Cultural Corner


Sicily under Muslim conquest (827 to 1072)

Compiled by Anna Mattei

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD the invasions of Italy by many groups had began. This included the work of Muslim conquest of Sicily and parts of southern Italy which lasted 75 years. The first naval direct attacks by Muslims in Sicily, a region previously belonging to the Eastern Roman Empire, occurred in 652.

Between  806 and the 821 pirates from Africa and Muslim Spain  repeatedly attacked Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and, on a later date, the island of Lampedusa (where today so many boats land with migrants) was plundered and the island of Ischia (near Capri) was devastated.

Finally the Arabs landed in Sicily and drove away the hated Byzantines.  Over 9,000 Byzantine soldiers were massacred around 845. The Muslims called it a jihad by attacking Sicily with 70 ships, doing much damage to the civilian population.

Slowly the conquest of the island began. In 831 Palermo was declared the Islamic capital.  All the cities were given Arab names. More than a decade was required to bend the resistance of the inhabitants.  The Arab conquest did not stop there but continued along northern Calabria.  In 1040 they were finally defeated and, after an internal revolt, the Arabs were forced to leave Sicily and retreat in the territory of Puglia.

The period of Islamic domination in Sicily, from 827 to 1072, was finally coming to a close.  Today there are still reminders of this period.  Many Sicilian foods, cities, and language still bear the Muslim influence.  Entire villages still stand, people still talk Arabian dialects. The present modern city of Marsala still bears traces of this influence.  The name comes from the Arab “Marsa Allah – the port of Allah”.

 As the capital of the Sicilian Emirate from 831 to 1072, Palermo had over 300 mosques, including the one that eventually became the present day Cathedral in 1185.  Today, of that important mosque, only a column with Arab inscriptions is left standing.

It was not until 1061, when the Norman king decided that Sicily would be a nice addition to his kingdom that ships arrived in Messina to begin the operation of conquest and displacement of the Muslims.  Today the religion of Islam is the second largest in Italy, second only to Catholicism.


Short fun facts about Italy – compiled by Anna Mattei

  • At 300 000 sq km (116 000 sq miles) Italy is only marginally bigger than New Zealand.

  • There are many dialects of the Italian language spoken throughout Italy. The official Italian language spoken today originates from the Tuscan dialect (of Latin).

  • Italian is a Romance language and is related to the other Latin languages: Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian.

  • Italy manufacture most of the world’s top sports cars, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bugatti, Maserati and Alfa Romeo being some of the most popular.

  • Don’t try to outrun the police in Lazio (Rome’s province) some of the officers drive a Lamborghini.

  • The upbeat Italian National Anthem (often played at the Formula 1 and Moto GP due to the past victories of Michael Schumacher, Ferrari and Valentino Rossi) is called “Inno di Mameli” or “Canto degli Italiani” and was written by Goffredo Mameli.

  • The “Promessi Sposi” is Italy’s literature equivalent of Rome and Juliet.

  • Many of Shakespeare’s plays were set in Italy, including Romeo and Juliet from Verona.

  • Opera is an Italian creation.

  • Around 85% of Italians are registered Catholics however less than a third of that are practicing members.

  • There are many “Mafia” organizations in Italy. The Mafia (known as “Cosa Nostra”) is only one of them and is based in Sicily. Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta are the other bigger organizations.

  • Democratic Italy is governed by a President who appoints the Prime Minister (largely a figure-head).