Perhaps this question is asked so often due to the history of conquests of the island. Here is a brief history of the Mediterranean Island that became part of Italy during the unification in 1861 and today is one of Italy's five autonomous regions.
For a relatively small island, Sicily boasts maybe an unparalleled history with stories of conquest and invasion. While the following article is not meant to give you a detailed account of the island’s history, its aim is to give you a snapshot of the events that have formed the land and the people that are Sicily today.
Since the beginning of time, Sicily has been fought over by all the powers of the Mediterranean. Standing at the gateway between the east & the west, it has been conquered by different people groups wanting to gain Sicily’s geographical strategic advantage. Sicily stands strong today as the largest island of the Mediterranean with its unique identity & culture that has been forged as a result of the continual tidal wave of people. As a visitor to the island you’ll see those legacies that have been left behind and are still embedded in the architecture, culture & language. Find out about the people that you’ll encounter and the wealth of history that the island has to offer.
In prehistoric times three different indigenous tribes dwelt on the island, one of which gave Sicily its name. As time progressed and Greece sought to expand its power in the Mediterranean, settlers arrived in the eastern port of Naxos ready to make the island their home. Like many civilizations that would later arrive, the Greeks built altars across the island as an act of worship to their gods, thus changing the landscape. It is thanks to the Greeks who brought with them vines and olives, that the island is so rich in these products today.
As the Greeks arrived on the eastern side of Sicily in 735 BC, on the west coast Phoenicians arrived from modern day Lebanon & Syria to set up a trading base on the island. Not so concerned with establishing their identity on Sicily, the Phoenicians often took wives from the local population and integrated with the prevailing Greek culture. It may have been the Phoenicians who first built the salt flats in Trapani, the beginnings of a salt harvesting tradition that still lives on today.
The Carthaginians were the next to arrive from modern day Tunisia, before an important battle was fought at Himera between the Carthaginians and the Greeks. The outcome of the battle confirmed Sicily as a Greek island and the Greek culture dominated the terrain. From the Temple of Athena at Syracuse that was built to celebrate the victory in 480 BC, to the open air theaters that were built in every city. This was the golden age for Sicily who raised up important scientists during this time. One of these was Archimedes; and Plato was a frequent visitor to the island, who surmised that Sicily would be a place to put into practice his model of Utopia.
Toward 200 BC the Greek rule was coming to an end and Rome was establishing itself as the new power in the Mediterranean. During their 600 year rule of Sicily the landscape was to change again as the Romans used the fields to plant grain and build their rich, extravagant villas. Although it seems that the Romans took more from the Sicilians than they gave, their greatest legacy was to be of a spiritual nature as Christianity spread throughout the island during their time in power.
After the fall of Rome at the end of the 5th Century, Sicily was conquered by the Barbarians and then captured by the Byzantines in the Middle Ages, who ruled from Constantinople or modern day Istanbul.
At less than 100 miles from North Africa, it was only a matter of time before the Arabs arrived in Sicily and this was to happen in the 9th Century. After arriving at Mazara del Vallo, it took the Arabs 50 years until they finally took control of the whole island and the changes they brought with them would be great. For the first time, Sicily became a multi ethnic island, with Christians, Jews & Muslims all residing together. The Arabic influence was huge, moving the capital from Syracuse to Palermo, they lavishly decorated their new seat of power with gardens, parks, mosques and palaces. Although the material remnants of their reign are scarce on the island today, their influence upon Sicilian cuisine has never been renounced. Citrus trees, date palms, pistachios, almonds, sugar, eggplant were all ingredients brought over from North Africa and have flavored the local dishes ever since.
The Normans were the next group of people to conquer Sicily. The term ‘Norman’ meant ‘men from the north’ & was applied to this new group of men descending from Scandinavian, Germanic, Roman & Celtic origins who made their home in Northern France and spoke a kind of French dialect. The Normans were Christians and their society was highly evolved in its government, law, architecture and literature which would profoundly affect Sicily. In 1061 AD on a Christian mission sponsored by the Pope, the Normans invaded Sicily, led by 2 brothers from the De Hauteville family.
Sicily was to come under Norman rule and saw the introduction of a royal family as Roger II was crowned as the first king of Sicily. During his reign King Roger championed the arts in Sicily, with one of his greatest feats being the Palatine Chapel, located in the Palazzo del Normanni in Palermo with its convergence of architectural influences, one of the wonders of Sicily and inscribed on Unesco’s world heritage list. Other Norman sites to be visited include the ‘duomos’ or cathedrals at Monreale & Cefalu.
As Norman rule came to an end, it was the Spanish who took over for the next 500 years during which time the island became more isolated and the cultural movements sweeping across Europe during the 14th & 15th century never made it to Sicily. The Spanish brought with them some products from the new world but also the Inquisition of 1478 with its aim to eliminate potential heretics from society by torturous means. The seat of the inquisition in Sicily was at the Palazzo Steri (now Piazza Marina) in Palermo where inscriptions from the prisoners can still be seen.
In 1693 a huge earthquake devastated the island killing over 60,000 people and whole cities had to be rebuilt. This was the time for Baroque architecture to flourish with lavish churches & palaces erected with colored marble, mosaic inlay and ornate decorations. The Sicilian Baroque style was unique in that it added cherubs and balconies to adorn the dramatic buildings. There are some notable examples of this delightful style that can only be found in Sicily; be sure to visit Catania, Noto or Ragusa among other cities whose architectural style is now protected.
The last dynasty to rule Sicily as a sovereign kingdom were the Bourbons, a branch of the royal houses of France and Spain. The Bourbon Kings officially resided in Naples, and Naples and Sicily were officially merged to form the Kingdom of 2 Sicilies by Ferdinand I. The Sicilians dreamed of autonomy and freedom from poverty and maladministration and being full of disillusionment, the Sicilians were ready for a revolution.
After a tumultuous history, liberation was coming for Sicily as part of a revolt led by Guiseppe Garibaldi in 1860 which would lead to a unified Italy. In 1946 Sicily became an autonomous region of Italy, the position that it enjoys today. With such a colorful history, Sicilians will always be Sicilians, with an identity that comes from the land and is felt in the soul.
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