Sicily, Culture and Conquest,” focuses on the island’s ancient Greek and Arab and Islamic periods, which, some thousand years apart, have perhaps most marked its overall identity.

Visitors to Sicily today typically take in much of this varied heritage, perhaps marvelling in particular at the island’s ancient Greek temples, among the best-preserved anywhere in the Mediterranean, as they enjoy its stunning landscapes. These are dominated by the glowering presence of Mount Etna, smoking and rumbling in the east of the island and two and a half times higher than the equally well-known volcano Mount Vesuvius on the nearby Gulf of Naples.  
They also visit the island’s mediaeval heritage, some of which is unique to Sicily and is not found anywhere else in the Mediterranean. Sicily was an Arab and Islamic country after its conquest from 827 CE by the Aghlabid Dynasty that ruled much of North Africa from what is today Tunisia. When the Aghlabids gave way to the Fatimids, in 969 the conquerors of Egypt, Sicily was under nominally Egyptian rule though in fact a local dynasty, the Kalbids, ruled the island after around 973 CE.

Conflict among Sicily’s ruling emirs after the last of the Kalbids in the early 11th century led to its eventual invasion by Norman forces in 1061. In the centuries that followed a unique Norman-Arab kingdom grew up on the island, with its Norman kings ruling over a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and at least at first guaranteeing both equal status.
These kings commissioned buildings that brought together Byzantine Christian and Arab and Islamic elements in a unique architectural synthesis, among them the palaces and churches of the mediaeval city of Palermo, today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They also supported the work of local and visiting Arab scholars, with one of these, al-Idrisi (1100-1165 CE) born in Ceuta in what is now Morocco but working for much of his life at the court of King Roger II in Sicily, producing the famous “Book of Roger” (Kitab Rudjar), more properly the Kitab nuzhat al-mushtak fi khtirak al-afak (Book of Pleasant Journeys to Distant Lands), in 1154 CE.

This work, a summary of what was then known of the world’s geography, contained some 70 maps, and these have been put together to form what is still perhaps the best-known mediaeval non-European projection. Along with its descriptions of what was known of the rest of the world, sometimes more or less apocryphal, the book contains detailed first-hand accounts of Norman-Arab Sicily, stressing its prosperity and fertility.
According to the contemporary Arab geographer Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217), with al-Idrisi the most comprehensive Arab source on mediaeval Sicily, Palermo in particular “combined all the benefits of wealth and splendour and had all one could wish for in terms of beauty.” Born in Valencia in what was then Arab Spain, Ibn Jubayr visited the island while crossing the Mediterranean on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1184. This placed his visit towards the end of the reign of King William II (reigned 1166-1189), sometimes seen as the high point of Norman-Arab Sicily.
Sicilian forces sent by William attacked Egypt in 1174 in the confused aftermath of the Second Crusade, before being repulsed by the country’s famous Ayyubid sultan Saladin. Visiting Sicily ten years later in the run-up to the Third Crusade, Ibn Jubayr wrote that the language of government on the island was Arabic and that William employed Sicilian Muslims in high offices of state.

“He chooses his officers from among them, and all, or almost all, keep their faith secret and can remain faithful to the faith of Islam,” he wrote.

MEDITERRANEAN HISTORY: The British Museum exhibition recounts some of this history, but begins with Sicily’s geography and prehistory. The island’s position more or less in the centre of the Mediterranean meant that it long served as a natural crossroads or as a meeting place of faiths and civilisations.

The island’s first inhabitants can be traced back to around 2200 BCE, the exhibition says, but it was only with the first Phoenician settlers, attested to around 800 BCE, and then settlers from the ancient Greek city-states, that Sicily began to enter recorded history. Greek coins begin appearing after around 550 BCE, and military campaigns began against the Phoenicians, now protected by the Carthaginians in what is now Tunisia, for overall control of the island.
Sicily began to be mentioned in ancient Greek literature, and Mount Etna figures prominently in ancient Greek mythology. Temples such as those that can still be seen today at Agrigento (ancient Akragas) and Selinunte were built. By the late 5th century BCE, the Sicilian Greek cities were playing an important role in mainland Greek history.

Readers of Thucydides will remember the disastrous Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 BCE in which the Athenians attempted to gain an advantage in the long-running Peloponnesian War by sending a military expedition to Syracuse. The expedition was a disaster, and it directly contributed to Athenian defeat at the hands of Sparta ten years later.
The exhibition illustrates this history with objects taken from a long list of Sicilian museums as well as from the British Museum’s own collections in London. The later Roman occupation of the island is illustrated with images of the Graeco-Roman theatre at Taormina, set in front of stunning views out across the sea and towards Mount Etna, and accounts of Sicily by Roman writers, among them the 1st century BCE politician Cicero. However, the exhibition focuses on the second major flourishing of the island after its ancient Greek heyday, which came with the Norman-Arab period between the 11th and 13th centuries CE.

This left some magnificent cultural achievements behind it, among them the palaces and churches at Palermo illustrated in the exhibition. Citing al-Idrisi and other authors, Norman-Arab Sicily was, the exhibition says, a “uniquely tolerant multicultural milieu” in which Norman kings ruled over a mostly Muslim or Byzantine Greek population.

However, if it was a tolerant society, it adds, it was also far from being an equal one. Many Byzantine Greeks and Muslims were reduced to “serf-like status” throughout Norman rule, though perhaps this was for economic reasons rather than for cultural ones since caste-based aristocratic societies and serfdom were then widespread in Europe.

In the meantime, there is the magnificent “composite style” of the mediaeval royal palace and Palatine Chapel and other buildings to ponder, which bring together Byzantine architecture and decoration, such as mosaics covering the inner walls and domes, and Arab elements such as carved wooden ceilings and mukarnas or geometric vaulting.

This style is often seen as the architectural expression of the wider cultural synthesis brought about on the island, a kind of artistic equivalent of its wider tolerance in culture and religion.

However, this tolerance did not last, the exhibition says, and there were tensions between the island’s different communities at the end of the 12th century. These gave way to outright rebellion by King Frederick II’s Muslim subjects in the early 13th century as religious tolerance increasingly gave way to persecution.
The impression one takes away from the final sections of the exhibition that treat this important and paradoxical figure is that while Frederick, also Holy Roman Emperor from 1220, king of Jerusalem after 1225 and, as a member of the German Hohenstaufen Dynasty, also king of parts of Germany, was apparently fluent in Arabic and educated in traditional Sicilian style with its emphasis on religious and linguistic pluralism, the effect of his rule was to detach the island further from its Arab and Islamic history and solder it more firmly to western Europe.
This material takes visitors to the exhibition into the vicissitudes of mediaeval power politics. There is not much from Frederick’s very extensive activities in Europe and the wider Mediterranean on show, but it seems that in his keenness to assert his authority over his Sicilian Muslim subjects he had tens of thousands of them deported to Apulia in southern Italy, effectively ending Sicily’s unique experiment in cultural and religious pluralism.

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