The Byzantine Empire maintained control of Syracuse until the year 878, when Arabian forces conquered it, destroying the city and massacring its people. Arabs continued to dominate the city until the Norman conquest in 1105.
After the destruction of 878, and despite losing its status as the regional capital (Palermo had subsequently taken that title) and being reduced in scope to the single island of Ortigia, Syracuse was rebuilt, this time in the Arabic-infused Moorish style.
Unfortunately, a disastrous earthquake in 1693 reduced Syracuse to a field of rubble. The city was then almost entirely rebuilt with Baroque styling, which erased any trace of the oldest architecture, including Moorish examples. Accordingly, the historical record of this Arabic period is known as a “suspended presence,” its details elusive to all but the experts of Islamic culture and art.
Dr. Laura Giudice, author of a yet unpublished study of Ibn Hamdis and Arabic Syracuse, reiterated this suspended presence of the Arab tradition. One can find it in the local dialect, riddled with terms of Arabic origin, or in the names of places, such as Marzamemi or Donnafugata. It is also tangible in the local landscape, art and traditional cuisine, with products originally imported by the Arabs, like pistachios, sweet canolli, oranges, lemons and aubergine, which are now considered as “typically Sicilian.”
Due to the earthquake, along with the Christian Norman efforts to erase all traces of this period, the actual Islamic remains, while present, are difficult to perceive. A Kufic inscription, for example, appears on the Temple of Apollo, which was transformed into a mosque during Arab control. A similar inscription is registered in the castle 'Castello Maniace', which is thought to have housed the troops of 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. One can also point to some smaller findings, such as pottery and Arabic mosaic fragments, at the Museum Bellomo as well as some decorative motifs on the arched windows of the Duomo or cathedral, which was also converted to a mosque at one point.
The layout of the streets of Ortigia today, however, follow the “fishbone” design of the Hellenistic Period, especially in the alleys and the ancient courtyards that still bear the imprint of a more Mediterranean, rather than Islamic, influence. Giudice also emphasizes that a trained eye for Arabic art will recognize the Islamic decorative patterns embedded in the Baroque decorations of the late 17th century. Evidently, this Arabic past was passed on through the stonemason’s culture.
These “indirect” traces of the past are seen most frequently in the “Arab Quarter” of Syracuse, that is, those in the neighborhoods of Graziella and Spirduta, which are a stones throw away from the Algilà Ortigia Charme Hotel.
A testament to this period of Syracuse’s history is the poetry of Abd-al-Jabbar Ibn Hamdis (1056-1133), who lived during the age of the Norman re-conquest, following which he fled the island.
For his entire life Hamdis sang his regrets for having left Syracuse, with verses such as these, which have been translated in a poetry anthology of entitled Poeti arabi di Sicilia (Edi.bi.si, Modica 2009, p. 35):
“I remember Sicily and the sadness it rekindles in the memory. A place of youthful follies now deserted yet ignited by the flower of noble minds. If I’ve been trapped in paradise, how would I know? If it was not for the bitterness of tears, I would believe them to be the rivers of this paradise.”
The arabs minted coins on Sicily even before they completed their conquest, using the gold dinar and silver dirham coins of their homeland.
Today Syracuse serves as the seat of the Italo-Arab Cultural Association, which supports cultural events and shows.
A truly magical and enchanting place...