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I have no idea whether there is more religious tolerance now than there used to be, but my hunch is that living and letting live will never come easy to us no matter how “advanced” we get. It is, therefore, interesting to see that for the first time in a thousand years there are new Islamic mosques in Italy, one of them in Rome, itself. There are now about 500 thousand Muslims in Italy, most of whom are in the south. Most have come from Islamic countries in Asia and North Africa. The history of Islam in Italy can thus be said to be starting up again—after a long interregnum. The first time around, the interaction between Islam and Christianity in Italy was a strange mixture of belligerence and tolerance.
Islam reckons the beginning of its calendar from the flight of the Prophet Mohamed from Mecca to Medina. This hegira took place in the year 633 of the Christian era and marked the start of a dynamic expansion of the Muslim faith, one unmatched by any other religion in history. For a century after the death of the Prophet, the faith which he had “recited in the name of God” moved like lightning. Children of those who had actually known Mohamed personally lived to see the faith of their fathers extend east to the Indian subcontinent and west across North Africa and the straits of Gibraltar, up through Spain into France where it was finally stopped at the battle of Tours in 732. Even the few secular empires that have enjoyed a similar explosive growth are now but historical footnotes, while today one out of every six inhabitants on our planet owes spiritual allegiance to Islam.
The spread of Islam to the north and west and potentially into the heart of Europe was to remain blocked by the Byzantine Empire for another seven hundred years, until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Yet there was another road open to early Islam: across the easily navigable distance from North Africa to the island of Sicily and then up the Italian mainland.
The importance of Sicily was obvious to the rulers of the Byzantine Empire. They had recently liberated it from the Ostrogoths and now had to keep it out of Arab hands to protect the Greek mainland from being completely surrounded by Islam, a potentially very real threat if the Arabs ever succeeded in taking the island and then Southern Italy. (Click here for an article related to this period: “Naples in the Dark Ages”.)
All during the eighth century there were skirmishes and hit and run attacks by Byzantine forces and Arabs back and forth against each other across the straits separating Sicily and North Africa. When the Arabs secured the African shores directly opposite the island their incursions began in earnest. The invaders landed in 827 through the back door, so to speak. A rebel Byzantine naval commander decided to appoint himself emperor of Sicily and called on the Arabs for help. It came in the form of a Muslim expeditionary force of 10,000 men and a hundred vessels. They overstayed their welcome and finally took over the island completely in 902.
At the same time as they were fighting to take Sicily, the Arabs were busy on the mainland as well. It is the subject of some debate whether they ever really had a long-term plan to do in Italy what they had just done in Spain—sweep all the way up the peninsula on their way into central Europe. Even if that was the plan, the fledgeling Holy Roman Empire now stood in the way; even after Charlemagne’s death in 814 it was effective enough to discourage Arab expansion into the central and northern peninsula. Even what the Arabs wound up doing on the southern mainland was little more than adventurous interference in the quarrels of rival warring factions.
In the south, the Lombards, the last great wave of “barbarians” to move down over Italy after the fall of Rome, were still well entrenched. There were, however, still a number of Byzantine coastal enclaves, of which Naples was one. As the Muslims slowly wrested Sicily from the Byzantine empire, the coastal remains of that empire were left without protection and were on their own against the Lombards.
In 832, Naples, now the independent Duchy of Naples, called upon the Arabs as allies against the Lombards of Benevento. Together with the Neapolitans, the Arabs attacked the Adriatic coast of Italy. They temporarily occupied Brindisi in 838 and advanced along the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian coasts of Italy. In 841 the Arabs took Bari and used it as their main base for the next thirty years.
In 846 Arabs appeared at the mouth of the Tiber. Their fleet forced its way past the fortifications at Ostia and moved on Rome. The great church of St. Peter was sacked but the city was not taken. As Gibbon writes: “In their course along the Appian Way, they pillaged Fundi and besieged Gayeta, but they had turned aside from the walls of Rome and, by their divisions, the Capitol was saved from the yoke of the prophet of Mecca.”
In 871 the Arabs lost Bari for good and although there were Arab bands in the area of Rome as late as 876, their actions against the mainland were little more than harrying tactics. Today, at many places along the coastline of the Bay of Naples you can still find remnants of so-called “Saracen Towers”; they were strategically positioned to look out for Arabs approaching by sea. There is a very prominent one on Capri, and near Mergellina there is another, a bit more difficult to spot now that it has to do double duty as a bank.
Though Arab Muslims never got a lasting foothold on the mainland, on Sicily they had settled in. Two centuries of Arab rule brought the vitality of Islamic arts and sciences to Sicily. Palermo became an international market, a cultural crossroads where traders from Christian Italian cities were as welcome as Muslim merchants from Africa and the East.
After Sicily was retaken by the Normans in 1091 the island remained a paragon of tolerance. Roger the Norman cared nothing about race or religion; he surrounded himself with ability, whether it spoke Greek, Latin or Arabic. There was an outburst of Arab-Norman —or Muslim-Christian, if you will—art and culture and a Christian kingdom in which some of the highest offices were held by Muslims. Roger’s own fleet was built and commanded by Muslims. Arabic was the language of science in the twelfth century. Arabic commentaries on the works of Greek masters now influenced European thought, and treatises in medicine and science were translated from Arabic into Latin on their way northwards. The Arab tradition of poetry in the common language of the people took hold in Italian literature and even Dante was exposed to Arab works, which may have influenced La Divina Commedia. Sicily was a conduit for the transmission of Arab knowledge up into Italy and it was this intercourse with Arab ideas that some say was the beginning of the Italian Renaissance.
Since that time, however, the road of tolerance among Christians and Muslims—winding as it has, through the Crusades and subsequent centuries of strife and misunderstanding—has been, and continues to be, a rocky one. If it has now come full circle, welcome back.