The History of the Emirate of Sicily


The island of Sicily in the minds of contemporaries is the indigenous territory of Italy, but in the Middle Ages it was the arena of the struggle between the Caliphate and Byzantine rulers. As a result of which for 250 years it was completely conquered by the Caliphate governors of North Africa from the Aghlabid dynasty and became an independent state called the Emirate of Sicily. This is a lot of years, equal to the span of ten generations. Therefore, for the Mediterranean inhabitants of the 10th century CE Sicily was perceived as the eternal Land of Islam. For comparison, the Soviet Union existed for only 70 years, three generations, and in the minds of our contemporaries it was perceived as something eternal and unchanging.

Greek And Roman Connection

In ancient times, Sicily was conquered by Ancient Greece. It was one of the centres of Greek science and culture. Here, on the coast of the Ionian Sea, in the southern Sicilian city of Syracuse, the great scientist Archimedes was born and lived. Great scientist Pythagoras lived here for a long time, as well as the philosopher Plato, who had a deep influence on the greatest medieval Muslim philosophers, such as Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd.  Sicily was home for the famous playwright Aeschill (tragedy “The Persians”). Later Sicily became a province of the Roman Empire and then Byzantium. Sicily forms a triangle that lies between the ‘toe’ of the ‘Italian boot’ and the projection of the African continent on which ancient Carthage (now Tunis) is located. Carthage became the perfect base for the Arab conquest of Sicily.

Under Fatimid Rule

The Third Rightly Guided Caliph Uthman (652) and the first Umayyad Caliph Muawiya (661-680) and his successors made attempts to seize Sicily. For a whole century, Arab troops constantly attacked the island, sometimes capturing Syracuse, but then withdrew back. The final conquest of Sicily was carried out in 827 by the governor of North Africa Ziyadatullah ibn Ibrahim of the Aghlabid clan. Already under Harun al-Rashid the Aghlabids actually became independent from the Caliphate, although they nominally recognized the authority of the Baghdad Caliph.

The excuse to set of on the conquest presented itself with the mutiny of the commander of the troops of Sicily, Euthymius, who offered Ziyadatullah assistance in the conquest of the island on the condition that he would make Euthymius the ruler of Sicily and a vassal of the Aghlabids. The Aghlabid army succeeded fully in conquering the island, including occupying the city of Palermo in northern Sicily and making it its capital under the name of Al-Madina instead of Syracuse, located on the opposite side of the island, but over the next hundred years the Byzantines continued waging wars of retaliation against the Muslims and trying to reclaim the island.

The last Byzantine troops left the island in 965. By this time, North Africa became part of the Fatimid Caliphate and Sicily, as a vassal of the Aghlabids, became a vassal of the Fatimid Caliphate. The Fatimids gave it the status of an emirate, and soon the island’s own dynasty of the Kalbits (named after Emir Hasan al-Kalbi) emerged here.

Impact on the Economic and Social Life

The Muslim conquest radically changed the face of the island of Sicily and had such a strong impact on the economic and social life of the country that many Arab transformations ensured Sicily a long, comfortable and successful existence for many centuries after the end of Muslim rule. Muslims carried out a land reform and created farms in Sicily, replacing large collective plantations in Rome. They irrigated the land and brought new crops of oranges, lemons, almonds, sugarcane, pistachios.

Before the arrival of the Arabs, the things that Sicily is now so famous for had simply been unknown to the Byzantines! The Greek population of the island actively adopted Islam (for non-Muslims, there were increased taxes and bans on carrying weapons and riding horses). At the same time, the Sicilian emirs took care of maintaining peace between Muslims and non-Muslims, as a result of which, during the Arab rule, the population of Palermo grew to 350,000 inhabitants (no other city in Europe had such a number of inhabitants, after the arrival of the Normans, the number of inhabitants decreased to 150,000 people).

Kingdom Of Sicily

Muslim Sicily was a peaceful, prosperous country that aroused the envy of Christians in Europe. In 1068, the Pope conferred the title of Duke of Apulia and Sicily on the Norman Duke of Apulia (the area on the Adriatic Sea that occupies the ‘heel’ of the ‘Italian boot’) in order to reclaim the island from the Muslims. By that time, the Emirate of Sicily had split into three warring parts and it was not difficult to conquer it. The younger brother of the Duke of Apulia Roger I managed to defeat the Muslim army and take possession of Sicily, becoming a vassal of his brother under the name of the Count of Sicily. Under his descendants, Sicily became the Kingdom of Sicily.

The Arabic language was the official language of the island for the next century, the Arabic culture, architecture, social structure for a long time had a decisive influence on the life of the Sicilians. However, a century later, the Muslim population of Sicily was subjected to forced deportation, and the remnants of Muslim rule were eradicated.