The Byzantines were really just a continuation of the Roman Empire. Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 330AD. Modern historians have named this the beginning of the Byzantine Empire, but the Emperors in Constantinople continued calling themselves Romans. The Byzantines started building churches in Sicily, at times converting Greek temples into Christian churches. (You can click on any picture to see a larger version.)
The Arabs first raided Sicily in the 7th century AD during their successful conquest of all of Eastern Turkey, North Africa, Spain, and even parts of France. It took nearly 200 years, but by the middle of the 10th century AD they completely controlled Sicily. The Arabs brought skilled craftsmen including weavers and goldsmiths. New farming techniques included terracing, irrigation, and water storage. New crops included rice, cotton, sugar-cane, and mulberry trees to improve the silk production first introduced by the Byzantine empire. By the 10th century Sicily was one of the most prosperous areas in Europe. By and large the Arab rulers were tolerant of non-Muslims, both Christians and Jews. In some areas they required non-Muslims to pay extra taxes as an incentive to convert. The remainder of Europe became very concerned about the success of the Muslims, which lead to Crusades to take back the conquered lands.
In Sicily, most of the Arab-inspired architecture was built by the Normans. Our last stop in Spain was the Alhambra, built by the Moors in the 13th century.
When hearing that the Normans controlled Sicily for a couple of hundred years was, my first question was what were the Normans doing in Sicily? The Normans resided along the north coast of France, and were descended from the Vikings. There are still questions about why they were in Southern Italy, but it is possible that either they were returning from pilgrimages to the holy land, they had been been kicked out of Normandy and had gone to the pope for help, or they were hired as mercenaries by rulers in Southern Italy to help them fight against the Arabs. In any case, they arrived in Italy around 1000AD, and by 1091 they had conquered Sicily and established Roger I as the Great Count of Sicily.
The Normans went on a building binge, erecting Cathedrals and fortifying cities across Sicily. They incorporated elements of Arab architecture into their designs, and used the skills of the recently conquered Arab artisans.
The Palermo Cathedral and the Monreale Cathedral outside of Palermo are prime examples Norman construction. The mosaics that cover the interior of Monreale are amazing!
The Norman period didn’t last long. By 1194 control had passed to Germans (Hohenstaufen Dynasty), then to the French (Angevin Dynasty). In 1285 control passed to Peter III of Aragon (in Spain). For a while, Sicily remained independent of Spain, but it was eventually subsumed and remained under Spanish rule until 1713. During the rule of Emperor Charles V (the first half of the 16th century) another building spree occurred. Many walls were improved around cities throughout Sicily to help defend against a growing number of pirate attacks by Barbarossa and others. Unfortunately, the Spanish collected building materials by taking the stones from Greek and Roman sites.
On the island of Lipari, the walls of the old city were fortified by the Emperor Charles V in the 16th century following an invasion by Arab pirates. The original walls were built by the Normans. Inside the fort, there is an archaeological dig which has uncovered Greek and pre-Greek foundations dating back to the 15th century BC.
After the Spanish, Sicily was passed around a few more times before Garibaldi lead the revolution that conquered Sicily in 1860 and lead to the formation of Italy.
This ends the history — Part 4 is the rest of the story.