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It is the largest and most important island in the Mediterranean, and until the fourteenth century Sicily was the most important island in Europe. Though the Mediterranean is usually considered a single body of water, Sicily's shores are washed by two of its smaller seas: the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian, and flanked to the south by what is sometimes called the "Sicilian Channel," whose best-known islands are Lampedusa, Pantelleria, (famous for its capers) and Malta. Most of Sicily's surface, covering more than 25,000 square kilometers, is mountainous and hilly, with some level coastal areas and beaches, as well as a large plain near Catania. At over 3300 meters, Mount Etna is the highest peak, and Europe's largest active volcano. The Alcantara Gorge is just one vestige of its volcanic activity over time.
Its geographical position cannot be dismissed as insignificant. Leaving political boundaries aside, Sicily effectively divides the Mediterranean into two distinct parts - east and west - effectively forming both a gateway and a barrier. The same characteristic makes it a point of reference for migratory birds making their way between Africa and Europe.
A number of small islands located around Sicily are popular tourist resorts, the volcanic Aeolian (or Lipari) archipelago to the north being the largest group. To the west the Egadi Islands, which include Favignana, are also popular. The extensive coastline ranges from rocky cliffs to sandy beaches, but Sicily also offers other fascinating natural sights such as Alcantara Gorge (near Taormina), various caverns (Carburangeli near Carini and others around Sicily and on the surrounding islands), and the grey mud flows formed by sporadic geysers that give Maccalube, near Aragona, its moonlike appearance.
The Apennines constitute the "spine" of Italy, skirting onto Sicily across the Strait of Messina before reaching Tunisia. Formed by tectonic plates grinding against each other since the beginning of time, these mountains are touched by fairly frequent earthquakes. Leaving Etna aside, for it sprung up through volcanic activity, Sicily's principal ranges are each remarkably distinct in the way they form from the limestone and, more obviously, their vegetation. When the Sicanians, Myceneans, Elymians and Sikels (Sicels) arrived, before 1,000 BC (BCE), most of the island was lushly forested, with hundreds of running streams.
Today the stunning Nebrodi Mountains of northeastern Sicily retain much of this greenish flavour - surprising visitors that such extensive forests still exist in Sicily - and for two months of each year the highest areas are covered with snow. The Nebrodies support extensive wildlife. To their west, The Madonie Mountains, though less wooded, are also splendid to behold. The Sicanian Mountains extend across a wide swathe of west-central Sicily known for its sulfur deposits. In the southeastern corner of the island the Hyblaean Mountains, which Italians call the Iblei, are less imposing, rising gently above graceful slopes. Yet Cavagrande Cassibile, a scenic canyon carved into the limestone, was formed here, and the necropoli of Pantalica were carved into the cliffs in antiquity. Sicily's wine country is a region in the west framed by Segesta, Motia and Selinunte, ancient settlements founded by ancient peoples.
Was Sicily ever attached to Africa or to mainland Italy? It almost certainly was, but even today Sicily is only 3 kilometers from Calabria at the narrows of the Strait of Messina, and just 160 kilometers from the African coast. Sicily's most southern point, near Ispica, is farther south than parts of the Tunisian coast, and while much of Sicily's flora and fauna are colsely related to those of peninsular Italy others show a closer affinity with Africa. Prehistoric fossils of large mammals discovered in caverns and during excavations around the island suggest that a land bridge existed in the remotest times. From Palermo, Catania or Messina, Tunis is closer than Rome.
In considering the size of the Mediterranean, and the distances traversed by the Sicilians' predecessors (among them the Romans and Normans), it is worth bearing in mind that Jerusalem is farther away than London. All these facts help to explain how and why Sicily came to be a point of convergence between North and South, East and West, between Europe and Africa, but also between the Latin West and the Byzantine East.
In addition to larger protected areas such as the Nebrodi and Madonie, Sicily has a number of smaller reserves, some of which welcome human visitors. In the southeast the Vendicari Reserve lies along the Ionian coast. In the northwest the Zingaro is the most "people-friendly" of the coastal reserves. Near Catania there's a reserve at the mouth of the Cyane River where papyrus still grows, and the Biviere di Gela, as well as similar reserves at the mouths of the Simeto and Platani rivers, are home to migratory birds. In the mountainous Sicanian region are Ficuzza and Mount Cammarata.
Even today, there are essentially two kinds of communities among the numerous towns and cities of Sicily. Inland towns, usually found in the mountains, comprise the vast majority, and in the past their economies were usually based on livestock and agriculture. The economies of coastal towns were based more on fishing and maritime trade, though agriculture constituted at least a portion of their wealth. These factors obviously influenced the cuisine, customs and, to some extent, mentalities of the inhabitants of these places.While its mountains and coastline are Sicily's best known natural features, her rolling hills and flat valleys are equally appealing. Until the twentieth century, somebody who lived in Enna might rarely see the sea or taste its fruits. The country and its lifestyle are still important parts of Sicily's history and culture.
The vegetation of Sicily is remarkably diverse. Apart from the great variety of agricultural produce (ranging from citrus fruits to grapes, olives to artichokes, pistachios to mulberries, watermelon and, in the past, even sugar cane and cotton), numerous trees, flowering shrubs and grasses are native to Sicily, though the cactus (an American import) is not one of these. Wild oleasters will still be found, and even the manna ash. Much of the wild vegetation, like the papyrus, palm trees and stone pines, is typically Mediterranean, but certain fir trees are similar to species found in much cooler climates. Medieval Sicily's was significantly colder in the Middle Ages than it is today - not just for twentieth-century phenomena like global warming but due to gradual deforestation and declining precipitation over the last few centuries. Except for some unusually wet seasons, Sicily's precipitation and temperatures follow a consistent pattern year after year, especially during the summer.
Rarely encountered by visitors, Sicily's fauna is often ignored even by Sicilians. The deer is long extinct. The Sardinian deer in the delightful Parco d'Orleans, across from the Norman Palace in Palermo, are similar to the Sicilian deer. There are more foxes than wolves in Sicily; the latter are nearly extinct. There are few hare, but rabbits abound.
Its position places Sicily on an important flyway for migratory birds in their flights between Europe and Africa, although the Strait of Gibralter gets more traffic.
A few wild cats thrive in the large national park on the slopes of Mount Etna and also in remote parts of the Nebrodi and Madonie and a few other protected areas; these regal hunters are similar to the wild cats found in Scotland and in the Pyrenees. The cats survive in Sicily because they live in wooded areas on rugged slopes where few people venture. One still sees the rare beaver or squirrel (one variety of the latter being remarkably similar to the North American chipmunk) in the woods of the Madonie or Nebrodi. The wild boar that has been re-introduced into Sicily is actually a Sardinian variety, though the "domesticated" Nebrodian swine is perhaps more boar than pig. A local species of toad whose body grows to a length of almost 20 centimeters (8 inches) sometimes ventures out into the rains, several varieties of frog inhabit the streams, and several varieties of gecko lizard are ubiquitous during warm months. Hermann's tortoise also thrives in Sicily. The nocturnal hedgehog and porcupine (distinct species which appear somewhat similar from a distance) still live in Sicily, though they are only rarely seen. Until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, several species of freshwater fish were found in the island's rivers; most are now extinct but eels are fished in the same streams every Spring.
Eagles and falcons, though rare, can sometimes be seen soaring in the thermal currents above the mountains in search of prey, and local varieties of grouse, quail and partridge live in the fields of the interior. Migratory birds are sometimes seen along the coasts, and the purple swamp hen has been re-introduced. Ficuzza has a bird hospital.
To discover these treasures one must first seek them. In the province of Messina, as we've said, you'll find extensive forests. Elsewhere, throughout much of the provinces of Agrigento, Enna, Caltanissetta and Trapani, a great deal of the land is under cultivation, and the precious woodlands are protected by wire fences. In winter, the occasional snowfall in the highlands paints the fields, olive groves and palm trees a surreal white, but outside the Etna, Madonie and Nebrodi regions this magical effect usually vanishes in a matter of days.
Legacy of Three Continents
Evidence indicates an organised human presence in Sicily durng the Mesolithic Age (circa 10,000 BC). Drawings found in the Addaura Cavern, beneath the slopes of Mount Pellegrino near Palermo, have been dated to about 8000 BC and imply that the neolithic culture which eventually emerged was quite similar to those present in central and western Europe. The Sicanians are identified as the earliest "indigenous" Sicilian civilisation, possibly direct descendants of the earliest humans present here, followed by the Sicels and Elymians. We are uncertain whether the first people arrived in Sicily from the North or the South, but the Sicanian language probably was not Indo-European, while Elymian and Sicel were.
The neolithic ancestors of the Sicanians, who we might call the "Proto-Sicanians," exported their earliest neolithic culture, constructing Malta's megalithic temples beginning around 3,800 BC. These structures are older than Stonehenge, the megaliths of northeastern France and the pyramids of Egypt. Long before the arrival of the Elymians and Sicels, the Myceneans and Minoans made contact with the native Sicanians, establishing trading centres at Thapsos, on the Ionian coast, and at several points in the Aeolian Islands and along the Tyrrhenian coast. Their cultural influence long outlived their presence, however, and centuries would pass before other "Greeks" would settle in Sicily permanently during the Bronze Age.
The Temple of Diana at Cefalù is probably Sicanian in origin. The necropoli at Pantalica seem to reflect indigenous as well as Mycenean influences. By around 1100 BC, two populations arrived to inhabit certain parts of Sicily, in the process forcing the Sicanians into the territory formed by the mountains that bear their name today, with an important centre at Kamikos near present-day Sant'Angelo Muxaro. In the east, the Sicels (or Sikels) arrived from the Italian peninsula. Their language was probably Italic and one of their main centres was Palikoi near present-day Mineo. The Elymians arrived, probably via Africa, from Asia Minor (perhaps originating in Anatolia in what is now Turkey) and occupied parts of northwestern Sicily, including Egesta (Segesta), Eryx and Entella. It appears that the Elymians, despite their proximity to what (by 700 BC) was Punic Sicily, assimilated easily with the conquering Greeks, followed by the Sicels. The Sicanians eventually amalgamated with the Greeks, but theirs was a slower assimilation with a completely alien culture which initially disdained them.
Having founded Carthage in North Africa, the Phoenicians began to colonize the northwest of Sicily around 800 BC, founding Mozia, Solunto and Palermo. About the same time, the Greeks arrived in eastern Sicily, establishing Naxos (near Taormina) followed by Catania and Messina. Though the three Sicilian civilizations were eventually amalgamated with Hellenic culture, the Greeks often found themselves in conflict with the Carthaginians - partly because of Greco-Phoenician conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean.
With the arrival of the Sicels, Elymians and Greeks, Sicily's neolithic faiths gave way to mythology, and while this was a "foreign" import the Siciliots (Greek Sicilians) contributed much to it. Aeolus, the god of the winds, inhabited the Aeolian islands, and a series of islets along the Ionian coast are said to have been hurled at Odysseus by the Cyclops during the hero's flight from Mount Etna. The mythological personages associated with Sicily include: Hercules, Arethusa, Artemis, Scylla and Charybdis, Daedalus and Icarus, Kyane, Persephone and numerous satyrs. By the end of the eleventh century Sicily was a true multicultural society of several religions.
The Sicilians of today are said to be a "mixed race" (i.e. varied ethnic group) descended from early Sicilians (Sicani, Sicels, Elymians) and the peoples who subsequently conquered or colonized the island: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantine Greeks, Saracen Arabs, Normans, and to some extent Longobards, Goths, Angevin-French, Aragonese and Spaniards. Some Sicilians are descended from Albanians who, fleeing the Turks, settled in several rural communities in the sixteenth century. In 1493 many of Sicily's Jews left Sicily, but others converted to Christianity and remained.
This polyglot heritage has had some interesting effects. The Sicilian language ("dialect"), for example, has various foreign elements, and the dialect traditionally spoken in several towns has some Longobardic phrases and syntax. There are several communities settled by Albanians in the fifteenth century where an old form of Albanian is still spoken by some residents. The comparatively large number of redheaded Sicilians is attributed to the island's Norman heritage, and the Normans themselves were at once Scandinavian and French. Compared to Tunisians, quite a few Sicilians have blue eyes, a trait inherited from Gothic, Norman and Germanic forebears. The Inquisition suppressed Islam and Judaism, but many Sicilian surnames are onomastically Arabic and Hebrew in origin. The Byzantine Rite churches of the Albanian communities, though Roman Catholic today, are rooted in the Orthodox tradition of Albania and Greece.
Who were these various colonizers and conquerors? To call them "Indo-European" would be an abstract generality. They were European, Asian and African. As we've said, the Sicanians were an indigenous people. The Phoenicians were a seafaring Semitic people from what is now Lebanon. The Carthaginians were a residual Phoenician civilization in what is now northern Tunisia, and in their travels may have ventured as far as South America. Certain archaeological discoveries in Sicily reflect an Egyptian artistic influence --not surprising since the Phoenicians often called at Egyptian ports. The Greeks, whose alphabet was influenced by that of the Phoenicians, colonized southern Italy to the extent that at one point there were more Greeks (and possibly more Greek temples) in Sicily and the areas south of Rome than in Greece itself. The Sicilians have a rich and complex ethnological and genetic heritage.
The culture of the Romans owed much to that of the Etruscans they had assimilated (and whose origins are debated), with generous borrowings from the Greeks to the south of Latium. There were brief occupations of Sicily by the Germanic Vandals and Visigoths following the fall of the Empire, and many of the Byzantine Greeks who arrived with Belisarius were from Asia Minor. The Muslim Saracens from Tunisia and the northern part of present-day Libya are sometimes described as "Moors," but the Moors who invaded Spain are more closely identified with the territories which today are Morocco and northern Algeria. At least a few of Sicily's "Saracens" were certainly Egyptians and Persians, and had close contact with Baghdad, the model for their Sicilian city of Bahl'harm (Palermo). The Aghlabid dynasty ruled at first; the subsequent Kalbite Emirs of Sicily were loyal to the Caliph of Egypt. The Saracens established dozens of towns (and re-populated Palermo), and the population of Sicily probably doubled during two centuries of Arab rule. An influx of Norman blood followed in the eleventh century.
The Longobards who occasionally visited Sicily were descended from a Christianized Germanic people (somewhat more advanced than the Goths) who invaded northern Italy in the sixth century and ruled most of the peninsula for several hundred years, establishing feudal law in those regions that were not controlled by the Byzantine Empire - especially remote rural areas. Their residual civilization in Italy, the Lombards, gave its name to a region around Milan (Lombardy). The Normans were the residual Norse (Viking) civilization of northwestern France. Their unique ethnic heritage was Celtic and Nordic, and their language was similar to French. Whereas the Norsemen who settled in Normandy in the tenth century had their own mythology and language, their "French" grandchildren were thoroughly Christianized. The ancestral dominion of the Hohenstaufen dynasty was Swabia in what is now southwestern Germany, but many of the "Swabian" knights in Sicily were from the other Germanic territories ruled by Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor. The so-called "Angevin" knights were actually from various parts of France; Anjou itself was simply the chief dominion of the French royal family, the "House of Anjou." The Aragonese were thoroughly Spanish (even if the Spanish nation itself was yet to be constituted). The Albanians who settled in Sicily late in the Middle Ages were of essentially Illyrian stock and professed the Orthodox Christian faith.
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