The term Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture, Norman-Sicilian culture or, less inclusive, Norman-Arab culture, (sometimes referred to as "Norman-Arab civilization") refers to the interaction of the Norman, Arab and Byzantine cultures following the Norman conquest of Sicily from 1061 to around 1250. This civilization resulted from numerous exchanges in the cultural and scientific fields, based on the tolerance showed by the Normans towards the Greek-speaking population and the Muslim settlers. As a result, Sicily under the Normans became a crossroad for the interaction between the Norman-Catholic, Byzantine-Orthodox and Arab-Islamic cultures.
Norman conquest of Southern Italy
Following the Islamic conquest of Sicily in 965, the Normans conquered the island from the Saracens starting in 1060. The Normans had been expanding south, driven by the myth of a happy and sunny island in the Southern Seas. The Norman Robert Guiscard ("the cunning"), son of Tancred, invaded Sicily in 1060. The island was split between three Arab emirs, and the sizable Christian population rebelled against the ruling Muslims. One year later Messina fell under the leadership of Roger I of Sicily, and in 1071, Palermo was taken by the Normans. The loss of the cities, each with a splendid harbor, dealt a severe blow to Muslim power on the island. Eventually all of Sicily was taken. In 1091, Noto in the southern tip of Sicily and the island of Malta, the last Arab strongholds, fell to the Christians.
An intense Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture developed, exemplified by rulers such as Roger II of Sicily, who had Islamic soldiers, poets and scientists at his court. Roger II himself spoke Arabic perfectly and was fond of Arab culture. He used Arab troops and siege engines in his campaigns in southern Italy, and mobilized Arab architects to help his Normans build monuments in the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. The various agricultural and industrial techniques which had been introduced by Arabs into Sicily over the two preceding centuries were kept and further developed, allowing for the remarkable prosperity of the Island. For the following two centuries, Sicily under the Norman's rule became a model and an example that was universally admired throughout Europe and Arabia.
The English historian John Julius Norwich remarked of the Kingdom of Sicily:
"Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe --and indeed in the whole bigoted medieval world-- as an example of tolerance and enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own."
John Julius Norwich
During Roger II's reign, the Kingdom of Sicily became increasingly characterized by its multi-ethnic composition and unusual religious tolerance. Normans, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Longobards and "native" Sicilians uniquely existed in harmony, and Roger II was known to have planned for the establishment of an Empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt and the Crusader states in the Levant up until his death in 1154. One of the greatest geographical treatises of the Middle Ages was written for Roger II by the Andalusian scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi, and entitled Kitab Rudjdjar ("The book of Roger").
Although the language of the court was French (Langue d'oïl), all royal edicts were written in the language of the people they were addressed to: Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Hebrew. Roger's royal mantel, used for his coronation (and also used for the coronation of Frederick II), bore an inscription in Arabic with the Hijri date of 528 (1133–1134).
Islamic authors would marvel at the forbearance of the Norman kings:
Interactions continued with the succeeding Norman kings, for example under William II of Sicily, as attested by the Spanish-Arab geographer Ibn Jubair who landed in the island after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1184. To his surprise, Ibn Jubair enjoyed a very warm reception by the Norman Christians. He was further surprised to find that even the Christians spoke Arabic, that the government officials were still largely Muslim, and that the heritage of some 130 previous years of Muslim rule of Sicily was still intact:
"The attitude of the king is really extraordinary. His attitude towards the Muslims is perfect: he gives them employment, he choses his officers among them, and all, or almost all, keep their faith secret and can remain faithful to the faith of Islam. The king has full confidence in the Muslims and relies on them to handle many of his affairs, including the most important ones, to the point that the Great Intendant for cooking is a Muslim (...) His viziers and chamberlains are eunuchs, of which there are many, who are the members of his government and on whom he relies for his private affairs."
Ibn Jubair, Rihla.
Ibn Jubair also mentioned that many Christians in Palermo wore the Muslim dress, and many spoke Arabic. The Norman kings also continued to strike coins in Arabic with Hegira dates. The registers at the Royal court were written in Arabic. At one point, William II of Sicily is recorded to have said: “Everyone of you should invoke the one he adores and of whom he follows the faith”.
Numerous artistic techniques from the Islamic world were also incorporated to form the basis of Arab-Norman art: inlays in mosaics or metals, sculpture of ivory or porphyry, sculpture of hard stones, bronze foundries, manufacture of silk (for which Roger II established a regium ergasterium, a state enterprise which would give Sicily the monopoly of silk manufacture for all Europe).
The new Norman rulers started to build various constructions in what is called the Arab-Norman style. They incorporated the best practices of Arab and Byzantine architecture into their own art.
The Church of Saint-John of the Hermits, was built in Palermo by Roger II around 1143–1148 in such a style. The church is notable for its brilliant red domes, which show clearly the persistence of Arab influences in Sicily at the time of its reconstruction in the 12th century. In his Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily, Frances Elliot described it as "... totally oriental... it would fit well in Baghdad or Damascus". The bell tower, with four orders of arcaded loggias, is instead a typical example of Gothic architecture.
The Cappella Palatina, also in Palermo, combines harmoniously a variety of styles: the Norman architecture and door decor, the Arabic arches and scripts adorning the roof, the Byzantine dome and mosaics. For instance, clusters of four eight-pointed stars, typical for Muslim design, are arranged on the ceiling so as to form a Christian cross.
The Monreale cathedral is generally described as "Norman-Arab-Byzantine". The outsides of the principal doorways and their pointed arches are magnificently enriched with carving and colored inlay, a curious combination of three styles — Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab.
Other examples of Arab-Norman architecture include the Palazzo dei Normanni, or Castelbuono. This style of construction would persist until the 14th and the 15th century, exemplified by the use of the cupola.
Transmission to Europe
The points of contact between Europe and Islamic lands were multiple during the Middle Ages, with Sicilia playing a key role in the transmission of knowledge to Europe, although less important than that of Spain. The main points of transmission of Islamic knowledge to Europe were in Sicilia, and in Islamic Spain, particularly in Toledo (with Gerard of Cremone, 1114–1187, following the conquest of the city by the Spanish Christians in 1085). Many exchanges also occurred in the Levant due to the presence of the Crusaders there.
Arabic art and science continued to be heavily influential in Sicily during the two centuries following the Christian conquest. Norman rule formally ended in 1198 with the reign of Constance of Sicily, and was replaced by that of the Swabian Hohenstaufen Dynasty. Constance's son Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily in the early 13th century, who was Norman by his mother and Swabian by his father Emperor Henry VI, spoke Arabic and had several Muslim ministers.
In 1224 however, Frederick II, responding to religious uprisings in Sicily, expelled all Muslims from the island, transferring many to Lucera over the next two decades. In this controlled environment, they couldn't challenge royal authority and they benefited the crown in taxes and military service. Their numbers eventually reached between 15,000 and 20,000, leading Lucera to be called Lucaera Saracenorum because it represented the last stronghold of Islamic presence in Italy. The colony thrived for 75 years until it was sacked in 1300 by Christian forces under the command of Charles II of Naples. The city's Muslim inhabitants were exiled or sold into slavery, with many finding asylum in Albania across the Adriatic Sea. Their abandoned mosques were destroyed or converted, and churches arose upon the ruins, including the cathedral S. Maria della Vittoria.
Even under Manfred (died in 1266) Islamic influence in Sicily persisted though, but it had almost disappeared by the beginning of the 14th century. Latin progressively replaced Arabic, however: the last Sicilian document in the Arabic language is dated to 1245.
- Islam in Italy
- History of Islam in southern Italy
- Norman conquest of southern Italy
- Emirate of Sicily
- Hedwig glass
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- Quoted in Aubé, p.168
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- Les Normands en Sicile
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