Thursday, April 7, 2011

Brief History of Sicily

I am originally from Sicily, a lot of my cooking is sicilian. I cook all kinds of food, but my favorite is my mom's sicilian cooking.
Here's a little bit about Sicily how it became part of Italy.

Brief History of Sicily


Trinacria, that beautiful triangle shaped island, now called Sicily, lies in the center of the Mediterranean Sea.
Because of its strategic position, the climate, the richness of the land and the beauty of the landscape this island was disputed and occupied by many conquerors.

(4,000 B.C. - 1,100 B.C.)


In the Paleolithic era, the west of Sicily became home to the Sicani (1,400 B.C.), a people coming from the Iberian Peninsula and the eastern part to the Siculi (1,100 B.C.), a population coming from the Italian peninsula.
The myths tell stories of gods and goddesses inhabitant of the island and of the Elymians (1,300 B.C.) a people coming from what is today Turkey, who in the Bronze Age occupied the western part of Sicily, chased the Sicani in the mountains, founded Segesta and instituted the cult of Venus, the goddess of love. The Elymians introduced in Sicily new edible plants, among them the chick peas.

(800 B.C. - 700 B.C.)

Carthaginians Coin

Next the Carthaginians dominated part of the island for the strategic position, to back up their military aims to conquer the known world, and used the large supply of trees to build ships and the wheat to feed their army. They built trading posts all over the island but spent all their energy defending it.

(700 B.C. - 500 B.C.)

The Greeks colonized Sicily for its lush land and mild climate; they promoted agriculture, introducing the olive tree, cultivating artichokes and cardoons and increasing the production of wheat; they developed the production of wine and established farms for rearing cattle and sheep to increase the manufacture of cheese. They founded cities in the eastern and southern parts of Sicily, among them Naxos, Catania, Syracuse, Selinunte, Gela, Lentini and Agrigento and built roads, infrastructures, housings and temples, some still existing.
From 735 BC to 264 BC, it was one the must splendid periods of Sicily’s history. Schools of art and science were instituted.
Poetry and comedy flourished with Theocritus, Stesicoro and Epicarmo.
Feace, the architect that built many infrastructures and the gigantic temple of Zeus was the pride of Agrigento.
There was excellence in all fields. In law Diocle from Syracuse, Caronda from Catania, in philosophy Empedocles from Agrigento, Gorgia from Lentini, Evemero from Messina, in medicine Acrone from Agrigento, Erodico from Lentini and also Sicily can be proud of a giant in the field of science, mathematic and physic in Archimedes of Syracuse.

Archimedes established the value of the “pie “Greek, the symbol for the ratio the circumference of a circle to his diameter; he perceived the laws of calculus, discovered laws of physics, invented the lever, the pulley, the burning mirror, the catapult, many war devices, and the hydraulic screw, sort of a pump to raise water, used at present in Trapani and in Egypt.
We must mention Archestratus from Gela who wrote the first book about the art and pleasure of good eating and cooking.
The Greek called Sicily Megale’ Hellas (later the Romans called it “Magna Grecia”) meaning Great Greece and this is the reason that all the great and important Sicilian people living in this period are portrayed as Greeks.

(400 B.C. - 500 A.C.)

Rome dominated Sicily until the forth century AC. The Romans made Sicily a province of the Empire. They built aqueducts, theaters, and many beautiful villas, but they imposed heavy fiscal burdens to the population, and monopolized the commerce of wheat that provided for the Roman people, and used it to feed their soldiers. Sicily was known as the granary of Rome.
Now, Sicilian wheat is exported all over the world for seedling and imported for local use.
The Roman aristocracies celebrated their feasts with provisions, fruits, vegetables, games, honey, wines from Sicily and used expert Sicilian cooks to prepare their banquets.
Indeed Sicilian cooking influenced the Roman cooking style and the Romans copied Sicilian dishes and cooking techniques, making it their own.

(525 A.C. - 827 A.C.)


The Byzantines settled in Sicily from 525 A.C. to the year 827 A.C., they were not well accepted by the population. They imposed heavy taxes, needed to support the army fighting the Muslims.  The Byzantines transformed many Greek temples to Christian churches, collected funds to build cathedrals and monasteries, imposed the Christian religion and established the military draft.
They introduced the Byzantine mosaics, and they founded schools to train in this art.
Very little is left of the artistic and beautiful mosaics, apart from the discipline that the Normans emulated and heightened to the magnificence of the “Cristo Pantocreatore” in Monreale, Palermo and Cefalu’, to name a few samples.

(847 A.C. - 1060 A.C.)

The Arabs inhabited Sicily for about 200 years and during their government, Sicily achieved a stage of welfare, prosperity, and order.  The island was divided in districts, with a “kaid” (master or leader) in charge of each territory.
At the beginning the Arabs tried to convert the Christians to Islam, but after a short period of difficulties, they established the “gezia” a tax of a meager amount which gave protection and freedom of religion. The behavior of the occupants was accommodating and benevolent.
The Arabs introduced to the western world the number and the decimal system, a new account structure of debits and credits, and the checks. Being traders, they established centers all over the island, and built new cities, fortifying and beautifying the existing towns. They changed many Christian churches into mosques; they built gorgeous palaces, and flourishing gardens with luxuriant plants and fruit trees.
In Sicily, they began the cultivation of the lemons, dates, sugar cane, eggplants, peaches, apricots, melons, pistachios, bergamot, many herbs and spices and most importantly, they improved the utilization of the island water resources, realizing a modern system of irrigation, beneficial to agriculture. The new irrigation system made possible the crop growing of rice, and it was exported to Europe, where this new staple food was unknown. By means of loans and tax concessions, the Arab rulers broke large estates into small farms, so that peasants and farm workers became landowners who could take better care of the farms increasing the agricultural production. They planted a great deal of mulberry trees to utilize in the cultivation of silk worms and for the bark needed in the paper production. Paper was a new product replacing papyrus and it was traded extensively.
There was growth in all fields of business and it required the institution of trade schools to teach silk making, jeweler’s craft, papermaking, masons and artists to build their villas and mosques... And many new factories were founded to manufacture the silk, to refine the sugar cane, to make articles in gold and silver and produce paper.
The expert Sicilian cooks devised different cooking techniques and using the new products, new dishes with special taste were created.
During the Arabs’ control the first pasta factory was built in Trabia near Palermo and cuscus became popular in Trapani.

(1060 A.C. - 1198 A.C.)

The Normans were in Sicily, from the year 1060 to 1198 and among the many changes, they made Christianity the official religion of the land.
A new form of government was instituted with a monarchy having defined authority, and new laws enacted to give equality and freedom of religion to the different ethnic groups living in Sicily: it resulted in a form of government many centuries ahead of its’ time.
The Normans tolerated the way of life of their subjects coming from diverse ethic backgrounds, better still they merged the ideas and the science, art and architecture of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Saracens scholars created progress and some masterpieces like the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, the Cathedral of Palermo, Cefalu’, Messina, Catania, Monreale and the many decorations in churches and buildings everywhere in Sicily.
The Normans brought from the north the “stockfish” that became popular for its taste and because it is easy to preserve.

(1198 A.C. - 1250 A.C.)

In 1194, Henry the VI Emperor of Germany became king of Sicily though marriage, and his son    Frederick II ruled from 1198 to1250. He was called “stupor mundi”-wonder of the world-for his talent as a statesman, a governor and a legislator, and for his knowledge of science, philosophy, arts and languages. He patronized Islamic, Jewish, and Christian scientists, poets and artists, and in the court of Frederick II the Italian language was born and poems and essays were written in the new language.
Frederick II organized the VI crusade and conquered Jerusalem in 1228.
He built castles and fortifications in strategic locations at the Sicilian coast line.
He founded the university in Naples, the first state funded University.

(1250 A.C. - 1860 A.C.)

In the next 500 years the French, the Spaniards, the Savoia, the Austrians, and the Spanish again, occupied and tried to conquer Sicily. In 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi defeated the Borbonic ruler (a dinastic family from the Spainish peninsula), to make Sicily part of the new Kingdom of Italy the following year.

Of those who invaded Sicily apparently some were good rulers, some bad but all imposed taxes, exploited the people and imposed their will and way of life. The ingenuity of the Sicilians worked all the time to adapt and transform those experiences to their advantage, enriching the customs, the cultural patrimony of Sicily and the art of cooking and good eating.
Many of the invaders fell in love with the land, the climate, the island’s people and became Sicilian forever!

In modern history Sicily is part of Italy, with an independent, self ruling, regional government.


  1. I want to hug you! I love your post..I wish I have a full copy of have a very interesting and mystical origin. I remember when I was in college ..our English class:Mythology and Folklore..oh those were the days!Last time I went crazy with Greek its Sicilian, I want to know your food. Take care.

  2. Awww, Hugs to you, thank you. I have so many sicilian recipes I have a lot of my mom's original home cooking recipes but some will be from other websites that would be close to my mom's. :)