Bridging Europe and Africa: Norman Sicily’s Other Kingdom

Bridging Europe and Africa: Norman Sicily’s Other Kingdom

By Charles Dalli

Bridging the gaps : sources, methodology and approaches to religion in History, edited by Joaquim Carvalho (Pisa University Press, 2008)

North Africa

Abstract: The Norman conquest of Sicily detached the island from its North African framework, and a century of Latin Christian rule effectively transformed its society. But the island was not completely disconnected from the southern Mediterranean, as long term trade contacts, political links and military ambitions intervened to cast relations between the two sides. A Norman thalassocracy in the mid-12th century created a short-lived political bridge between Europe and Africa. In the age of the crusades, regional forces across the central Mediterranean could not be contained within the model of direct Christian rule experimented in the Latin east. The present chapter studies the transition from informal control to the establishment of direct rule, which led to the formation of a ‘Norman Ifrīqiya’. The short-lived Norman overlordship across Ifrīqiya was mainly recorded in the pages of medieval Muslim historians, conditioning the methodology used by its modern historians. The study of Norman Ifrīqiya became possible thanks to a remarkable Muslim historiographic effort to explain Christian intervention in the affairs of Ifrīqiya, underlining the historian’s powerful role as arbiter. It is the Muslim historian who becomes the main narrator of Sicily’s ‘other Kingdom’.

Introduction: The Norman conquest of Sicily, completed by 1091, shifted the largest Mediterranean island away from the sphere of influence of the eastern Maghrib, integrating it into a new Latin Christian framework. The Norman conquerors took their place in the former capital of the Kalbite emirs, garrisoned castles and strongpoints, and established a network of lay and ecclesiastical Latin Christian lordships. The value of Sicily as a springboard for the wider Mediterranean ambitions of Robert Guiscard Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily, and his brother Roger I Count of Sicily became evident even before the island had been fully occupied by the Normans. Short-term gains outside Sicily and southern Italy were, nevertheless, overshadowed by the task of consolidating the Norman conquests there. Almost half a century after the fall of Palermo (1071), Roger’s son and successor Roger II undertook the difficult and protracted task to weld together Sicily and the Norman lands in southern Italy into a newly-established Kingdom of Sicily. Throughout the 1130s, Sicily’s resources were stretched to the limits as it fought to quell rebellions in southern Italy and to repel the invasion of an international coalition led by Pope and Emperor.

From 1052 onwards, Ifrīqiya – the province of Africa, denoting an extensive region including modern day Tunisia – was devastated by the Banu Hilāl and the Banu Sulaym, invading tribesmen dispatched by the Fatimid Caliph against the insubordinate North Africans who were abandoning the Shiite cult. The ancient capital al-Qayrawān was destroyed in 1057, and the civil strife greatly weakened the African emirates. The long-term effects of the invasions have been the subject of historical discussion. In a sense, al-Qayrawān’s tragedy worked to the advantage of other areas in the provincial economy. It is clear that Ibn Khaldūn’s depiction of the tribesmen falling on the Maghrib like a “swarm of locusts” has to be taken with a pinch of salt; Ifrīqiya remained a significant market for the Saharan trade in gold, slaves and other commodities in the 11th and 12th centuries. The town of al-Mahdīya was an important provincial terminal for the trans-Saharan gold trade. Nevertheless, many historians followed Ibn Khaldūn in looking at the events of the 1050s as a catastrophic blow for the Maghrib, in many areas causing large-scale abandonment of land cultivation and leaving a long trail of chaos and destruction. The Arab tribesmen are said to have brought the Zīrids to their knees, and greatly weakened the neighbouring Hammādids. Although the Hilāli invasions are not the subject of this chapter, they cannot be dismissed as one amongst the several factors which weakened Ifrīqiya by undermining its political unity, inviting future Christian expansion in the region. The North African troubles favoured the Normans in Sicily, not only because Zīrid resources were drastically curtailed, but also because periodic famines increased African dependence on the Sicilian granaries.

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