The Arab occupation of Sicily

The Arab attack on Sicily in the 7th century initially was confined to the coastal zone and the smaller islands off the coast. But gradually the Arabs established their based at Palermo and from there proceeded to attack and occupy the entire island of Sicily.

But before this could happen, Sicily resisted for many decades and forced the armies of the invaders to retreat albeit temporarily. But the Sicilians finally had to surrender and accept Muslim rule over their homeland. Once the Arabs overran Sicily they set about the Islamification of Sicily through the destruction of churches and ertection of Mosques over the sites, they changed the composition of the population with the hundreds of thousand of Muslim immigrants who destroyed a civilization that had lasted from the 8th century before Christ had contributed to the creation of the identity of the West.

After the rampage in Sicily, the Arabs used it as a base to attack Italy (they overran Ponza, Gaeta, Ancona, Ascoli, and Civitavecchia) and eventually they also occupied Salerno, Naples, Bari, Brindisi, Taranto. Finally they resolutely headed for Rome to strike to the heart the Christianity.

The infidels profaned St. Peter but the Aurelian walls resisted to the assault and Rome within its fortified walls was safe.

To resist the initial attacks Pope John X, himself formed an army of Italians of various origin (Romans, Greeks, Longobards, Franks, etc.), speaking different languages but united by faith and culture. This army eventually defeated and drove from Lazio and Campania, the Arabs, who after their brief attack and occupation of Rome had constituted a Muslim state near the Garigliano.

The Arabs conquer Sicily after a sustained and bloodied assault (827-965)

In 805 the Byzantine governor of Sicily stipulated an essay with the Aghlabidi rulers of Tunisia. In 813 the Byzantine governor of Sicily signed a decennial truce with the Arabs.

But resistance to the Muslims began almost immediately. In 827 the Byzantine admiral Euphemius who had earlier surrendered to the Muslims, rebelled and killed the Muslim governor of Sicily. He conquered Syracuse and proclaimed himself emperor independent of Byzantium. But when the troops faithful to Byzantium, led by the Armenian general Palata, resumed the control. Euphemius fled to Africa.


Then Euphemius proposed to the Aghlabide emir of Kairuan, Ziyadat Allah I, to conquer Sicily and to make it tributary province. In exchange he asked to be recognized as governor with the title of emperor.

On June 17th 827, the Saracen general Asad ibn al-Furat with an army of 10,000 soldiers and 7000 cavalrymen disembarked at Mazara del Vallo. The general Theodorus stopped and defeated the Arab army before it reached Syracuse. So a new Arab army was sent to the help of the Arabs who decided to head for Palermo rather than Syracuse. On September 11th 831 Palermo fell. In 835 the Arabs took Pantelleria and in 843 Messina.

But Enna and Cefal๠fought for years before being conquered, razed to the ground and burnt. Cefal๠fell in 858. Enna fell in 859 through treason. Then it was the turn of Malta.

Syracuse was conquered only in 878. The Arabs massacred the entire Christian population. The Greek language was replaced by the Arabic. Christianity was replaced by the Islam. The bloodied sword of Islam dominated from Palermo, Sicily’s new capital. Sicily was lost for the next few centuries.

Syracuse never regained the role, that it had had for 1500 years, of being the primary city of Sicily. The glorious history of ancient Sicily finished in the bloody struggle with the Muslims.

But the Muslim occupation was never complete. Some hotbeds of resistance kept recurring. Taormina resisted up to 902, it was finnaly overrun and then was burnt and all its inhabitants killed. Rometta, on the mountains west of Messina, was the last to fall in 965.

An African Muslim army in 938-940 devastated wide zones of the southwest of Sicily, but at that point there was nothing more to be plundered.

In the cities that had opposed resistance all the residents were killed and the women and the boys reduced in slavery. The women and the most beautiful boys were sent to Africa for the pleasure of the conquerors and their co-religionists.

The inhabitants of the Sicilian cities that had surrendered without fighting could keep on practising the Christian religion but:
– they had to bring identification marks on their suits and on their houses;
– they had to pay more taxes (Jaziya);
– they could not occupy positions that entailed authority over the Muslims;
– they could not marry a Muslim (but a Muslim could marry a Christian);
– they could not build new churches;
– they could not ring Church bells;
– they could not organize processions;
– they could not read the Bible within the earshot of a Muslim;
– they could not drink wine;
– they had to get up when a Muslim entered the room;
– they had to let the Muslims pass first in the public road;
– they could not bear weapons;
– they could not ride horses;
– they could not saddle their mules;
– they could not build great houses as those of the Muslims.
The Christian women could not have access to the baths.

After the Arab conquest, hundreds of thousand of Muslims immigrated to Sicily. The juridical advantages granted to them, the availability of lands seized to the Christians, the possibility to have labor at low cost (Christians driven to hunger because of plunderings), the abundance of slaves (girls and boys) constituted an irresistible attraction for people who lived in the desolation of the desert. The Africans found in Sicily a terrestrial heaven, the Christians found it to have become the proverbial hell.

The Battle of Palermo

The Christian resistance began immediately to recapture the island of Sicily. The Franks tried to take back the island in the 9th century, but failed. By the 11th century, the baton of resistance to the Saracens was taken up by the Normans. The Normans undertook an attempt to liberate Sicily by sending in an expeditionary assault in 1068 with just sixty knights. But with their shock tactics, they gave a stunning blow to the Arab chieftain Ayub ibn Temim at the Battle of Misilmeri (then called by the Arabs Menzil el Emir), outside Palermo.

This was followed by the main Norman assault in 1071, when they attacked and defeated the Arabs at Palermo. This fortress whose very name derived from the Arab Balarm – defines its origins as an Arab city. Palermo, when it was an Arab emirate for five hundred years, was described as “the city of the 300 mosques, very few of which survive today, with most of them having been converted into Churches.

Norman Valor drove the Arab Muslims from Sicily

The Battle of Palermo stands as one of the most astounding Norman escapades in Italy against the Muslims. It rivals the Battle of Hastings (1066) in importance. Socially, the Normans’ occupation of Arab Palermo was far more significant than their conquest of Saxon London, as it brought Sicily back into the European orbit, a development which eventually established an Italianate presence in the central Mediterranean.

The Normans had taken Messina during an early morning battle in Spring 1061. In the ten years since, they had sought to consolidate their control of Sicily and the southern part of the Italian Peninsula, fighting the Arabs in a string of skirmishes. At Palermo, the Arabs were again led by their wily and intrepid commander Ayub ibn Temim and the Normans by a young and energetic leader named Robert Guiscard de Hauteville and his younger brother, Roger de Hauteville.

But the Normans with their conquests in other parts of Europe, notably England, where they fought the battle of Hastings in 1066 and defeated the Saxons, were chronically short of trained knights. (Indeed, it would be years following the Battle of Palermo before they could wrest back control of Enna, from the Muslims. Enna had been an Arab-Muslim stronghold in east-central Sicily

In 1072 Palermo had something over a hundred thousand residents. On the morning of January 5, 1072 Robert’s cavalry attacked the al Kasr district (high ground near what became the cathedral, Piazza Vittoria and the Norman Palace). Fighting was fierce, and penetrating the walls seemed like an impossible feat. Leaving his brother, Roger, to maintain the attack on al Kasr, Robert and some knights attacked al Khalesa, the administrative district on the coast, built around the emir’s fortress.

Re-conversion of Mosques into Churches and of the Muslim populace into Christianity rolled back the Jihad in its entirety


This was taken by nightfall, though most of the adjacent al Kasr district, further inland, remained in Saracen hands. Nevertheless, a Saracen delegation surrendered to the Normans the following morning. Specifically, the Normans first entered al Khalesa over a wall near what is now the Spasimo. (In a corner of this structure there remain the vestiges of an eight-century Mosque that the Normans changed into a church. The traces of this change can be seen clearly even today.)

The ceremonial entry of the Norman Christians into Palermo took place on January 10, 1072 with a Greek Rite mass celebrated by the Orthodox bishop Nicodemus of Palermo in the old cathedral (on the site of the present one), that had then been hastily re-converted into a church from its use as a mosque.

Here was a historic juncture where Robert and Roger chose to defy convention and their own Christian tradition. All mosques that had been churches (before the Arabs’ arrival two centuries earlier) were re-converted into Churches. But even after the conquest of Palermo, the Normans had liberated only a part of Sicily, the rest of the island still lay under Arab occupation.

But in spite of the Norman attack, the Arabs in Sicily were divided, and taking advantage of the situation, Count Roger, after a series of campaigns, subdued the rest of the island and brought it under Norman Rule. Count Roger also invaded other islands to make sure his southern flank was secure from a possible Arab attack, having reduced the Arabs to a state of vassalage and releasing the foreign Christian slaves, he returned to Sicily without even bothering to garrison his prize.

In 1127, Roger II the son of Count Roger, led a second invasion of Malta; having overrun the Island he placed it under a more secure Norman domination under the charge of a Norman governor. He also garrisoned with Norman soldiers the three castles then on the islands. From about this period the Maltese moved back gradually into the European orbit to which they had belonged for a period of five hundred years prior to the Arab interlude.

Lessons from the Battle of Palermo

Sicily had been under Muslim occupation for nearly three centuries from 812 up to 1071. The population had been wholly converted to Islam, and there was not a single church left standing. They had either been reduced to rubble or had been converted into Mosques. When the Normans retook Sicily, they reversed history in equal measure and with equal ruthlessness. After the Norman liberation, there were no Muslims left in Sicily, Malta, Sardina and other surrounding islands that had been under Muslim occupation.

This ensured that the population forgot about the Islamic interlude. The Normans acted as an exorcist to exorcize the influence of Islam on the population and returned the lands to Christendom.