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Arabic architecture in Sicily: from Palermo to Messina

Arabic architecture is one of the main influences that constitutes the syncretistic beauty of Sicily artistic and architectural style. From Palermo to Messina, the Arab influence in Sicily unfolds before our eyes with vibrant colors and magnificent designs. Whatever you’ve planned for your next visit to Sicily, you really shouldn’t miss the chance and take the time to discover and enjoy the unique Arabic architecture. After our first blog post about the Moorish architecture in Sicily, where we talked about the two colossal cathedral churches of Cefalù and Monreale, today we would like to introduce other important monuments of the Arabic architecture  in Sicily.

Arabic architecture mosaic ceilings of palatine chapel Palermo
Ceiling of the Palatine Chapel Palermo

Arabic architecture in Palermo, a milestone of artistry

Arabic architecture has left in Palermo the most evident traces that we can see on the island, and it is not by chance that most of the Arab influence in Sicily converges in this magnificent city of arts. Palermo was the capital of the Arab Emirate in Sicily, and even though the island prospered under that reign for almost a century, the Arab architecture remains are very few. The city architecture and style are still an expression of that flourishing culture that perfectly integrated with the other dominations that came after. So, walking through Palermo is like leafing through an art history book, and as unique and precious as this city is, most of its monuments are today recognized for their importance and value by the whole world, having also been declared UNESCO sites. Palermo UNESCO sites amounts to eight, and most of them are significant exactly for the Arabic architecture influences:

Palermo Cathedral

Palermo Cathedral (cover picture) is one of the best examples of the syncretistic harmony that characterizes Sicilian architecture and art. The history that this place holds is extremely dense and the whole construction has brought for centuries, through good and bad, war and peace, destructions and reconstruction, proofs of the passing different cultures and customs, from the Punic, to the Habsburg-Bourbon. Palermo Cathedral front side dates back to the 14th century, and even though the Islamic domination had been over for more than two centuries, the Arabic architecture style is still obvious in the two elegant bell towers decorated with beautiful Arabic motives and in the bridge that features a pointed arch. The beautiful churchyard in the southern side gives us the chance to enjoy the beautiful view of the southern facade, the most iconic symbol of Palermo. It stretches from west to east, and in a certain way represents the union between the western and the eastern world. The central archway is pointed, as common in Arabic architecture, and the tympanum presents an Arabic design that narrates Christian stories, again remarking how that dichotomy is in these places completely nullified. But while the Arabic architecture influence is evident, the whole facade was built in the 15th century, and presents mostly Gothic-Catalans designs. Palermo Cathedral has a Latin cross plan, with the main nave and two aisles separated by columns, the inside, in contrast with the outside, is built with classical canons, a modification that was made during the 18th century. This Cathedral shines with pure beauty and will leave you completely astonished, so be sure not to miss it, while visiting Palermo UNESCO sites.

arabic architecture palermo cathedral
Palermo Cathedral

Palatine Chapel Palermo

Not far from Palermo Cathedral is another incredible structure, the Palatine Chapel Palermo. It is situated inside the Royal Palace, also known as Norman Palace, that in ancient times was also visible from the outside. The origin of Norman Palace dates back to the roman period, and through history it has changed along with the population that conquered the area. But it was during the Norman Period that the Royal Palace as we know it started to take shape. According to a tradition, a Royal Church had to be built inside. So, when Ruggero II D’Altavilla was crowned in 1130, as a celebration, decided to build this magnificent, but still very small, church.

palatine chapel palermo
View of the Palatine Chapel of the Norman Palace of Palermo

Defined by many as the most beautiful chapel of the world, Palatine Chapel Palermo is a little gem. Divided in one nave and two aisles, the whole chapel’s walls are covered in beautiful Byzantine glass mosaics. In the central nave we find stories and iconographies from the Old Testament, whilst in the two aisles are displayed Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s lives. In the presbytery, just like in Monreale and Cefalù cathedrals, a shiny Christ Pantokrator watches over. And again, the Arab influence in Sicily exudes from the chapel with superb splendor. The ceiling is made of muqarnas, a special decorative element typical of the Arabic architecture, realized with the finest wood, inlayed and painted with court and daily life scenes, Qur’an paradise, dancing women, musicians and many animals, especially lions and peacocks. It was realized by Arab artists but is very different from other Arabic architecture motives that can be seen, for example, in southern Spain, where we can only find floral patterns. Furthermore, the perfect harmony and peaceful coexistence of very different cultures, Byzantine, Arab and Norman, is shown on the floor, where a particular and complex technique of mosaic –called opus sectile– made of marble and hard stones cut in little tiles, creates Arabic shapes. This union is again reinforced by the Greek inscriptions on the glass mosaics, which are in Greek on the presbytery, in Latin on the naves and in Arab on the ceiling. Palatine Chapel Palermo, is magical, and with its unicity is one of the most visited and appreciated Palermo UNESCO site.

palatine chapel palermo mosaics
Palatine Chapel, Palermo

Arab influence in Sicily, a journey from end to end

Arab influence in Sicily architecture, although most strongly in Palermo, spread widely also through all the island, even to the furthest eastern end: Messina. And here, even after the earthquake of 190, after which 90% of the city was destroyed, many common motives of the Arabic architecturecan still be seen in one of the most important construction that survived the earthquake: the Church of Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani. It’s likely that the church was firstly built during the Byzantine period, over the remains of a Greek temple dedicated to Poseidon, and it was then transformed into a mosque during the Islamic domination. After the conversion of the city to Christianity, the church was finally dedicated to the Santissima Annunziata. After many years of modifications, today the church presents itself as a perfect example of Norman artistry, where Byzantine and Arabic architecture join perfectly together. In the dome, in the external cover of the lantern and the transept are especially evident the typical elements of the Arabic influence in Sicily, while for the planimetry and the geometry of the facade are to credit the Romanic style influences; lastly, a Byzantine influence can be seen in the polychromic geometry of the apsidal arches and columns of the drum.

arabic architecture in sicily catalani church messina
Church of Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani, Messina Sicily

The church of the Santissima Annunziata dei Catalani, with its particular beauty is the perfect ending point of a journey through the magnificence of Arab influence in Sicily. As the church  survived the earthquake of 28th December 1908, it appears today at a lower level than the rest of the surrounding buildings, because all the city was then rebuilt at a higher level, above the ruins of the ancient one. The sober interior keeps a couple of interesting works of art, such as a byzantine icon of the Virgin Mary, covered in silver and precious gems, and some columns of the ancient temple of Poseidon.

If you can’t wait to explore and be amazed by the wonderful Arabic architecture of Sicily and other sublime pieces of art, get inspired by our suggestions for Sicily tours: you may find interesting the itinerary of our 9 days UNESCO Sicily World Heritage grand tour, that takes you from Palermo to the late baroque towns of the Val di Noto, from Agrigento to Syracuse. You can also choose between a 6 days tour in Western Sicily from Cefalù, to Palermo and Trapani. To visit the Catalani Church instead, all you need is a Messina walking tour of the historical center.

Sicily is waiting for you to come and visit its endless heritage after the pademic, and so do we!

details of arabic architecture in sicily
Details of the apse of the Catalani Church, Messina Sicily

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