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Faiths of Sicily
Mythology, Judaism, Christianity, Islam... The religions of Sicily are the faiths of the Mediterranean. Historical continuity is overpowering in such a place. Sicilian history offers an ideal view of the development of religion in the Western World. Coming from North or South, East or West, every civilisation that has conquered Sicily has left its theological influence here. In Sicily today we find Sicanian, Greek and Roman temples. The historical traces of Palermo's synagogues, mosques and Paleo-Christian churches and catacombs are more difficult to identify. By the 6th century, Sicily was essentially Christianized, with small Jewish communities.
A Land of Faiths
In defining the relationships of peoples whose fundamental differences are rooted in matters of ethnicity or religion, "tolerance" is one thing. "Equality" is quite another, and it defined Norman Sicily's "Great Experiment." It is important, from a historical point of view, to remember that within faiths there originally were no denominations per se. Jews were not Orthodox or Conservative, Muslims were not Sunni or Shiite, Christians were not Catholic or Protestant. Such terms came into use later, with subsequent schisms in these religions. Historically, Judaism could be said to be the first monotheistic faith in the Mediterranean region, supplanting mythology in many areas. Christianity built upon Judaism, and Islam shared certain elements of both. The "Golden Age" of multicultural (and multi-faith) Sicily lasted throughout the Norman era from around 1070 until about 1200, though some historians extend it by a few more decades, through the reign of Frederick II, to 1250. Following the death of that distinguished monarch, Sicily's Muslims gradually converted to Christanity, and over time the remaining Byzantine (Orthodox) clergy were replaced by Latin (Catholic) priests. The Jewish population disappeared with an infamous Spanish decree of 1492. Most Sicilian Jews converted to Christianity, but some emigrated. By 1500, Sicily was Roman Catholic except for a few Albanian Orthodox communities whose churches soon affiliated themselves with Rome.
Persephone, Demeter, Arethusa, Alpheus, Theseus, Daedalus, Icarus, Minos, Dionysos, Charybdis, Hades, Hercules, Jason, Thetis, Aeolus, Polyphemus, Odysseus (Ulysses). Their names resound in the Greek myths of antiquity, and each knew Sicily, the Greeks' New World, intimately. The Cyclopes lived on Mount Etna, Aeolus and Vulcan dwelled in the islands north of Sicily, Scylla guarded the Strait of Messina, Persephone was abducted outside Enna, Arethusa emerged at Syracuse. The Sicans, Sicels, Elami, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and ancient Greeks were polytheistic; they created their own Gods. Like the Elami, Sicans and Sicels, the Romans adopted the Greek gods as their own. Yet, unlike the Greeks, the Romans were pagans with little faith in their own religion; Virgil's Aeneid was but an imitation of the Odyssey. To consider classical mythology a quaint memory overlooks the fact that the very foundations of Western ethics and democracy trace their origins from the Greece of Sophocles and Plato, and the Sicily of Archimedes, Empedocles and Aeschylus. When Saint Paul, who knew Greece, Sicily and Rome, stated that the invisible must be understood by the visible, he was expressing an idea more Greek than Hebrew. The Greeks were the first civilization to create deities in the human image, complete with perfect human bodies and very human flaws. To the Siceliots, as the Sicilian Greeks were known, the myths were an inspirational element of daily life in Sikelia (Sicily) rooted in neolithic beliefs. The magnificent Greek temples of Sicily attest to more than a people's passion; they represent the perfect union of Humanity and Nature. After thirty centuries of progress, a combination still worth emulating.
Greek civilization created its divinities in the human image, while Hebrew culture held that humans were created in God's image. Western religious principles are rooted in Judaic ones, but not all Semitic peoples (the Phoenicians, for example) were Judaic in religion. The difference between God and gods brought with it monumental implications for Mediterranean society. As a people, the Jews were never more than a minority in Sicily, but during the Middle Ages they were part of the island's unique multicultural mosaic. There is evidence that Hebrew traders resided in Sicily during the last centuries of Roman rule, but the first Jews in Sicily were brought here as slaves by the Romans before the 1st century AD. The successive Eastern Empire was more tolerant, and the first free Jewish congregations grew after the time of Constantine the Great. At first, these were communities of immigrants and descendants of former slaves, but it is clear that a number of local people in search of faith, as opposed to mythology, converted to Judaism. Intermarriage with Christians was not unusual in Sicily. Jewish temples were founded in Sicily's port cities (Palermo, Messina, Syracuse) around the same time that the first Christian churches were openly established. Sicily's jews lived more or less undisturbed until the 15th century. The year 1492 signaled the unification of Spain, the European discovery of America and the Inquisition's final banishment of Jews from Spanish territories, including Sicily. In Sicily, most Jews, being Sicilian in almost every cultural sense, chose conversion (like the conversos of Spain), and a number of Sicilian surnames reflect Jewish origins, or at least acknowledge a Jewish presence (Siino from Sion, Rabino from Rabbi). Contemporary estimates of the number of Jewish Sicilians indicate that the Jewish populations of Palermo, Messina and several other cities were considerable in 1492. Jewish Sicilians probably constituted from five to eight percent of the island's population. In Palermo, the Jewish Quarter was located in the area between Piazza Ballarò and Via Roma; there is evidence that the first merchants in the district of what is now Via dei Calderai were Jewish, and a synagogue stood in what is now Piazetta Meschita. The star or shield of David (Magen David) appears in the Palatine Chapel, San Cataldo and various other churches of Sicily's Norman era. It remains unclear whether this was an exclusively Jewish symbol in Italy during that period, as it was also an Arab design motif and a Christian allusion to Jesus --who was of the House of David.
In medieval Sicily, Islam was inextricably bound to Arab culture, though not all the world's Muslims were Arab. The Arabs ruled Sicily for two centuries. Most of the Muslims in Sicily were Saracens (Moors). More precisely, many were the descendants of Sicilian women who had wed the conquering Moors, each of whom, under Koranic law, could take as many as four wives. Many churches and synagogues survived (though new ones could not be built), and not every Sicilian woman chose to wed a Muslim, despite the economic advantages implicit in such a marriage. As recently as the 13th century, there were Muslims at the royal court (popes referred to Frederick II as a "baptized sultan"), and the Muslim towns in Sicily were essentially Arabic in every way, not unlike the Muslim towns in Spain. There is evidence to suggest that Frederick II considered his Muslim soldiers more loyal than many of his unruly Christian knights and barons. Certain Muslim customs (veiling, fasting) were essentially similar to practices that had been known among Middle Eastern Jews and Christians, and Islam's Koranic scriptures and precepts were not completely divorced from Judeo-Christian ones. Fasting (during Ramadan), almsgiving (zakat), pilgrimage and even Mohammed's visit by the angel Gabriel are essential elements of Islam. The Muslims respected Jews and Christians as "people of the book." Adopting a practice of the Muslim emirs, some of Sicily's Norman kings kept harems. In Palermo alone, there were over a hundred mosques and Koranic schools, and hundreds of imams, when the Normans arrived. By the time the Jews were expelled or Christianized (1492), there appear to have been very few professed Muslims in Sicily for nearly two centuries, beginning with Frederick II's exile of some of them to Apulia for armed insurrection in 1246. Sicily's Muslims converted a number of churches to mosques, and the Normans, in turn, rebuilt some of these as churches. Arab architects designed these in what has come to be known as the "Norman-Arab" style. (An Arabic inscription is visible around the high cupola of the Martorana Church in Palermo.) On the present site of Palermo Cathedral and its courtyard once stood Sicily's largest mosque, and before that a Paleo Christian basilica. A number of churches in central Palermo were built on the sites of mosques. In keeping with this peculiar architectural tradition, the Archdiocese of Palermo some years ago gave a former church to the city's growing Muslim community for use as a mosque.
There was already a small Christian community in Syracuse when Saint Paul preached there, though in his time the Christians were still a covert sect persecuted by the Empire. A number of Greek and Roman temples were eventually converted into churches. The essence of the historical Church in Sicily is rooted in the Byzantine East, in the tradition which is today preserved in the Orthodox Church. It began in Palestine. The Normans arrived just a few years after the Great Schism (1054), in which the Patriarch of Rome (the Pope) separated from communion with the other patriarchs of the Church. The reasons for this were social as well as theological, but for most of Sicily's Christians the effect was not felt immediately.
The Norman kings, whose Italian conquests were sanctioned by the Popes of Rome, are generally viewed, theologically speaking, as "Latinizers." Yet, during the reign of Roger I the Archimandrite Neilos Doxopatrios authored a book, published in Sicily, refuting the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff. The cathedral of Cefalù is distinctly Romanesque, with certain Gothic elements, while the cathedral of Monreale, and the churches of the Martorana (Palermo) and the Annunciation (Messina) are more similar to what one might encounter in Greece. Despite varying styles, all were constructed during the same period. The Martorana, in fact, was built specifically as an Orthodox place of worship. The Schism's theological implications became evident over time, as the Western Church itself evolved. Superficially, statues replaced icons, and the liturgy was altered. The mosaic icons in the Martorana, the Palatine Chapel, Monreale Abbey and (to a lesser extent) Cefalù Cathedral reflect a Byzantine heritage. They also indicate an Orthodox presence for some time after the arrival of the Normans. This was most evident in Sicily, but even the Normans' Royal Chapel in the Tower of London is more typical of Orthodox churches than it is of subsequent (Catholic) ones based on the Romanesque and Gothic models. In social matters, the Schism paved the way for a more Italianate (and Papal) orientation which, in retrospect, brought Sicily's unique medieval interfaith experiment to an early end.
There came a new influx of Orthodox Christians into southern Italy with the Albanian immigration of the 15th century. These parishes soon became "Uniate." Today, their liturgy and customs are Orthodox but in fact they are Byzantine Rite parishes of the Catholic Church.
Sicily's early kings enjoyed the title and function of Apostolic (papal) Legate, though as a fundamental principle of law the Sicilian Crown was granted not by any Pope but emanated from God Himself. Ecclesiastical Sicily gravitated toward Rome very slowly indeed; occasional excommunication was something the Norman and Swabian kings took in stride. The new dioceses founded in Sicily during the Norman period, in places like Monreale and Patti, were under the canonical jurisdiction of Rome and used the Gallican Rite. Some of the new bishops were Normans; Bishop Walter "of the Mill" (his name actually a misnomer based on a mistranslation) was a cousin of the royal Hautevilles. Sicily's Eastern tradition didn't vanish immediately but, like the Normans themselves, it was all but forgotten within a few centuries. Byzantine Venice, Bari and Ravenna suffered the same fate.
How was Catholicism different from Orthodoxy? There were theological matters, such as the controversial "filoque" passage of the Creed, while the ecclesiastical primacy of one man (the Pope) also distinguished Catholics from their Orthodox brethren. The Crusades were a Catholic phenomenon. Latin's replacement of Greek as the liturgical language represented perhaps the least significant alteration. Liturgy itself changed radically from that which existed in Norman times, and with it the role of the clergy. Even the churches were different. The icon screen was omitted, and statues of saints (as opposed to the icons or simple bas-reliefs of earlier times) became increasingly commonplace in Western churches, where the Gothic, the Baroque and the Italian Romanesque supplanted the austere ecclesiastical architecture of the East. Over time, the doctrines of Original Sin and the Immaculate Conception, Purgatory and indulgences, and other Latin ideas rooted in late-medieval Western philosophy further distinguished Catholicism. One of the greatest differences between East and West had little to do with theology per se, though it was rooted in Rationalism. Under the auspices of the Catholic Church, the Renaissance, in all its glory, fostered a fundamental change in creative and philosophical thought (Humanism), and the true end of the Middle Ages. But yet another schism, the Reformation, would challenge some of its ideas.
The Waldensian Church never had a strong presence in Sicily. A Waldensian parish was established in Palermo after the Unification (1860), their church having been more widespread in Piedmont, the Savoys' realm. The Anglican Church was introduced early in the 19th century with the arrival of several English mercantile families. In Sicily, it is still represented in the "High Church" tradition of the Church of England. When General George Patton arrived in Palermo in 1943, it was at Holy Cross Anglican Church (on Via Roma) that he worshipped, where he dedicated a plaque to commemorate the American soldiers killed during Operation Husky, the Sicilian campaign. Waldensians and Anglicans are Protestants in the Reformation tradition.
A Multicultural Renaissance
The 20th century saw the arrival of other faiths in Sicily, and an increasing number of atheists. There has been a minor revival of Eastern Orthodoxy, a strong Evangelical movement, and an increasing number of Buddhists. Several mosques have been established by North African immigrants. After nine centuries, Sicily has reclaimed something of her multicultural religious heritage. It's one aspect of 21st century Sicily that King Roger II would certainly recognize.
© 2008 Best of Sicily Travel Guide. Used by permission.