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The Best Arab-Norman Monuments In Palermo

Arab Norman

Palermo, on the northeastern coast of Sicily, occupies a highly strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea. With its safe harbor, abundance of seafood, excellent trade routes and rugged coastlines that are ideal for defensive castles and forts, Palermo was an enviable prize for many empires through the centuries. Often claimed to be the most frequently conquered city in the world, Palermo’s architecture, cuisine and cultural heritage is a fascinating tapestry of numerous influences from all over Europe and Northern Africa.

A Brief History Of Palermo.

Founded in the 8th Century BC by Phoenician traders, Palermo, then known as ‘Ziz’, soon grew to become an important hub of mercantile commerce in the Mediterranean. The city was later subsumed by the powerful Carthaginians until it was conquered by the Romans in 254 BC. After being briefly ruled by the Vandals and then the Ostrogoths, Palermo was conquered by the Byzantine Empire in 535 AD until the city came under the control of Arab rule between 831 AD and 1071 AD.

Following 220 years of Islamic rule of the city, the Normans conquered Palermo in 1071, and oversaw a period of explosive growth, leaving behind many of the city’s most iconic churches and buildings. In 1194, Palermo was brought under the control of the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire. During this period, Frederick II moved the center of his imperial court back to Southern Italy, bringing with it another wave of cultural development in Sicily.

Of all the different periods in Palermo’s fascinating history, the periods of Arab and Norman rule represented a great flourishing of large-scale construction projects and the cultural life of the city in general. One of the most interesting aspects of this era, between 831 AD and 1194 AD, is the confluence of Islamic and Christian art, culture, lifestyles and cuisine. Remarkably, during this time, there was very little conflict between the Christian and Islamic communities in Palermo, who lived peacefully together in the bustling streets of the increasingly wealthy city.

Palermo’s Unique Arab-Norman Architectural Style.

The impact of the Nordic influence of the Norman invasion of Palermo had a huge impact on the city and created a completely unique architectural style, known as Arab-Norman architecture. Building on the Arab structures that already existed in the city, the Normans brought with them elements of Northern European architecture which can be seen in features such as the highly accentuated verticality of columns and arches as well the use of towers on the sides of facades.

Building on, and within, previous Arabic, Byzantine and traditional Greek-cross floor plans, the Normans also incorporated the beautiful decorative details of Islamic artwork, pointed arches and polychrome inlays into their constructions. This unusual merging of architectural visions, and even the divergent religious concepts of the divine, came together in an almost miraculous synthesis to produce some of the most spectacular churches and palaces that you’ll see anywhere in the region.

The Most Iconic Arab-Norman Buildings And Monuments In Palermo.

There are several Arab-Norman monuments in Palermo, Sicily:

Palazzo Dei Normanni And The Cappella Palatina.

As the official residence of the Norman rulers of Palermo from 1072 onwards, the Palazzo dei Normanni is a perfect example of the synthesis between the Arab and Norman architectural styles. The outer facade of the palace is distinctly Arabic in appearance whereas the interiors are much more Arab-Norman in style. The impressive wooden ceiling of the nave on the first floor of the Cappella Palatina is highlighted by exquisite inlaid muqarnas and lovely paintings that depict dancers and animals. Meanwhile, the marble inlays on the flooring are centered around a star pattern that is laid out much in the style of an Arabic carpet, with geometric designs that subtly echo the ceiling. Adding to the Arabic elements, the Normans created stunning golden mosaics that depict stories from the Old and New Testaments. An absolute must-see for anyone who wants to experience Arab-Norman Palermo at its

Church Of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti.

With its pinkish-colored domes, the Church of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti is one of the easiest landmarks to spot in Palermo. The impressive Christian church was built using Islamic architectural designs, showing that the two religious traditions had a very complex relationship in the 12th Century. The church incorporates both spherical and cubic shapes in its domes which are generally understood to represent the sky and the earth; placing the church at the center of man’s communion with the heavens.

The church was built on the orders of Roger II between 1130 AD and 1142 AD and also included a neighboring refectory, dormitory and cemetery. However, today only the church and its cloisters survive intact. The surrounding gardens are also a lovely place to have a picnic and the scent of Oriental flowers gives the entire structure an enchanting aura.

Palermo Cathedral.

The majestic Palermo Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of the city, is a monumental structure that is right at the heart of the city. In its present form, the cathedral is largely the work of a major reconstruction that took place in 1169 under Norman rule. Formerly a mosque, Palermo Cathedral was transformed into a spectacular church although some of the original Islamic elements still remain, such as verses from the Quran that are engraved on a column in the southern portico.

The Palermo Cathedral combines an unusual integration of Catalan Gothic and Arab-Norman features. For instance, on the eastern facade, you can see original Norman elements, such as the inlaid lava stone decorations as well as geometric, floral and animal motifs throughout the structure.

Church Of San Cataldo.

The Church of San Cataldo has a similar geometric layout to the Church of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti, and its plain walls and ornately decorated floor give it a profoundly elegant atmosphere. The floor is made of opus sectile, an ancient technique that is used to decorate inland patterns using marble and other colored stones.

The interior is divided into 3 sections by large columns that support pointed arches. In the center of the structure, the nave contains a marble altar that is engraved with the symbols of the 4 apostles and a Greek Orthodox cross. The Church of San Cataldo is another example of the wonderfully fluid interpretations of the traditional architectural styles that epitomized the Arab-Norman period in Palermo.

Admiral’s Church.

Admiral’s Church, or the Chiesa della Martorana, is an extraordinary church that was remodeled over a period of almost 9 centuries and consequently incorporates numerous architectural styles and trends. The central parts of the church are the oldest and were made between 1143 AD and 1148 AD by Arabic craftsmen who were invited to work on the project by the Norman rulers. The very fact that the Normans sought out Arabic artisans to help construct their religious monuments is further evidence of the relatively harmonious relationships between the Christian and Islamic faiths in Palermo during that period of prosperity.

Palazzo Della Zisa.

The Palazzo della Zisa was the grand summer residence of the Norman kings of Palermo and is named after the Arabic word ‘Al-Aziz’, which means ‘the splendid’ or ‘the glorious’. And the Palazzo della Zisa is certainly both splendid and glorious. Construction began in 1165, under King William I and was completed by his son, William II in 1180. The large structure is rectangular in shape and has 3 floors.

One of the most beautiful rooms in the palace is the Sala della Fontana, or the ‘Fountain Room’. This large room symbolically represents the life-giving waters of the traditional Islamic Paradise and must have been a magical place to rest and relax for the Norman royal family. Today, the Palazzo della Zisa also contains the Palermo Museum of Islamic Art which exhibits an extremely impressive collection of some of the finest Arabic art from Sicily and other parts of the Mediterranean.

Ponte Dell’Ammiraglio.

The Ponte dell’Ammiraglio, or the ‘Admiral’s Bridge’, was constructed on the orders of Admiral George of Antioch and is a great example of medieval civil engineering, using squared ashlars of hand-carved tufa stone for its foundations. Incorporating a structurally sound ‘humpback’ design, the bridge is raised up over 7 large oval-shaped arches and 5 smaller oval arches. These oval-shaped arches are much more reminiscent of the Islamic arches used in Mosques than they are of traditional medieval bridges, which is why this monument is considered to be an important part of Palermo’s Arab-Norman heritage.

Palermo’s Arab-Norman Heritage Is A Wonder To Behold.

Any visitor to Palermo who explores the city’s unique Arab-Norman cultural heritage is bound to come away with a profound feeling of inspiration. Not only because the architecture is stunning but also because it references a period in history when two major religions that have frequently found themselves at war were able to live together in a constructive and extremely prosperous way.

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