Sicily and the Peoples of Sicily

Why Sicily and who are the Sicilians?

The Sicilians: Sicanians • Elymians • Sicels • Phoenicians • Greeks • Carthaginians • Romans • Goths • Byzantines • Arabs • Normans • Swabians • Angevins • Aragonese • Albanians • Spanish • Jews • Sicily Facts.

In this paragraph and, in these tricky economic times, it pays to plan your holiday in a vacation spot that offers something different — plus plenty of sunshine and some great beaches.

That’s not just a cliché. Sicily is the other Italy.

Our heritage is European, Asian and African. The island in the sun boasts almost as many ancient Greek temples as mainland Greece and, some of the world’s best-conserved Byzantine art and architecture.

There are imposing signs of medieval Arab and Norman civilization, not to mention Baroque marvels that rival those of Spain and mainland Italy.

All reflect the legacy of the Peoples of Sicily — the world’s most conquered island.

And then there’s the cuisine, a delicious result of these cosmopolitan influences. Your taste of Sicily will be unforgettable. The word multicultural seems as if it were coined to describe the diversity of Sicily’s history.

Our Sights and Top 12 are a good place to begin, but on this one we would like to explain precisely what we’re talking about, with an emphasis on the sights and sites you can visit. Of course, Sicily’s splendid scenery and geography are not to be overlooked, and the following map (among many others on this site) will help you find your way.

• First Sicilians: With the exception of a few Greek trading settlements on the coasts, Sicily was the domain of three distinct civilizations until circa 800 BC (BCE). The Elymians and Sicels arrived a few centuries earlier.
The natives were the Sicanians, whose ancestors colonized Malta, where they built Europe’s oldest temples.
In Sicily, a Sicanian temple stands atop the rocky mountain overlooking Cefalù.

• Punic Peoples: The seafaring people who invented the alphabet and traded as far as Britain were nautical masters of the Mediterranean, leaving traces of Egyptian art in Sicily.
Palermo, Solunto and Mothia island (near Marsala) have Phoenician walls, and so does Erice – though ancient Eryx began as an Elymian city.
By around 400 BC (BCE), the Carthaginians had inherited the Phoenician territories of the central and western Mediterranean.

• Greeks: Their culture largely supplanted that of the Punics in the eastern Mediterranean and then Sicily.
Segesta was an Elymian city that readily assimilated Greek culture, and there are also standing Greek temples at Selinunte, Agrigento and Segesta, with small amphitheatres and archaeological sites around Sicily.
In Syracuse, the most important of the Greeks’ Sicilian cities, the cathedral was built around a large Greek temple whose columns are still very evident. Sicily eventually became Rome’s first foreign province (and with the Punic wars fought here the Carthaginians were finally defeated) but Greek – not Latin – remained the island’s principal language into the Early Middle Ages.

• Romans: Rooted in Etruscan and Latin origins, Roman culture readily assimilated that of the Greeks.
Sicily has a few “purely Roman” monuments, such as those in central Catania, and a number of ground-level archeological sites like Palermo’s.
But things like Taormina’s Roman walls and theatre (built around an earlier Greek amphitheatre) are the rule – though Syracuse has an oval Roman theatre in addition to its larger, semi-circular Greek amphitheatre.
Piazza Armerina’s Roman villa, with its stunning mosaics, is the largest, best-preserved residence of its kind in the Roman World. With Rome’s fall during the fifth century AD (CE), Sicily looked to the East.

• Byzantines: Interesting though the Goths and Vandals may have been, they left few tangible traces in Sicily during several decades of rule. Following Rome’s fall, Greek culture, with Byzantium (now Istanbul), as its point of reference, flourished here. Its influences are most evident in the icons created (“written”) in mosaic.
In Taormina there’s one in an archway in a main street, and of course the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù are famous examples.
Byzantine culture was closely linked to the Greek (Orthodox) Church. The cathedral of Syracuse is the classic example of a Greek temple converted into an early (Paleo-Christian) church, and that city’s mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) was carved into limestone during the Byzantine period.
A must-see is Palermo’s Martorana, built as a Greek Orthodox church.

• Arabs: By definition, speakers of Arabic were Arabs, but the Muslim peoples arriving in Sicily during the ninth century included Berbers and others. Few visible traces remain of the purely Khalbid and Fatimid cultures of Sicily except in museums – inscriptions in stone and paper documents. The Koranic suras inscribed in several pillars in Palermo – one supporting the cathedral’s portico – are the exceptions.
There are also some underground channels (kanats).
More evident are churches and palaces in the Norman-Arab style, some (like Monreale Abbey) incorporating Byzantine features.
Of special note, as regards purely Arab art, is the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel.

• Normans: When the Normans arrived in Sicily in 1061, a few years before their conquest of England, they found what seemed to be two populations living side-by-side, namely Arabs and Greeks.
There was also a small but prosperous Jewish population seeded among the other two.
Whatever the rapport of the Normans with the Saxons they found in England, in Sicily there was (at least initially) accomodation of the pre-existing populace, and Sicilian-Norman culture reflected this.

Finally, in Palermo (Cathedral, Palatine Chapel, Zisa), Monreale (the cathedral complex) and Cefalù (the cathedral) can be seen the greatest examples. Some of Sicily’s castles also date from this era, when feudalism was introduced.

• Swabians, Angevins and Aragonese: By 1200, the island’s cultural influences were becoming increasingly Western. Most Christians were now Latins (Roman Catholic) and Islam was disappearing through conversion.
Cosmopolitan he may have been, yet Frederick II was solidly European politically.
Signs of medieval German, French and Aragonese (northeastern Spanish) influences abound in Sicily.
The Italian Romanesque-Gothic, Catalonian Gothic and Swabian Gothic styles of many churches, castles and palaces built between circa 1300 and 1500 are typical. And, of course, there’s the heart of Saint Louis in Monreale’s cathedral.

• Spanish: Perhaps the greatest legacy of the Spanish period, from 1500 to 1700, is the ubiquitous Baroque present in virtually every Sicilian locality. While a Sicilian Baroque developed after 1700, to be seen in Catania, Noto and Ragusa, most of Sicily’s churches and palaces were constructed in an ornate Spanish style vaguely influenced by Italian movements.
Lovers of the true Gothic (a movement very rare in Sicily) often find the Baroque and Rococo rather ugly, but Baroque fanatics abound.

• Albanians: Arriving as refugees around 1500, the Albanians established or repopulated several communities – Piana degli Albanesi, Contessa Entellina, Mezzojuso and others – where they re-introduced the Eastern Orthodox faith.
These towns, and Palermo’s Martorana Church (built for the Greek community in the twelfth century), are well-known for their religious festivals, especially around Easter.

• Jews of Sicily: The Inquisition dissolved Sicily’s Jewish communities in 1493 – the island was then ruled by Spain – and many Jews left while some converted to Catholicism.
Their visible traces are rather few, but the mikveh of Siracusa, in that city’s Jewish Quarter, is the oldest such structure known to exist in Europe.

• Italian Sicily: There exists a Sicilian language with roots in the twelfth century, but what you’ll hear most is Italian.
Sicily has been part of Italy since 1861. For seven centuries before that it was a sovereign kingdom, though for a few hundred years it was ruled from afar by distant monarchs in Madrid and Naples.
If you scratch its surface, Italy itself might be said to be an eclectic mix of cultures.

In conclusion, if you wish assistance to plan your Sicilian Vacation feel free to be in touch with us though the following page: 
Our team, Vincenzo and I will be pleased to be in touch with you to customize your unforgettable Sicilian Experience.

What Makes Sicily So Special?

I’m guessing that you have your own reasons for wanting to visit Sicily. For many visitors, there is a deeply emotional pull…perhaps you traced your ancestry here.
But there is so much to see and experience here.
Sicily has an abundance of history. Some of the world’s most remarkable Byzantine mosaics stand side-by-side with Greek temples and Roman amphitheaters and cathedrals. And the baroque architecture is incredible!
Then there’s the spectacular sight of Mt. Etna that takes your breath away.
Or what about Sicily’s unique cuisine—Arab and Greek spices, Spanish techniques, the world’s finest seafood. And it’s all accompanied by big, fruity, out-of-this-world wines.
Well, you can understand people are drawn to the island and find it so difficult to leave.

The not-to-be-missed cities of Sicily

Sicily is a place where natural and manmade beauty finds a perfect marriage. While your time would not be wasted visiting any of our cities, I always suggest you plan your itinerary around a few of these cities—especially if your time here is limited.
Agrigento. The city’s greatest draw is the Valley of the Temples and its ancient Greek ruins. Tempio della Concordia is one of the best-preserved temples in the world. You’ll definitely want to visit the Museo Regionale Archeologico, perhaps the best museum in Sicily, which features the famous stone statue of Telemon (Atlas).
Catania. In a perfect world, you’d devote two full days to the art, museums, and Roman ruins of Catania. Don’t miss Duomo Square, La Pescheria (the fish market), and the Bellini Gardens.
Erice. This western Sicily gem is famous for its almond biscuits (the pastry shops here are without equal). Erice’s main church and bell tower are striking, as is the Norman castle, also known as Venus Castle, a tribute to the goddess of fertility.
Marsala. The city is more than the sweet wines which bear its name and for which the city is famous (but don’t miss the historic Florio Winery and the Donnafugata Winery). You’ll also want to see Marsala’s salt marshes—and be sure to try busiati, the oldest handmade pasta in the world.
Monreale. The city’s Duomo is one of the greatest medieval treasures in the world—the 58,000 square feet of mosaics will take your breath away.
Palermo. Palermo bears witness to its past—conquered by the Phoenicians, Arabs, and Spanish, its churches and archeological remnants are unrivaled. Then the Palazzo dei Normanni and its Byzantine mosaics never fail to awe visitors; Normal Royal Palace and Palatine Chapel are divine; golden beaches of Mondello Lido, the foodie delights of the city’s markets, the Botanical Gardens—all are must-see sights in Palermo.
Ragusa. Ragusa Ibla is a fairytale of church domes and terracotta roofs. The Duomo di San Giorgio, the Giardino Ibleo, and the 18 listed UNESCO monuments will delight you.
Siracusa and Ortygia Island. Archimedes, Cicero, Saint Paul, Caravaggio, and the naval hero Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson all made their presence known in Siracusa. In fact, Aeschylus premiered his plays at the still-functioning Teatro Greco here. One of the most beautiful squares in Italy, the Piazza del Duomo, is in the tiny island of Ortygia
Taormina. Perhaps there is no more famous name in Sicily than Taormina.
This resort town draws the international jet set to its romantic alleys and glittering hotels. But Taormina is steeped in ancient history and mythology—Giardini-Naxos, Teatro Greco, and the Norman and Baroque monuments are all worth a visit.
Of course, Mt. Etna, Europe’s highest volcano, is in Taormina, and no visit to Sicily would be complete without gazing at its stunning vistas.
Trapani. Ornate churches like the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and the Torre della Colombaia define the architecture here. Don’t miss shopping for the city’s famous exquisite coral jewelry.