Emirate of Sicily

Emirate of Sicily
Emirate of Sicily
Emirato di Sicilia
Εμιράτο της Σικελίας
إمارة صقلية
Imarat Siqilliyya
State of the Fatimid Caliphate



Italy in 1000. The Emirate of Sicily is coloured in light green.
Capital Balharm
Language(s) Byzantine Greek, Sicilian Arabic, Vulgar Latin
Religion Shi'a Islam (state)
Eastern and Western Christianity
Government Monarchy
 - 948–964 Hassan al-Kalbi
 - 990–998 Yusuf al-Kalbi
 - 1017–1037 al-Akhal
 - 1040–1053 Hasan as-Samsam
 - Established 965
 - Disestablished 1072

The Emirate of Sicily was an Islamic state on the island of Sicily (in what is now Southern Italy), which existed from 965 to 1072.[1]


First Arab invasions of Sicily

In 535, Emperor Justinian I returned Sicily to the empire, now ruled from Constantinople exclusively. As the power of the empire waned in the West, Sicily was invaded by the Arab forces of Caliph Uthman in the year 652. However, this first invasion was short-lived, and the Arabs left soon after. By the end of the 7th century, with the Umayyad conquest of North Africa, they had captured the nearby port city of Carthage, allowing the Arabs to build shipyards and a permanent base from which to make more sustained attacks.[2]

Around 700, the island of Pantelleria was captured by Arabs, and it was only discord among the Arabs that prevented an attempted invasion of Sicily coming next. Instead, trading agreements were arranged with the Byzantines, and Arab merchants were allowed to trade goods at the Sicilian ports. Attacks from Muslim fleets repeated in 703, 728, 729, 730, 731, 733 and 734, the last two times meeting with a substantial Byzantine resistance.

The first true conquest expedition was launched in 740: in that year the Muslim prince Habib, who had participated on the 728 attack, successfully captured Syracuse. Ready to conquer the whole island, they were however forced to return to Tunisia by a Berber revolt. A second attack in 752 aimed only to sack the same city.

Revolt of Euphemius and gradual Muslim conquest of the island

In 826 Euphemius, the commander of the Byzantine fleet of Sicily, forced a nun to marry him. Emperor Michael II caught wind of the matter and ordered that general Constantine end the marriage and cut off Euphemius' nose. Euphemius rose up, killed Constantine and then occupied Syracuse; he in turn was defeated and driven out to North Africa.[1] He offered rule of Sicily over to Ziyadat Allah the Aghlabid Emir of Tunisia in return for a place as a general and safety; an Arab army was sent.[1]

The latter agreed to conquer Sicily, promising to give it to Euphemius in exchange for a yearly tribute, and entrusted its conquest to the 70-year-old qadi Asad ibn al-Furat. The Muslim force counted 10,000 infantry, 700 cavalry and 100 ships, reinforced by Euphemius' ships and, after the landing at Mazara del Vallo, knights. A first battle against the loyal Byzantine troops occurred on July 15, 827, near Mazara, resulting in an Aghlabid victory.

Asad subsequently conquered the southern shore of the island and laid siege to Syracuse. After a year of siege, and an attempted mutiny, his troops were however able to defeat a large army sent from Palermo, also backed by a Venetian fleet led by Doge Giustiniano Participazio. But when a plague killed many of the Muslim troops, as well as Asad himself, the Muslims retreated to the castle of Mineo. Later they returned to the offensive, but failed to conquer Castrogiovanni (the modern Enna, where Euphemius died) and retreated back to Mazara.

In 830 they received a strong reinforcement of 30,000 African and Andalusian troops. The Iberian Muslims defeated the Byzantine commander Teodotus in July–August of that year, but again a plague forced them to return to Mazara and then to Africa. The African Berber units sent to besiege Palermo managed to capture it after a year long siege in September 831.[3] Palermo became the Muslim capital of Sicily, renamed al-Madinah ("The City").[4]

The conquest was a see-saw affair; with considerable resistance and many internal struggles, it took over a century for Byzantine Sicily to be conquered. Syracuse held out for a long time but fell in 878, Taormina fell in 902, and the last Byzantine outpost was taken in 965.[1]

Period as an Emirate

Arab-Norman art and architecture combined Occidental features (such as the Classical pillars and friezes) with typical Islamic decorations and calligraphy.

In succession Sicily was ruled by the Sunni Aghlabid dynasty in Tunisia and the Shiite Fatimids in Egypt. The Byzantines took advantage of temporary discord to occupy the eastern end of the island for several years.

After suppressing a revolt the Fatimid caliph Ismail al-Mansur appointed Hassan al-Kalbi (948–964) as Emir of Sicily. He successfully managed to control the continuously revolting Byzantines and founded the Kalbid dynasty. Raids into Southern Italy continued under the Kalbids into the 11th century, and in 982 a German army under Otto II, Holy Roman Emperor was defeated near Crotone in Calabria. With Emir Yusuf al-Kalbi (990–998) a period of steady decline began. Under al-Akhal (1017–1037) the dynastic conflict intensified, with factions within the ruling family allying themselves variously with the Byzantine Empire and the Zirids. By the time of Emir Hasan as-Samsam (1040–1053) the island had fragmented into several small fiefdoms.

The Arabs initiated land reforms which in turn, increased productivity and encouraged the growth of smallholdings, a dent to the dominance of the landed estates. The Arabs further improved irrigation systems, and items such as oranges, lemons, pistachio and sugarcane were introduced to Sicily. A description of Palermo was given by Ibn Hawqal, a Baghdad merchant who visited Sicily in 950. A walled suburb called the Kasr (the palace) is the center of Palermo until today, with the great Friday mosque on the site of the later Roman cathedral. The suburb of Al-Khalisa (Kalsa) contained the Sultan's palace, baths, a mosque, government offices, and a private prison. Ibn Hawqual reckoned 7,000 individual butchers trading in 150 shops. By 1050, Palermo had a population of 350,000, making it one of the largest cities in Europe, second only to Islamic Spain's capital Cordoba, which had a population of 450,000. In contrast, under the succeeding Christian Kingdom of Sicily, Palermo's population had dropped to 150,000, though it became the largest city in Europe due to the larger decline in Cordoba's population; by 1330, Palermo's population had declined to 51,000.[5]

Arab traveler, geographer, and poet Ibn Jubair visited the area in the end of the 12th century and described Al-Kasr and Al-Khalisa (Kalsa):

The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor.

Throughout this reign, continued revolts by Byzantine Sicilians occurred, especially in the east, and part of the lands were even re-occupied before being quashed.[6]

Conquered population

The local population conquered by the Muslims were romanized Catholic Sicilians in western Sicily and partially Greek speaking Christians, mainly in the eastern half of the island, but there were also a significant number of Jews. These conquered people were afforded a limited freedom of religion under the Muslims as dhimmi, but were subject to some restrictions. The dhimmi were also required to pay the jizya, or poll tax, and the kharaj or land tax. Under Arab rule there were different categories of jizya payers, but their common denominator was the payment of tribute as a mark of subjection to alien rule. The conquered population could avoid this subservient status simply by converting to Islam. Whether by honest religious conviction or societal compulsion large numbers of native Sicilians converted to Islam. However, even after 100 years of subjugation, numerous Greek speaking Christian communities survived, especially in north-eastern Sicily, as dhimmi. These local Sicilians generally welcomed the Normans when they invaded.[7]


The Emirate of Sicily began to fragment as intra-dynastic quarrels took place between the Muslim regime.[1] By the 11th century mainland southern Italian powers were hiring Norman mercenaries, who were Christian descendants of the Vikings; it was the Normans under Roger I who captured Sicily from the Muslims.[1] The Norman Robert Guiscard, son of Tancred, invaded Sicily in 1060. The island was split between three Arab emirs, and the sizable Christian population rose up against the ruling Muslims.[8] After taking Apulia and Calabria, Roger I occupied Messina with an army of 700 knights. In 1068, Roger de Hauteville and his men defeated the Muslims at Misilmeri but the most crucial battle was the siege of Palermo, which led to Sicily being completely in Norman control by 1091. After the conquest of Sicily, the Normans removed the local emir, Yusuf Ibn Abdallah from power, but did so by respecting Arab customs.[9]

The loss of the cities, each with a splendid harbor, dealt a severe blow to Muslim power on the island. The city of Qas'r Ianni (modern Enna) was still ruled by its emir, Ibn Al-Hawas, who held out for years. His successor, Ibn Hamud, surrendered, and converted to Christianity, only in 1087. After his conversion, Ibn Hamud subsequently became part of the Christian nobility and retired with his family to an estate in Calabria provided by Roger I. In 1091, Butera and Noto in the southern tip of Sicily and the island of Malta, the last Arab stongholds, fell to the Christians with ease. By the 11th century Muslim power in the Mediterranean had begun to wane.[10]


The Norman Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II has been characterized as multi-ethnic in nature and religiously tolerant.[11] Normans, Jews, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Lombards and "native" Sicilians lived in relative harmony.[12][13] Arabic remained a language of government and administration for at least a century into Norman rule, and traces remain in the language of the island today.[2]

However, once the Normans had conquered the island, the Muslims were faced with the choice of voluntary departure or subjection to Christian rule. Many Muslims chose to leave, provided they had the means to do so. In fact, Muslims were prohibited by their religion from living under non-Muslim rule if they could avoid it. “The transformation of Sicily into a Christian island”, remarks Abulafia, “was also, paradoxically, the work of those whose culture was under threat”.[14][15] Despite the presence of an Arab-speaking Christian population, Muslim peasants received baptism from the Roman and Greek Christians and adopted even Greek Christian names; in several instances, Christian serfs with Greek names listed in the Monreale registers had living Muslim parents.[16][17]

However, the Norman rulers followed a policy of steady Latinization (converting the island to Catholicism). Some Muslims chose the option of feigning conversion, but such a remedy could only provide individual protection and could not sustain a community.[18]

‘Lombard’ pogroms against Muslims started in the 1160s. Muslim and Christian communities in Sicily became increasingly geographically separated. The island’s Muslim communities were mainly isolated beyond an internal frontier which divided the south-western half of the island from the Christian north-east. Sicilian Muslims, a subject population, were dependent on the mercy of their Christian masters and, ultimately, on royal protection. When King William the Good died in 1189, this royal protection was lifted, and the door was opened for widespread attacks against the island’s Muslims. This destroyed any lingering hope of coexistence, however unequal the respective populations might have been. Henry VI’s death in 1197, and that of his wife Constance a year later, plunged Sicily into political turmoil. With the loss of royal protection and with Frederick II still an infant in papal custody, Sicily became a battleground for rival German and papal forces. The island’s Muslim rebels sided with German warlords like Markward von Anweiler. In response, Innocent III declared a crusade against Markward, alleging that he had made an unholy alliance with the Saracens of Sicily. Nevertheless, in 1206 that same pope attempted to convince the Muslim leaders to remain loyal.[19] By this time, the Muslim rebellion was critical, with Muslims in control of Jato, Entella, Platani, Celso, Calatrasi, Corleone (taken in 1208), Guastanella and Cinisi. In other words, the Muslim revolt extended throughout a whole stretch of western Sicily. The rebels were led by Muhammad Ibn Abbād. He called himself the ‘prince of believers’, struck his own coins, and attempted to find Muslim support from other parts of the Muslim world.[20][21]

However, Frederick II, no longer a child, responded by launching a series of campaigns against the Muslim rebels in 1221. The Hohenstaufen forces rooted out the defenders of Jato, Entella, and the other fortresses. Rather than exterminate the Muslims, In 1223, Frederick II and the Christians began the first deportations of Muslims to Lucera in Apulia.[22] A year later, expeditions were sent against Malta and Djerba, to establish royal control and prevent their Muslim populations from helping the rebels.[20] Paradoxically, Saracen archers were a common component of these “Christian” armies from this era.[23][24]

The House of Hohenstaufen and their successors (Capetian House of Anjou and Aragonese House of Barcelona) gradually "Latinized" Sicily over the course of two centuries, and this social process laid the groundwork for the introduction of Catholicism (as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy). The process of Latinization was fostered largely by the Roman Church and its liturgy. The annihilation of Islam in Sicily was completed by the late 1240s, when the final deportations to Lucera took place.[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Brief history of Sicily" (PDF). Archaeology.Stanford.edu. 24 November 2008. http://www.stanford.edu/group/mountpolizzo/HandbookTOC.htm. 
  2. ^ a b Mack Smith, Denis (1968). A History of Sicily: Medieval Sicily 800—1713,. Chatto & Windus, London. ISBN 7011 1347 2. 
  3. ^ Previte-Orton (1971), vol. 1, pg. 370
  4. ^ Islam in Sicily, by Alwi Alatas
  5. ^ J. Bradford De Long and Andrei Shleifer (October 1993), "Princes and Merchants: European City Growth before the Industrial Revolution", The Journal of Law and Economics (University of Chicago Press) 36 (2): 671–702 [678] 
  6. ^ Privitera, Joseph. Sicily: An Illustrated History. Hippocrene Books. ISBN 978-0781809092. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0781809096/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top. 
  7. ^ Charles Dalli, From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, p. 153
  8. ^ Saracen Door and Battle of Palermo
  9. ^ "Chronological - Historical Table Of Sicily". In Italy Magazine. 7 October 2007. http://www.initaly.com/regions/sicily/chronol.htm. 
  10. ^ Previte-Orton (1971), pg. 507–11
  11. ^ Normans in Sicilian History
  12. ^ Roger II - Encyclopædia Britannica
  13. ^ Tracing The Norman Rulers of Sicily
  14. ^ Charles Dalli, From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, p. 159
  15. ^ Abulafia, The end of Muslim Sicily cit., p. 109
  16. ^ Charles Dalli, From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, p. 159
  17. ^ J. Johns, The Greek church and the conversion of Muslims in Norman Sicily?, “Byzantinische Forschungen”, 21, 1995; for Greek Christianity in Sicily see also V. von Falkenhausen, "Il monachesimo greco in Sicilia", in C.D. Fonseca (ed.), La Sicilia rupestre nel contesto delle civiltà mediterranee, vol. 1, Lecce 1986.
  18. ^ Charles Dalli, From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, p. 160
  19. ^ Charles Dalli, From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, p. 160-161
  20. ^ a b Charles Dalli, From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, p. 161
  21. ^ Aubé, Pierre (2001). Roger Ii De Sicile - Un Normand En Méditerranée. Payot. 
  22. ^ A.Lowe: The Barrier and the bridge, op cit;p.92.
  23. ^ Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor
  24. ^ Saracen Archers in Southern Italy
  25. ^ Abulafia, David (1988). Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor. London: Allen Lane. 

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