History of Sicily

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Sicily is the Island which has been conquered and occupied more than any other in the Mediterranean area. Each of these invaders left some traces of their presence, weather positively or negatively. The rich but troubled history of Sicily is one of rises and falls, declines and glories, conflicts and decadence, in a country that has been populated by the greatest civilizations of human age: the Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman and Aragon. Each of them introduced on the island a deep and lively culture, precious culinary traditions which made it today one of the tastiest cuisines in the world.
Unfortunately, the price to pay was sometimes very high for Sicily, that has seen dramatic economic and social crisis over the centuries.

Pre historic age


Sicily has been populated ever since the prehistoric age by populations coming from East Europe, who left traces in the numerous wall paintings. The most interesting of these paintings can be seen on Mount Pellegrino and in the Genovese cave, in Levanzo. During the Neolithic age other populations from the Mediterranean basin landed on the eastern shores and on the Eolie Islands, introducing a higher level of civilized society, which originated the so called Sentinello civilization (testified by numerous handmade ceramics).

New techniques for the transformation of metals and the development of agriculture and cattle breeding were also introduced, which led to the construction of farm houses and steady villages. During the Bronze and Iron Age new waves of immigration followed, especially populations from continental Italy, the Ausoni, who settled on the Eolie Islands, and the Siculi, in Eastern Sicily, who introduced the use of horses and the cult of the dead. Toward the half of the XIII century an ethnic group probably of Indo-European origins, the Sicani, settled down in the western side of the island, until they were chased away by the Elimi (the founders of Segesta and Erice) and had to seek refuge inland.

Greek, Carthage and Roman Sicily; the Barbarians and Byzantines


Between the XI and X century the Punic populations occupied the Island, and settled in Palermo, Solunto and Mozia. In the same period the Greek colonies in Eastern Sicily were founded: Naxos and Megara Hyblaea. In Ortigia settled down the Corinthian, whereas Gela was colonized by some groups coming from Crete and Rodi (who built the majestic buildings in Selinunte and the Valley of Temples in Agrigento). The Greek populations were also responsible for the introduction of vineyards and olive trees in Sicily, hat have been so important for Italian and Sicilian cuisine. But the Greek dominance was also marked by numerous inner fights and social contrasts among the ethnic groups, which soon ended up in popular rebellions. The aristocracy answered to these insurrections with violent opposition, generating tyrannical governments, like those in Agrigento, Gela, Lentini and Siracusa.

The Carthaginians attempted to take advantage of the uncertain situation of the Greek colonies, to take over and sack villages like Selinunte, Imera, Agrigento and Gela, but the repression ordered by the Greek tyrants was harsh.

Siracusa became one of the major powers in the Mediterranean area, taking all Eastern Sicily under its dominance, until the Adriatic shores, where the village of Ancona was founded. But the presence of the Carthaginians was never completely removed, and the fights against the invaders continued until the III century, when a new protagonist emerged on the scene: the Roman Empire. The Romans definitively defeated the Carthaginians in 241, and Sicily became a Roman colony. Under the Romans, many villages like Agrigento became slave to the Empire, and large parts of the island transformed into large landed estates. All this generated a certain malcontent among the populations. By 439 a.C. Sicily was subject to invasions by the Vandals, the Osthrogots and the Byzantines.

The Arab age


For 300 years Sicily has been subject to continuous sacks by the Saracen pirates coming from North Africa, in a time when the Moorish had become the most dynamic power of the Mediterranean. Some trade agreements had also allowed the Arab merchants to settle in certain ports of Eastern Sicily, enhancing the real conquer which took place in 827 with the invasion of Mazara del Vallo by 10000 Saracens. In 831 Palermo was also taken, whereas the complete invasion of the island was completed in 965.

Under the Arabs Palermo became one of the biggest cities in the world, a cosmopolitan place rich of gardens, palaces and mosques. All rural areas were colonised, the large and sterile landed estates were divided one by one and converted into fertile fields for the cultivation of oranges, sugar cane, line, cotton, silk, melons and palms, thanks to massive works of enlargement irrigation. Also, the activities related to extraction of minerals and salt were developed, and trade exchanges implemented. Sicily became a flourishing economy again. But the Arabs also had the merit to decrease local taxes and to promulgate religious tolerance, although people of different religious faith were always subject to a certain discrimination, something which pushed many Sicilians to convert to Islam.

The Arab dominance is still visible today in the topography of numerous places, for instance on the island of Pantelleria (Monte Gibele, Kamma, Bugeber, Bukkuram, Gadir..), and in the fishing terminology.

The Norman century


Due to continuous fights inside the Arab world, the capital of the empire was moved to Egypt, and Sicily lost its primary position in the Mediterranean, becoming vulnerable to outer attacks. In 1061 Messina was taken by Ruggero d’Altavilla. This was the first step which led to the 30 years Norman conquest, with Palermo being nominated capital in year 1072.

Under the Normans Sicily reached its peak of richness and splendour, with a blooming of artistic and architectural activities which remained unparalleled (Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cathedral, the Zisa in Palermo, the cathedral in Monreale and Cefalù). The Normans adopted a policy of religious tolerance and integration, making use of pre existing structures. They reinforced the administration and imposed French and Italian language on an island where Arab was the most common idiom spoken. King Ruggero I fostered the economic development and reintroduced the catholic belief, sustaining diplomatic relationships which paved the way for future alliances with the main European dynasties.

His son Ruggero II is commonly recognized as one of the most charismatic and smart kings in medieval history, who loved to surround himself with artists, musicians, geographers. During his reign, Sicily was annexed to south Italy, with the addition of Malta and some towns in north Africa (Tripoli and Djerba). The first written code of laws in Sicily was also issued under his kingdom.

From the Swabians to the Spanish dominance


After the death of Ruggero II the island lived a period of inner fights and destabilization, until Henry VI of Swabia took control of Sicily in 1194. The successor of Henry, Frederick II reintroduced the administrative and bureaucratic structure of the Norman state. His government soon turned into an autocratic dictatorship. To better protect his reign, the king raised a series of rocks with watching towers, like in Milazzo, Catania, Siracusa and Augusta. Under Frederick II the island became the most modern state in Europe from the legislative and administrative point of view.

At the same time, the king favoured the development of arts, calling at his court scientists, literates, philosophers.

His death marked the end of Sicily’s golden age, after that the island fell under the attention of the foreign monarchs who aimed at its control, and the successive centuries saw a continuous alternation of dominations: the Angioini family, the Aragons and the Spanish until 1713, the Savoy family, the Bourbons, all this until 1860, with Garibaldi’s successful mission in the south of Italy, which annexed Sicily to the newborn Kingdom of Italy.

From 19th century to contemporary age


After the unification of Italy in 1861, Sicily was annexed to the country, but it kept suffering from an endemic form of underdevelopment and economic backwardness. The condition of the farmers was even worse than under the Bourbons, and as a consequence of poverty a new social phenomenon spread, the brigandage, a sort of rebellion to the domain of the bourgeoisie. In this period begins to spread also the organised crime which will later turn into the structure of mafia.

Life in the countryside was very tough, and the first waves of emigration to the United States began in this period, as magisterially told in numerous films. In the early ‘30s the landed estates of Sicily were “squeezed” and overexploited in order to produce wheat for the army (this is the age of the war enterprises in North Africa). The intense cultivation of the ground cause the fields to become arid and eroded.

During the Second World War Sicily was the first ledge of Italy to be invaded by the Allied forces in July 1943. As a consequence of that, the island became the favourite target for air raids, which completely razed to the ground cities like Messina.

The Post War years saw the first slow attempts to recover from the decline. At the same time, the obscure power of mafia had its way in the cities, growing bigger and bigger thanks to its close relationship with the political power. In the ‘70s mafia hit the island with bloody attacks and assassinations of political figures, especially those involved with anti-crime programmes. One of the few sectors that managed to remain independent was the construction industry, as demonstrated by the total absence of any regulatory plan in construction works.

Today there are numerous organizations, institutions, volunteer programmes and associations that fight either on a small and large base to eradicate mafia from Sicily.