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The Goths
and the Byzantines

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Rulers of the South

Francis Marion Crawford

published by MacMillan & Co. Ltd.
New York and London

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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The Normans
(Part 1)

(Vol. II) The Saracens

 p70  The end of the Byzantine domination in the south was brought about by one of those insurrections against the injustice of the rulers to which reference has already been made. The north of Africa was under the domination of an Arab chief who had succeeded in inducing the Khalif of Bagdad to countenance his independent supremacy. This Ibrahim appears to have had some inkling of civilized government, and in order to promote the commerce of his people with the Sicilians he agreed to a peace which was to last ten years. Unfortunately Ibrahim could not make himself responsible for the peaceful conduct of other Mohammedan princes, who continued their depredations for some time unhindered, and his successor returned to the traditional ways of his race. He prepared an expedition which had no definite  p71 object except to plunder Christian countries. On this occasion the Mohammedans fell upon the islands west of Naples, and took what plunder they could gather from Ponza and Ischia; but some part of the fleet having been lost, a new treaty was ratified. It was not observed with good faith, however, and before the time of its expiration another flying attack was made upon Sicily.

The event which was to have such great and lasting results for the south was finally brought about in the following manner. In the year 826, the Emperor Michael Balbus was obliged to exert every energy to preserve his sovereignty and Constantinople against the attacks of a rival. It being known that he was thus occupied, the troops in Sicily seized the opportunity to rise against the governor. They had momentarily underrated the emperor's strength, however, the insurrection was partially repressed, and a new governor named Photinus was sent to reduce the unruly province to order. Among those suspected of favouring the revolution there was a certain rich landholder named Euphemius, who appears to have had a great following. Unable to find satisfactory proof against him, Photinus trumped up an accusation which, if proved, would have ruined him. Euphemius, it is said, had been guilty of no less a crime than that of carrying off a beautiful nun from a Sicilian convent. The accused man gathered his  p72 followers about him and defied the governor; a pitched battle ensued, in which he was victorious. He took possession of Syracuse, and not content with the result of the contest, actually declared himself emperor. The idea was novel and daring, and presented so many attractions to adventurous minds that a counter-insurrection almost immediately followed; but in the confusion the Byzantine troops, who seem to have acknowledged some sort of authority, got the better, and Euphemius fled from Syracuse to Africa and to the Mohammedans. He proposed that they should help him to conquer Sicily and establish himself as its sovereign, on condition of paying a yearly tribute forever afterwards. In the execution of this scheme, Euphemius came into contact with a force of which he had not expected the existence. Among the chief persons at the Mohammedan court was the Kadi of the capital, the aged Ased, a man who had the reputation of being a profound jurist, and who was certainly a religious fanatic, willing to go to any length for his convictions. In answer to the representations of Euphemius, he replied that if the war were fought at all, it will be fought in order to carry the Mohammedan faith among the Christians of the south, and he let it be understood that it would matter little what became of Euphemius himself, provided that an unbelieving country could be brought under the rule of the faithful. He himself was appointed  p73 the general of the Mohammedan forces, and on the thirteenth of June, 827, he sailed for Sicily with a fleet of a hundred ships, in which he embarked no less than ten thousand foot soldiers, and seven hundred horsemen. According to the Sicilian chronicle, given by Muratori from the Cambridge manuscript, the expedition landed in Sicily in the middle of the month of July, but Amari says that the Mohammedans landed at Mazzara on the sixteenth of June, which allows only three days for the passage. Be that as it may, the Mohammedans overcame the Byzantines in the first engagement, marched with little hindrance along the south coast in the direction of Syracuse, while the imperial troops took refuge in the stronghold of Henna, now Castrogiovanni. Ased made a bold dash at the capital of the island, but he encountered the same difficulties which, long ago, had wrought the ruin of Athenians and Carthaginians alike. The resources of the immediate neighbourhood were exhausted, and the besiegers suffered severely from lack of provisions; with the first autumn rains the fatal miasma of the Lysimeleian swamp spread a deadly pestilence through the Mohammedan army, and the aged general himself fell a victim to the sickness. The Mohammedans now attempted to leave the harbour with their ships as the Athenians had done, but, like them, were beaten by the Syracusan fleet, and like them, also, were driven by sheer necessity to  p74 attempt a retreat by land. Where the Athenians had been finally destroyed by the superior activity of Gylippus, however, the Mohammedans succeeded in making good their retreat, and though they had failed to take Syracuse, they were never again driven from the shores of Sicily. Taking refuge in the strong retreat afforded by the citadel of Mineo on the northern slope of the Ereian hills, they soon recovered from the effects of starvation and fever, regained their courage and energy, and prepared to carry on the war with unabated vigour. Descending in force, but no longer in the direction of the capital, they seized Girgenti and boldly attacked Henna itself. Of its name they made Kasr Janna, meaning 'the fortress of John,' and the city has retained the appellation in modern times. So sure were they of reducing the almost impregnable stronghold, that they even coined money which bore its name. But an attempt made by Euphemius himself to induce the defenders to surrender ended in his death, and shortly afterwards a Byzantine army came to the rescue; the Mohammedans were obliged to abandon the siege and to withdraw to Mineo, while the garrison they had left in Girgenti retreated to the little island stronghold of Mazzara, less than twenty miles from Marsala. These were the only two places held by the Saracens in 829, but they succeeded in keeping possession of them until the following year, when they renewed the  p75 war with large reënforcements, and they took Palermo in 832 after a siege in which more than nine-tenths of the population perished. They now commanded the western portion of the island, while the Byzantines still held Syracuse and the east. The Cambridge 'Chronicon Sicilum' recapitulates the events of the forty-seven years during which the Saracens completed the conquest, beginning with the statement that they came to Sicily in the middle of July, 827. In 831 they took Messina, and the Patrician Theodotus was slain, and in 832 Palermo fell. Ten years later, in 842, Sicily was plagued by locusts. In 845 the Saracens had advanced so far southward as to capture the fortress of Modica, on the crags above the river Magro, where the wild cactus grows against the ruined castle walls. The next year the Moslems fought the Byzantines before Castrogiovanni, and slew nine thousand of them. In 847 they had moved round Syracuse far enough to take Leontini, and a year later they completed the chain of strong places behind them by seizing Ragusa the first time; and, moreover, there was a great famine. Six years passed after this, during which nothing happened worth recording, and in 854 the Saracens took Butera near the south coast, not far from Licata; but another source informs us that they besieged the strong place five months and departed at last, being bribed to give up the attempt by the surrender of six thousand of  p76 the inhabitants as slaves. Four years after this a number of ships, commanded by a certain Ali, were taken by the Byzantines, but in 859 Castrogiovanni was at last taken, and from that lofty height the Saracens overlooked and dominated most of the island. The strong place fell by treachery, every man able to bear arms was slain, and the rest of the  p77 people were made slaves. Some of the beautiful women and boys were thought worthy to be sent as a gift to the Khalif of Bagdad.

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Bell Tower at Paola in Calabria,
the birthplace of San Francesco di Paola

Ibn Khaldoun says that Aghlab, the governor of Sicily, died in Palermo in the year 858, having governed the country for nineteen years, and that the Mussulmans at his death chose Abas for the emir, and that he was officially invested with the governorship. Until he had received this he had only sent out small expeditions to plunder the country in divers directions, but as soon as he had received full authority he went out in person and overran many parts of Sicily, sacking everything in the direction of Catania, Syracuse, Butera, and Ragusa; and that after several engagements he took possession of Castrogiovanni. The fullest account of the events that preceded the taking of the latter place is that of Ibn‑el‑Athir. According to him Abas was in hopes that by laying waste the surrounding country he might tempt the Byzantine patrician to come out against him, but that he was disappointed in this; that he attempted again to take the place two years later, and that he besieged the place which the Arab historian calls Thira for the space of five months, took it, and 'pardoned the garrison for the price of five thousand heads.' In 865 Abas repulsed the troops which came out against him from Castrogiovanni and besieged a place called Kasr-el‑Hadid, of which the population offered him a large  p78 sum of money, which he refused, and thereupon, as he continued the siege, they surrendered on condition that he would grant liberty to two hundred of their number. He sold the rest as slaves, and razed the walls. With regard to Castrogiovanni Ibn Khaldoun tells us that Abas was about to put to death certain captives, when one of them, who was a man of importance, offered to betray the place in exchange for his life. Abas consented, and the Mussulmans were led by night to a place that was but weakly defended, and the traitor introduced them by a secret entrance. The Arab adds that the fall of the Greek power in Sicily dates from that day, although the emperor made the most tremendous efforts to regain possession of the island. The mortification of the Byzantines at the loss of their great fortress was boundless, and everywhere the people rose against the conquerors. Noto was taken, indeed, but was lost again; the Byzantines seized a number of Saracen vessels; Ragusa had to be recaptured, and as a basis of operations against Syracuse, the Saracens took Malta in 870. In 872 a Mohammedan army had advanced upon the mainland as far as Salerno, and perished there. At last the fate of Syracuse was at hand; the Mohammedans held the main strongholds throughout the island, reaching hands, as it were, from hill to hill, and constantly narrowing the little territory left to the Byzantines.

We possess a full and graphic account of the last  p79 great siege which ended in the destruction of Syracuse. Theodosius, a monk, was in the city and escaped death, though he remained some time a prisoner; the long letter which he wrote on the subject to the Archdeacon Leo has been used by every historian as the only accurate source of information, and has been so often paraphrased that it may interest the reader to know by a literal translation exactly what the good man wrote.

"The Epistle of the monk Theodosius to the Archdeacon Leo concerning the capture of Syracuse.

Most Divine Sir:— To follow out the details of those things what had happened to us, a longer time and a more convenient occasion would be necessary, and a letter is too short to contain the whole series of the things that have been done. On the other hand it seems to me that to be silent about these things, and about the common grief felt by almost the whole world — for I can readily believe that all must pity us who have even heard the name of Syracuse — to keep silence, I say, would seem to be the part of a paralyzed intelligence and of a man overcome by indolence; of which one of the prophets has spoken, as by the mouth of God, saying, 'I have received them with scourges but they have not repented.' But if I undertake the narrative of these events, no matter how, it will be of some use to both of us. For it will bring me some consolation to speak, since by  p80 speaking I have some hope of being relieved from the evils by which I am now tormented, because it is a fact in nature that if one explain in words those things by which one is troubled, the bitterness of the soul is tempered; but you on your part shall at least receive the fee of tears if, perchance, you shall bestow them in pity upon the narrative you follow.

"O you, sir, who have enjoyed divine honours, we are fallen into the power of the enemy, and we are taken at last, nor did Jerusalem, when it was taken, experience worse things, neither Samaria which was overcome before Jerusalem; such ruin have we suffered as never the isles of Chetim knew, nor barbarous countries, nor any cities that can be reported. Such was the slaughter that on the same day every weapon with which defence had been made was broken to pieces, bows, quivers, arms, swords, and all weapons; the strong were made weak, and the violence of the foe drove to surrender those defenders, those brave men whom I may well call giants, who laboured with all their might, who hesitated not before that day to suffer hunger and all labours, and to be pierced with numberless wounds for the love of Christ, and who were all put to the sword after the city was taken. At length we are fallen into the hands of the enemy, though for a long time we defended ourselves from the walls, and though many times there was fighting on the sea, which indeed was a horrible sight, filling  p81 with consternation the eyes of those that looked, for the vision is indeed dismayed by the atrocity of those things which are often brought before it. We were vanquished after many attacks made upon us by night, and many a hostile ambush, after engines had been brought up against the walls with which these were pounded almost all day, after a grievous storm of stones hurled against our works, when the tortoise-shed that destroys cities had been used against us, and those things which they call subterranean rats; for not one of those things which are of use for taking a city was left untried by those who were in charge of the siege; the intense desire to possess our city had already inflamed their hearts, and they contended to the utmost with one another, excogitating new engines from day to day, the more easily to take and destroy the city. Nevertheless, in the admirable wisdom of His councils,º God protected us in a measure from these. But of what use is it to continue any further in tragic strain, complaining of the chaos of evils which our enemies heaped upon us by their enormous ingenuity? Did they leave anything uninvaded or untried, which seemed to them capable of inspiring terror in the besieged, and of filling their hearts with dismay?

"Time admonishes me to turn to those things which were done within the city, and I shall say a few words at length concerning these matters; without, the sword  p82 laid waste our strength, and fear did so within, so that I might well say that in that ancient prophecy Moses spoke of us. For as before we had sinned against God like the people of Israel, we have drunk of the same cup of the divine wrath that Israel drank; we were taken captive after we had suffered hunger long, feeding upon herbs, after having thrust into our mouths in our extreme need even filthy things, after men had even devoured their children — a frightful deed, that should be passed in silence, although we had before abhorred human flesh — oh! hideous spectacle — but who, for his own dignity's sake, could weep such deeds in tragic strain? We did not abstain from eating leather and the skins of oxen, nor from any other things soever which seemed capable of relieving men exhausted by hunger, and we spared not even dry bones, but dressed them to make ourselves a cheerful meal — a new sort of food abhorrent to the custom of mortal men. What will not unceasing hunger force men to do? Many of the Syracusans were driven to grind the bones of four-footed beasts in the mill, and these wretched men stilled their hunger with the stuff, after wetting it with a very little water. The fountain of Arethusa supplied us abundantly with water for such uses. A measure of wheat was sold for a hundred and fifty pieces of gold, but the millers sold it for more, even for two hundred pieces, so that, strange as it may seem, a roll weighing two  p83 ounces was sold for a piece of gold. Add to this, that a beast of burden was sold for as much more than three hundred gold pieces as it was the more fit for food when put up for sale, and the head of a horse went to fifteen gold pieces and sometimes even to twenty; the flesh of asses was considered something most delicious. No sort of domestic bird or fowl was left, and oil and all sorts of salt provisions had long been eaten up, even such things which, as Gregorius Theologus says, are usually the food of the poor; no cheese, no vegetables, no fish. Already the enemy had forcibly taken possession of the two harbours between which Syracuse lies, having previously levelled to the ground the defences which were called the 'brachiolia,' and which once kept the enemy from entering the harbours. Now this thing came to pass, by far the most terrible thing; a most grievous pestilence, alas, followed upon famine, and some were tormented by the disease called lock-jaw, so named from the contraction of the nerves; apoplexy dried up half of the bodies of some others, it killed others instantly, but many who were attacked by the same disease could only move half their bodies or were altogether deprived of the power of motion; others, their bodies inflated like bladders, presented a horrid spectacle to the beholder, and though death was always hanging over them, it hardly set those wretched creatures free in the end with the severest suffering, for even death  p84 was obeying the divine command, and was thereby not a little retarded. Indeed, to those things which I have already mentioned, very many more could be added, which would require a longer narrative than can be sent by a man given up to custody. For what else can I do than condense and crowd such great things into few words, being shut up in prison where I have not one hour of peace and quiet? The thick darkness of my prison, which hangs over my eyes, weakens and dulls my sight, and the noises made by the others who are confined in the same place agitate and disturb my mind.

"The tower, which was built at the greater port, at the right-hand angle of the city, was first struck and then partly fell down under the violence of the catapults with which the enemy hurled enormous stones. Five days after the destruction of this tower, the wall of the rampart, which had before been connected with the tower, was destroyed by the force of the catapults; thereupon great terror entered into the hearts of the besieged, but nevertheless those noble and truly brave men sustained the attack of the enemy under the leadership of his blessedness the Duke and Patrician, and did their best to second his tremendous exertions, beyond all that can be expressed in words, during twenty days and as many nights, when a wall fell down upon those who were bravely and nobly defending the approach on that side, and who thus manifested their inborn nobility  p85 of spirit, and held it to be the highest praise to be wounded in every part of their bodies for the defence of the city. And now, indeed, whoever chose to go to that rampart, which was called by the people the Unfortunate, might see there many men mutilated in divers and strange ways; for some had their eyes dug out, and others had their noses cut off, some had lost their ears, others their eyelids; the jaws of others were red with blood from wounds of darts and arrows, and some were wounded in the forehead, and some in the heart, and in many ways; the bodies of some, the breasts of others, lay open from the wounds they had received; they suffered, in a word not here and there, but in every part. For the enemy besieged the city with all their forces, and was so far superior in numbers, that although it is hardly to be believed, a hundred of them fought hand-to‑hand with one of us, covering their antagonists with no common glory in dangers which it required the highest courage to face. But I used to call to mind the zeal of the athletes whenever I came to a place where they were fighting fearlessly and splendidly and earning great glory for deeds well done. But when the number of our sins had so greatly increased that the drawn sword of the wrath of God was drunk with them, then, on the twenty and first day of May, and on the fourth day after the wall had fallen, the city was reduced into the power of the enemy; and the mention in which it was taken is well  p86 worth describing, for it was full of horror. For when the stern displeasure of God against us had scattered hither and thither the stoutest of those who resisted the enemy, and had called away our famous Patrician with his companions from the walls to their own houses, in order that they might take some food for their bodies' sake, then it was put into the hearts of the barbarians of renew the attack at that fatal tower of which I have  p87 spoken; and when they had advanced those engines which they used for throwing stones, the murderous traitors who invaded our city enjoyed the spectacle. Nor had they undertaken a hard matter, since but a few soldiers were guarding the tower, and the citizens did not suppose that it was a time for fighting, so our defenders felt safe and thought of nothing less than of going to the ramparts. Therefore, while the enemy were hurling stones into the city in a fearful manner, and compassed it all round about, a certain wooden ladder, over which the half-ruined tower was usually reached by the garrison, was broken down, and thereupon a great din arose; when the Patrician heard this, he sprang up at once from the table without finishing his meal, full of great anxiety for the ladder. As soon as the barbarians perceived that the ladder was broken down, for they were hurling their stones in its vicinity, they approached the walls with weight greatest alacrity, and seeing but a few men guarding the tower, vigorously drove them back and slew them; and among them was the blessed John Patrinus. After this they ascended without opposition and took possession of the place, and thence they spread through the city like a river in the sight of those who were gathering together to defend it. First they slew to the last man those who were drawn up in line against them at the porch of the Church of the Saviour, and with a great rush they opened the doors and entered the temple with drawn  p88 swords, as they panted for breath, to emit fire from their nostrils and eyes. Then indeed people all ages fell in a moment by the edge of the sword, princes and judges of the earth, as we sing in the psalms, young men and maidens, old men and children, both monks and those joined in matrimony, the priests and the people, the slave and the free man, and even sick persons who had lain a long time in bed. Merciful God, the butchers could not even spare these; for the soul that thirsts for human blood is not easily satisfied by the death of those who first face it in anger. And I may use the words of the holy Sophonias to tell of that day of disaster and of woe, that day of fear and ruin, that day of darkness and of gloom. But of what use is it to narrate in many words each separate thing that happened to the chief men, since such an account would strike horror to the ears that heard, and even to the very soul?

"Our great Patrician, who had retired into a certain fort, was taken alive with seventy men on the next day, and on the eighth day after the fall of the city he was executed. He bore his fate with so high and brave a heart as to admit nothing unworthy of his constancy, nor did he show the very smallest sign of fear; nor is that strange, since it had been impossible to induce him by any means to betray the city for his own safety, though there were many about him not only ready to approve the plan, but to help in its execution, had he  p89 wished it; but he chose to die without stain, trusting to save those who were with him by sacrificing his own life for many, after the example of our Lord, rather than to let his mind dwell upon anything unworthy of his honour; yet he moved not the hearts of his murderers to any pity whatsoever. His courage was so great, and his readiness to suffer the last extremity, that even Busa, the son of the emir Hajeb, who commanded his death, was filled with great admiration. But he himself had gained this fortitude to die in such good and holy fashion because he had spent the whole time of the war in the contemplation of death, and had excellently exhorted those who were besieged with him, showing them the way that leads to immortality, wherefore, by these deeds of goodness, he had learned to fear the end of life but little; for to those who have prepared themselves by a continual meditation, lest they should find their hearts unready to suffer the end, the journey hence to heaven is not joyless, when it comes at last. But the barbarians took those whom they had made prisoners with the Patrician, all born in Syracuse, and of high station, and some other captives also, and led them out of the city, and made them stand together within a circle; and they fell upon them with a rush, like wild dogs, and slew them, some with stones, some with clubs, some with the spears they had in their hands, and others with such weapons as they found by accident, pressing upon them most cruelly; and furiously  p90 raging in their hearts, they consumed their bodies with fire. I cannot pass over with silence the barbarous cruelties they perpetrated upon Nicetas. This man was of Tarsian family, most wise and brave in war, and during the siege he used daily to heap many curses upon Mohammed, who is held by that nation to be the greatest of the prophets. So they separated him from the number of those who were to be slain, and they stretched him upon the ground on his back, and they flayed him alive from his breast downward, and they tore to pieces his protruding vitals with spears; and, moreover, with their hands they tore the heart out of the man while he yet breathed, and lacerated it with their teeth, most monstrously, and dashed it upon the earth and stoned it, and then at last were satiated, and left it; but of these things elsewhere. Now I, who had already returned to favour with the bishop a second time, and was with him in the cathedral assisting him at prayers at the sixth hour, heard with my ears how the tower was taken by the barbarians, as we came to the end of the canticle. At this news no small fear entered into the hearts of those who heard, for what thing not terrible could we expect, being about to fall most certainly into the blood-stained hands of our enemies? Nevertheless, taking courage as we could, and while the enemy were engaged in plunder within sight of the church, we fled with two other clerks to the altar of the cathedral, naked and ashamed, for we had cast off  p91 all our garments, excepting what we wore that was of leather. The most blessed father (our bishop) had been accustomed to conciliate the wrath of God at this altar, and to ask help for his children, and his prayers had been answered; and this wonderful thing experience had shown very often, although at this time his prayers were rejected by the mysterious counsels of the heavenly judges. When, therefore, we found ourselves thus in peril, each asked pardon of the other for any sin he had committed, and we forgave one another; and we gave thanks to God that He had allowed us to endure these things. Now, therefore, while the bishop was commending his church to the Guardian Angel, behold the enemy were suddenly there, with drawn swords wet with blood, and they wandered through the whole building, turning hither and thither; and one of them departed out of the throng that moved round and came to the holy altar, and there he found us hiding between the altar and the (bishop's) chair, and he took us; yet did nothing cruel to us, for God had certainly softened his heart a little; he said nothing wrathful nor threatening, feigning timidity in his face, though he was armed with a naked sword which smoked and dripped blood still warm. He looked at the bishop and asked him tolerably clearly who he was. As soon as he knew, he asked, 'Where and are the sacred vessels of the Church?' But when he had learned concerning the place, he led the bishop out of the holy temple  p92 apart from all the disturbance and tumult, and us also with him, like lambs following their shepherd. When he had reached, by our guidance, the chapel where the sacred vessels used to kept, he shut us up in it and went about to see that the elders of the barbarians should come together as quickly as possible; and then he began to tell them concerning us. We learned that his name was Semnoës, and that he was of illustrious birth; and moved by his speech, or rather, as I should say, because God brought it all to a good ending, our enemies began to be well disposed towards us. On the same day they plundered the sacred things, and when they had done, the weight of all was five thousand pounds; and they made us go out of the city, overwhelmed with vehement grief, to say nothing of our other ills, and led us to the emir, who had encamped in the old cathedral (San Giovanni).

"He had us shut up in one of those vaulted chambers that are therein, and there it was inevitable that our poor bodies should be afflicted in every way; for the place was naturally filled with evil smells, and with worms that breed and bound in a day, as well as with the mice that were always there, and with swarms of lice and bugs, and literally with armies of fleas; and when it was night, we were overwhelmed by the falling darkness, and the house was filled with smoke which chanced to be made outside, and choked our miserable breath and almost entirely hid us from one another's  p93 sight. We were thrown into this chasm with our holy bishop and other clerk of the brethren, for the rest were all butchered when the city was taken; and there we spent thirty days, because the enemy required that time to destroy the defences of Syracuse. Throughout that period the buildings within the circuit of the walls were burned, and the value of all the booty taken was so great that the reckoning when cast up was found to be one thousand thousandº gold pieces.

"Not long after this we began the journey to Palermo which we accomplished in the space of six days, borne on beasts bred to carry burdens, but we were conducted by rough and savage Ethiopians. At length, much vexed by the heat in the daytime and by the nocturnal chills, and not having ceased to travel by day and night, we entered the extremely famous and populous city of Palermo; and as we went into the city, the people came out to meet us. They thronged out in great joy, and they sang songs of triumph, and as they saw the victors carrying the spoils into the city we at length saw the multitude of the citizens and of the strangers who had assembled, and that the number of the citizens, as compared with all accounts, had in our opinion not been overrated; for you would have thought that the whole race of the Saracens had come together there, from the rising up of the sun even to its going down, from the north and from the sea, according to the accustomed speech of the most blessed David.  p94 Wherefore the people being crowded together in such a press of inhabitants, began to build and inhabit houses without the walls, to such an extent that they really built many cities round the original one, not unequal to it, if one choose, either for attack or defence. But since, as I began to say, this most evil of all cities possessed a Contarchus — that is the name of the office — he deemed it unworthy of his fame not to make us pass  p95 under the yoke. And not only does he promise himself that he will do so, he even threatens to bring under his power peoples that live far away, and even the people of the imperial city (Constantinople). This being then the state of things, we were brought before the chief emir after the fifth day. He was sitting haughtily on a throne, on a terrace, much pleased with himself and his tyrannical power; and, like a towel hanging in the midst, he showed himself to us first from one side and then from the other. The attendants made the bishop stand forth, and through an interpreter the emir asked: 'Hast thou our manner of praying to God?' Our most wise superior would not admit that. 'Why in that manner?' asked the bishop; 'since I am the high priest of Christ and the leader of the mysteries of the servants of Christ, of whom the prophets and the righteous prophesied of old.' 'They are not prophets to you, in truth,' answered the emir, 'but only in name, since by them you would not be led away to your false doctrines, nor turned from the right path. For why do you assail our prophet with blasphemies?' 'We do not blaspheme the prophets at all,' returned the bishop, 'seeing that we have learned not to inveigh against prophets, but to speak in their behalf and to feel proud of them; but we do not know that one who is revered among you.' Amazed by these answers, the emir at once ordered that we should be again thrust into prison, and being led away we walked through the principal  p96 open place of the city, in the sight of the people; and many Christians followed us openly mourning our misery, as well as men of the contrary sect (Mohammedan) who were impelled by curiosity and pressed closely about us and kept asking which was the very famous Sicilian archbishop, and in this way we escaped from the people. At length we were thrown into the common prison; and this is a den having its pavement fourteen steps below ground, and it has only a little door instead of a window; here the darkness is complete, and can be felt, the only light being from a lamp, or some reflection by day, and it is impossible ever to see the light of dawn in this dungeon, nor the rays of the moon. Our bodies were distressed by the heat, for it was summer, and we were scorched by the breath of our fellow-prisoners; and besides, the vermin and the lice, and hosts of fleas and other little insects, make a man miserable by their bites; promiscuously with us there were confined in the same prison, to trade (as it were) with these miseries, Ethiopians, Tarsians, Jews, Lombards, and some of our own Christians, from different parts, among whom was also the most holy Bishop of Malta, chained with double shackles. Then the two bishops embraced one another, and kissed one another with the holy kiss, and wept together awhile over the things that had happened to them; but presently the gave thanks to God for it all, and combated their grief with arguments drawn from our philosophy. While we  p97 were living in this way, the abominable day of sacrifice appointed among these people recurred; on which day they boast that they hold in memory that sacrifice which Abraham made long ago, when he sacrificed the ram given him to God for a victim, in his share of the covenant; this, out of ignorance, they call the Pasch, but they do not name the day thus from the fact, for they had no passing over from Egypt to the land of promise, according to the ancient naming of the Pasch, nor from that land to the celestial shore, nor from death to life, as the Christian faith teaches us to use this word; but from life unto death and from this corporeal destruction, which falls under sensation, to that everlasting perdition, and to that fire which shall have no end. In the celebration of this day — strange madness — they took councilº to burn the archbishop and to offer the most holy Pontiff of Christ as a victim to their evil demons; for a certain man of those who were over the people, having a mouth that breathed like an open sepulchre, said, turning to those who stood round about, 'O fellow citizens, let us keep this feast of the Pasch as joyfully as may be, and make it famous now, if ever, by laying hands upon the bishop of the Christians for our own salvation, for so I am sure that our affairs shall turn out fortunately and shall obtain even a better increase.' So he spoke, but certain old men with wise grey heads, and elders honourably clad in mantles, turned to the people and condemned the thing for the  p98 following reason. They said that these things were not true, and that they considered that the record of that day was made sufficiently honourable by the signal privilege of having accomplished the destruction of the city of Syracuse. Thus, God being willing, was the advice of the evil counsellor against the archbishop set at naught. Now from that day to this we have remained captive, in many sorrows, daily awaiting death itself, which perpetually hangs over us prisoners. But thou, O dear and venerable head, remember always thy Theodosius, and mayest thou render our God kind and propitious that He may calm these tempestuous billows, that he may stay them and check them, and that he may turn our captivity, as the flood under the south wind, according to the word of the Prophet King who was of the kindred of Christ. Amen."

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Cloister of San Francesco di Paola

Here ends the letter of Theodosius, which was evidently composed in the prison he describes. It is some satisfaction to find it believed among historians that he himself and the good bishop were at last ransomed. The account bears evidence in every sentence of having been written by one who had both seen and suffered the terrible things he describes. It cannot be doubted that the Mohammedans acted elsewhere with a cruelty quite as atrocious; the condition of the unfortunate Christians who now became their slaves is more easy to imagine than to describe, and one might not unnaturally think of the Saracens as  p99 utter barbarians, or at least as possessing no higher culture than that of their Semitic predecessors in Sicily, the Carthaginians. We know that this was not the case, and we may well start in wonder at the picture drawn by Theodosius. But we might as reasonably call Oliver Cromwell a barbarian, or the French Huguenot iconoclasts — or, for that matter, Catherine de' Medici. There is only one form of passion which seems able to destroy temporarily every good instinct of humanity, and that is mistaken religious zeal. The conviction that the enemy is predestined to eternal flames easily leads to the instinctive belief that he has deserved every torment in his earthly body; and such a belief, when bound up with such a conviction, and stimulated to madness by the sight of human blood, can make men worse than wild beasts. The barbarians with their dripping swords who terrified poor Theodosius were those same grave Mohammedans to whom we are indebted for so much true science, for the preservation and transmission of so many priceless books, and for so many things of beauty that still remain, from the Taj Mahal to the Alhambra; and they were the men who were about to fill Sicily with a civilization in many ways superior to the older one which they destroyed. They tore Nicetas piecemeal, and trampled upon his Christian heart; but Theodoric the great Goth put the good heathen Boethius to death as cruelly, on an accusation that  p100 was palpably false, and Everard Digby, who has been recently proved wholly innocent of any connection with the Gunpowder Plot, was torn to pieces alive by the hangman under James the First. The French are a most civilized people, but in the French Revolution educated men among them behaved with no more show of humanity than the Saracens at Syracuse, and about the year 1900 men who can read and write, and who vote in a free country, have burned negroes alive. No nation has much right to reproach any other for cruelty in times of war or popular excitement; it is only in peace that a fair judgment may be formed of the tendencies of any race, and then only when that race lives under some form of representative government. Countries are too often judged by their capital cities, and nations by the character of their sovereigns, though the rulers of most nations are of foreign descent.

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Cloister of San Francesco di Paola,
seen from the rear

In connection with the fall of Syracuse I take the following strange story from the annals of Georgius Cedrenus, a monk of the eleventh century, as a specimen of the inventive powers occasionally displayed at that time, even in works that have some historical value.

While the Saracens, whom he calls the Carthaginians, were still besieging Syracuse and pillaging the surrounding country, the Emperor Basil sent a fleet to Sicily under the command of the patrician, Adrianus,  p101 'although the sailors were at that time engaged in building a temple' — a singular occupation for men-of‑war's men, it must be confessed. Adrianus put into a harbour of the Peloponnesus to wait for a fair wind, and while he was wasting time there, Syracuse was taken. He learned the disaster in the following manner. 'There is a place in the Peloponnesus called Helos, on account of the thick woods amongst which it is situated, and the Roman ships were moored near the spot. One night some shepherds heard the voices of the devils that dwell there, talking together, and relating that Syracuse had been taken on the previous day, and this tale, after spreading among the people, reached Adrianus. He called the shepherds before him and examined them, and finding that they confirmed the story he had heard, in order to ascertain the truth of the thing with his own ears he had himself led to the spot by the shepherds, he inquired of the devils by their help, and he heard that Syracuse was already taken. Being overcome by uneasiness at this warning, he sought to reassure and comfort himself with the belief that it would be wrong to put faith in the words of lying Genii, but he noted the day they had mentioned. Ten days later, certain persons who had escaped from Syracuse arrived and announced the calamity.'

This curious tale is found in the first volume of Caruso's valuable work. Another story, taken from  p102 the same author and much more worthy of credence, gives a very good idea of the wars that were waged at the same time on the mainland, between the forces of the new Frankish Empire, the Mohammedans, and the Byzantines.

While the Saracens were fighting their way through Sicily, other Mohammedans had extended their incursions far into the interior of Italy and along the eastern coast, and had overrun a great part of the Lombard Duchy in the south, making their headquarters at Bari; whereupon the Emperor Basil appealed to the Pope and to Lewis the Second, called 'King of France' by the monk's chronicle, instead of King of the Franks. Their joint armies overcame the Saracen force in Italy, and they recaptured Bari and took the Mohammedan chief captive. He is called the Soldanus, the Sultan, which is manifestly a mistake, but his story is worth telling for the light it throws on the times.

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Chapel in the garden
of San Francesco di Paola

This soldanus, then, was carried away a prisoner to Capua by Lewis the Second, and during two years he was never seen to laugh. Therefore the king promised a present of gold to any one who could make the soldanus laugh outright. Now when a certain man came and told the king that he had seen the soldanus laughing, and brought a witness, the king called the soldanus to him and asked him the reason of the change. Then said the soldanus: 'I  p103 was looking at a cart and at its wheels, how some parts of them turned downwards and others up; and perceiving that this was an image of man's changing and inconstant fortunes, I laughed; and when I consider  p104 how miserable is everything wherein we boast, then also I judge it possible that as I, who was the highest, am become the lowest, so also from this depth I may be lifted again to the summit where I stood.' When the king heard this he considered his own state also, and he thought of the soldanus, and of the command he had held, and of his old age and experience of good and bad fortunes; and judging him to be wise, he allowed the soldanus from that time freely to converse with him and to come and go.

But the soldanus was an astute man and crafty, and he laid a trap for the king, by which he drove him from Capua and prepared his own return to his people. The two Italian cities of Capua and Benevento had not been long subject to the king, and the soldanus knew that they would not remain constantly faithful, but were dreaming of liberty; nor was he ignorant that the king was making every effort to retain possession of them. He therefore addressed the king, and said: 'I see that you are deeply concerned in considering how you may keep these two cities in your power. I will give you advice in this matter. Be sure that you cannot keep a firm hold of these unless you remove their chief men to France. For it is natural that men who are in service against their will should wish for freedom, and that they should seize a favourable opportunity to rise and obtain what they desire.' The king was pleased with this speech; he thought the advice good, and he determined  p105 to act upon it. Therefore shackles of bronze and chains were made ready secretly, as if for some other purpose. But the soldanus, having thus deluded the king, went to the princes of the people, for he had acquired familiarity with them in habitual intercourse, and he told them that he had a secret which he would show them, but that he feared lest if they betrayed it they should cause the destruction of their informer, and bring themselves into danger. They promised silence with an oath, and he told them that the king had determined to send them all to France in iron bonds, because he saw that he could not otherwise keep his power over the cities. They were in doubt, and could not quite believe his words, desiring further proof of what he said; so he took one of them with him to the smith's and bade him ask of them why they were working so industriously. Having learned that they were making chains and shackles, he went back to his companions and convinced these that the soldanus had spoken the truth, out of goodwill to them and to the advantage of their country. Thereupon the princes of those cities, being persuaded of the fact, considered how they might be avenged upon the king; and one day, when he went out to hunt, they shut the gates, and when he returned they drove him away. So when he found himself shut out of the cities, and unable to effect anything by his presence, he returned to France. But the soldanus went to the princes, and desired as the price of the information  p106 he had given that he might be free and return to his country; and being thus rewarded for the good he had done unto them, he returned to Carthage, regained his former command, undertook a great expedition against Capua and Benevento, and besieged those cities with all his strength, surrounding them with a great encampment.

Then the townspeople, being hard pressed by the siege, sent ambassadors to the king, imploring his help, but he sent them away scornfully, answering that their destruction would be a joy to him. On the return of the ambassadors, after this failure, the people, not knowing whither to turn, and being driven to great straits in their defence, sent an ambassador to Basil, the emperor of the Romans. And he sent back the ambassador at once, to bid his people be of good heart, and to announce the present coming of abundant aid. But the ambassador was taken by the enemy on his return, and the soldanus, before whom he was brought, said to him: 'Thou shalt have a choice; choose therefore the better part. If thou dost wish to be safe, and to receive very splendid gifts, say to those who sent thee, and in the presence of them all, that the Roman emperor has refused to help them; but if thou dost proclaim the truth, thou shalt perish instantly.' The ambassador promised to do what the emir had commanded him, and when they were at an arrow's flight from the walls, he commanded that the chief men of  p107 the city should come forth. When they were come, he spoke to them these words: 'Ye fathers, howbeit certain death is hanging over me, and the sword is at my throat, I shall not hide the truth from you, and I beseech you to show kindness to my wife and children. I, my lords, though I am now in the hands of our enemies, have fulfilled my embassy, and presently help will be surely sent you by the Roman emperor. Therefore stand fast. For he cometh who shall deliver you, though not me.' When he had said this, the ministers of the soldanus instantly cut him into very small pieces with their swords. But the soldanus feared the army of the emperor, now that he was sure that it would be sent, and raised the siege and went home. And after that, there was alliance and faith between the cities of Capua and Benevento.

Such is the story of the Lombard Duchy, told by Georgius Cedrenus, and romantic as it is, and closely as it recalls the embassy of Regulus to the Carthaginians, we may safely accept it as authentic in the main. To complete the picture, it must be remembered that Italy and the south were now overrun in all directions by hosts of Moslems, that the sea was at their mercy, and that they had stained the waters of the Mediterranean with Christian blood from Gibraltar to the Bosphorus, and from the Adriatic to the mouth of the Nile. We cannot but see them in our imagination as dark-skinned barbarians, black-browed, turbaned to the eyes, lean  p108 and fierce, bringing with them the strength and endurance which the desert breeds, and clothing themselves in the purple and gold of a vanquished civilization. We cannot but think of them as more like Huns than Vandals, as more like devils than Huns. Yet this was the age of Harun al Rashid, whose court in Bagdad delighted in every luxury while exploring the secrets of every science; and if Harun eight times invaded the Byzantine empire, it may be remembered that it had become the plaything of the evil empress Irene whose deeds have left upon her the marks of mankind's execration, while Harun will forever and not undeservedly bear the surname of the Just. Had the Mohammedan Empire been united under such a man, controlled by such a heart, and directed by such an intelligence, and had a worthy successor taken the place of Harun on the throne of the Abbassides, the power of the Moslems might have been consolidated into a despotism of the world, at a time when Christianity was divided against itself. But while the Empire of Constantinople was as yet separated from its final destruction by an interval of six hundred years, the newly risen domination of the Mohammedans was already broken up into small powers, of which the sultans and emirs did not hesitate to make war upon each other almost as readily as upon the Christians. The khalifs ruled indeed in Bagdad, and Harun had destroyed a Byzantine army each time that a Byzantine ruler had refused to pay him tribute;  p109 but the khalifate had lost its power in the West, the house of Aghlab and the Fatimites had become independent rulers in Africa, and the Emir of Sicily soon made himself as independent as they. Still farther west the Mohammedans of Spain had founded a kingdom which was to defy the armies of Christianity even longer than Constantinople was destined to withstand the attacks of the Moslems. But the chiefs of these divided kingdoms, though sometimes highly gifted and acquainted with the advantages of civilization, were in reality little more than robbers of tremendous power; depredation and pillage were the business of their lives, and religion was a sufficient excuse for both. Civilization was but an amusement fit for short intervals of unwelcome peace. It was their nature to delight in the discoveries of astronomy, the investigations of medicine, and in the study of the Aristotelian philosophy, and most of the sciences are indebted in some measure to their acuteness and spasmodic industry; but to all such pleasures, to intellectual pastimes of the noblest kind, as well as to the refinements of a sensuous existence which happily is without parallel in modern times — to these things the true Saracen preferred the din of ringing blows exchanged in battle, the hideous carnage of the hard-won field, the heaps of Christian slain, and the confusion of victories that spoiled the world in a day.

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Cloister and court
of San Francesco di Paola

They had won the East, they had conquered the West, the central basin of the Mediterranean was  p110 theirs, and the time came when they aspired to seize Rome itself. Collecting the squadrons of their pirate vessels into a fleet manned by a host of fighters who had survived a hundred deaths, they appeared at the mouth of the Tiber, and ate up land like locusts. Nevertheless, the worn-out and tottering walls of Rome sufficed to discourage an army that was more warlike than military, and was little accustomed to the orderly  p111 operations of a siege. They plundered the basilicas of Saint Peter on the one side and of Saint Paul on the other, but they made no attempt to enter Rome, and presently retired to their congenial south, bearing with them the spoils of the most magnificent temples in Christendom. They might have taken Rome with ease, and could have established the Mohammedan dominion amid the ashes of the Roman Empire, but they neglected an opportunity which they had failed to estimate at its true value; and when another Moslem host came against Rome a few years afterwards, in 849, the energy of Pope Leo the Fourth had built up the ruined defences, and not only were the walls standing throughout their entire circuit, but they were also protected at the most important points by fifteen great towers, one of which, still unshaken, was occupied by Leo the Thirteenth as a summer residence one thousand and fifty years later. To complete the defence, the city was provided with new gates made of the most massive timber. Nor was this all. The wise and untiring pontiff had formed valuable alliances with the states of Naples, Gaeta, and Amalfi, and the pirate squadrons of the Moslems were opposed before the port of Ostia by a well-ordered fleet. They had already been repulsed with loss when a storm arose, such as no man of those times could remember, and the ships of the invaders were driven to destruction upon the dangerous lee shore. The rocks and islands with which Gibbon adorned the  p112 coast at that point had no existence except in his imagination, or in some source of information other than those he names; but in their stead there exists a real danger quite as terrible to mariners. The long low shore of the Roman Campagna is accompanied from end to end, at a cable's length or less, by a bar, over which there is less than a fathom of water in calms, and upon which, in southwesterly gales, the surf breaks with enormous force; and therein those 'sons of Satan,' as Anastasius the Librarian calls the Moslems, utterly perished, both themselves and their vessels.

This was the last attempt made by them to extend their power northwards, and when the Saracens at length entered Rome as conquerors, they came as the soldiers of a Norman ruler, to establish the power of a pope.

Though it is true that the Greek power fell in Sicily when the Mohammedans took Castrogiovanni, the most important date which ocrs for a long time is that of the destruction of Syracuse in 878. That city had been the centre and fountain head of Sicilian life during more than fourteen hundred years; the great struggles in which the fate of the island was concerned had almost all been fought for the possession of its chief jewel and treasure. The Moslems took it, crushed it, and threw away its fragments as though it had been a worthless thing to them, which might easily have been of value to  p113 their enemies. When the emir marched westwards with his train of captives, his caravan of plunder, and his load of gold, he left behind him a heap of smoking ruins, among which lay the unburied corpses of a murdered population. Never again should the fair walls of a great city mirror themselves in the still waters of the wonderful harbour; never more should Christian maidens come down with their earthen jars to take the cool water from Arethusa's spring; not again should the walls below Achradina reëcho the blows of the shipwright's axe and hammer, or the rasping of the busy saw; nor, on the brink of the deep quarry, wherein handsome Athenians had died of hunger and thirst and sickness, should the holy monks chaunt matins and evensong in the cloisters of Saint John. Men should not go out from the city, so long as history was to last, to cut the great papyrus at the roots and bring it home to make books for the wise man's pen. No living thing was left amid the universal death, and there was to be no possible renewal of life thereafter. The Mohammedan had made his home far to westward in the Golden Shell, and he meant not to leave behind him any good place wherein his enemy might take refuge. He returned indeed not many years afterwards and brought ships into the harbour of Syracuse and built up the walls of Ortygia, and the sea wall of Achradina; but it was not that the city he had built might live again, it was  p114 rather because no power he possessed could destroy the safe port which nature had made, and he found himself obliged to prevent others from taking that which he would not use himself. His heart was in the western city, and he loved it and made it his own, and beautified it with all the skill he could command.

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Statue of a bishop,
outside the cathedral, Palermo

Thenceforward Palermo became what Syracuse had been, the centre of the island's history and the chief goal of each succeeding invader. Syracuse lived again, and lives to‑day, a military stronghold, a naval station, a commercial town; but its life as a source of power and as a fountain of individuality was arrested forever on the fatal day. Much of it that was beautiful fell to the base uses of commerce, and the money-changer's booth was set up in the ruined corner of the matchless Greek temple; where Agathocles had feasted in tents of fine linen and purple silk rose the rough defences of a castle that was already mediaeval, that was not a glory but a menace, a thing not of beauty but of fear. On the height the great wall of Dionysius still stood in part,  p115 because it would have taken human hands a year to destroy what human hands had built in twenty days; and the indestructible fortress of Euryalus still amazes the traveller with its labyrinth of well-hewn passages, its perfectly designed and marvellously preserved embrasures, and its ramparts of solid rock. But the five cities upon which Marcellus looked down with tearful eyes have sunk out of sight, never to rise again, and a small Italian town, crowded together and irregularly cut by quiet little streets, covers the island, and extends over a few hundred yards of the opposite peninsula. That is all there is left of her that rivalled Athens and Alexandria, and that once far outdid Rome in extent, in wealth, and in beauty.

No such melancholy reflections assail the traveller who ascends the heights of Monreale and pauses, where the road sweeps up the last turn, to look back upon the distant splendour of Palermo. The scene is indeed full of associations that bring back the past, and evoke the grave and terrible memories of an elder time. But that past is not dead beneath a funeral pall of ruin through which the eye guesses only at the outline of the fallen limbs. It is alive still, clothed in royal robes of beauty, and calmly resting in a dignified repose. From the height a keen-eyed man can descry the lofty fortress by the Porta Nuova, wherein Roger the Norman held his court, as the Saracen emirs had held theirs before him; and the vast cathedral  p116 that holds the tombs of emperors and kings; the bastions of the great walls are gone, but in their stead there are the graceful outlines of a hundred churches against the broad sea beyond, soft against the softer sky. Between the city and the hill on which the beholder stands, and round by his right and up the valley, the Golden Shell is bright with flower and yellow fruit, and rich with the deep foliage of the lemon and the orange; here and there, among the taller cypresses and spreading pines, the white walls of a half-shaded villa speak of that cool retirement and peace which every Italian loves, and as the glow of evening fades, the sweet and melancholy note of distant bells is borne up on the scented air.

Palermo is not dead, like Syracuse: its ruins do not stretch far and wide beyond its shrunk walls like those of Girgenti, cropping up in vineyards and olive groves and in scattered farmhouses, each a mile from the other; it is there still, as it was there a thousand years ago, in the third century of the Hejira, when Ibn Haukal came thither about a hundred years after the captivity of Theodosius, the monk.

This Ibn Haukal was a merchant of Bagdad, who left that city in the year 943, and travelled through many Mohammedan countries, during more than thirty years. At that time, the first great Mussulman Empire had begun to fall to pieces, from lack of uniform organization, while Mohammedan energy was still as  p117 active as ever, and the Saracens in Sicily fought to become independent of the African domination, under which they had got possession of the island; but the turbulent Sicilians had long been fighting with each other, and the rivalry of the principal cities had led to endless bloodshed; and it was not until Palermo and Girgenti made up their differences, and united to make common cause against the African emir, that the latter conceded to the island the freedom it desired, retaining a more or less empty suzerainty over it. Soon after this event Ibn Haukal visited Palermo. He came on the morrow of a great struggle, before all the damage done by the civil war had been repaired, when the people were still suffering from past evils, and when the aristocracy, which had been chiefly responsible for the internal trouble so Sicily, still kept aloof from the people, in scornful isolation; for of all races, the Arabs were always the most aristocratic. He describes a city surrounded by most formidable walls, around which were built four suburbs, each of which had a strongly individual character that distinguished it from the others; and the walled portion occupied what is the middle of Palermo to‑day, and was called the Kasr, the fort, and Sicilians still call the main street the 'Cassaro,' though it was named the 'Toledo,' by one of the Spanish viceroys, and has of course been officially christened 'Corso Vittorio Emmanuele,' since the annexation of Sicily. But it is safe to say that its old  p118 name will remain in common use, no matter how often the island changes hands.a The Saracen's seal is upon it, and the impression is indelible.

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La Piccola Cuba

A Moorish Summer-house near Palermo

In the days of the Bagdad merchant there was 'a great Friday mosque' in this quarter 'which was formerly a church of the Christians,' which had been first built by Saint Gregory, and stood on the site of the Norman cathedral: and Ibn Haukal was told that it contained the body of Aristotle, who had been held in the highest veneration by the Christians, and was always ready to answer their prayers for rain, for recovery from sickness, and for every ill that causes man to offer prayers to Allah, whose name be praised. The body, it was said, was in a coffin suspended between heaven and earth, and Ibn Haukal says that he saw a large chest which might perhaps have contained it.

The Kasr was the abode of merchants; the great suburb, called the Khalessah, now the Kalsa, or Gausa, contained the sultan's palace, and the habitations of his courtiers; there were also baths there, a mosque of average dimensions, the sultan's prison — he appears to have kept one for his own purposes — the arsenal, and the government offices. The Khalessah had walls of its own, and it lay between the Kasr and the sea, to the east of the present harbour. It is not easy to define the other ancient quarters, owing to the great changes in the topography of Palermo caused by the gradual filling of the two inlets that once extended far  p119 into the city, divided by a tongue of land of which the extremity still projects into the modern harbour. Ibn Haukal tells us, however, that the great markets, and the shops of the oil sellers, were all situated southeast of the Kasr, between the Saracen Norman castle at Porta Nuova and the mosque of Ibn Saklab which stood in the place that was called, until recently, Piazza della Moschitta. Here, also, and outside the walls, were the stalls of the money-changers, and the shops of the drug sellers, tailors, armourers, and braziers. The cornº market was also beyond the circuit of the walls. The merchant of Bagdad observed that there were a hundred and fifty butchers' shops in the city, and on visiting the butchers' mosque, — for they had one of their own, — he calculated that more than seven thousand persons connected with the trade were assembled at prayers, for he counted thirty-six ranks, in each of which there were two hundred people. Those who have been present in the mosque of Saint Sophia, in Constantinople, during the great prayer meetings that terminate the month of Ramadhan, will doubtless remember the extraordinarily precise order maintained by the ranks of worshippers, which makes it an easy matter to calculate their numbers. It has been estimated, by those who have commented the merchant's accounts of the city, that the population amounted at that time to three hundred thousand souls. It exceeds that figure at the present time.

 p120  Ibn Haukal was much struck by the great number of mosques he saw in all parts of the city, and he observes that the greater part of them were 'standing with their roofs, their walls, and their doors, and were actually in use'; a statement which shows that even a thousand years ago the Mohammedans were accustomed to allow their old mosques to fall to ruins when new ones were built, just as they continue to do in our own times; but he adds that the mosques of Palermo were places of meeting for 'all the wise men and the students of the city, who gather in them to exchange and increase their information.' In vivid contrast with these resorts of the learned, were the so‑called 'rabats,' built by the water's edge, outside the city, and which were the quarters of the wild militia that alternately begged and fought for a living, 'a band composed of cutthroats and ruffians, of men who know no law, and have grown old in a disorderly life, and of corrupt youths who have learned to pretend piety in order to extort charity from the faithful, and to insult honest women, — wretches who live in the rabat because they are so vile and universally despised that they could find no refuge elsewhere.' The commentator on this unpleasant picture remarks that the number of these irregular fighters was large at the time of Ibn Haukal's visit, because the new government of the Kalibites was actively pushing the war of extermination against Christians. The passage throws some light on  p121 the nature of the atrocities described by the monk, Theodosius, and on the composition of the Mohammedan armies in those times. The ruffians seen in the rabats by Ibn Haukal were, doubtless, the lineal descendants of those who had sacked Syracuse a hundred years earlier.

He dwells at great length on the nine gates by which the city was entered, but of most of which it is now impossible to determine the situation. The most famous, he says, was the sea gate, and of this one we know that it was somewhere in the lower part of the modern Cassaro, or Toledo, that it was destroyed in 1564, in order to widen and straighten that thoroughfare, and that it was ornamented with long Arabic inscriptions in the Cufic character which gave rise to much controversy. For centuries the letters were believed to be Chaldean, and the writing was interpreted to mean that the tower of the gate was built by Sapho, the son of Eliphaz, the son of Esau, the brother of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Consequently it was believed even by learned men, that Palermo had been founded by the great-great‑grandson of Abraham, a supposition which, for its absurdity, quite equals the story of the veneration of Aristotle's body by the Christians, which was told to Ibn Haukal. He, however, does not even mention the supposed origin of the gate in question, but merely calls it 'the most famous.'

 p122  He tells us, further, that in the midst of the city there was a depression almost entirely filled with papyrus plants, then still used for making writing paper, and he adds that he does not know of any papyrus in the world, except that of Sicily, which rivals that of Egypt, and that the greater part of this papyrus is twisted into rope for ships — it would make something like our Manila rope — while the remainder is made into paper for the sultan, and only in quantities just sufficient for his use. In the southwestern part of the city, and within the modern circuit, but outside the ancient walls, there is still a Piazza del Papireto, and a street of the same name leading out of it. The square is only a few steps from the southern end of the cathedral. It is known that until 1591 the place was a swamp, in which the papyrus was still growing abundantly, and in that year it was drained by subterranean channels and filled up, because it was a cause of fever in the neighbourhood. The few specimens of papyrus now cultivated in Palermo have been brought from Syracuse. Judging from the words of Ibn Haukal, the plant not only flourished in Egypt, where it is now extinct, in the tenth century, but in other parts of the world.

He enumerates many springs of good water, both in the city and in the neighbourhood, but presently contradicts himself flatly, and ends his description of the people with the following comments. 'The  p123 greater part of the water consumed in the various quarters of the city is dirty and unwholesome rain water. The people drink this stuff, owing to the lack of sweet, running water, and because of their own folly, and because of their abuse of the onion, and their evil habit of eating raw onions in excess; for there is not a person among them, high or low, who does not eat them in his house daily, both in the morning and at evening. This is what has ruined their intelligence, and affected their brains, and degraded their senses, and distracted their faculties, and crushed their spirits, and spoiled their complexions, and so altogether changed their temperament, that everything, or almost everything, appears to them quite different from what it is.'

The onion has certainly never suffered a more sweeping condemnation, and we are reminded of the exceeding and virulent bad temper with which Horace attacked garlic when it had disagreed with him. What Ibn Haukal says about the degeneracy of the people of Palermo, however, must have been founded on fact, and the fact may have been in part attributable to bad water; but he saw a population only half recovered from the horrors and sufferings of civil war, — men who had been starved, and whose parents had starved, and who were still haunted by dreams of fear, dulled by past pain, half dazed and stupefied by a generation of suffering. Palermo is one of the  p124 healthiest towns in the world at the present time, and its people compare favourably, both in looks and intelligence, with the inhabitants of any other city in Europe.

Thayer's Note:

a For confirmation of this, as well as some photos of the street and the Porta Nuova and the Porta Felice, the gates since built at either end of it, see the city's official website.

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Page updated: 20 Apr 08