Most people visit Sicily for at least one of three very good reasons: the sunny
beaches, the great cuisine,
the fascinating multicultural
history expressed in art and architecture such as the ancient Greek
temples and the medieval Norman-Arab-Byzantine style.
As regards the history - and to a great extent the cuisine - ours is a single
island shaped by a dozen cultures from three continents over three millennia.
Enlightenment has never been a particularly rapid process, but it has
been interesting to witness an increasing recognition of the concept of
cultural diversity over the last few decades. The idea itself is nothing
new. It was known in medieval Sicily. Some of us believe it actually began
here, pushed along by distinguished rulers like Roger
II and his grandson Frederick II, two of the
most enlightened monarchs of the Middle Ages.
and Arab society were highly advanced for
their time, certainly compared to the societies of north-western and central
Europe during the same period, and it is clear that in Sicily much Norman
and Swabian-German wisdom was a reaction to the
seeds planted in Sicily by those two great civilizations. Nothing in Normandy or
the Angevin-French or German realms
was like the culture and wealth of Sicily by the early decades of the eleventh century.
Because the editors of this site receive hundreds of emails each day
(in addition to the spam), we can't respond to more than a tiny fraction
of them. Here are examples of a particular kind of comment we get at least
a few times each month:
• "Sicilians are African/European/Greek/Arab/Italian!"
• "Sicilians are not African/European/Greek/Arab/Italian!"
• "Jerusalem/Byzantium/Tunisia/Malta was never ruled by Europeans!"
• "All the Arabs/Jews/Greeks/Angevins left Sicily in (such-and-such year)."
Plato and Abdullah al Idrisi,
not to mention Roger and Frederick, would beg to differ with such remarks.
These comments make it clear that certain critics have ignored the ancient and medieval history
of Sicily and the Mediterranean - and a number of pages on this website
and many others. Condescension aside, let's clarify a few points for the
benefit of all our readers - be they Multiculturalist, Eurocentrist,
Afrocentrist, Italianist, Racialist or other-ist.
Sicily's Proto-Sicanian culture is one of the
world's most ancient; Sicilians built Europe's oldest
surviving temples (on Malta)
circa 4,000 BC (BCE) and may even have invented the
wheel. Humans were born in Africa, but in terms of our earliest cultural
history - be it cave drawings, free-standing structures or the earliest
writing - the Maltese temples, which predate the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge
in England but not the older temples in Turkey, are as good a milestone
as any. Even to the Phoenicians, Greeks
and Romans, terms like Europe or Africa
or Asia were little more indicative of global geography than such
words as Iberia, Germania, Numidia or Gaul. In terms of rights and citizenship,
the Romans themselves made little distinction among the various tribal and
"ethnic" groups that inhabited their vast Empire covering parts
of what are now considered all three continents; during Rome's thousand-year
dominance there were senators and governors and emperors from all three
Naturally, they acknowledged the cultural and linguistic differences
between Germans, Gauls, Greeks, Egyptians, Hebrews and Persians but for
centuries Roman rule, however harsh it was, found its basis in the simple
idea that the Mediterranean was the centre of the Roman world. The Romans,
like the Phoenicians and Greeks before them, gave little thought to the
concept of "intercontinental" travel from Asia Minor to northern
Africa to southern Europe as representing a great cultural or "racial"
achievement; that Mediterranean waters touched all three regions was a simple
fact of life, politics, trade and culture.
With the use of terms such as "Pacific Rim" to describe cultures
or economies by the bodies of water they border rather than by their continental
land masses, the term "Mediterranean" has again become popular
in recent decades. Considering that the ancient and early-medieval (pre
AD 1000) peoples of southern Europe, Asia Minor and northern Africa were
genetically close, and also culturally similar in many respects, we prefer
to define them as Mediterranean rather than European, Asian or African
- partly because broad geographical definitions (based on continents) had
little political meaning until "new" places (like America) were
"discovered" at the end of the Middle Ages.
The "European" Romans scarcely knew of the existence of the
Lapps of northern Scandinavia, a unique ethnic group. Though the Egyptians
had contact with Ethiopia, the "African" Carthaginians
and Saracens had little, if any, knowledge of the
peoples of what is now Zambia. Via the Persians, the Phoenicians traded
with India and even Mongolia (and may have circumnavigated Africa), but
they probably knew nothing of Japanese civilization. Despite political differences,
the Romans had more in common with the Carthaginians than with most northern
European groups, while the Carthaginians had more in common with the Persians
than with most sub-Saharan peoples.
This "cultural" perspective of Mediterranean ethnography is
far from perfect, but it compares favourably to the blind geographic point
of view espoused by those who would have us believe otherwise. Then there's
the very relevant question of genetic
haplogroups, of which Sicily has a great number, reflecting the island
being home to many peoples over time.
In view of their common roots, the ancient Sicilians were overwhelmingly
similar to the Byzantine greeks, and to the Saracens who conquered the Byzantines,
yet the Normans and Germans were not so different as to be considered "aliens."
Was Sicily geographically part of Africa when it was ruled by Carthaginians
or Saracens, only to be "reintegrated" into Europe when it was
ruled by Romans and Normans? That's a good question, but one that was rarely
posed before our modern era.
At no time in history did any conquering people completely expel the
people who inhabited Sicily before them. There was assimilation (culturally)
and then amalgamation (genetically). These facts are easily proven
through the contemporary written (historical) record and (more recently)
through genetic studies of the population.
By 1300 the Muslim-Arab and Greek-Orthodox populations had assimilated
with the "Latin" culture embodied in the Roman Catholic Church,
and in 1493 the Jews who did not leave Sicily converted to Catholicism.
Most Sicilians are most likely descended from all of these peoples.
Genetics aside, how do we know this?
There are numerous examples to support historical fact. The existence
of the New Testament books of the Bible written in Sicily in Arabic during
the twelfth century are a reliable indication of Muslim conversions to Christianity.
Census, baptismal and notary records referring explicitly to converted Jews
(or anusim) after 1493 are equally reliable, not to mention numerous decrees,
feudal records and chronicles relative to these peoples. And of course such things as
the tombstone shown here.
Byzantium (Constantinople, now Istanbul) straddled Europe
and Asia Minor, while Phoenicia was in the westernmost part of Asia. Most geographers identify
the Arabian Peninsula as Asian. Any expansion westward across the Mediterranean
from these regions necessarily included Sicily in the middle of this Sea.
As the Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians (and later the Byzantines and Arabs)
knew, it was impossible to control the entire Mediterranean without controlling
Sicily; coming from the West, it occurred to the Normans, Swabians and Aragonese
to use Sicily as an anchor in a conquest of the East, though their campaigns
in this regard met with only limited success. It's a telling fact that the
most immediate effects of the Great Schism dividing
Christianity into East (Roman) and West (Byzantine) were felt here in Sicily.
A case could even be made for Trapani
being in the western Mediterranean, Syracuse
in the eastern part and Agrigento
in the south - an island divided into three parts. Cruise lines usually
include Messina or
Catania in their eastern
Mediterranean itineraries, but Palermo
and Trapani in the
Ethnic, racial and even geographic identity are too complex to be addressed
fully here, or in any single book. In our world we see national boundaries
and identities challenged daily.
"Italy" has existed as a nation state only since 1861 and in
many ways remains a country greatly divided. Sicily, on the other hand,
was historically - if all too briefly - a place where continents and cultures came
together. The Sicilians are
altogether far more complex.
About the Author: Historian Luigi Mendola has written for various publications, including this one.