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.