It is often said that you can’t fully understand Italy until you’ve been to Sicily because it, the Mediterranean’s largest island, is a microcosm of the varying cultures that have created the Italy we know today.
Different areas of the mainland have undergone separately the influences of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Spanish, German, French, and Papal conquest; Sicily alone has experienced all of them, leaving a rich cultural pastiche. And it’s this pastiche which is enhanced and elevated by the one influence never felt by its peninsular counterparts: the Arabs.
Muslim invaders, known elsewhere in Europe as ‘Saracens,’ ‘Moors,’ or ‘Turks,’ conquered Sicily in the Middle Ages, ruling over it for most of the 10th and 11th centuries. With them came contributions that remained ingrained in Sicilian life today.
Using irrigation techniques honed in their arid lands of origin, the Arab rulers introduced crops like lemons, oranges, and pistachios, three flavours that are now practically synonymous with island cuisine.
They also brought with them sugarcane production, laying a foundation for sweets that finds its culmination in cassata and cannoli, the island’s two most famous (and delectable) desserts. It is fair to say, in fact, that sugar entered Europe via Arab Sicily.
Numerous other traces of this now-distant presence can be observed there as well, particularly in language. Place names that begin with ‘calta-,’ of which there are many—Caltanisetta, Caltagirone, to name but two, descend from the Arabic for ‘castle.’ Sicilian dialect, one of Europe’s richest, is peppered with words of Arabic origin, as are many surnames.
Some even theorize that the most notorious Sicilian word, mafia, derives from the Arabic term for ‘swagger.’ (No one said that all linguistic influences were positive!) Even in modern times, to hear a vendor hawking his wares in a Palermo market conjures the sensation of a being in a souk in the Middle East, or of a muezzin’s call to prayer.