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History & Heritage


When East meets West : Arab-Norman-Byzantine architecture in Sicily

Amid the picturesque streets of Sicily, a unique cultural phenomenon beckons to those with a keen eye for architectural beauty. The Norman-Arab-Byzantine style, a stunning fusion of Norman, Arab-Islamic, and Byzantine architectures, bears testament to the island’s colorful past.

The story begins in the 11th century, when a band of Viking descendants known as the Normans was summoned by the Lombards to help in their fight against the Byzantine Empire. The Normans swiftly established themselves as the dominant force in the region, leaving a lasting imprint on the culture and architecture of southern Italy and specifically Sicily.

The resulting architectural traditions of the Normans in southern Italy feature an array of elements, chief among them the use of polychrome decoration, which incorporates multiple colors in a single design. This technique, honed to perfection by the Byzantines and commonly used by the Arab Muslims, imbues the structures with richness of character.

Another striking hallmark of Norman-Arab-Byzantine architecture is the use of muqarnas, an architectural technique developed during the Abbasid period that allows for intricate and complex ceiling designs that are both functional and decorative.

A tradition that’s still visible in Sicily

Countless examples of this style still stand today, each one a testament to the enduring legacy of the Norman conquest. Among the most famous are the Palatine Chapel and the Martorana Church in Palermo, Sicily. Built in the 12th century by Norman King Roger II, these religious edifices are examples of the fusion of western and Islamic styles. The interior of both buildings is adorned with stunning mosaics and intricate muqarnas ceilings. As visitors marvel at the beauty of these structures, they are transported back in time, experiencing a rich history and culture that is unique to Sicily.


But it is not only religious buildings that showcase this architectural style; secular structures like the Castella della Zisa in Palermo also features the distinctive rounded archways, muqarnas, and inscriptions in the Arabic Kufic script that characterize the Islamic influence in medieval Sicilian architecture.


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Published on 29 July 2023

#Arab world