The conquer of Sicily by King Roger 1st ended millennia long dominance of Mediterranean cultures and brought the island under the wings of West-European influence….
By the end of 11th century under the command of King Roger 1st, Normans (descendants of Vikings) took the control of Sicily from Arabs.
The victorious battle of Palermo in 1091 changed the history of Sicily, ending forever the period of dominance of Mediterranean Civilizations (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Byzantium) and moving it under an “umbrella” of the Northwestern Europe. Indeed during the following centuries the destiny of the island was shaped by Norman, French (Angevin), German (Hohenstaufen), Spanish (Aragon) royal courts. European domination brought also Sicily under the influence of Vatican’s papacy.
The Golden Age under Normans was characterized by religious and cultural tolerance. It embraced the best from Saracens, Jews, Byzantine Greeks and Latin populations of Sicily making foundation for most prosperous and modern society in the Western World at those times.
Cefalu: Norman fortifications on La Rocca
Catania: Benedictine Monastery
Palermo: Church of San Cataldo originates from Norman period, but it bears strong evidence of Islamic influence
More details at: Church San Cataldo
The next two centuries witnessed numerous monumental architectural works – cathedrals, churches, monasteries, but also palaces, castles and large public constructions (bridges, aqueducts…). Majority of them do not represent any pure style but rather a mixture of multi-ethnic influence. This probably reflects Normans’ fascination with the richness of Mediterranean culture, art and in general “philosophy-of-life” so contrasting with very modest North-European “life-style” at those times, largely enforced by the cold climate. But we have to also give credit to Normans for their wisdom to encourage progress by promoting tolerance and accepting differences…..
Most of monumental architecture from that time was “built to last”, so today, several centuries later we can still admire most of these masterpieces.
Palermo is the one of the best places to start with: magnificent Cathedral with its museums, Royal Palace with its splendid Palatine Chapel, numerous churches including Santa Mario dell Ammiragliatto, San Cataldo, San Giovanni, but also La Zisi and Cuba palaces as well as Admiral Bridge. Equally majestic are such royal jewels as Cathedral in Cefalu and Cathedral in Monreale (the latter one is actually the complex including also Benedictine Abbey and Archbishop Palace). Not less impressive are castles – like Ursino in Catania, Maniace in Syracuse….
They all combined the characteristics of “simplicity and space” of Latin architecture from Northern Europe with rich ornamentation borrowed from Arabic art and distinctive features of Byzantine sacral art.
You may also visit Aci Castello (near Catania). Although this Norman castle is in “quite poor” shape compared to mentioned above castles (no wonder – it was built in 1076), it is castle’s dramatic location that is worth of your attention. Nestled on the top of a large basaltic lava cliff piercing the sea it offers spectacular views on the sea and town!
Aci Castello: for long it was a strong defensive outpost
Aci Castello - interior walls
13th century Porta Mazzara (Palermo)
It replaced earlier Porta Marsala dating from the time when Arabs ruled the island
Admiral's Bridge (Palermo)
See more details at: --> Ponte Ammiraglio
Erice – famous for its medieval layout, narrow cobbled streets, stunning views and a lot of history behind starting from Phoenician era, is certainly one of the places to visit during your Sicilian journey. Due to its strategic location, Erice was an important outpost for all pre-Norman rulers. Its current appearance has strong Norman roots emphasized by the imposing structure of Governor’s Castle! (warning – during winter time the castle is open to visitors only “sometimes” ….)
Given the time – ruins are most common form of old castles and fortifications. I will not suggest to visit Enna just to see the remains of Lombardia Castle with its impressive towers. But I do strongly recommend visiting Enna for its own beauty. It is a picturesque town with Greek’s roots strategically located on the top of about 2,700 ft (930 meters) high mountain.
You may notice that this short list of “Norman-must-to-see-Sicily” does not include much from the eastern part of the island, known for their numerous ancient jewel-like-towns. The reason is simple although cruel – Mother Nature and its destructive forces leveled or covered with lava and volcanic ash most of what remembered Norman times in Sicily.
Ruins of Enna's Royal Castle: Castello di Lombardia
Castello di Venere (Erice)
Castello Ursino - Catania
Nothing good lasts forever - by the end of 13th century, under pressure from Rome the liberal policy of ethnic tolerance abruptly ended. Large populations of Arabs (or rather Muslims) and Jews were chased out from the island. Sicily entered the long period of instability and fights for power between European Crowns (French, Spanish and German) and “blessings” from Holly Sit (Vatican). Not surprisingly it heavily affected island’s economic and cultural prosperity.
Palermo: Oldest (Norman) section of the Cathedral
See details at: --> Palermo's Cathedral
Monreale - Despite the fact that the Cathedral was built by Normans, Arabs' masters and workers left behind strong islamic accents
Castello Maniace - Syracuse
... and an artistic vision of what used to be Castello Maniace
Summarizing Medieval Sicily – the period of almost seven hundred years starting in 6th century AD with Byzantine control and ending in mid-13th century with the fall of Normans and shift to the Western European and Catholic Church sphere of influence gave birth to unprecedented development of culture, architecture and art. Most “historical jewels” from those times represent the mixture of styles from Byzantine-Orthodox, Arab-Islamic and Norman-Latin cultures. They also prove that religious tolerance, multi-ethnicity, respect of “differences” and friendly coexistence are the best options to guarantee growth of Humanity! It’s the lesson we should learn and re-learn (if necessary) on a daily basis!
Go to: --> Sicily across millennia
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