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East meets west in Sicily

by Elena Guarneri last modified 2008-06-20 15:10

A one-time Arab emirate and jewel in the Moorish crown Sicily is breathing a new wind of Islamic culture. We take a trip through modern Muslim Sicily and discover a land when past and present mix . . .

In Sicilia per un intenso assaggio di IslamSicily's strategic position in the Mediterranean has made it a cultural crossroads washed over by successive waves of invaders. On this island, between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, two great civilisations - the Arabs and the Normans - met and mingled laying the basis of the Sicily of today.

We start our journey in Palermo, whose very name - from the Arab Balarm - defines its origins. The city, a one-time Arab emirate, was described in 973 as "the city of the 300 mosques" by the eminent Arab traveller and explorer Ibn Hawqal. Wherever you look there are signs of the city's heyday as a capital of the Islamic, and consequently Norman kingdoms. Modern Islamic culture occupies a much humbler place in Palermo. The 300 mosques have diminished to but 1 which is housed in a deconsecrated church in Palermo's inner city. The church, San Paolino dei Giardinieri, was badly damaged during WW2 and was given to the council by the diocese and is now run by the Tunisian government.
Its a short walk from the Mosque to Palermo's architecturally eclectic Cathedral. Built in 604 AD as a Christian temple it was given 'facelifts' by both Moors and Normans with the last (disastrous) restoration taking place in the 18th Century. Take a close look at the columns that flank the main entrance. Arab scholars will recognise verses from the Koran. Perhaps the finest example of Arab-Norman art in Sicily is the Cappella Palatina in Piazza della Vittoria, a few minutes' walk from the Cathedral. The chapel is a magnificent showcase of Arab-Norman art with its breath-taking Byzantine mosaics rivalled only by those in Istanbul and Ravenna.
Another church well worth a visit is Chiesa di San Giovanni degli Eremiti - which was built on the remains of an Arab mosque. From there we then head towards La Zisa (from the Arab al-aziz meaning noble and magnificent). This splendid Arab-Norman castle was built in the 12th Century as the King's summer residence. You can visit the museum which houses an impressive collection of Islamic artefacts from the Mediterranean basin.

Mazara del Vallo
We now leave the capital and go south-west towards Mazara del Vallo. This is where the Moors landed in 827 AD when they first set about their conquest of Sicily. Nowadays the town boasts some 5,000 Tunisians - an impressive 10% of the total population - most of whom live in the casbah, the old Arab quarter. The town's Moorish past is still evident in the remains of the original mosque, the streets and courtyards of the San Francesco and Giudecca Quarters, and the domes of two beautiful Arab-Norman churches: Sant'Egidio e del Carmine and San Nicolò Regale (which is known locally as Santa Niculicchia). Walk around and savour the sights, sounds and smells which seem to come straight from the pages of "Arabian Nights".

Catania's modern mosque
Our journey now brings us to Catania on the eastern coast of Sicily and into the modern world of Islam. Indeed Catania is home to Italy's first modern mosque, which was opened in 1980 and was shortly followed by the mosques in Milan (1988) and Rome (1995). The mosque, which is dedicated to Khalif Omar, was designed by an Egyptian architect and financed by the Libyan government but the initial idea was promoted by a local lawyer Michele Papa who recognised the need of the city's Arab population. It's a pity that the Islamic congregation didn't appreciate the Latin dedication to Papa on the mosque's imposing entrance and chose to relocate to a somewhat shoddier structure close to the port.
Links - - A list of mosques and Islamic centres and associations in Italy (in Italian only) - - A website dedicated to the Arab world (in Italian and Arab) - - A bilingual site where Italian and Arab cultures meet and mingle
Palermo on the Web - - An online tourist guide to Sicily's main city
Islam in Sicily - - An article on the Muslim religion in Sicily from the first English-only Sicilian webzine
Catania - - Information on Catania from the Sicilian Culture website
Stranieri in Italia - - Lots of useful information for foreign immigrants to Italy
Mazara del Vallo - - An online guide to Mazaro del Vallo
Visit Sicily with ItaliaPlease
Islamic Art - - A article in Dionysus magazine on an important new museum. (In Italian only with English version due in future)

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