From his base in an ancient villa built for an emir, the historian seeks out the legacy of the island’s Arab rulers
William Dalrymple JANUARY 9 2021
On the far western shore of Sicily, with the hilltop town of Erice to one side and the salt flats of the lagoon of Marsala on the other, two towers rise vertically out of an olive grove, hemmed in by a windbreak of cypress and palm. The towers, built out of pale, warm, stone the colour of Pecorino cheese, stand over a secret, sunken garden. This is cut out of the rock, and centred on a rectangular pool of water, sheltered by thickets of oleander. The pool, protected from gusts of late summer winds billowing in from the sea, perfectly reflects the two looming towers.
Al Jafar is built out of the ruins of an Arab hunting lodge and preserves the name of Ja’far al-Kalbi II, an emir of an Arab dynasty who ruled Sicily from 998 to 1019. A fine poet, writer and expert philologist who much preferred a life of learning and literature to the rigours of campaigning, he spent much of his time pursuing his pleasures in Al Jafar, surrounded by artists and writers. In September, in the window between the two lockdowns, I rented the twin towers of Al Jafar and used it as a base to explore the lost world of Islamic Sicily.
The day we arrived, dramatic autumnal cloud banks were forming into fantastic transfigurations around the peak of Monte Erice, with the sun’s rays splayed out across the bay. A spine of arid, rocky mountains, more north African than Italian, sloped off eastwards towards Palermo. Only on the lower slopes were there olives and vines, and only in the valleys was there grain. This was definitely a Mediterranean landscape but it felt more like the coastlines of Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria than those of Italy. It was no wonder that the Arabs felt so at home here during the two hundred years they ruled it.
The Arab conquest began in 827 when a fleet with 700 cavalry and 10,000 infantry set sail from Sousse, in modern Tunisia, and headed across the short stretch of sea separating the north African coast from Sicily. The Byzantines were waiting for them, but the invaders managed to get ashore and make a bridgehead and within a few years they had captured all the principal towns. These they held until the 1060s when a group of Norman adventurers seized them in turn, using the same cavalry manoeuvres with which they defeated the Anglo-Saxons, around the same time, at Hastings. By then, Muslims constituted a slight majority of Sicily’s population, though the island had a sizeable Greek Christian population and a small Jewish minority.
The arid coastlines around Erice have a feel of the coastlines of Morocco, Tunisia or Algeria . . . © Getty Images/EyeEm
. . . and paths descend from the rocky mountains through slopes of olive groves and vines © Getty Images/EyeEm
The Arabs had introduced lemons, Seville oranges and sugar cane, as well as cotton and mulberries for silk farming. They built sophisticated irrigation systems for their sustenance and gardens, like the one surviving in Al Jafar, for their pleasure. The prosperity this generated led to Sicily, and especially Palermo, becoming a rich hub in the trading networks of the Mediterranean, the meeting place for merchants from the Middle East, north Africa and the young Italian trading republics.
Even if the Arabs were ousted from power in the 11th century, they still left an indelible mark on Sicily’s people and the landscape they inhabit. Marsala, now known around the world for its sweet pudding wines, actually means “The Port of Allah.” The Arabic word qal’at, meaning fortress, survives in place names such as Caltanissetta, Caltavuturo and Caltagirone. Sicilian family names ending “à,” such as Fragalà, Mandalà and Zappalà, are all derived from Arabic names. Some historians even derive Sicily’s other main export — the Mafia — from traditions of Arab banditry that developed as the Normans drove the Muslims into the mountains above Corleone.
Moreover, the crops the Arabs introduced still flourish, and the food they enjoyed is still cooked. Trapani, the next large town to Al Jafar, hosts an annual couscous festival. Produce introduced from north Africa and the Middle East — almonds, artichokes, cinnamon, oranges, pistachios and watermelons — still forms the basis of the local cuisine. Sicilians also claim to have invented sorbet, or granita, developing it out of the Arab sherbets they used to make from ice gathered in winter from the slopes of Mount Etna. The flavours that still distinguish Sicilian gelateria are those of the sherbets introduced from the Arab world, especially mulberry and almond.
Byzantine, Islamic and Romanesque features merge into a single stunning space inside the Cappella Palatina, which stands as one of the great Islamic masterpieces of Europe © Bridgeman Images
But the most visibly impressive memorial to Arab influence in Sicily is the legacy of art and architecture left by Arab masons, architects, and carpenters, ironically much of it created for Christian patrons. When the Normans seized control, they kept Palermo as their base and constructed an extraordinary hybrid palace complex, the Palazzo Reale, that reflected the nature of their kingdom on the frontier between Islam and Christendom, a world ruled by Christians but saturated with much that was magnificent about medieval Muslim civilisation.
This was a world where the greatest of the Norman kings, Roger II, known in some quarters as the “Baptised Sultan”, commissioned the Arab scholar al-Idrisi to produce an encyclopedic work of geography. Some of the oldest chess pieces to survive in Europe are the product of his court. In time, through the mediation of Norman Sicily, chess, an Indian game that reached its present form in Persia, would become the most popular game in the courts of Europe.
Eyewitnesses, both Christian and Muslim, were amazed by the way in which Sicily’s Norman kings maintained a Christian court so heavily influenced by Islamic ways. One Spanish Muslim who was shipwrecked in 12th century Sicily, Ibn Jubayr of Granada, left a description of what he regarded as a seductively cosmopolitan court, where Muslims interacted with Christians and Jews on a daily basis, at every level. “The king has many Muslim doctors and astrologers,” he wrote, “who he covets and takes great care of, to such an extent that when he becomes aware of a Muslim doctor or astrologer travelling through his land, he grants him such a lavish livelihood that he forgets his home.”
The Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, visited in 1170 and reported that the king used to take trips on the palace lake in gold and silver-clad boats “with his women”. The Sicilian kings also maintained pleasure gardens, many built by their Arab predecessors. Here they bred leopards and hawks and kept menageries of giraffes, elephants, camels, lions, lynxes, apes, bears, peacocks and ostriches.
Today, though much has been lost, several tantalising fragments of this palace complex, the Palazzo Reale, survive in the middle of downtown Palermo. The different chambers and pavilions are now separated from each other and stand slightly overwhelmed by later baroque and more modern additions, but what remains more than lives up to Ibn Jubayr’s description.
The most impressive survivor is the celebrated Cappella Palatina, which stands as one of the great Islamic masterpieces of Europe, in many ways the equal of the Alhambra and the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Today the palace chapel appears to be one room, where Byzantine, Islamic and Romanesque features merge into a single stunning space.
The beautifully decorated rooms of the Palazzo Reale © William Dalrymple
Recent art historical scholarship has, however, shown how this gem-like chapel was originally partitioned into two very different areas: a high-domed chancel, filled with dazzling Byzantine Christian mosaics — a perfect miniature Hagia Sophia — and, semi-detached from it by a tall iconostasis, a separate hall of private audience which in its original plan contained no Christian iconography at all, and whose entirely Islamic decoration was closely based on court styles of Fatimid Egypt. Dominating everything is the exquisitely carved and painted gilt honeycomb of a ceiling that still explodes like a supernova of Islamic starbursts in the light of the candles flickering below.
Upstairs, the dazzling display continues. Here are some of the most beautifully decorated chambers to survive from medieval Europe. Gilt mosaics of exquisite beauty show paired heraldic leopards, black-spotted and padding soft-footed under fruit trees as centaurs gambol amid a landscape of palms and cypresses.
Other fragments of the old palace complex can be found nearby, isolated and out of context, amid later city squares and car parks. Despite partial ruination, they remain jaw-dropping in their elegance and sophistication. The Zisa Palace, now home to a museum of Islamic art, was equipped with a type of medieval air-conditioning, by which draughts of air were convected between lower and upper floors, while the ground floor was cooled by fountains and runnels of water sparkling down cascades. Other palaces were fed with cool water via underground conduits, while the Cuba was decorated with intricate Arabic murqanas and polychrome squinches.
These elaborate palaces were not just places of pleasure. In these rooms decorated in such hybrid splendour, where Christian, Muslim and Jewish scribes once worked side by side, decisions were taken that affected the great power politics of the day, especially diplomacy with the Muslim powers of the Middle East, and innovations were adopted that have affected all our lives ever since.
It now seems likely that the numerals we all use, around the world, every day — the nearest thing the human race has to a universal language — entered the western blood stream in these buildings. In 1138 a coin was minted here by the government of Roger II that is the oldest official year-date in Europe using not the old Roman numerals but the newly introduced Indo-Arab numbers.
These elaborate palaces were not just places of pleasure. In these rooms decorated in such hybrid splendour, decisions were taken that affected the great power politics of the day
The front of the coin is decorated with a bust of Christ, very like that filling the apse of the Cappella Palatina. The back has four lines of Arabic reading, “By the order of Roger the Magnificent, The Powerful through God”, then the date 533 in the Muslim calendar, written in the Indo-Arabic form. On Roger II’s death, his treasurer, Thomas Brown, returned to England as Chancellor of the Exchequer to Henry II, where he tried to introduce these numerals but without success.
It was under Roger II’s grandson, the brilliant Frederick II (1194-1250), known as Stupor Mundi, the Wonder of the World, that this exotic Indo-Arabic innovation became normalised throughout Europe. A free-thinking intellectual, fluent in five languages including Arabic, among the scholars he attracted to his court in Palermo were Leonardo of Pisa (c1175-1250), better known by his nickname, Fibonacci, and a wandering astronomer and mathematician from the Scottish Borders, Michael Scot (c1175-1235).
. . . and the pool, surrounded by gardens © Benedetto Tarantino
Fibonacci had grown up in an Italian trading post in what is now Algeria, where he learned fluent Arabic as well as Arab mathematics. Aged 32, he wrote Liber Abaci (The Book of Calculation), which was the first work in the west to champion the Indo-Arabic numerals as better suited for both calculation and business. Fibonnaci dedicated his next book, Liber Quadratorum, to Frederick.
Then, three years later, in 1228, he dedicated a revised edition of the Liber Abaci to Scot, travelling back to Sicily to hand it over in person. Under the influence of the pragmatic Scot, this new edition of the book was aimed at a mercantile audience and showed the practical use of the Indo-Arabic numerals by applying them to book-keeping, money-changing and the calculation of profit and interest.
It was in search of Frederick and Scot that I went wandering through Palermo on my last day in Sicily. The seasons had turned during the fortnight I was there, and what had felt like late summer when I arrived had changed now to the paler light and longer shadows of autumn. As I walked towards the cathedral, with its great round apse decorated with interlocking Arab arches, rain suddenly began to fall, at first hesitantly, then with unstoppable Sicilian passion. By the time I arrived under the arcades of the cathedral portico, I was soaked and so were many others, all caught as unprepared as myself.
The Palermo Cathedral © Alamy Stock Photo
As the wet Sicilians competed to buy umbrellas, I headed inside. There, at the rear of the nave, lay a royal enclosure, cordoned off by red ropes. Behind the barrier lay a group of vast porphyry sarcophagi, an imperial necropolis where Roger II and his grandson Frederick had finally been laid to rest, their tombs supported on intertwined heraldic lions, first cousins of those in the mosaics of the Palazzo Reale. Whatever their Islamic sympathies in life, in death both men had assumed the trappings of late Roman or Byzantine emperors.
Traces of Scot were less easy to find, but as a teenager in the Borders I had heard stories of his final hours, which were said to have been spent in the Cathedral. As well as mathematics, astronomy and medicine, Scot had a reputation for fortune telling and, it was said, was even able him to foresee his own death. This he believed would be caused by a stone falling on his head, so as a precaution, he took to wearing an iron helmet at all times.
At least according to Border folklore, he took it off while taking mass in Palermo Cathedral and, as predicted, a small piece of stone broke off a voussoir in the ceiling and fell on his head, causing his instant death. He is the only Scot to appear in Dante’s Inferno, where his reputation as a necromancer won him a posthumous place in the Eighth Circle of Hell, enduring tortures in the company of other distinguished sorcerers, magi and enchantresses.
Standing in the cathedral, another Scottish Borderer in search of the secrets of the Sicilian Arabs, I wondered what he would make of the Indo-Arabic numerals he championed becoming standard around the world. I suspect, given his gift for foreseeing the future, that he would not be too surprised.
William Dalrymple was a guest of The Thinking Traveller. It rents Al Jafar, which sleeps up to eight, from £4,442 per week (or from £2,960 if there are only four guests); a private chef can be provided, from about €140 for dinner for eight. Entry to Italy from numerous countries is currently restricted; for updates see esteri.it
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first