Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World

The Hariri Ship, the first known picture of an Arab sailing vessel.

Map of the Arab–Byzantine naval conflict in the Mediterranean, 7th–11th centuries.

Map of southern Italy in the 10th century. Byzantine provinces (themes) in yellow, Lombard principalities in other colours.

Afterwards, the Saracens who had sailed from Rome came to Sicily, where they occupied the aforementioned city and slaughtered many of the population who had taken refuge in fortifications or in the mountains and, taking with them lots of booty or bronze, they returned to Alexandria.

Vita of Pope Adeodatus II

During the Byzantine centuries, Greek and Latin travelers to and from Sicily were examples and, indeed, agents of the complex web of connections between the Latin and Greek Christian worlds as they overlapped on Sicily. From the seventh century onward, Sicily also began to be drawn into the Islamicate world, as represented primarily by the political center of Qayrawān and the many seaports of Aghlabid Ifrīqiya (modern Tunisia) and Egypt. Long before Sicily became a Muslim province in the ninth century, in fact, considerable travel and communication were conducted between the island and the dār al-Islām, making the island increasingly important as a zone of interaction between Muslims and Christians, both Greek and Latin. Although, as in the sixth and seventh centuries, economic movements cannot be quantitatively reconstructed from the remaining data, by the eighth century, there is clear evidence of semiregular ship travel between the shores of Sicily and Aghlabid Ifrīqiya. While most of this traffic was of a military nature—with regular raids on Sicily’s southern shores starting in the seventh century of the common era—evidence also points to both diplomatic and, perhaps, even commercial transactions occurring between Sicily and Muslim North Africa while the island remained under the administrative control of Constantinople.

The introduction of Muslim powers into the western Mediterranean thus expanded the communication networks in which Sicily participated, in effect broadening the island’s place in the region rather than constricting or isolating it. New networks were opened while preexisting ones were maintained, even if altered. It is true that the relative amount of travel along each of the routes shifted and rebalanced over time, as Sicily conceptually drew closer to Muslim Africa and drifted farther from the Greek eastern Mediterranean. As the central Mediterranean Sea became populated with more and more Muslim-sailed ships, the waters around Sicily came to be linked more closely with northern Africa. At times we see ships from the Christian world encountering difficulties when sailing into hostile waters, but these voyages did not cease. The island, at the nexus of these three worlds, continued for some time to be a place of interaction and connection between Muslims and Christians, even if a preponderance of these interactions, as they appear in the sources, were hostile. Even violent interaction—and especially regularly recurring violent contact, such as that which took place during the nearly annual Muslim raids against Sicily—is a type of exchange that requires travel and the infrastructure of travel, and that connects peoples and spaces, drawing them closer together in terms of communications.

Even while communications with Muslim North Africa were increasing, Sicily remained in contact with the Greek East and with the Latin West. That is, the entry of Muslim polities into Sicilian affairs caused a relatively slow shift southward—rather than a break—of the communication networks of the island, concurrent with the persistence of many of the connections between Constantinople, Sicily, and Rome. The traditional periodization of Sicily’s history draws a firm line between the Greek Byzantine era and the Muslim period, with historians of Byzantium and the Middle East divvying up their examinations of the island. If, instead, we look across these centuries, at the transition period itself, our view of Sicily’s history and role within Mediterranean systems is very different. By placing the conquest of Sicily by Muslim forces in the middle of our examination rather than at the beginning or the end, we see that Muslim North Africa’s involvement with Sicily transformed the island’s communication networks rather than simply replacing one set of networks with another. Viewed across the period of the conquest, from the start of Muslim involvement in Sicily in the seventh century through the ninth–century conquest and into the tenth century, as Byzantine forces continued to try to retake Muslim Sicily—and by examining a variety of sources in Greek, Arabic, and Latin—political control did not necessarily determine the extent and range of the communications that defined Sicily’s regional affinities and its place within those local systems. Sicily was and remained broadly interconnected within the Mediterranean system, with Muslims and Latins as well as Greek Christians, even as the shapes and meanings of these connections shifted.

At the same time that military engagement was the most often recorded type of interaction between Sicily and Africa, the sources also allow glimpses of less martial communications between Greek Christians and Muslims. At times, those interactions took place because of or in the midst of battle, and at other times they could arise from diplomatic exchanges aimed at the stabilization of political and military tensions. Just as Byzantine Sicily was the site of diplomatic negotiations and the transfer of information between Greek and Latin Christian officials, so too did diplomats and envoys travel between Greek Sicily and Islamic North Africa, carrying both news and negotiations for peace. For example, the semiannual military incursions from Ifrīqiya were several times halted by truces that were officially concluded between embassies traveling between Syracuse and Qayrawān. Likewise, economic connections between the two may also have developed at this time. Because direct evidence for trade between Sicily and Ifrīqiya at this time is scarce, we can only assume the existence of economic connections that might be implied in the source record. Ships sailing back and forth within the Sicilian Strait between Ifrīqiyan ports and those of Sicily could have easily made the trip without meriting record in textual sources, and there are some suggestions that Sicily’s economic conditions were attracting the attention of Qayrawān. The Arabic chronicles, although written much later than the events they describe, detail the raids on Sicily carried out from Ifrīqiya and list all of the items gathered from the island, which suggests that the Aghlabid emīrate was taking an increasingly economic interest in the island of Sicily. Even if these lists of valuable items reflect a nostalgic image of a lost island of wealth, they demonstrate that the memory of Sicily’s conquest was tied closely to the perceived value of the products to be gained there. While the collection of war spoils was a regular part of this type of military strike, and a common way to reward soldiers for their service, it is the prolonged interest paid to the details of this booty by the later chroniclers that merits our attention. On the other hand, the products mentioned were exclusively high-value items—bejeweled icons and human slaves, for example—rather than more mundane trade items such as grain or textiles, which may also have proved attractive. At any rate, the Arabic chroniclers’ focus on these spoils indicates that they associated the conquest (and, therefore, also the loss) of Sicily with the annexation of an opulent and prosperous society.

The precise reasons that in the ninth century these regular raids for the collection of booty turned into an outright conquest of Sicily are not perfectly clear. The sustained interest that North African Muslims had taken in Sicily for many years suggests that the conquest was not simply the result of a sudden revival of jihād ideology or a desire to expand Islamic rule into Italy. Likewise, the conquest of Sicily should not be understood as part of the same process that brought North Africa and Iberia into the Islamic world, although those conquests do provide a background for this one. The conquest of Sicily was a major undertaking that occurred more than a century after the conclusion of the initial period of Muslim expansion into the Mediterranean region, and it arose from unique impulses relating to the nature of the Byzantine-Muslim frontier in the central Mediterranean. As with the later Norman Latin takeover of Sicily, outright military conquest followed many years of involvement in the island’s affairs. Sicily had been slowly entering the orbit of North Africa for several centuries prior to the ninth-century takeover. Then, as the boundary line between Byzantine and Muslim territory in the Mediterranean became more porous, the balance of power tipped far enough in Muslim favor that the outright military conquest of Sicily appeared to be advantageous for the Aghlabid administration of Ifrīqiya.

Indeed, it is the permeability of the Sicilian borderland itself that created the shift in relative power between Muslim and Christian authorities in the region. Much work has been done on the relationship between the Byzantines and the Muslims along the eastern frontier between Anatolia and Syria, and on the importance of that border zone for the health and wholeness of the Byzantine Empire. Far less has been written about the western frontier, partly because the Muslim-Greek battles that took place in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean were closer to the heartlands of both civilizations, and partly because that region produced the preponderance of sources about the Muslim-Christian conflict. But Sicily operated within the Byzantine Empire of the sixth through tenth centuries as an equally important frontier for Constantinople: one that both connected and separated the Greek world from the Latin Christian world and, as we will see here, one that did likewise with the Muslim world. Sicily was not simply a point on the dividing line between polities or religiopolitical civilizations; it also connected cultures in a zone of contact and conflict. The paradigm for discussing the relationships between Byzantines and Muslims has also tended to be that of conflict—both rhetorical and militarized. But some more recent work has also located shared traditions and a high degree of continuity between the Roman past and both the Christian and Islamic Middle Ages. Likewise, the three cultures that overlapped in the border region of Sicily and southern Italy indeed did so with violence and war, but also with shared reliance on the Roman tradition and through diplomacy, trade, and interpersonal interactions in the midst of warfare.

During the centuries of Byzantine control, Sicily was a region where fluidity of communications made it possible for Greeks, Muslims, and Latins to contest their control over a coveted locale while also maintaining the diplomatic and economic ties that were important to all of the parties involved. That is, this boundary zone between the Latin, Greek, and Muslim worlds was a disputed area, but one where various parties could meet, rather than a solid line of demarcation between Christians and Muslims. Sicily was often considered—by both Constantinople and local powers in Italy—an extension of Constantinople’s authority and, at the same time, was an important venue for managing relationships between local Muslim powers and the Greek Byzantine world. These multifaceted relationships along the Sicilian borderland will here be viewed by means of military, political, diplomatic, and economic communications between Byzantine Sicily and Muslim North Africa, along with the consequent population transfers that wrought demographic changes in the region, which would themselves also help shape future communication networks on and around the island.

2 thoughts on “Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World

  1. Pingback: Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. Pingback: Sicily between Byzantium and the Islamic World – Isharatul Magribain Islamic Academy

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