Interior of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The mosaic decoration shows the mixture of Norman and Muslim influences in Norman Sicily.

A Crossroads of Diverse Civilizations in Sicily

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and is an autonomous region of Italy. It is known for its beautiful landscapes, its ideal climate, its typical architecture which reflects the past of the region, i.e. a region coveted by many populations through the centuries.  Because of its geographical situation, it has known and still knows today a unique mix of cultures in the world. We will therefore see through its history, how Sicily became a real crossroads of civilizations. 


Known as Trinacria in Greek antiquity because of its triangular shape, its location as a lock in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea has always given it a strategic position. This explains the cultural richness of the island. The continuous mixing of populations explains the very varied physique of the Sicilians.A territory much coveted by many populations (Romans, Arabs, Normans…) for its numerous riches, its geographical situation in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicily is the link between the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean (from east to west), but also between Europe and North Africa (from north to south). Over the centuries, the main Mediterranean powers have settled here.

The early days of Sicily

It seems that Sicily was inhabited as early as the Palaeolithic period. Legend has it that Sicily was originally populated by both the monstrous Cyclops and the Lestrigons. This is proven by the discoveries made to date in Sicily and its minor islands. The most ancient peoples of Sicily are thought to be the Sicanes (from the Iberian Peninsula) who occupied the whole of Sicily. But they suffered the arrival of several invasions that divided the island into three main parts:

  •  the Sicanes, who had to push back towards the centre and the west
  •  the Elymians (who are said to be Trojan exiles) who settled in the extreme west
  •  the Siculi (in Latin Siculi), an Indo-European tribe to whom the island owes its name 
Division of the island before the Greek civilization
Division of the island before the Greek civilization (source : Wikipedia)

This took place during the 13th century BC, and the island was already an important stage in Mediterranean trade. The Phoenicians, originally from the coast of present-day Syria, frequented the Sicilian shores, but it was not until the 10th and 9th centuries BC that they took possession of the island in several places in the form of extremely active trading posts. They were to expand rapidly and then come up against one of the major events in Sicilian history: Greek colonisation.

Greek colonization

At the beginning of the 8th century BC and until the middle of the 6th century BC, Greeks used the previously abandoned route through the Strait of Messina (the passage between Italy and Sicily) and at the same time reached the shores of Sicily and the south of the Italian peninsula. Around the middle of the seventh century BC, the Greek cities embarked on the adventure and founded colonies on their own account. In Sicily, which they named Trinacria (the island of the Three Spikes), they settled on the eastern coast, initially limiting themselves to the coastline, and then drove the various Sicilian tribes inland and the Phoenicians to the western part of the island, where the latter established new trading posts (Motye, Palermo).

The colonists had of course imported their language, their political organisation, their currency, their laws, their gods, enough to create an identical Greece. The Greeks also imported their typical architecture and began to build colossal construction sites to build temples and cities.

One of the vestiges of Greek civilisation: the Valley of the Temples
One of the vestiges of Greek civilisation: the Valley of the Temples (source : Pinterest)

Made prosperous by trade, fertile land and the know-how of the colonists, the Greek cities developed and Sicily suddenly took on major economic, commercial and strategic importance. It was able to supply wheat to the entire Mediterranean basin, which was in desperate need of it. The island was then the target of several attempts at domination by the greatest Mediterranean powers. In the 2nd century BC, the Romans succeeded in seizing Syracuse after the Punic Wars (wars between Carthage and the Roman Empire), a city that was unavoidable at that time, which put an end to Greek rule. 

Roman Sicily

The Romans fought for Sicily because of its great economic and cultural wealth, all of which is the legacy of Greek civilisation. But its main reason was agriculture: wine, oil, cattle, fishing and of course wheat. The island was obliged to feed the Roman people and is referred to as the “granary” of Rome. 

Due to the inhumane exploitation of the workforce and slaves, the history of the island is marked by numerous revolutions against the Empire for over two centuries.

The evolution of the Roman Empire contributed to the development of Sicily’s prosperity, mainly through the construction of a road network. It no longer needed to supply Rome with its resources and enjoyed over five centuries of peace. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, Sicily was at the mercy of the surrounding civilisations. 

It was then to experience an event that was to leave its mark: the Muslim domination.

Muslim Sicily

Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, in Palermo. It recalls some elements of Arab architecture
Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, in Palermo. It recalls some elements of Arab architecture (source : vous-avez-dit-arabe?)

Muslim rule began around 827. Through repeated attacks, they managed to take several cities by storm. Around 831 Palermo fell to the Muslims and became the capital of Sicily, but the domination was not total and very slow. After more than 70 years of reign, the Muslim influence is felt throughout the territory : 

  •  Sicily is adorned with magnificent palaces and mosques around which villages are built 
  • The majority of the population becomes Muslim
  • A wave of immigration from North Africa hits the island, increasing its population and economy. These new cultures also brought new agricultural sources (cotton, pistachios, papyrus…) which the local peasantry adopted.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the quarrels between Muslim potentates favoured the return of the Byzantines, and above all the arrival on the island of ambitious feudal lords from Normandy via southern Italy.

Norman Sicily

When the Normans arrived, Sicily “was more than half Arab” and “Byzantine for almost everything else”. However, the Norman monarchy, far from erasing the traces of each of these civilisations, was inspired by the oriental, Arab and Byzantine models and underwent an original evolution.

Christians and Muslims lived together in Sicily. Palermo thus became a cosmopolitan city where Muslims, Christians and Orthodox lived side by side. This cohabitation allowed for numerous cultural exchanges in Sicily. 

Interior of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The mosaic decoration shows the mixture of Norman and Muslim influences in Norman Sicily.
Interior of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. The mosaic decoration shows the mixture of Norman and Muslim influences in Norman Sicily. (source : classes.bnf)

Sicily appears above all as a land of peaceful contact between the three civilizations of the 12th century Mediterranean, even though there were many external attacks. The Norman kings showed great tolerance towards the Muslims. This cosmopolitanism made Sicily, and Palermo in particular, a centre of knowledge and cultural mixing. However, in the second half of the 12th century, the massive arrival of Italians in Sicily marginalised the Muslim community. The latter revolted in the 13th century and all of them were deported to southern Italy, putting an end to the regime of tolerance and the fragile cohabitation established by the Norman kings. 

Sicily then experienced a period of unrest and wars that weakened the region. It was then an “easy prey” and passed under the hands of different civilizations (putting an end to the Norman reign) such as:

  • The French
  • The Swabians

Until the arrival of the Spanish.

Spanish Domination

From 1410 (until 1713) Sicily became part of, or rather the possession of, the Kingdom of Spain. During this period, the local peasantry was subjected to real repression, misery and taxes. As for the nobility and the dominants, they controlled everything: power, money, land… Just like in France at that time.
Similarly, the island’s infrastructure was lagging behind and even non-existent in places. Finally, the royal authority was only effective in certain parts of the island, the interior being prey to brigandage. Several reforms, attempting to restore a semblance of equality, were launched, but they came up against the hostility of the nobility and the Church.

Revolts multiplied, weakening the region even more, and it became the focus of the great European monarchies. In 1799, French revolutionary troops invaded the Kingdom of Sicily. The ideas of the Revolution found little echo there.

But after all these years of domination by foreign civilisations, Sicily finally chose to become part of Italy by referendum in 1860.

The 20th century

The 20th century did not see another invasion of a new people or anything else. The region was nevertheless marked by serious events such as the world wars, particularly the second. In 1943, the Allies took Sicily, which emerged from the war battered by heavy destruction.
It was also the birth of the mafia (in 1861), a kind of regularised brigandage against which Sicily fought hard. Numerous attempts were made by Parliament to take action against the “octopus”, but to no avail. It also spread to the United States due to immigration and became world famous.

Contemporary times

2011 – 2018> For several years, Sicily has been increasingly at the forefront of the problem of illegal immigration from Africa. The migration crisis is transforming Sicily with the arrival of 400,000 migrants from Africa via Tunisia to Lampedusa in 20 years, then as many migrants from 2015 to 2018, arriving from Libya directly in the port of Catania, rescued on zodiacs by international boats that have come to dock here. An agreement between Libya, Europe and Italy puts an end to rescue at sea.

More than 500 migrants rescued off Sicily
More than 500 migrants rescued off Sicily (source: Europe1).

But these problems do not prevent Sicily from remaining a popular tourist destination. Its coastline, volcanoes, archaeological and cultural heritage are major assets in maintaining its attractiveness.


The area

With an area of 25,708 km2, it is the largest region in Italy and its territory is made up of nine former provinces which are in turn divided into 390 municipalities. It is also the only Italian region to have two of the country’s ten most populous cities: Palermo and Catania.


Sicily is not a very multilingual region. In fact, 91% of Sicilians speak Sicilian as their mother tongue and Italian as their second language. Only 8% of the island’s inhabitants speak only Italian. Both languages are of Latin origin (Romance languages). Most Italian-speaking Sicilians speak regional Italian, i.e. Italian with a sprinkling of Italianised Sicilian words.  Sicilian speakers can be called Siciliano phones.

The Sicilian flag

The flag of Sicily shows a Trinacria, the symbol of the island. The Trinacria refers to the island of the Three Spikes, the name the Greeks gave to Sicily, which was called Sicania in the time of the Siculi and the Sicanes. The symbol is inspired by the triskel (from tri- “three” and Greek skelos “leg”), a coin of the time on which a Gorgon’s head surrounded by three legs was represented. This famous symbol is found all over the island, illustrating this vain race, retracing the complex and ever-recurring story. This symbol is inspired by the Isle of Man’s Triskel Manx, which is said to represent the Celtic Trinity.

The sicilian flag
The sicilian flag (source : Wikipedia)

The local population

Sicilians are a complex group of different peoples. Indeed, due to multiple conquests in the course of their history, Sicilians are of Phoenician, Greek, Ostrogothic, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Austrian, French, British, Spanish and Italian origin. They are probably the most mixed of all the Mediterranean peoples. The official language of the island was once Greek, Latin, Arabic, Franco-Norman, French, Spanish.


Obviously, we can’t talk about Sicily without mentioning Etna. It is one of the main symbols of the region and is renowned worldwide, both for its beauty and its danger.

The Etna with the city of Catania at its feet.
The Etna with the city of Catania at its feet. (source : Wikipedia)

At over 3,330 metres above sea level, it is one of the highest volcanoes still active in the world. In the 20th century, for example, there were more than 80 eruptions, and even today, clouds of ash and lava spew from the crater. However, the second most populated city in Sicily, Catania, is located about 20 km from Etna.

The first historical references to the volcano date back more than 2500 years (around 490 BC). At that time, gold and silver objects were thrown as offerings to the god Vulcan. If the volcano spat them out, it meant that he refused them and the donor was thrown into the lava.

We have seen how Sicily has been a land of meeting between totally different peoples, religions and ethnic groups and that this past is reflected in the present through its inhabitants, its architecture, its landscapes…

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