What makes Sicily such a unique travel destination? Aside from breathtaking shorelines, historic cities, and Europe’s most active volcano, its colorful past, myriad of cultures, and welcoming spirit make Sicily unlike any other place you will visit in Italy.
Owing to its location in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Sicily has been manhandled over the centuries by pirates, invaders, conquerers and empires. And while Sicily is definitively Italian, each of these past cultures have left their mark in one way or another. Over the years, Sicilians have developed a natural affinity for diversity. Northern Italy may have bigger and more modern cities, industry and technology, but Sicily has something deep in its roots that you can’t measure. Mediterranean soul. And at its core is a remarkable culture of hospitality.
The people here are friendly in a way that is so genuine, you immediately feel at home. This comes from a long history of welcoming those from other places. Sicily has in turn been ruled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Spanish and Romans; however, it is not fully Italian, North African, Greek or Turkish, but it has the best of all of them rolled into one charming little island.
One of the biggest influences which can still be found today came during the 9th and 10th centuries during the time Sicily was ruled by Arabs. Coming first from Syria, then Egypt and Tunisia, this group is sometimes referred to as the Moors or Saracens. The Arabic influence in Sicily is interwoven throughout its culture, language, architecture, agriculture and food.
Where can you find Arabic Influence in Sicily?
If there is one place in Sicily where Arabic culture had the most impact, it is without question Palermo. Many Sicilians, and those from Palermo in particular, associate more with Mediterranean culture than European. It is an Italian city with a distinct Middle Eastern feel, and is a symbol of multiculturalism with deep roots in its history.
To feel the Arab influence in Palermo, all you have to do is walk through its streets and experience the sights, tastes, and smells. You'll discover modern churches that over the centuries have been mosques, and before that synagogues, and before that churches, and before that mosques…a cycle of history built on resilience and adaptation. One of the best examples of this is the Church and Monastery of San Giovanni degli Eremiti. With Norman-era cloisters, five red domes and interior walls with carvings that indicate where the Mihrab used to face Mecca, this former mosque was built on the ruins of a Benedictine chapel. It stands today as one Palermo's finest examples of Arab-Norman architecture .
Another church with a distinct Arabic design can be found in Piazza Bellini, where the Church of San Cataldo shows off its triple domed roof in stark contrast to the Baroque facade of the Church of Martorana right next door.
Wander a bit farther into Palermo’s historic center and you’ll feel as if you’ve been teleported to a North African Medina. In modern day Arabic the word "medina" simply means city or town, but historically a medina quarter was a distinct section of a city that was typically walled, with many narrow and maze-like streets. Palermo has plenty of these!
To really feel the Mediterranean vibes of this city, you must go to its markets! Different than many traditional Italian markets that are centered around a piazza, the markets in Palermo are a collection of stalls and shops lined up next to each other along both sides of a narrow street. The market is brought to life daily by the vendors calling out to sell their fruits, vegetables, fresh spices, jams and just about anything else you can imagine, and with colorful fabrics draped above that are reminiscent of a Moroccan souk. I could get lost in these fabulous markets all day!
Sicily's Western Coast
There are several cities along Sicily’s west coast that have strong Arabic influences. This is most likely due to its proximity to North Africa along the routes to Spain. Mazara del Vallo is one of these, an anicent city where the historic center is still known as the Casbah. In Arabic cities throughout North Africa and the Middle East, a Casbah is the term for the fortress that could be found at their center. Indeed, a walk through Mazara del Vallo might even trick you into thinking you’re visiting a city in Morocco or Tunisia.
Next up is Favignana, an island off the coast near Trapani, which has distinct Arabic influences in its fishing industry. Here, they still use tuna fishing methods that date back over 1,000 years, with specialized nets appropriately named “the chamber of death”. Remnants of the Arabic language are also found in the tuna fishing industry here, such as the tonnara (facility where tuna is weighed, washed & divided) and mattanza (a tuna fishing ritual).
Rounding out this trifecta of Arabic-Sicilian towns is Marsala, known for its sweet wine and mediterranean sea salt. Marsala is a historic and beautiful city perfectly placed in an inlet on the western-most tip of Sicily. The name itself is derived from the Arabic words “Marsa” and “Allah”, which means “port of God”. Although the wine had been made locally for many centuries before, it was actually the English who fortified it with alcohol so it wouldn't go bad on the voyage back to England. I dare you to taste one sip of the world famous wine and not take a few bottles home with you too!
Although I am totally obsessed with Marsala's wine, the most fascinating thing here for me was the salt fields. Still in use are centuries-old salt flats where they shovel sea salt from shallow lagoons and lay them in the hot mediterranean sun to dry. The Saline della Laguna, just a few miles north of Marsala, is a must-do if you ever find yourself in Sicily and are feeling a little salty.
While the most significant Arabic influence can be found along the western coast of Sicily, the eastern coast should not be overlooked. Although there is significant Greek influence here as well, the area along the coast near Taormina has undeniable Arabic history as well. Most notable is the Castello Saraceno, with the famous stairs leading up to its 397 meter high location on a cliff above Taormina. According to their website, the castle likely originated as the site of a Greek acropolis, was later taken over by the Romans, then the Byzantines, before being fortified and rebuilt into its present shape by the Saracens around 900 AD.
One of the coolest remnants of Arabic rule along the coast here is much lesser known however; a collection of watch towers built on volcanic rock formations along the coast below Mount Etna. One which happens to be just down the path to the water from my house! A more prominent of these, and one you can tour inside of, is the Norman castle built on the ruins of an old Arabic fort in Aci Castello.
One of the most valuable things I've learned to do in Sicily is taking time to notice small details in the architecture here. If you look closely at the bell towers of many of the Baroque churches in this area, you may notice pointed turrets and mosaic tiles that resemble those from a mosque more than the traditional “Italian” churches of cities like Pisa, Venice, Rome or Florence.
Sicily is known for many things, one of them being exquisitely hand crafted ceramics. Many of the Sicilian towns known for their skill in this area have ceramic making traditions dating back to Arabic rule. One of the most popular ceramic designs found here is a wide variety of elaborately painted heads, used in home and garden decor, and as pots for flowers or plants. After doing some research I learned that the ceramic heads are typically thought of as either Moorish or Arabic, and were born from a love story involving a Moorish Prince and a Sicilian maiden. There are multiple versions of the story, most of which take a sinister turn and end in tragedy. Intrigued? For the full story and tips on how to visit Caltagirone, see my post here.
Although beautiful and unique pottery designs can be found throughout Sicily in towns such as Burgio, Patti, Santo Stefano di Camastra, and Sciacca, my favorite ceramics town is a place in the hills of central Sicily named Caltagirone. With ceramic making traditions dating back to prehistoric times, Caltagirone is the epicenter of Sicilian ceramics. Even the name of the town itself has a connection to pottery, believed to have derived from the Arabic word Qal ‘at al Gharùn, which means “Castle of Jars”.
In Caltagirone, you can find intricately painted tiles, vases, pitchers, bowls, platters, cups, saucers, dishes, sinks, tables, and countless other decorative pieces! Leave extra room in your suitcase if you make a trip here! In addition to ceramics, you'll find tiled murals laid into the sides buildings, a beautiful city park, and a treasure trove of hidden street art. This fabulous town also boasts a massive stone stairway that is decorated with square tiles underneath every step!
What Sicilian Foods have Arabic Origins?
Not to be outdone by the amazing foods typically associated with Italy, Sicily boasts a delicious assortment of foods that have Arabic roots. I recently discovered that even the famous lemons of Sicily were actually brought here during the time of Arabic rule. Click here for everything you ever wanted to know about Sicilian lemons! In addition to lemons, here are a few other Sicilian foods with Arabic origins or influence.
Arancini - stuffed rice balls originally created by Arabs to preserve meat, are filled with either Ragu meat or ham and cheese, then breaded and deep fried. Fun Fact: Along the west coast they are called arancina (plural arancine) and typically have a round shape, while in the east they are called arancino (plural arancini) and have a cone shape, which like many things here are modeled after Mount Etna. Regardless of how you say it, there is no question as to how absolutely scrumptious these little deep fried rice balls are!
Artichokes - people in Sicily enjoy artichokes as toppings on pizza and for use in making a spicy liqueur known as Cynar, but most of all stuffed with spices, grilled or steamed whole, then shared family style. Even the name in Italian (carciofo) sounds similar to the Arabic word (kharshuf). For those who want to go as far as worshiping this unique and delicious vegetable, you can find a gigantic sculpture in the town square of Cerda, just outside of Palermo.
Biancomangiare - translated as “white food”, this creamy pudding was popular as an elegant dessert during the Middle Ages throughout Europe. Although modern versions of the pudding use vanilla, eggs and cream, the Sicilian version is traditionally made from almond milk and rice flour, sweetened with sugar or honey, then topped with spices like cinnamon or saffron. It's easy to see the Arabic influence in these flavors!
Cannoli - speaking of sweet ricotta filling, can we talk about cannoli for just a moment? The quintessential Italian sweet, with its crunchy tube shaped crust on the outside and dense ricotta filling on the inside, dipped in chocolate chips or crushed pistachios. Oh my. If I could only eat one dessert for the rest of my life, I think I would choose the cannoli. I think the people of Piana degli Albanesi would agree, as they have a three day festival every April where you can eat cannoli to your heart’s content!
Fun fact: the top mistake Americans make regarding the cannoli is that when it is spelled this way with an “i” at the end it is actually plural. If you want to order just one, use the singular form “cannolo”.
Cassata - derived from the Arabic word quas’at, this is the food I am most thankful for when it comes to Arabic influence. Layers of light and fluffy cake alternating with a sweet pudding made of sugar and ricotta cheese, covered with fresh fruit or marzipan icing and candied fruits, this cake is quite literally one of the desserts I’ve eaten in my entire life. And I eat a LOT of dessert. I’ve heard that the cassata cake at Laboratorio Dolci Peralta in San Vito lo Capo is one of the best around.
Cassatelle - I first came to know these as Raviola con Ricotta when I moved to Sicily last year. They are like a turnover made from sweet dough, filled with ricotta filling, then either deep fried or baked. I can personally affirm that both ways are equally delicious! I may be slightly obsessed with them, I seem to be on a mission to find the best ones in all of Sicily. It's a struggle, but I'm willing to take one for the team and do the research.
Couscous - this mediterranean dish is not typically associated with Italian cooking, but it is very popular in Sicily. To taste the best of the best, head to the annual Couscous Festival in San Vito lo Capo.
Granita - I’ve had ice cream, gelato, sorbet and shaved ice, but granita is in a class all on its own. A semi frozen treat made with crushed ice and flavored with syrups like almond, lemon and even jasmine, granita is somehow fluffy and crunchy at the same time. This is not a slush, and if you ever come to Sicily don’t you dare buy it from anyone who has it turning around in a machine. You’ll find the best granita at a bar or gelateria, where they scoop it out like ice cream and serve it Sicilian style inside of a brioche pastry. And yes, you’re allowed to eat it for breakfast.
Zibibbo grapes - these sweet grapes are named for the Arab word zabib, which literally means sweet. They are used for making wine and raisins, as well as eating all on their own. In Sicily the Zibibbo is mostly grown in the province of Trapani, specifically on the island of Pantelleria. A UNESCO World Heritage site, they still use traditional methods for growing the grapes on terraces in order to protect them from the wind pelting the little island from the Mediterranean Sea.
Know of any other Arabic foods to eat in Sicily? I'd love to hear about them! If you enjoyed this article, read more about my Sicilian adventures in the recent posts listed below or in my European travel section. Here's to finding adventure near, far, or wherever you are!