Monday, 1 August 2016


It was a balmy Sunday and the British Musem was very busy. Its garden even more so. It almost seemed a shame to leave that garden and head up the circular stairway to the upper gallery but I'd been meaning to get along to their Sicily:culture and conquest exhibition for a while and whilst I was there, and tickets were available, I was taking my chance.

Much as I'd love to visit Sicily (I hear the walking's good) I never have and I don't know a great deal about the place. I was looking forward to finding out. I'd have probably been able to guess it was the biggest island in the Mediterranean and you only need to look at a map to see how its central location must've made it an important trading post. The roughly triangular shape of the island gave it its old name of Trinacria which translates to 'three promontories'

The exhibition focuses, chiefly, on two eras of the island's history. Firstly under Greek rule. The Greeks arrived in 734BC and mixed with the Phoenicians, who were already there, establishing the city of Naxos on the East coast.

The other period under the telescope is from over 1800 years later. In 1091AD Norman mercenaries from France conquered Sicily from its Arab rulers. The Arabs were not the only rulers of Sicily between the Greek and Norman era. The Romans and Byzantines had their time in the sun too.

The economic success of the island was due to its dark fertile soil fed by ash and lava from Etna. One of the world's most active volcanoes.

There's a brief outline of Sicily before the Greeks. Before the Phoenicians arrived from the Levant even. The history's sketchy though. Archaeologists have found evidence of pre-Phoenician culture but biased, and clearly prone to telling the legend rather than the truth, Greek historians claimed the earliest inhabitants were the Cyclopes and Laestrygonians. Giant cannibals from Homer's Odyssey.

In the Odyssey Scylla and Charybdis terrorised Odysseus' crew in a narrow sea channel, perhaps the Straits of Messina which divides Sicily from mainland Italy. The Cylops Islands off the coast of Eastern Sicily are named after the rocks the one eyed giant Polyphemus threw at Odysseus' escaping ship.

There were real people living there too. Sicani from Iberia. Elymians from Troy. Sicels from Italy. The visitor can squeeze through the crowds to look at basins, cups etc; from over 4000 years ago.

Further legend claims Hades' abduction of the fertility goddess Persephone took place near Enna. A selection of offerings made to Persephone and her mother, Demeter, are presented to illustrate this. This isn't one of them (no photos allowed) but it is a representation of Persephone.

Away from the realms of mythical beings things were equally fractious. There were frequent disputes between Greeks, Phoenicians, and the locals. An Athenian attempt to invade the wealthy city of Syracuse in 414BC was thwarted and the returning Carthaginians vengefully destroyed many major Greek cities on the island.

Around 396BC the tyrant Dionysios I of Syracuse defeated Carthage and assured his city's Sicilian supremacy. This was possibly the peak of Sicily's cultural kudos. The tragedian Aeschylus and the philospher (to many THE philosopher) Plato both traveled to the island. Archimedes was born there. Eureka!

Greek temples built in the Doric order were among the world's largest. The Sicilians performed well in the Olympics particularly the chariot racing. Poems were commissioned in honour of their greatest athletes and recited to crowds back in Sicily.

It was the Romans who built the theatre in Taormina, below, in the AD 100s. Centuries later the German writer Goethe said "never did any audience, in any theatre, have such a spectacle". Rome had taken over in 241BC making Sicily the first province of the new Roman empire. The aforementioned fertility of its land led to it being known as 'Rome's granary'.

The thread of the story goes a bit awry at this point and we catch up again in 535AD when the Byzantines reclaim Sicily from the Goths. I knew the Goths had sacked Rome but, from this, it sounds like they sacked the whole Roman empire. Other reports suggest the Visigoths were unable get across the Straits of Messina. I don't know. I wasn't there.

Either way they were soon (if you consider nearly 400 years a mere blip) giving way to more new arrivals. In the AD 900s Islam arrived in Sicily. Qu'rans were printed. Mosques were built. Christians and Jews were allowed to continue practicing their religion as long as they paid their Muslim conquerors a jizya (tax). Taxing people for their religious beliefs probably wouldn't work out very well now but it doesn't seem any worse than giving churches tax exemptions.

The Arabs brought irrigation upgrades, oranges, rice, sugar, and cotton and then in about 1000AD many Normans, Christian descendants of the Vikings, left France for Southern Italy. Eventually this new influx became the most powerful group on the island. Count Roger de Hauteville founded a dynasty but one that reigned over Sicily for one century only.

The fragile but tolerant multi-religious island spawned new art and architecture. The Norman palace in Palermo and the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, below, being two stunning examples of the Norman-Arab-Byzantine fusion style.

Tolerance slipped though under the reigns of Roger's descendants, Roger II, William I, and William II. Christianity took hold and Byzantine Greeks and Muslims became marginalised.

In what's a hopefully a lesson we can still learn from this was the beginning of the end for Sicily as a world power. Having once been one of the most progressive courts in Europe by the time of Renaissance, a couple of centuries later, it was no longer a major player either politically or culturally. Sicily fell under the realm of the Swabian kings from Germany and was, of course, eventually to become Italy's southernmost region. 

I enjoyed the exhibition. I'd recommend, if you have even a passing interest in world history, a quick visit. You can see all the artefacts that I've hardly mentioned here and when you're finished it's a very short walk to Sicilian Avenue in Bloomsbury. It's one of London's first pedestrianised shopping areas and although the architecture could be said to be vaguely Italian looking it's not particularly Sicilian.

I'd have my doubts, too, about the authenticity of the quattro formaggi pizza and even the Birra Moretti I scoffed and quaffed during my visit to the Spaghetti House afterwards. But I sat outside so I felt like I was on holiday and that was good enough for me. The real Sicily will have to wait.

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