History & art & culture of Sicily, Italy

Lying between Europe and Africa, island Sicily was touched, changed and marked by many cultures: first by the Greeks and Romans, then by the Arabs and Normans, and finally, by the French, Spanish and Italians, all of them contributing to an unparalleled historical legacy. This multi-faceted culture is evidenced in the fascinating mix of art and architecture (including two of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world).
The older human skull, found near Agrigento, is over half million years old. The cave paintings found in Addaura Cavern, settled on the slopes of Mount Pellegrino, near Palermo, have been dated to 8000 BC and suggest that here the Neolithic culture was quite similar to those of central and western Europe. At around 5000 BC the Siculi and Sicani cultures gave to this Mediterranean island its name; around 900 BC the Phoenicians began to colonize the area, founding Carthage in North Africa and Mozia, Solunto and Palermo on the island Sicily.
The Greek colonization of Sicily began around 750 BC. The Greeks founded cities such as Syracuse, Catania, Zancle - the contemporaneous Messina, Gela, and Selinus. Sicily and the southern part of the Italian peninsula were completely colonized by Greeks, becoming known as Magna Graecia (Greater Greece); here lived more Greeks and were built more Greek temples as in Greece! Magna Graecia was extremely fertile - olives and vines were introduced and was developed a very profitable trading. Of course, the prosperity conducted to rivalries and the internal battles were frequent and bloody. The Greek settlements, initially democratic in nature, became tyrannical and many war-time alliances were formed. In BC 480, at the battle of Himera, the alliance formed between Agrigento, Syracuse and Gela defeated the Carthaginians, heralding the beginning of a "Golden Age".
In time, the Carthaginian invaders won the control over more than half of the island. Greece ruled the other part of the island, so Sicily became a battleground for the rival empires. A century of antagonism between Greeks and Carthaginians was followed by battles between Romans and Carthaginians, which flared in 264 BC with the first Punic War. Syracuse fell during the second Punic War heralding the beginning of more than 500 years of Roman rule. Sicily was under Romans very prosperous, but the resources of the island were depleted. The forests were destroyed for ship building, the created fields filled the island, so Sicily was named the "Breadbasket of Rome". The economic development was throttled by the large estates called "Latifundia", created by the Romans, whose rule was notoriously corrupt. Despite the fact that many Greek temples were destroyed, the Greek culture and language retained their importance and influence.
The Christian era began in Sicily sometime after 200 AD. In 313 AD the Emperor Constantine lifted the prohibition against Christians, when the Roman Empire began to look eastwards towards Constantinople. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, Sicily was invaded and occupied by Vandals, Ostrogoths and Byzantines. In the ninth century was the turn of Arabs, Berbers and Spanish Muslims, classed collectively as Saracens, to invade the island.
In 832 AD the Arabs conquer Palermo, which became their capital and was transformed into one of the most flourishing cosmopolitan places from the world. At this time oranges and lemons were grown commercially for the first time and advanced irrigation were put in place. The previously taxes are reduced and start a period of relative religious tolerance.
The Arabs were displaced by the Norman conquest of Sicily. Roger de Hauteville, a Norman knight, conquest and rule the fortress with his brothers and with just a few hundred knights from Normandy, Lombardy and southern Italy. The Norman presence was so slight that they were forced to accept and adapt to the pre-existing administrative and judicial system. Their embracing and use of Arabic and Byzantine methodology and architecture resulted into a unique fusion of styles, with a remarkable and enduring legacy of art and architecture.
Roger the Second became the first king of Sicily in 1130. He was invested by Pope Innocent II as the King of Sicily and his kingdom included the Norman conquests of southern Italy. Roger ll exerted a strong influence over the entire Mediterranean region. Roger's last direct descendant, Constance, married the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. Their son, the Emperor Frederick II von Hohenstaufen, ascended to the throne in 1198. Frederick - also known as Stupor Mundi - was an enlightened ruler and Sicily started its "Golden Age". In truth, he ruled most of Italy and parts of Germany. Frederick was an admired and brilliant Emperor and under his reign were made great steps in science, law and medicine. However, he had no children and after his death the island was sold by the Pope to the King of England, who gave Sicily to his son, Edmund of Lancaster.
In 1266 the French Pope deposed Edmund and gave Sicily to Charles of Anjou, the brother of Louis 14th, the king of France. The Angevin dynasty ruled the island with such oppression and exploitation as it had never previously experienced. Crippling taxes were levied, the land and property were arbitrarily carved up among French aristocrats. In 1282 was a bloody revolt, when the French troops and nobles were defeated and thousands of French occupiers massacred.
The crown of Sicily was offered to Peter of Aragon, who gladly accepted. He lands in Trapani in 1282 and was acclaimed king in Palermo in short time.
Excepting short periods, Sicily was ruled from Spain for the next four centuries, isolating Sicily from the rest of Italy. During the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries there was a corrupt and ineffectual government. The power was held by the church and assorted noblemen. The Inquisition ended the religious tolerance and the people were chained to the land because the feudal system was reintroduced.
The birth of the Mafia can perhaps be traced to the 16th century, when the Sicilians adopted a code of silence, called "omerta", as defense against prosecution. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht assigned Sicily to Savoy, which exchanged it for Sardinia with Emperor Charles VI.
Don Carlos of Bourbon, later becoming Charles III of Spain, re-conquered the kingdom of Naples and Sicily. In 1815 Napoleon defeat the British, which administrated the island between 1806-1815, so Sicily was occupied by France. In 1816 Ferdinand III unified Sicily and the kingdom of Naples and titled himself "Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies". A popular uprising in 1820 forced Ferdinand to concede a constitution, but the Austrian intervention in 1821 conquest the island. Sicily and Naples were occupied by Garibaldi in 1860 and in 1861 the "Kingdom of Two Sicilies" became part of Kingdom of Italy.
Sicily was largely ignored after unification by the central government and the economic and social problems remained unattended. New and important industries were developed in northern Italy, but the southern Italy was ignored. From the poor south of Italy millions emigrated in America between 1890 and 1930. In 1943, after years of depression and poverty, Sicily welcomed the Allies as liberators.
The Sicilian people has a high level of awareness of the ancient and medieval past and in many schools are studied Latin and Greek. Nowadays many efforts are made by the Italian govern to preserve and to celebrate their artistic and cultural heritage.