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The Islamic conquest and rule of Sicily, Maltamarker, and parts of southern Italy was a process whose origin can be traced back through the general expansion of Islam from the 7th century onwards. Though the Muslim presence was ephemeral on the peninsula and limited mostly to semi-permanent soldier camps—the Emirate of Bari existed for only twenty years or so—their rule over the island was effective from 902, but their complete rule of Sicily lasted only from 965 until 1061, though they were not completely evicted until 1091.

The Muslim conquest of Sicily and the subsequent Christian reconquest by the Normans was the major event in the history of Islam in Italy. The conquests of the Normans established Roman Catholicism firmly in the region, where Eastern Christianity had been prominent during the time of Byzantine rule and continued with the natives during the time of the Muslim overlords. Widespread conversion ensued, which, coupled with the re-latinisation of the inhabitants, led to the disappearance of Islam in Sicily by the 1280s.

First Islamic attacks on Sicily (652–827)

The first attacks from Islamic ships to Sicily, then part of the Eastern Roman Empire, occurred in 652: they were Arabs from Syriamarker, led by Mu'àuia ibn-Hodeig (Mu`āwiyah ibn Hudayj) of the Kinda tribe, and remained on the island for several years. The Byzantine exarch of Ravenna Olympius also came to Sicily but was unable to oust the invaders, who returned to Syria after collecting a large amount of booty.

A second expedition occurred in 669. This time the strong, ravaging force consisted of 200 ships from Alexandriamarker. They sacked Syracusemarker and returned to Egyptmarker after a month of pillaging. After the Umayyad conquest of Africa (complete around 700), 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 Tunisiamarker by a Berber revolt. A second attack in 752 aimed only to sack the same city.

In 805 the Imperial patrician of Sicily, Constantine, signed a ten years truce with Ibrahim I ibn al-Aghlab, Emir of Ifriqiya, but this did not prevent other Muslim fleets from other areas of Africa and Spain from attacking Sardinia and Corsicamarker in 806-821. In 812 Ibrahim's son, Abdallah I, sent an invasion force to conquer Sicily. His ships were however first harassed by the intervention of Gaetamarker and Amalfimarker, and later destroyed in great number by a tempest. However, they managed to conquer the island of Lampedusamarker and, in the Tyrrhenian Seamarker, to ravage Ponzamarker and Ischiamarker. A further agreement between the new patrician Gregorius and the Emir established the freedom of commerce between southern Italy and Ifriqiya. After a further attack by Mohammed ibn-Adballad, cousin of Emir Ziyadat Allah I in 819, no subsequent Muslim attacks to Sicily are mentioned by sources until 827.

Muslims on the mainland

Liguria and Piedmont

The invasion of Saracens is strictly related with other Arab incursions, who from the 10th century were present in all southern Piedmont, in Montferrat, in the Alps near Great St Bernardmarker, in Viennemarker, and in the Italian Riviera. Arabs came there from their base in Saint-Tropezmarker, (Provence), where they founded the famous Fraxinet (actual "La Garde Frainet"); this town gave its name to all other Arab insediaments in Piemonte and Liguria (Frassineti and Prassinelli).

Initially, the Saracen hordes carried out only brief raids into Piedmontese valleys, crossing the Alpine passes, which were not kept in check by the weakened Carolingian Empire.

Then, the Saracens started to drive a real invasion to stabilize their control on Piedmontese valleys, founding cities and castles, and overcoming the local population with taxes and any sort of prepotence.

After having asserted a tight control on the coast, the Moors crossed the Maritime Alpsmarker, reaching Cuneomarker countryside in several ways:

Nowadays, in the valley of Tanaro, there are ruins of Saracen towers. The Moors gained full control of the Alpine passes and used this power to impose tributes on passers-by.

The fear of Saracens was enshrined in literature: in the Planctum Pedonae, a medieval poem, is narrated the devastation of the cisalpin area after the passage of Saracens; in the Chronicon Novaliciense is narrated the escape of Novalese monksmarker (which hide in Turinmarker) comparing the invasion of saracens to a river in flood.

Command of the western Alps

In the late 9th century the Saracens in Provence, Piedmont and Liguria became more powerful, and their enormous wealth attracted also French and Italian men who collaborate with them.

The local men-of-war helped the Saracens to increase their strongness. In 940 Hugh of Arles , with the Byzantine emperor Romanos Lekapenus started a campaign to destroy Fraxinet.

In 942 the Saracen settlement was attacked, but then Hugh made an accord with the Saracens to defend the Pennine Alpsmarker against Berengar of Ivrea.

Emirate of Bari (847–871)

The port city of Barimarker, in Apuliamarker, was captured by a Muslim army in 847. For some 25 years it became the capital of a small independent Islamic state with an amir and a mosque of its own. The first ruler of Bari was Khalfun (847-852), a Berber leader who had probably come from Sicily. After his death in 852, he was succeeded by Mufarrag ibn Sallam, who strengthened the Muslim conquest and enlarged its boundaries. He also asked for official recognition from Baghdad caliph al-Mutawakkil's governor in Egyptmarker as wali (i.e., prefect ruling over a province of the Abbasid empire).

The third and last amir of Bari was Sawdan, who came to power around 857 after the murder of his predecessor. He invaded the lands of the Lombard Duchy of Benevento, forcing duke Adelchis to pay a tribute. In 864 he obtained the official investiture asked by Mufarrag. The town was embellished with a mosque, palaces and public works.

Latium and Campania

Throughout the ninth century the Arab ships dominated the Tyrrhenian Seamarker. Their pirates prowled the Italian coast, launching hit and run attacks against the cities of Amalfimarker, Gaetamarker, Naplesmarker, and Salernomarker. During this period, as the cities took command of their own defences, the Duchies of Gaeta and Amalfi gained their independence from the Duchy of Naples. The Christian states of the Campania were not yet prepared, however, to ally against the new "pagan" threat. Amalfi and Gaeta regularly teamed up with the Saracens and Naples was hardly better, all much to the chagrin of the Papacy. In fact it was Naples that first brought Saracen troops to the south Italian mainland when Duke Andrew II hired them as mercenaries during his war with Sicard, Prince of Benevento, in 836. Sicard immediately responded with his own Saracen mercenaries and the usage soon became a tradition. In 880 or 881 Pope John VIII, who encouraged a vigorous policy against the Muslim pirates and raiders, rescinded his grant of Traetto to Docibilis I of Gaeta and gave it instead to Pandenulf of Capua. As Patricia Skinner relates:
[Pandenolf] began to attack Gaeta's territory, and in retaliation against the pope Docibilis unleashed a group of Arabs from Agropoli near Salerno on the area around Fondi. The pope was "filled with shame" and restored Traetto to Docibilis. Their agreement seems to have sparked off a Saracen attack on Gaeta itself, in which many Gaetans were killed or captured. Eventually peace was restored and the Saracens made a permanent settlement on the mouth of the Garigliano river.
The Saracen camp at Minturnomarker (in modern day Lazio) by the Garigliano Rivermarker became a perennial thorn in the side for the Papacy and many expeditions were sought to rid them. In 915 Pope John X organised a vast alliance of southern powers, including Gaeta and Naples, the Lombards princes, and the Byzantines, though the Amalfitans stood aloof. The subsequent Battle of the Garigliano was successful and the Saracens were ousted from any presence in Lazio or Campania permanently, though raiding would be a continuous problem for another century.

Invasion of Otranto

In 1480, an Ottoman Turkish fleet invaded Otranto, landing nearby the city and capturing it along with its fort. The Pope called for a crusade, with a massive force built up by Ferdinand I of Naples, among them notably troops of Hungarian king Matthias Corvinus, despite frequent Italian quarreling at the time. The Neapolitan force met with the Turks in 1481, thoroughly annihilating them and recapturing Otranto.

In 1537, the famous Turkish corsair and Ottoman admiral Barbarossa captured Otranto and the Fortress of Castro, but the Turks were eventually repulsed from the city and the rest of Puglia.

Islamic Sicily

Conquest of Sicily (827–902)

The Muslim conquest of Sicily and parts of Southern Italy lasted 75 years. According to some sources, the conquest was spurred by the Byzantine commander on the island, Eufemius, who feared the punishment from Emperor Michael II for a sexual indiscretion. After a short-lived conquest of Syracuse, during which he was proclaimed emperor, he was compelled by the loyal forces to flee to Africa at the court of Ziyadat Allah. The latter accepted to conquer Sicily, with the promise to leave it to Eufemius in exchange of a yearly tribute, and entrusted its conquest to the 70 years old qadi Asad ibn al-Furat. The Muslim force counted 10,000 infantry, 700 cavalry and 100 ships, reinforced by Eufemius' ships and, after the landing at Mazara del Vallomarker, knights. A first battle against the Byzantine loyal 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 Palermomarker, also backed by a Venetian fleet led by doge Giustiniano Participazio. But when a plague killed much of the Muslim troops, as well as Asad himself, the Muslims retreated to the castle of Mineomarker. Later they returned to the offensive, but failed to conquer Castrogiovanni (the modern Enna, where Eufemius died) and retreated back to Mazara. In 830 they received a strong reinforcement of 30,000 African and Spanish troops. The Spanish Muslim defeated the Byzantine commander Teodotus in the July-August of that year, but again a plague forced them to return to Mazara and then to Africa. The African Berber units, which had been sent to besiege Palermomarker, managed to capture it after a year-long siege in the September 831. Palermo became Muslims capital of Sicily, renamed al-Madinah.

In February 832, Ziyadat Allah sent his cousin Abu Fihr Muhammad ibn Abd-Allah to the island and appointed him as the wali of Sicily. The Byzantines were defeated in the early 834 and in the following year, his troops reaching as far as Taorminamarker. The war dragged on for several years with minor Ahglabid victories, the Byzantines resisting in their strongholds of Castrogiovanni and Cefalùmarker. New troops arrived in the island by the new Emir Al-Aghlab Abu Affan, which occupied Platanimarker, Caltabellottamarker, Corleonemarker, Marineomarker and Geracimarker, granting the Muslim the total control of western Sicily.

In 836 Muslim ships helped Andrew II of Naples, their ally, besieged by Beneventan troops, and with Neapolitan support in 842 Messinamarker was also conquered. In 845 also Modicamarker fell and the Byzantines suffered a crushing defeat near Butera, losing c. 10,000 men. Lentinimarker was conquered in 846. Ragusamarker was conquered in 848.

In 851 the governor and general Al-Aghlab Abu Ibrahim, whose rule had been highly appreciated by his new Palermitan and Sicilian subjects, especially if compared to the former Byzatine vexations, died. He was succeeded by Abbas ibn-Fadhl, the ferocious victor of Butera. He started a campaign of ravages against the lands still in Byzantine hands, capturing Butera, Gagliano, Cefalù and, most of all, Castrogiovanni (winter 859). All the Christian survivors from that fortress were executed, children and women sold as slaves at Palermo. The fall of the most important fortress in the island pushed the emperor to send a large army in 859-860, but this was defeated by Abbas, as well as the fleet which had carried it. The Byzantines reinforcements led many of the cities subjugated by the Muslim to revolt, and Abbas devoted the years 860-861 to reduce them. Abbas died in 861, replaced by his uncle Ahmed ibn-Jakub and, from February 862, by Abdallah, son of Abbas; the latter was in turn replaced by the Aghlabids with Khafagia ibn-Sofian, who captured Noto, Sciclimarker and Troinamarker.

In the summer of 868 the Byzantines were defeated a first time near Syracuse. Hostilities resumed in the early summer of 877 by the new sultan Jafar ibn-Muhammad, who besieged Syracuse. The city fell on May 21 878. The Byzantines now maintained the control of a short stretch of coast around Taorminamarker, while the Muslim fleet attacked Greece and Maltamarker. The latter fleet was however destroyed in a naval battle in 880: for a moment it seemed that the Byzantines could regain Sicily, but new land victories for the Muslims re-established the situation. A revolt in Palermomarker against governor Seuàda ibn-Muhammad was crushed in 887.

The death of the strong emperor Basil I in 886 also encouraged the Muslim to attack Calabria, where the imperial army was defeated in the summer of 888. However, the first inner revolt was followed by another in 890, mostly spurred by the hostility between Arabs and Berbers. In 892 an emir sent from Ifriqiya by Ibrahim II ibn Ahmad Palermomarker, but was ousted again a few months later. The prince did not relent, and sent to Sicily another powerful army under his son Abu l-Abbas Abdallah in 900. The Sicilians were defeated at Trapani (August 22) and outside Palermo (September 8), the latter city resisting for another ten days. Abu l-Abbas moved against the remaining Byzantine strongholds, and was also able to capture Reggio Calabriamarker on the mainland on June 10 901.

As Ibrahim was forced to abdicate in Tunis, he decided to lead in person the operations in southern Italy. Taormina, the last main Byzantine stronghold in Sicily, fell on August 1 902. Messina and other cities opened their gates to avoid the same massacre.

Ibrahim's army also marched in southern Calabria, besieging Cosenzamarker. Ibrahim died of dysentery on October 24. His grandson stopped the military campaign and returned to Sicily.

Aghlabid Sicily (827–909)

At this point, Sicily was almost entirely in control of Aghlabids, with the exception of some minor strongholds in the rugged interior. The population had been increased by the immigration of Muslims from Africa, Asia and Spain, as well as Berbers, who were most concentrated in the south of the island. The emir in Palermo nominated the governors of the main cities (qadi) and those of the less important ones (hakim), and the other functionaries. Each city had a council called gema, composed of the most eminent members of the local society, which was entrusted with the care of the public works and of the social order. The conquered Sicilian population lived as dhimmi or converted to Islam.

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. Palermo in the 10th century is the most populous city in Italy, with about 300,000 inhabitantsA description of the city was given by Ibn Hawqual, a Baghdad merchant who visited Sicily in 950. A walled suburb called the Kasr (the citadel) 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.

Fatimid Sicily (909–965)

In 909 the African Aghlabid dynasty was replaced by the Shiite Fatimids. Four years later, the Fatimid governor was ousted from Palermo, the island declaring its independence under the emir Ahmed ibn-Kohrob. His first deed was a failed siege of Taormina, which had been rebuilt by the Christians; he was more successful in 914, when a Sicilian fleet under his son Mohammed destroyed the Fatimid fleet sent to recover the island. The following year, the destruction of another fleet sent against Calabria, and the unrest caused by ibn-Kohrob's reforms, led to a revolt of the Berbers.

The Berbers captured and hanged ibn-Kohrob, allegedly in the name of the Fatimid caliph al-Mahdi, hoping he would leave them freedom of rule in Sicily. Al-Madhi instead sent an army which sacked Palermo in 917. The island was governed by a Fatimid emir for the following 20 years. In 937 the Berbers of Agrigentomarker revolted again, but after two resounding successes, were decisively beaten at the gates of Palermo. An army was then sent by the new caliph al-Qa'im to besiege Agrigento twice, until it fell on November 20 940. The revolt was totally suppressed in 941, with many of the prisoners sold as slaves and the governor Khalil boasting to have killed 600,000 people in his campaigns.

Independent emirate of Sicily (965–1091)

Southern Italy circa 1000, showing the Kalbid emirate before its collapse.
After suppressing another revolt, in 948 the Fatimid caliph Ismail al-Mansur named Hassan al-Kalbi as emir of the Island. As his charge became soon hereditary, his emirate became de facto independent from the African government. In 950 Hassan waged war to the Byzantines in southern Italy, reaching up to Geracemarker and Cassano. A second Calabrian campaign in 952 resulted in the defeat of the Byzantine army; Gerace was again besieged, but in the end emperor Constantine VII was forced to accept to have the Calabrian cities to pay a tribute to Sicily.

In 956 the Byzantine replied reconquering Reggio and invading Sicily. A truce was signed in 960. Two years later a revolt in Taormina was bloodily suppressed, but the heroic resistance of the Christians in Rametta led the new Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas to send an army of 40,000 Armenians, Thracians and Slavs under his nephew Manuel, who captured Messina in October 964. On 25 October a fierce battle between the Byzantines and the Kalbids resulted in a defeat for the former, Manuel himself killed in the fray, as well as 10,000 of his men.

The new emir Abu al-Qasim (964-982) launched a series of attacks against Calabria in the 970s, while the fleet under his brother attacked the coasts of Apuliamarker, capturing some strongholds. As the Byzantines were busy against the Fatimids in Syria and the Bulgars in Macedon, the German emperor Otto II decided to intervene. The allied German-Lombard army was however defeated in 982 in the Battle of Stilomarker. However, as al-Qasim himself had been killed, his son Jabir al-Kalbi prudently retreated to Sicily without exploiting the victory.

The emirate lived the peak of its splendour under the emirs Jafar (983-985) and Yusuf al-Kalbi (990-998), both patron of arts. The latter's son Ja'far was instead a cruel and violent lord, who expelled the Berbers from the island after an unsuccessful revolt against him. Ja'far's power did not survive another uprising in Palermo in 1019, and was exiled to Africa, being replaced by his brother al-Akhal (1019-1037).

With the support of the Fatimids, al-Akhal defeated two Byzantine expedition in 1026 and 1031. His attempt to raise a heavy tax to pay his mercenaries caused a civil war. al-Akhal asked support to the Byzantines, while his brother abu-Hafs, leader of the rebels, received troops from the Zirid emir of Ifriqiya, al-Muizz ibn Badis, commanded by his son Abdallah. The operation were initially favourable to the Byzantine-Kalbids, but when the Byzantines returned to Calabria al-Akhal

Decline (1037–1061) and Norman conquest of Muslim Sicily (1061–1091)

Southern Italy in 1084, showing the remains of the Kalbid emirate, then fought over by multiple claimants, on the eve of the final Norman conquest.
In 1038 a Byzantine army under George Maniaces crossed the strait of Messina. This included a corps of Normans which saved the situation in the first clash against the Muslim from Messina. After another decisive victory in the summer of 1040, Maniaces halted his march to lay siege to Syracuse. Despite his conquest of the latter, Maniaces was removed from his position: the subsequent Muslim counter-offensive reconquered all the cities captured by the Byzantines.

The Norman Robert Guiscard, son of Tancred, invaded Sicily in 1060. The island was split between three Arab emir, and the sizeable Christian population rose up against the ruling Muslims. One year later Messina fell, and in 1072, 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, Notomarker in the southern tip of Sicily and the island of Maltamarker, the last Arab stongholds, fell to the Christians. By the 11th century Muslim power in the Mediterranean had begun to wane.

The Norman Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II was characterised by its multi-ethnic nature and religious tolerance. Normans, Jews, Muslim Arabs (Berbers and "Persians" enclosed), Byzantine Greeks, Longobards and "native" Sicilians lived in harmony. Rather than exterminate the Muslims of Sicily, the Roger II's grandson Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (1215—1250) allowed them to settle on the mainland and build mosques. Not least, he enlisted them in his — Christian — army and even into his personal bodyguards.

Many repressive measures, passed by Frederick II, were introduced in order to please the Popes who could not tolerate Islam being practiced in the heart of Christendom, which resulted in a rebellion of Sicily's Muslims. This in turn triggered organized resistance and systematic reprisals and marked the final chapter of Islam in Sicily. The Muslim problem characterized Hohenstaufen rule in Sicily under Henry VI and his son Frederick II. The annihilation of Islam in Sicily was completed by the late 1240s, when the final deportations to Luceramarker took place.

Islamic and Arabic influence and legacy

Ibn Hawqal, the eminent Arab traveler, visited Sicily in year 972 and described the city of Palermo in his book Al-Masalik wal Mamlik as "the city of the 300 mosques". This Islamic and Arabic identity of the island was still preserved even 100 years after the arrival of the Normans as described 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 200 previous years of Muslim rule of Sicily was still intact.

Arabic art and science continued to be heavily influential in Sicily during the two centuries following the Christian reconquest. Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily in the early 13th century, is said to have been able to speak Arabic (as well as Latin, Sicilian, German, French, and Greek) and had several Muslim ministers. The heritage of the Arabic language can be still found in numerous terms adapted from it and still used in Sicilian language.

A community of Muslims, especially fishermen from Tunisiamarker, has deep roots in the history of the town of Mazara del Vallomarker, on the south-western coast of Sicily. During the 1970s, a prosperous Italian economy spurred the immigration of Muslims from Jordanmarker, Syriamarker and Palestine to the area.

Another legacy of Muslim rule is the survival of some Sicilian placenames of Arabic origin, for example "Calata-" or "Calta-" from Arabic ( ) = “castle of”.

Also, a genetic study in 2009 revealed a significant genetic contribution of Northwest African genes among today's inhabitants near the region of Luceramarker.


  1. Moors and Saracens in Sicilian History
  2. The first permanent Arab conquest on Sicily occurred in 827, but it was not until Taormina fell in 902 that the entire island fell under the sway, though Rometta held out until 965. In that year the Kalbids established the independence of their emirate from the Fatimid caliphate. In 1061 the first Norman conquerors took Messina and by 1071 Palermo and its citadel (1072) were captured. In 1091 Noto fell to the Normans and the conquest was complete. Malta fell later that year, though the Arab administration was kept in place. See
  3. Kenneth M. Setton, "The Byzantine Background to the Italian Renaissance" in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 100:1 (Feb. 24, 1956), pp. 1–76.
  4. Skinner, 32–33.
  5. Skinner, see first chapter. See also the vast literature on the coming of the Normans to southern Italy.
  6. Skinner, 2–3.
  7. Skinner, 33, based on Leo of Ostia and the Chronica Monasterii Cassinensis.
  8. Previte-Orton (1971), vol. 1, pg. 370
  9. Islam in Sicily, by Alwi Alatas
  10. Previte-Orton (1971), pg. 370
  11. Overview of Italy in the late 9th century at
  12. Saracen Door and Battle of Palermo
  13. Previte-Orton (1971), pg. 507-11
  14. Normans in Sicilian History
  15. Roger II - Encyclopædia Britannica
  16. Tracing The Norman Rulers of Sicily
  17. Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor
  18. Saracen Archers in Southern Italy
  19. N.Daniel: The Arabs; op cit; p.154.
  20. A.Lowe: The Barrier and the bridge, op cit;p.92.
  21. "An inspection of Table 1 reveals a nonrandom distribution of Male Northwest African types in the Italian peninsula, with at least a twofold increase over the Italian average estimate in three geographically close samples across the southern Apennine mountains (East Campania, Northwest Apulia, Lucera). When pooled together, these three Italian samples displayed a local frequency of 4.7%, significantly different from the North and the rest of South Italy (...). Arab presence is historically recorded in these areas following Frederick II’s relocation of Sicilian Arabs", [1],Moors and Saracens in Europe estimating the medieval North African male legacy in southern Europe, Capelli et al., European Journal of Human Genetics, 21 January 2009

Further reading

  • Skinner, Patricia (1995). Family Power in Southern Italy: The Duchy of Gaeta and its Neighbours, 850–1139. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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