You’re intelligent enough to know that before visiting any city, you must learn a bit of history to experience the essence of that place. Here is a brief history of Palermo, the city – that more than the others – has made the History of Sicily Island.
I will tell you a succinct history of Palermo from a different point of view. I will point out the main events that made the history of Sicily, as well as Italy, saying nothing of those facts that haven’t left anything significant and tangible on the island. Yes, you got it right! I’m going to voluntarily disregard all those unremarkable events, because I don’t want to bore to death with a series of events and ready-to-forget dates. I only want you to know those events that left a mark on our history in order to get the most out of a visit to Palermo.
Did you know that Palermo is considered the most conquered city in the world? Due to its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean, the city the city has undergone several dominions.
History of Palermo
Palermo is the capital of Sicily, the biggest island in Italy, which seems to have been kicked into the Mediterranean by Peninsula’s boot. The city overlooks the Tyrrhenian Sea, located on the edge of a plain between the mountains of Billiemi and the hills of Monreale.
In the earliest days of Palermo’s history, the city was populated by the inhabitants of unknown-origin, called Sicani or Sicanians, until the 7th century when Phoenicians founded a settlement on the island, calling the city Zyz (in Phoenician language, it means “flower”). Up until then, the area was a trading center and a base for northwestern Sicily. The name seems to derive from the shape of the city, which was cut by two rivers (Kemonia e Papireto), resembling the profile of a flower. At that time, the city was densely populated for its mild climate and fertile soil.
Zyz acquired some commercial importance due to its location, but also to the two rivers, and it became a popular destination for the Greeks, who inhabited the eastern part of Sicily, which they never managed to conquer. Greeks renamed the city, Panormos (in Greek, it means “all-port”), because the two rivers that surrounded it created a vast natural harbor. This name spread through the strengthening of Greek influence on the island.
Sicilian dialect has been influenced by Grecian. A statistical study done on about 5,000 Sicilian words indicates that over 50 percent of them derived from Latin, 15 percent from the Greek, only 6 percent Arabic and French.
The city remained under the authority of the Phoenician until the First Punic War (264-241 BC). At the time of the Punic Wars, Palermo was one of the main reasons that caused the dispute between the Romans and Phoenicians of Carthage. The city was conquered by the Romans in 258, who reigned until 491 when, following the barbarian invasions, the city was captured by the Ostrogoths. During the Roman domination, Palermo did not substantially change its appearance and maintained its autonomy.
In 535, Byzantines liberated the city and reigned in a period of relative peace and quiet. The Byzantine reign lasted until 831, when the Arabs arrived in Sicily and made Palermo the capital of their Sicilian emirate.
Remains of three magnificent residences of the Roman period have been brought to light after fifty years of excavations (1864-1905) in Villa Bonanno. Among the vestiges, there is a mosaic floor depicting a “hunt of Alexander the Great”. Besides the buildings around Piazza Vittoria (Vittoria Square) are examples of the marvels of Roman colony.
During the glorious reign of Arabic…
In the Muslim period, Palermo the city was called Balharm. It became a major city of trade and culture. It was a period of prosperity and tolerance: Christians and Jews lived along with Muslims in harmony. From 827 to 1061, the whole Sicily island was under Arab reign, a period of enlightenment, whose social, cultural, and economic reforms had a profound and long-lasting influence on Sicilian culture – and especially “the Arab concept of the family” – that is still felt today (learn more about Sicilian people).
During the Arab dominion, Palermo was distinguished by luxury and wealth and was presented with all the characteristics of an oriental town. It became the Mediterranean capital with more than 300 mosques and a population of over 250,000 inhabitants, whereas in Rome or Milan, there were only 30,000 souls. In Sicily, Arabs favored the birth of a rich culture, both in science and in literature.
“The dominion of the Arabs in Sicily was one of the longest and most influential. In two centuries, Arabs has profoundly influenced the culture, the customs, and traditions of the islanders, especially in Palermo.”
“In the Sicilian, Arabs created a multitude of buildings, mosques, gardens, and fountains. The rulers who took turns to the Arabs, the Normans, modified and altered almost everything – curiously they did own some of the peculiarities of Islamic art – their predecessors had built in the city.”
Sicilian food has a strong Arabic influence, recognizable by the use of spices, sugar, and aromas. Moreover, ancient magic rituals, folk beliefs, incantations, and exorcisms come from Arabic culture. Strange to say, but Arabic dominion has even annihilated sixteen centuries of Hellenism. In just two centuries, they have managed to leave such a strong impression that neither Normans nor Swabians, or Spanish or French and, finally, the Piedmontese managed to erase. I can confidently say that Arabians have made the history of Palermo as well as Sicily.
From Normans to the Expedition of the Thousand…
In 1072, after five years of siege, the Normans’ Count Robert Guiscard and Count Roger de Hauteville, conquered the city of Palermo. The heyday of Palermo continued with the Normans – especially after the founding by Roger II of the Kingdom of Sicily and appointed Palermo as capital – who were able to collect and make a good use of the cultural heritage of the Arabians, Greeks, and Romans. Later, The German Hohenstaufen dynasty overtook Norman rule. Following the death of Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II, it was a long period of instability.
Over this year, numerous churches and convents have been erected; Normans built the Cappella Palatina and both Monreale and Palermo cathedrals.
Subsequently, the city passed into the hands of the Swabians, the Angevins, and the Aragonese, until in 1494, Spain annexed Sicily, and Palermo became the Viceroy’s town.
The Spanish Government had an organized bureaucratic structure and the support of the Holy Office.
“During the Spanish dominion, the city is a building site; they erected massive monuments and enrolled the best artists and decorators from all over the world to work on them. It is an example the Pretoria Fountain that was bought from Florence and rebuilt on Piazza Pretoria by the sculptor Camillo Camilliani. Over these years, the architect Giulio Lasso build the Quattro Canti.”
Spanish rule ended in 1713 with the Peace of Utrecht and the arrival of the Bourbons.
The Bourbons retained power until the landing of Garibaldi (The famous Expedition of the Thousand) and the subsequent unification of Sicily to Italy in 1861.
After Italian Unification…
After the unification of Italy, the town of Palermo began the construction of some important architectural works, such as the construction of two larger theaters in Europe, the Massimo and the Politeama, along with many Liberty Style buildings and villas, such as the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea. Besides, from 1891 to 1892, the city hosted the IV National Exhibition (the modern EXPO).
In the first two decades of the 20th century, Palermo went through a flourishing period of economic and cultural growth, especially during the Art Nouveau. Afterward, the outbreak of the Great War and the subsequent arrival of Fascism relegated the city to a bordering role in the Italian scenario. In 1946, Palermo was proclaimed the capital of Sicily.
After the Second World War, many big shots mobsters, such as Lucky Luciano, Frank Coppola, and Frank Garofalo, moved to Italy and became active in the drug trade to North America.
Today, the Sicilian capital owes its economic revitalization – in addition to the activities of the tertiary sector – to the recovery of the tourism industry, favored by the mild climate and the rich artistic heritage present in the territory. Nevertheless, organized crime (The Sicilian Mafia called Cosa Nostra) continues to have a substantial impact on the city, which continues to be plagued by serious economic and social problems.