The Arab domination in Sicily lasted about 250 years. Its history began around the year 700 and lasted until around 1090.
This was, for the island, one of the dominations that most influenced had in the dialect and in the habits of the Sicilian people.
Islamic history in Sicily began during the 600s, years in which Sicily suffered several attacks.
At the beginning of the eighth century, these incursions became constant and forced the Byzantine Empire to react.
In the middle of this century the real invasion attempts began.
The beginnings of the ninth century were marked by a series of raids by the Arab world and a series of peace treaties.
These years marked the beginning of the Arab invasion. On the one hand, the Byzantine Empire was losing strength; on the other hand, the Islamic advance was becoming more and more powerful.
The conquest of the island began around 830 but was very long. The last Byzantine resistance lasted for more than a century.
The Islamic domination of the island can be divided into four periods:
1st: The island was dominated by a governor chosen by the Aghlabid Emir of Kairouan;
2nd: In this period the island was dominated by the Shiite dynasty of the Fatimids;
3rd: A period in which Sicily was ruled by the Shiite dynasty of the Kalbites;
4th: The last period in which the island was divided into several Emirates;
Arab domination was not a “heavy” domination. In reality the rulers were very tolerant and imported various “traditions” that have remained in the Sicilian culture; some of these are part of the dominant features of the island still today.
Among the plants brought by the Arabs to Sicily we find:
In the same way they also imported agriculture processes that, for example, allowed the new crops to flourish. Among all, we must remember the rationalization of water resources.
It should not be forgotten that they greatly favor the cultural growth of the island and the large commercial growth. In fact, Sicily became the nerve center of trade in the Mediterranean in that period.
During this period, Christians and Jews continued to be present on the island. These were left free to profess their beliefs, only a different tax was imposed on them from those who professed the Islamic religion.
The center of Arab Sicily was Palermo. The city in this period had a very strong expansion and it became one of the largest metropolises in the then known world.
The Arabic influence is also strong in the Sicilian dialect, here are some words found in our dialect that almost certainly derive from Arabic:
bagghiu – limbìccu – capurrais – jarrùsu – Taliàri – zaffarana – zibbibbu – favara – gebbia – mischinu – tabbutu – cassata – brunìa
These are just a few, if we pay attention to our dialect we will find many.
Another great Sicilian tradition that most likely derives from the Arab invasion is that of sweets.
“Cassata” and “Granita” are just two examples of typical sweets that derive from that period.
The end of Islamic rule came mainly due to the fragmentation of Sicily into several emirates. This allowed the Byzantines to try to regain possession of the island in 1038.
The attempt was a failure, but not entirely. It was during this incursion that the Norman William Popeye was present, who returned to Norway convinced his family members of the island’s wealth and ease in defeating Arab rule.
Although this was one of the most incisive dominations for Sicily, we have very little of it from an architectural point of view.
The city of Palermo, the capital of the Arab world in Sicily, retains very little of Arabic architectural interest. A trace of that period that is still clearly present and visible today are the traditional markets Ballarò, Vucciria, Capo and Lattarini.
These markets were famous at the time of Islamic domination, for the presence of different product types, and they still are, representing a distinctive feature for the city of Palermo.
After all, those two hundred and fifty years have had a lot of weight for what concerns Sicily, in fact they continue to reflect on the mentality and behavior of us Sicilians on our cuisine and in our dialect much more than other dominations that remained for much longer.