The 12th century Castle Zisa (Palermo) built by Norman king William 1st is one of the best examples of influence of Arabic architecture in Sicily….
The Castle Zisa is a great example of influence of Islamic architecture and art in post-Saracen era when Sicily was already under the control of Norman kings.
The castle was built in 12th century at the outskirts of Palermo at the orders of William 1st. Located on the edge of a lake and surrounded by a large park called Genoardo (from Arabic: “Jannat al-ard” meaning “Paradise on Earth”), the castle was used as the royal retreat and hunting heaven…..
The castle is a magnificent three-level structure with strong Moorish accents. Interestingly - its name “Ziza” is derived from the word “al-aziz” (meaning “Magnificent” or “Splendid”) read backward (Arabic texts are written from right to the left)……
Castle Zisa (Palermo, Sicily)
Castle Zisa - Interior
Fragment of Arabic ornamentation
Right at the entrance there is an impressive Fountain Room (Sala della Fontana) with fragments of restored Moorish decorations. Frescoes, golden mosaics and elaborated Islamic adornments carved in marble are testimony to what Zisa used to be in the past.
This Fountain Room gained its name from the source of fresh water cascading from the marble fountain in the wall. Originally, the water flowed through the elegant network of canals and little square pools on the floor leaving the hall to end its course in the lake. Today, there no even trace of the lake, but thanks to new urban arrangements the area in front of the castle was converted into the park.
Although it is not anymore the original Paradise on Earth, the park was designed as an extension to the castle with large white marble canal cutting through its center. This way the water from the old fountain in Salla della Fontana can continue cascading giving an impression of running to “infinity”. I guess this new solution would please even original architects of the complex of Zisa….
Impressive fountain at the entrance
... and close view
The fountain's water flowing in cascades down into the former garden (now there is more concrete than nature)
Fragment of the decoration (Central Fountain - Fontana)
In the 14th century the castle got some defensive features with addition of side towers. It does not change however its destiny. Regrettably, the “golden age” of the castle ended with departure of Normans. The surrounding “paradise” gardens were converted to agricultural area supporting growing Palermo and the castle became the center of farms loosing not only its historical splendor but also its shape. In 16th century, during the period of plague (Black Death), the castle was used as a depot to quarantine suspected objects… Sadly, castle’s wheel of fortune turned dramatically converting the “Paradise on Earth” into let’s face it - Hellish Place.
In the 17th century, the castle, already in quite poor shape was bought by Spanish Marquis Giovanni di Sandoval. Making it his principal residence, he considerably altered castle’s upper levels by rearranging supporting walls, adding new rooms, balconies and large vestibule with staircase. His coat of arms carved in marble can be seen at the entrance above the main gate.
But this new ownership did not save Zisa from further deterioration. By the 20th century the castle stripped from most of its original decorations and furnishing was already in the state of disrepair and finally in 1971 part of it collapsed.
Fragment of Arabic architectural ornaments
Richly ornamented column
Fortunately, it rose from the proverbial “ashes” when in 1970’s the city of Palermo acquired the ruins and after almost 20 years of restoration opened the castle to the public as a Museum of Islamic Art. Although interior is still relatively austere, original fragments of Islamic architecture (in a style of Moorish Alhambra) as well as pieces of art: brass candlestick, elegant wooden lattice screens (musciarabia), amphorae etc…) are definitely worth to see. An extra bonus is the fabulous view on the frontal garden with the white marble channel in the middle making an extension of the cascading fountain in the palace.
It may give an idea of what Zisa’s royal complex used to be in the past. Indeed, it was part of the gardens called Genoardo (from Arabic: “Jannat al-ard” meaning “Paradise on Earth”).
Medieval water distribution system
"Balcony" for women so they can see the outside world without being seen...
Exposition: 13th century bowl from Syria-Mesopotamia
View from the castle on what used to be the "Paradise on Earth"(Genoardo)
As you can see, since the time when Arabs (Moors) ruled the Sicily this local "Paradise on Earth" underwent tremendous changes. Cars replaced wild animals, concrete and asphalt took large swaths of terrain, natural shelters provided by trees, bush, caves took forms of concrete dwellings… It's the whole new world from which we should learn that the “progress” should also include the preservation of the past.
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