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October, 2017

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To understand Sicily, you need to know something about its history,

Sicily has been inhabited since the early Stone Age with hunter gatherers. Agriculture arrived with the Copper Age between 3000-2000BC and the earliest farms and villages.

As Mediterranean trade developed, Sicily was at the centre of the ancient trade routes. The arrival of later settlers either replaced the indigenous population or pushed then inland.

The Carthaginians arrived from 800BC and established their capital in “Palermo.”:

Around 734BC, the Greeks began to arrive in the east, being driven to expand into Sicily by the lack of cultivatable land in Greece. Sicily proved to be very fertile and the Greeks brought wheat, olives and vines with them. Sicily prospered and the built magnificent temples to their gods. Those in Siracusa and “Akragas”: surpassed many in Greece.

Gradually rivalry grew up between the cities with civil war between them, culminating in the Punic Wars and the arrival of Rome in 211BC. Sicily became a Roman Province for 700 years, although the Greek language and culture survived during this time. It was referred to as the ‘Granary of Rome’ and there was widespread deforestation to increase the amount of cultivatable land.The island entered a much more stable period, played an important role in Mediterranean trade and became even more prosperous. “Villa romana del Casale”: with its wonderful mosaics, is symptomatic of this wealth and prestige of its owners.

Christianity arrived early in Sicily which was supposedly visited by both St Peter and St Paul on their way to Rome. The Greek and Roman temples were either destroyed or became early Christian churches, as in “Ortygia”:

After the Fall of Rome, Sicily became part of the Byzantine Empire. The island came under increasing attack by the Moors from North Africa who were attracted by its wealth and agriculture. It fell to Arab rule in 900AD with Palermo becoming the Arab capital. The Arabs improved agriculture, extended irrigation and introduced new crops eg citrus fruits, dates and melons. Taxation was rationalised and reduced. Although many of the Christian churches became mosques, the Arabs practised religious tolerance.

Sicily enjoyed unprecedented peace and prosperity until the Norman Invasion from 1061. The Arabs had appealed to the Normans for support against feuding factions but the Normans captured and took over Palermo in 1072.

Norman rule lasted for about 100 years with five kings who left a legacy of art and architecture, particularly churches. Mosques again became Christian churches and many new churches were built. The cathedrals at both “Palermo”: and “Monreale”: date from then.

The red domes (typically three), seen on some churches are typical of the surviving Arab influence.

When Roger II died with no obvious successor, the resulting power struggle left a vacuum filled by the Angevins and later the Spanish.

Continual feuding laid waste to the countryside and much of the interior of Sicily became unpopulated and unproductive. The nobility and merchants lived in cities and settlements along the coast. There was massive eruption of Mount Etna in 1669 followed by a devastating earthquake in 1693 which killed many of the population and flattened many of the cities. This was followed by a massive Baroque building programme resulting in the Baroque architecture seen in many towns and cities today.

Sicily with help from the British, was the only part of Italy not conquered by Napoleon. In 1860, Garibaldi landed at Marsala with the intention of liberating Sicily from Bourbon rule and making it part of Italy. He was skilled in guerilla warfare and supported by the peasants. A plebiscite returned a 99.5% majority in favour of union with the new Kingdom of Italy. Power shifted away from the nobility to the gabellotti, the middle men who with increasing links to the Mafia. Life for the peasants became increasing difficult leading to a series of revolts that were ruthlessly put down by the government. Many emigrated.

Sicily suffered badly from Allied bombing during the Second World War and the centres of many of the cities were destroyed. Money to restore buildings was slow to arrive and much of it found its way into the pockets of the Mafia and other corrupt organisations. After a series of high level assassinations, the authorities have gradually fought back to contain the power and influence of the Mafia. Prosperity is slowly returning.

Full details with all my pictures of my trip to Sicily can be found “here.”:


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