3 Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture

Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture

Tarì gold coin of Roger II of Sicily, with Arabic inscriptions, minted in Palermo, (British Museum)

The term Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture[1], Norman-Sicilian culture[2] or, less inclusive, Arab-Norman culture respectively Norman-Arab culture,[3] (sometimes referred to as "Arab-Norman civilization")[4][5][6][7] refers to the interaction of the Norman, Arab and Byzantine culture following the Norman conquest of Sicily from 1061, to around 1250. This civilization resulted from numerous exchanges in the cultural and scientific fields, based on the tolerance showed by the Normans towards the Greek-speaking population[8] and the Muslim settlers. As a result, Sicily under the Normans became a crossroad for the interaction between the Latin-Christian, Greek-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cultures.


Norman conquest of Southern Italy

Byzantine-style mosaic of Christ Pantokrator in the Cefalù Cathedral, erected by Roger II in 1131

Following the Islamic conquest of Sicily in 965, the Normans managed to conquer the island starting in 1060. The Normans had been expanding south, driven by the myth of a happy and sunny island in the Southern Seas.[9] The Norman Robert Guiscard ("the cunning"), son of Tancred, invaded Sicily in 1060. The island was split between three Arab emirs, and the sizable Christian population rebelled against the ruling Muslims. One year later Messina fell under the leadership of Roger I of Sicily, and in 1071, Palermo was taken by the Normans.[10] 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, Noto in the southern tip of Sicily and the island of Malta, the last Arab strongholds, fell to the Christians. By the 11th century Muslim power in the Mediterranean had begun to wane.[11] Under Norman rule, Palermo confirmed its role of one of the great capitals of the Mediterranean.

Cultural interactions

Roger II depicted on an Arabic-style mosaic. Cappella Palatina.
The Tabula Rogeriana, drawn by Al-Idrisi for Roger II in 1154, one of the most advanced ancient world maps. Note North is to the bottom of the map.
Coronation mantel of Roger II. It bears an inscription in Arabic with the Hijri date of 528 (1133-1134).

An intense Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture developed, exemplified by rulers such as Roger II of Sicily, who had Islamic soldiers, poets and scientists at his court.[12] Roger II himself spoke Arabic perfectly and was fond of Arab culture.[13] He used Arab troops and siege engines in his campaigns in southern Italy. He mobilized Arab architects to build monuments in the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. The various agricultural and industrial techniques which had been introduced by Arabs into Sicily over the two preceding centuries were kept and developed, allowing for the remarkable prosperity of the Island.[14] For Europe, Sicily became a model and an example which was universally admired.[15]

One of the greatest geographical treatises of the Middle Ages was written by the Andalusian Muhammad al-Idrisi for Roger, and entitled Kitab Rudjdjar ("The book of Roger").[16] The Norman Kingdom of Sicily under Roger II was characterised by its multi-ethnic nature and religious tolerance.[17] Normans, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Longobards and "native" Sicilians lived in harmony.[18][19] He dreamed of establishing an Empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt and the Crusader states in the Levant.[20]

Although the language of the court was French (Langue d'oïl), all royal edicts were written in the language of the people they were addressed to: Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Hebrew.[21] Roger's royal mantel, used for his coronation (and also used for the coronation of Frederick II), bore an inscription in Arabic with the Hijri date of 528 (1133-1134).

Islamic authors would marvel at the tolerance of the Norman kings:

They [the Muslims] were treated kindly, and they were protected, even against the Franks. Because of that, they had great love for king Roger.
Ibn al-Athir[22]

Interactions continued with the succeeding Norman kings, for example under William II of Sicily, as attested 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 130 previous years of Muslim rule of Sicily was still intact:[16]

The attitude of the king is really extraordinary. His attitude towards the Muslims is perfect: he gives them employment, he choses his officers among them, and all, or almost all, keep their faith secret and can remain faithful to the faith of Islam. The king has full confidence in the Muslims and relies on them to handle many of his affairs, including the most important ones, to the point that the Great Intendant for cooking is a Muslim (...) His viziers and chamberlains are eunuchs, of which there are many, who are the members of his government and on whom he relies for his private affairs.
Ibn Jubair, Rihla.[23]

Ibn Jubair also mentioned that many Christians in Palermo wore the Muslim dress, and many spoke Arabic. The Norman kings also continued to strike coins in Arabic with Hegira dates. The registers at the Royal court were written in Arabic.[16] At one point, William II of Sicily is recorded to have said: “Everyone of you should invoke the one he adores and of whom he follows the faith”.[24]

Norman-Arab-Byzantine art

Arab-Norman art and architecture combined Occidental features (such as the Classical pillars and friezes) with typical Islamic decorations and calligraphy.[25]

Numerous artistic techniques from the Islamic world were also incorporated to form the basis of Arab-Norman art: inlays in mosaics or metals, sculpture of ivory or porphyry, sculpture of hard stones, bronze foundries, manufacture of silk (for which Roger II established a regium ergasterium, a state enterprise which would give Sicily the monopoly of silk manufacture for all Europe).[26]

Norman-Arab-Byzantine architecture

The outsides of the principal doorways and their pointed arches of the Monreale cathedral are magnificently enriched with carving and colored inlay, a curious combination of three styles - Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab.

The new Norman rulers started to build various constructions in what is called the Arab-Norman style. They incorporated the best practices of Arab and Byzantine architecture into their own art.[27]

The Church of Saint-John of the Hermits, was built in Palermo by Roger II around 1143-1148 in such a style. The church is notable for its brilliant red domes, which show clearly the persistence of Arab influences in Sicily at the time of its reconstruction in the 12th century. In his Diary of an Idle Woman in Sicily, F. Elliot described it as "... totally oriental... it would fit well in Baghdad or Damascus". The bell tower, with four orders of arcaded loggias, is instead a typical example of Gothic architecture.

"The Cappella Palatina, at Palermo, the most wonderful of Roger's churches, with Norman doors, Saracenic arches, Byzantine dome, and roof adorned with Arabic scripts, is perhaps the most striking product of the brilliant and mixed civilization over which the grandson of the Norman Trancred ruled" (EB1911).

The Cappella Palatina, also in Palermo, combines harmoniously a variety of styles: the Norman architecture and door decor, the Arabic arches and scripts adorning the roof, the Byzantine dome and mosaics. For instance, clusters of four eight-pointed stars, typical for Muslim design, are arranged on the ceiling so as to form a Christian cross.

The Monreale cathedral is generally described as "Norman-Arab-Byzantine". The outsides of the principal doorways and their pointed arches are magnificently enriched with carving and colored inlay, a curious combination of three styles — Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab.

Other examples of Arab-Norman architecture include the Palazzo dei Normanni‎, or Castelbuono. This style of construction would persist until the 14th and the 15th century, exemplified by the use of the cupola.[28]

Arab-Norman law

A significant influence on Norman law came from Islamic law and jurisprudence after the Normans had conquered the Emirate of Sicily and inherited its Islamic legal administration.

Transmission to Europe

The points of contact between Europe and Islamic lands were multiple during the Middle Ages, with Sicilia playing a key role in the transmission of knowledge to Europe, although less important than that of Spain.[29] The main points of transmission of Islamic knowledge to Europe were in Sicilia, and in Islamic Spain, particularly in Toledo (with Gerard of Cremone, 1114-1187, following the conquest of the city by the Spanish Christians in 1085). Many exchanges also occurred in the Levant due to the presence of the Crusaders there.[30]


An example of Arab-Norman architecture, combining Gothic walls with Islamic domes: Saint-John of the Hermits built in Palermo by Roger II around 1143-1148. 1840 lithography.[31]

Arabic art and science continued to be heavily influential in Sicily during the two centuries following the Christian conquest. Norman rule formally ended in 1198 with the reign of Constance of Sicily, and was replaced by that of the Swabian Hohenstaufen Dynasty. Constance's son Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily in the early 13th century, who was Norman by his mother and Swabian by his father Emperor Henry VI, spoke Arabic and had several Muslim ministers.[citation needed]

In 1224 however, Frederick II, responding to religious uprisings in Sicily, expelled all Muslims from the island, transferring many to Lucera over the next two decades. In this controlled environment, they couldn't challenge royal authority and they benefited the crown in taxes and military service. Their numbers eventually reached between 15,000 and 20,000, leading Lucera to be called Lucaera Saracenorum because it represented the last stronghold of Islamic presence in Italy. The colony thrived for 75 years until it was sacked in 1300 by Christian forces under the command of Charles II of Naples. The city's Muslim inhabitants were exiled or sold into slavery,[32] with many finding asylum in Albania across the Adriatic Sea.[33] Their abandoned mosques were destroyed or converted, and churches arose upon the ruins, including the cathedral S. Maria della Vittoria.

Even under Manfred (died in 1266) Islamic influence in Sicily persisted though, but it had almost disappeared by the beginning of the 14th century.[29] Latin progressively replaced Arabic, however: the last Sicilian document in the Arabian language is dated to 1245.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Michael Huxley: "The Geographical magazine", Vol. 34, Geographical Press, 1961, p. 339
  2. ^ Gordon S. Brown: "The Norman conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily", McFarland, 2003, ISBN 0786414723, p. 199
  3. ^ Moses I. Finley: "A History of Sicily", Chatto & Windus, 1986, ISBN 0701131551, pp. 54, 61
  4. ^ "In Sicily the feudal government, fastened on a country previously turbulent and backward, enabled an Arab-Norman civilization to flourish." Edwards, David Lawrence (1980). "Religion". Christian England: Its Story to the Reformation. p. 148. 
  5. ^ Koenigsberger, Helmut Georg. "The Arab-Norman civilization during the earlier Middle-Ages". The Government of Sicily Under Philip II of Spain. p. 75. 
  6. ^ Dossiers d'Archéologie, 1997: "It is legitimate to speak about an Arab-Norman civilization until the 13th century" (Original French: "on est fondé à parler d'une civilisation arabo-normande jusqu'au XIIIeme siècle" [1]
  7. ^ Abdallah Schleifer: "the monuments of a great Arab-Norman civilization" [2]
  8. ^ Lynn White, Jr.: "The Byzantinization of Sicily", The American Historical Review, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1936), pp. 1-21
  9. ^ Les Normands en Sicile, p. 123.
  10. ^ "Saracen Door and Battle of Palermo". Bestofsicily.com. http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art139.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  11. ^ Previte-Orton (1971), pp. 507-511.
  12. ^ Lewis, p.147
  13. ^ Aubé, p.177
  14. ^ Aubé, p.164
  15. ^ Aubé, p.171
  16. ^ a b c d Lewis, p.148
  17. ^ "Normans in Sicilian History". Bestofsicily.com. http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art171.htm. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  18. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. "Roger II — Encyclopædia Britannica". Concise.britannica.com. http://concise.britannica.com/ebc/article-9377080/Roger-II. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  19. ^ Inturrisi, Louis (1987-04-26). "Tracing The Norman Rulers of Sicily". New York Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE1D61331F935A15757C0A961948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=2. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 
  20. ^ Les Normands en Sicile, p. 17.
  21. ^ Aube, p.162
  22. ^ Quoted in Aubé, p.168
  23. ^ Quoted in Lewis, p. 148, also Aube, p.168
  24. ^ Aubé, p.170
  25. ^ Les Normands en Sicile
  26. ^ Aubé, pp. 164-165
  27. ^ ”Le genie architectural des Normands a su s’adapter aux lieux en prenant ce qu’il y a de meilleur dans le savoir-faire des batisseurs arabes et byzantins”, Les Normands en Sicile, p.14
  28. ^ Les Normands en Sicile, pp. 53-57
  29. ^ a b Lewis, p.149
  30. ^ Lebedel, p.110-111
  31. ^ Les Normands en Sicile, p. 54.
  32. ^ Julie Taylor. Muslims in Medieval Italy: The Colony at Lucera. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books. 2003.
  33. ^ Ataullah Bogdan Kopanski. Islamization of Shqeptaret: The clash of Religions in Medieval Albania.


Arabic painting made for the Norman kings (c. 1150) in the Palazzo dei Normanni
  • Buttitta, Antonino, ed. Les Normands en Sicile. Caen: Musée de Normandie. ISBN 8874393288. 
  • Amari, M. (2002). Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia. Le Monnier. 
  • Aubé, Pierre (2006). Les empires normands d’Orient. Editions Perrin. ISBN 2262022976. 
  • Lebédel, Claude (2006). Les Croisades. Origines et conséquences. Editions Ouest-France. ISBN 2737341361. 
  • Lewis, Bernard (1993). Les Arabes dans l'histoire. Flammarion. ISBN 2080813625. 
  • Musca, Giosuè (1964). L'emirato di Bari, 847-871. Bari: Dedalo Litostampa. 
  • Previte-Orton, C. W. (1971). The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Taylor, Julie Anne (April 2007). "Freedom and Bondage among Muslims in Southern Italy during the Thirteenth Century". Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 27 (1): pp. 71–77. 

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