III. ISLAM IN THE MEDITERRANEAN: 649–1071

Having conquered Syria and Egypt, the Moslem leaders realized that they could not hold the coast without a fleet. Soon their men-of-war seized Cyprus and Rhodes, and defeated the Byzantine navy (652, 655). Corsica was occupied in 809, Sardinia in 810, Crete in 823, Malta in 870. In 827 the old struggle between Greece and Carthage for Sicily was resumed; the Aghlabid caliphs of Qairwan sent expedition after expedition, and the conquest proceeded with leisurely bloodshed and rapine. Palermo fell in 831, Messina in 843, Syracuse in 878, Taormina in 902. When the Fatimid caliphs succeeded to the Aghlabid power (909) they inherited Sicily as part of their domain. When the Fatimids removed their seat to Cairo their governor of Sicily, Husein al-Kalbi, made himself emir with nearly sovereign authority, and established that Kalbite dynasty under which Moslem civilization in Sicily reached its height.

Fortified by mastery of the Mediterranean, the Saracens now looked appreciatively on the cities of southern Italy. As piracy was quite within the bounds of honored custom at this time, and Christians and Moslems raided Moslem or Christian shores to capture infidels for sale as slaves, Saracen fleets, mostly from Tunisia or Sicily, began in the ninth century to attack Italian ports. In 841 the Moslems took Bari, the main Byzantine base in southeastern Italy. A year later, invited by the Lombard Duke of Benevento to help him against Salerno, they swept across Italy and back, despoiling fields and monasteries as they went. In 846 eleven hundred Moslems landed at Ostia, marched up to the walls of Rome, freely plundered the suburbs and the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul, and leisurely returned to their ships. Seeing that no civil authority could organize Italian defense, Pope Leo IV took charge, bound Amalfi, Naples, Gaeta, and Rome in alliance, and had a chain stretched across the Tiber to halt any enemy. In 849 the Saracens made another attempt to seize the citadel of Western Christianity. The united Italian fleet, blessed by the Pope, gave them battle, and routed them—a scene pictured by Raphael in the Stanze of the Vatican. In 866 the Emperor Louis II came down from Germany, and drove the marauding Moslems of south Italy back upon Bari and Taranto. By 884 they were expelled from the peninsula.

But their raids continued, and central Italy lived through a generation of daily fear. In 876 they pillaged the Campagna; Rome was so endangered that the pope paid the Saracens a yearly bribe of 25,000 mancusi (c. $25,000) to keep the peace.23 In 884 they burned the great monastery of Monte Cassino to the ground; in sporadic attacks they ravaged the valley of the Anio; finally the combined forces of the pope, the Greek and German emperors, and the cities of southern and central Italy defeated them on the Garigliano (916), and a tragic century of invasion came to an end. Italy, perhaps Christianity, had had a narrow escape; had Rome fallen, the Saracens would have advanced upon Venice; and Venice taken, Constantinople would have been wedged in between two concentrations of Moslem power. On such chances of battle hung the theology of billions of men.

Meanwhile the polyglot culture of Sicily, yielding with the grace of habit to new conquerors, took on a Moslem veneer. Sicilians, Greeks, Lombards, Jews, Berbers, and Arabs mingled in the streets of the Moslem capital—ancient Panormus, Arabic Balerm, Italian Palermo; all hating one another religiously, but living together with no more than a Sicilian average of passion, poetry, and crime. Here Ibn Hawqal, about 970, found some 300 mosques, and 300 schoolteachers who were highly regarded by the inhabitants “in spite of the fact,” says the geographer, “that schoolteachers are notorious for their mental deficiency and light brains.”24 With sunshine and rain co-operating to make a lush vegetation, Sicily was an agricultural paradise; and the clever Arabs reaped the fruits of a well-managed economy. Palermo became a port of exchange between Christian Europe and Moslem Africa; soon it was one of the richest cities in Islam. The Moslem flair for fine dress, brilliant jewelry, and the arts of decoration made for a life of otium cum dignitate—leisure without vulgarity. The Sicilian poet Ibn Hamdis (c. 1055–1132) describes the vivacious hours of Palermitan youth: the midnight revels, the jolly raid on a convent to buy wine from a surprised but genial nun, the gay mingling of men and women in festival, “when the King of the Revels has outlawed care,” and singing girls tease the lute with slender fingers, and dance “like resplendent moons on the stems of willowy trees.”25

There were thousands of poets in the island, for the Moors loved wit and rhyme, and Sicilian love offered rich themes. There were scholars, for Palermo boasted a university; and great physicians, for Sicilian Moslem medicine influenced the medical school at Salerno.26 Half the brilliance of Norman Sicily was an Arab echo, an Oriental legacy of crafts and craftsmen to a young culture willing to learn from any race or creed. The Norman conquest of Sicily (1060–91) helped time to efface the vestiges of Islam in the island; Count Roger was proud that he had leveled “Saracen cities, castles, and palaces built with marvelous art.”27 But Moslem style left its mark on the Palace of La Ziza, and on the ceiling of the Capella Palatina; in this chapel of the palace of the Norman kings Moorish ornament serves the shrine of Christ.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!