Arab Sicily, a story still alive in the present

Sicily is a mix of cultures, a millennial history composed of multiple nuances. One of the sides of the island, tangible especially in some parts of this region, leads toward the Middle East. Arab Sicily is a historical parenthesis that has left a great legacy, an indelible mark that today can be found in dialect, cuisine, architecture, and the names of some cities. Let’s find out more about Sicilian Secrets.

The history of Arab Sicily begins in the 8th century, more precisely in 827 AD, that is, when the island was ruled by a young emir while maintaining its own autonomy. Things changed at the beginning of the 9th century when Islam began to increasingly pervade the soul of the island, not only from a religious but also from a political standpoint so much so that in as early as the year 1000 Sicily became an emirate with a hereditary Islamic monarchy. The kingdom prospered until, in 1091, it was the Normans with King Roger I who conquered the last Islamic stronghold of Noto and created unity under the County of Sicily.

Roger I

Palermo, the heart of Arab Sicily

The years when the Arabs populated Sicily were marked by great prosperity such that the island became the heart of trade in the Mediterranean. Economy and culture flourished, and Palermo was certainly the main city so that it became a true metropolis. The climate of tolerance toward those who professed a religion other than Muslim created an atmosphere of serenity throughout the land that was enriched with sincere beauty. Walking around the Sicilian capital today, it is not easy to find buildings that totally retain their original character, but the traces of this Arab past are clearly visible even where readjustments and restorations have taken place over time. Looking at the Cathedral, the Royal Palace, the Cuba, the red domes of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, and markets such as the Vucciria and Ballarò the oriental character comes through powerfully, an echo of history and tradition that has never faded.

Sicilia araba
Palermo, the Cathedral

Arab Sicily, let’s taste it 

Arab culture can be…tasted! Those who travel to Sicily never give up indulging in the pleasures of the table, but perhaps not everyone knows that many of the most famous dishes have a Middle Eastern root. Browsing through any local recipe book, you can discover some desserts such as cassata or almond dough, the former can be traced back to the word ‘quas’at’ probably relating to the container in which this cake is prepared, while the latter (made with almonds and sugar) was imported to Sicily during Islamic domination.

Arab Sicily
The cassata ‘cake’ by Caterina Tarantino, Sicilian cake designer

Let’s think about cous cous with fish broth or ‘tummala’ that is, the rice timbale prepared mainly in the Ionian coast area.  The use of pistachios, saffron, cinnamon, sesame, honey and aniseed to make several delicacies made in Sicily is definitely ‘Arab’!

Do you know…?

Even the world-appreciated and well-known arancine (rice balls) were invented (maybe) during the time of Arab Sicily. The origin would in fact be Saracen, although the complete recipe as we know it today with also tomato and breadcrumbs is clearly recent.

Arab Sicily
Arancine (Credits:

Sicilian dialect and Arab influences

What did the Arabs leave us? In addition to what has already been mentioned, we can add something more: the language. Yes, because the dialect of the island is full of words that retain within them all the memory of Arab Sicily.
Here is a small glossary that includes commonly used words and place names:

  • Gebbia: tank to store water used for irrigation (from jabh, cistern)
  • Giuggiulena: sesame (from giulgiulan)
  • Mischino: poor creature (from miskīn, begging)
  • Zaffarana: saffron (from zaʿfarān)
  • Marsala: from Marsa Allāh (port of God)
  • Misilmeri: from Menzel-el-Emir (village of the Emir)
  • Donnalucata: from Ayn-Al-Awqat (source of hours)
  • Mazara: from Mazar (grave of a selfless man)
  • Canicattì: from Kandaq aṭ-ṭīni (clay ditch)
That’s the end of our journey through Arab Sicily, but if you enjoyed learning some interesting facts about the island and its history, you just have to discover Dimensione Sicilia’s tours and see it in person! Keep on following Sicilian Secrets, read the articles on our blog and the interviews, without forgetting the news on our Facebook page and Instagram. Stay tuned!

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