Eastern Sicily ... The Legacy of Invading Powers

Located in the middle of the Mediterranean, Sicily has a mixture of ancient history which creates a unique and timeless atmosphere.

Sicily formed a significant portion of Ancient Greece and was strategically vital to the Roman Empire, thereafter the island was invaded in succession by countless vestiges of invading powers.

Each conquest left its mark creating an island full of rich history, culture, architecture and wonderful cuisine making it unlike any other place in the world.

Foreign influences on the island have affected everything, from the food, place names, urban town plans, fishing techniques, crops and produce, architecture and even the water works.

The Sicilian dialect is a language of its own created from these foreign invasions, it is a romance language with influences from each invading power.

So who exactly were these invading powers and where can you visit whilst staying in Eastern Sicily.

The Greeks

The first Greek colony was founded at Giardini Naxos in 734 BC which displaced the existing island inhabitants the Sicels.

Founded in 733 BC by Corinthian settlers, the south eastern city of Syracuse became one of the earliest Greek colonies on the island. It quickly attained wealth and power, important buildings were commissioned, works of art created and sub-colonies were founded. The Greeks of Syracuse then extended their territory through warfare becoming the strongest city in the Mediterranean. The ancient city was up to three times the size of modern day Syracuse and was divided into five zones including the Neapolis (the archaeological park) and Ortigia (the original settlement).

The Greeks introduced olive trees and grapevines to the island.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... Syracuse, The once mighty Greek colony and rival to Athens quietly exists today as a thriving modern city endowed with vestiges of its former glory which make up some of the most important sites in Sicily. Visit the extensive archaeological park and the island of Ortigia.

Archaeological Site of Syracuse
The Carthaginians 

Carthage invaded the island repeatedly and many Punic War battles were fought on Sicily.

The Sicilian Wars or Greco-Punic Wars were a series of conflicts fought between Ancient Carthage and the Greek states led by Syracuse. The wars were fought over control of Sicily and the Western Mediterranean between 600-265 BC.

Aligned with Syracuse, Greek Akragas (modern day Agrigento, Southern Sicily) took part in defeating the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 BC. Agrigento boasted a population of around 200,000 who constructed temples to their gods. The town was besieged by the Carthaginians in 406 BC which was then taken by the Romans in 261 BC.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... Agrigento, the famed Valley of the Temples is home to ruined Greek temples that stand against a backdrop of the sea and is easy to reach whilst staying in eastern Sicily. The scene of many conflicts with Carthage here you can see the Temple of Hera which has evidence of patches of red which indicate fire damage from the siege of 406 BC.

Temple of Hera, Agrigento 
The Romans

After years of warfare, Rome finally took Sicily after the fall of Syracuse in 212 BC.

Sicily was the first province acquired by the Roman Republic at the conclusion of the First Punic War with Carthage. Under their rule the island was the main source of grain for the city of Rome. The Romans began deforestation to export the timber and make way for wheat plantations. They also introduced aqueducts and water powered mills.

The Roman Empire grew in Sicily and the island became known as the crossroads of the Mediterranean due to its strategic position on the ancient trading routes. Over time Sicily's importance to Rome waned but Syracuse did become an important Christian centre and remained one right up until the 7th Century.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... Taormina, a colony of Syracuse the town has endured a typical Sicilian history falling first to the Romans. The ancient Greek theatre of Taormina is carved out of the hillside, the theatre seen today was refurbished by the Romans in the 1st Century AD. They sacrificed some of the seats and part of the stage to make a circular arena to accommodate gladiator games.
The Greek/Roman Theatre of Taormina 
The Byzantines

In 535 AD Sicily became part of Justinian's Eastern Roman Empire.

As the Roman Empire was falling apart a Germanic tribe know as the Vandals took Sicily in 468 AD but held it for only eight years. A Gothic war took place between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire known then as the Byzantine Empire. Sicily was the first part of Italy to be taken by the Byzantines and it was used as a base to conquer the rest of Italy. The Byzantine Emperor Constan II decided to move the capital Constantinople to Syracuse in 663 AD.

The Byzantines introduced beautiful works of art in the form of mosaics that adorn many buildings.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... In Taormina, away from Corso Umberto you can see Byzantine tombs on the upper part of Via Pirandello. There are about 50 tombs built into a thick wall in two rows. This is where the Byzantine necropolis (cemetery) was situated during Arabic invasion of Taormina. Also in the middle gate to Piazza Aprile IX you can see a Byzantine mosaic artwork which is so typical of this kind of art throughout the island.

Byzantine Mosaic, Taormina
The Arabs

The Arab conquest of the island began in 827 AD and was complete in 902 AD with the fall of Taormina.

The Arabs first invaded the island in 652 AD and seized control of the entire island from the Byzantine Empire in a prolonged series of conflicts from 827 to 902. An Arab-Byzantine culture developed producing a multilingual state. The Arabs were conquered by Christian Norman mercenaries in King Roger I. The last Arab city on the island was Noto which was conquered in 1091.

The Arabs built spectacular buildings on the island and the tiny winding streets of Palermo's old neighbourhoods such as La Kalsa and many of its street plans come from Arab settlements. Arabic place names remain in abundance with the most popular starting with the prefixes Calta, Gibil and Sala. The Arabs brought citrus fruits, sugar cane, date palm, pistachios, cotton and mulberries with them and without them we would not have the pleasure of lemon granita for breakfast. Sicily's fishing methods were adapted from Arabic methods and they also introduced land irrigation.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... High above Taormina you will see the Saracen Castle built by the Arabs. The castle sits on the site of Taormina's Ancient Greek acropolis and it is a pleasant scenic walk up from the centre of the town.

The Saracen Castle of Taormina
The Normans

After 30 years of crusades, Count Roger de Hautville took Sicily in 1091.

In 1066 AD the Normans were busy invading England but what is not so well known is that they were also doing the same thing in sunny Sicily. This was accomplished through a long and bloody warfare and the reign of the Norman King Roger was a long succession of battles as he conquered the whole island. Norman rule only lasted for 100 years but it left its mark on the island and the monuments that remain are among some of the most beautiful in the world. At the end of their reign the Normans left the island endowed with splendid buildings and an exotic culture living alongside the Arabs. Across Sicily you will find many buildings that are of Arabic Norman construction.

The system of single owner wheat farms was put into rule under the Normans and by the 1880's farmers had to compete for minuscule plots of land, resulting in mass poverty and eventually mass immigration.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... Just outside of Taormina you will find the Arabic/Norman Castello di Calatabiano which is perched upon a hilltop and is accessed by a cable car. Under the Norman rule of King Roger he elevated the town of Calatabiano to a feudal barony in 1135 and the town was cited in The Infamous Book of Roger which was written in Arabic by the geographer Al-Idrisi in 1154.
The Arabic/Norman Castle of Caltabiano 
The Spaniards

Peter of Aragon was crowned King of Sicily in 1282 beginning 440 years of Spanish invasion.

Not much is known about Spanish rule in Sicily as the island was ruled directly by the Kings of Spain via governors and viceroys. In the ensuing centuries, authority on the island was to become concentrated among a small number of local barons. The 16th century was the golden age for Sicily's wheat exports. Inflation, rapid growth and international markets brought economic and social changes. Internal colonization and the foundation of new settlements by feudal aristocrats in Sicily was notable from 1590 to 1650.

What Spanish rule can be most notable for is the rebuilding of towns after the devastating earthquake of 1693 which destroyed almost all of Eastern Sicily. Major reconstruction resulted in cities and villages being designed in a Baroque style mostly including vistas of the surrounding countryside which was then at the height of popularity.

The Spanish introduced tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate and the cactus Fico d'India (prickly pear).

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... the Cities of Catania, Syracuse, Noto, Ragusa, Modica and Scicli all boast the most spectacular examples of Spanish Baroque architecture and a visit to Modica is a must to savour the chocolate which is still made today in the traditional way brought to Sicily by the Spanish.

Duomo of Catania
The Bourbons

Sicily was given to the House of Savoy in the 1713 Peace of Utrecht treaty and swapped for Sardinia seven years later, thereby coming under the Habsburg rule.

Sicily joined the Napoleonic Wars and subsequently the British, under Lord William Bentinck, established a military and diplomatic presence on the island to protect it against a French invasion. After the wars were won, Sicily and Naples formally merged as the Two Sicilies under the Bourbons. Major revolutionary movements occurred in 1820 and 1848 against the Bourbon government with Sicily seeking independence, the second of which resulted in a short period of independence for Sicily. However, in 1849 the Bourbons retook the control of the island and dominated it until 1860.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... The Bourbons enjoyed the Baroque architecture that the Spanish left behind, however some of these beautiful buildings they converted in prisons. One of the largest can be found in Sicily's city of ceramics in Caltagirone a most beautiful town to visit, the ex-Bourbon prison is now home to the cities civic museum.

The Bourbon Prison of Caltagirone
The Italians

General Garibaldi and his Red Shirts invaded Sicily at Marsala in 1860 starting the campaign that ended with the Unification of Italy.

The Expedition of the Thousand led by Giuseppe Garibaldi captured Sicily in 1860. The conquest started at Marsala in the west and native Sicilians joined him in the capture of the south Italian peninsula. Garibaldi's march was completed with the Siege of Gaeta, where the final Bourbons were expelled and Garibaldi announced his dictatorship in the name of Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Sicily became part of the Kingdom of Sardinia after a referendum where more than 75% of Sicily voted in favour of the annexation on 21st October 1860, however not everyone on the island was allowed to vote. As a result of the Kingdom of Italy's proclamation Sicily became part of Italy on 17th March 1861.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... Across Sicily you will find plaques, statues and structures commemorating General Garibaldi. One of the most impressive structures in Catania is a monumental gate created in 1768 dedicated to King Ferdinand IV, the arch is now named after Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Catania, Via Garibaldi 
The Allied Forces

On the 10th July 1943 Allied Forces under Generals Montgomery and Patton landed at Gela and Pachino taking Sicily in 38 days.

The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky was a major campaign of World War II in which the Allies took the island of Sicily from the Axis powers. It began with a large amphibious and airborne operation followed by a six week land campaign. The purpose of the operation was to remove the air and sea potential of the Axis powers from the island and by doing this it would give the Allies access to the Mediterranean Sea for their own ships. These routes had been closed to the Allied ships since the early years of the war.

I am proud to say that my grandfather served in Sicily during Word War II and it is to him that I dedicate this Blog post.

Where to visit in Eastern Sicily ... Combatants who died during Operation Husky are buried at various cemeteries across the island. An English cemetery can be found just outside of Syracuse. You will also find many memorials commemorating World War II particularly in the south east tip of Sicily where the Allied forces landed from sea.

Punta Secca, English/Amercian Memorial

Please Note ***

My suggestions where to visit
are just a few out the countless places to visit in Sicily
to experience the vestiges of invading powers

Browse my Blog archive for more historical Travel Tips
or please feel free to Email me for more suggestions. 

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