As we all know, sightseeing can be exhausting, especially when it comes to long detailed stories of each single castle and its construction details. With all due respect to details and stories, we’ve decided to make it easier for those who explore places on their own, without much guiding support. If you are familiar with the dramatic history of Sicily, you will have much more fun looking around and understanding the architecture, the culture and even the cuisine. So here we go, a brief overview of what happened in Sicily over the last two-something thousand years:
The island of Sicily is an area of great historic and geographic significance in the Mediterranean. Situated between three seas in the middle of continental Europe and Africa, historically it has been a big port and a trade centre, and thus prone to countless wars. The reason is simple – where there is trade, there is money, and where there is money, there is war. Sicily has always been a strategically important area, and the ownership of this land would provide a competitive advantage.
The Ancient Greek reign in the 8th Century B.C., established many important settlements and new towns that still exist today: Palermo, Agrigento, Catania, Syracuse, Messina, Taormina and others. They called the island ‘Trinacria’, meaning ‘triangle’ in reference to its shape. The cultural centre was situated in Syracuse, which was home to many famous Greek scientists and philosophers, such as Archimedes, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Plato etc. Sicilian land proved very fertile and resulted in profitable trading of olives and grape vines. The Greek religion was another significant influence on the island and many temples were built throughout Sicily, including several in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.
After the first Punic war in the 3rd Century B.C., the Romans took over Sicily and ruled for about 800 years, developing the towns and building new roads. The 5th century C.E. brought on another wave of conflict and resulted in a brief Barbarian rule. After several years of war between Barbarians, Romans, Goths and Greeks, Sicily was annexed by the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine epoch lasted about 300 years and left significant social and cultural heritage. The Byzantine mosaics still remain in many churches of Sicily and can easily found in Palermo and Cefalù.
From 9th to 11th Century, the island of Sicily was taken by the Saracen – the Arabs. They arrived in 827 and turned the island into an Islamic religion after the centuries of Christianity. The Saracen epoch greatly affected the social, political and cultural life of the island; they built a significant part of Palermo, which was the capital city at that time. Saracen influences in local dialects and food are still very noticeable today.
It can be said that prosperity came to Sicily with the arrival of the Normans in the 1061. The royal family came to appreciate and admire the rich and layered culture and architectural heritage of the Arab and Byzantine epochs. And while they implemented their own Christian beliefs, culture, customs, and politics in the region, they also adopted some of the attributes of Muslim rulers and their Byzantine subjects in dress, language and literature. The city of Palermo grew into a big beautiful city full of palaces, cathedrals and gardens. The multinational population meant that there were four official languages: Arabic, German, Hebrew and Italian. They invested in restoring and decorating many buildings. A great example is the Cathedral of Palermo, which is a perfect representation of the Sicilian cultural mix over the centuries.
The Norman royal family, The Svevi, governed Sicily since 1194 and focused on developing the fields of arts, science and literature. King Friedrich II (Federico Secondo, as they call him in Italy), became the greatest patron of Sicily of the Middle Ages. However, after he died, the French invaded the island and took over the throne, establishing Naples as the new capital. Their reign didn’t last long as they were forced out in 1282, by the rebellion movement – Sicilian Vespers (Vespri Siciliani).
The troubled time of Sicilian Vespers lasted for 90 years: the island had gone through several wars, some of them at sea. The wars of the Sicilian Vespers officially ended in 1372, with the help of Spanish dynasty of Aragon.
The Aragon intervention lead to the treaty of Avignone, which officially set the Reign of Naples apart from the Reign of Sicily. It stayed so until the Bourbon dynasty came to the governance in the 17th Century. They stayed in power until 1860, when the leader of the military campaign for formation of unified state of Italy and an Italian national hero, Giuseppe Garibaldi, came to the island together with his army to start the campaign for the Italian Unification.
Overall the Spanish crown have governed in Sicily for 300 years. However, under the Bourbons, due to the weakness of the country leadership and the lack of control over the local crime, the phenomenon of Sicilian mafia started to take place. In the beginning 19th Century, criminal groups started offering security and protection to the aristocrats and landowners, many of which moved to the island from Spain in this same period. To cut the story short, the Sicilian mafia started as a racket, and this problem have remained until now – with the time these small groups grew into large criminal structure. However, Sicilian mafia played significant role both in the unification of Italy and during the II World war, when American troops landed in Sicily in 1943.
Since 1946 – the year when the Italian Republic was declared, Sicily has had a status of autonomous region of Italy.