Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean by Sarah Davis-Secord
Sicily has made the headlines in the last decade since it is the first land of reception for the men, women, and children who cross the Mediterranean Sea, oftentimes to escape war, hunger, and poverty in their home countries. Individuals from the African continent, but also from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, have poured into Sicily. But these are not recent phenomena. The island’s proximity to both North Africa and Europe has proven to be indispensable for Sicily to become both a bridge and a stepping stone for many civilizations, a key Mediterranean crossroads, with its unique geographical position and with the varied roles it has played in Mediterranean trade. Sicily has a peculiar physical configuration. Its three capes, peaks, or legs form the three points of the triangle that gives Sicily its nickname, Trinacria, “three cornered.” The points of the triangle, Peloro (Punta del Faro, Tip of Faro, Messina: northeast), Passero (Siracusa: south), and Lilibeo (Cape Boeo, Marsala: west), represent the multicultural fabrics of the island’s population. In Where Three Worlds Met, Sarah Davis-Secord considers the diversity of the island “from the sixth-century incorporation of the island into the Byzantine Empire through the period of Muslim rule (827–1061), until the end of the Norman rule there in the late twelfth century” (4). She divides the book into five chapters aimed to give readers a full understanding of the island within its Mediterranean context and through the centuries. The first chapter analyzes the web of links to the Greek Christian and Latin Christian worlds, while the second chapter covers the connection to the Islamic world, both during the same time period, that is to say, the sixth to ninth centuries. Chapter 3 then focuses on the ninth to mid-eleventh [End Page 234] centuries, with a particular emphasis on the Muslim dominion, whereas chapter 4 covers the mid-eleventh to twelfth centuries, or the period of transition from Muslim to Latin Christian rule. The last chapter examines the Norman period.
All five chapters are divided to reflect the political, diplomatic, and military connections, intellectual and religious connections, economic connections, as well as the island’s connections to the wider Mediterranean region. These chapters underscore the role of Sicily as a space of interactions between three different cultures: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. But it is with chapter 3 that the author is really able to capture the attention of the readers on perhaps lesser known aspects of the island’s multifaceted sociohistorical background and about its populations, using North African Islamic perspectives and resources and including a series of Geniza letters. We learn of trade transactions and of products, such as wheat, almonds, grapes, and spices, but also textiles and raw materials, such as flax and silk, besides wool and cotton. Items made in Sicily were in high demand. “Sicily, as a key market and depot for goods in the central Mediterranean network, was thus deeply . . . connected to the broader economy of the Arab Muslim world” (161). Davis-Secord remarks also on the strong connections of the island with al-Andalus and the western Mediterranean. She describes how all these preexisting connections to the Muslim world will be adopted and adapted by the island’s invaders to follow, the Normans.
Much has been said and written of the kingdom of Roger II and his descendants, and of their multicultural and multitalented courts. We are reminded by the author that though “Greek and Muslim religious establishments were allowed to persist on the island, the larger trend in the Norman period was one of drawing the island closer to the Latin Church” (233), engaging the Norman kings with the pope and the Crusades. Davis-Secord concludes this interesting volume with a focus on ancient maps and on the ever-changing geographical and symbolic positioning of Sicily: while earlier Muslim maps omitted Sicily altogether, on medieval maps the island is depicted as prominent, near the center of the Mediterranean. Maps of the time of the Hohenstaufen king Frederick II show Sicily as a large triangle taking up all the space in the central Mediterranean Sea, while maps of the Latin Christian period place Sicily adjacent to Jerusalem as if to emphasize its involvement with the Crusades. As in these maps, Sicily’s position throughout the centuries has been “manipulated, transformed, severed, or constructed” (248) by the invaders of the day. It is the goal of the author of this well-researched volume to bring to the fore the bountiful resources, strategic physical place, and links that have shaped the island’s culture and populace. Knowing its history and economy will give us insight into the island’s contemporary context. It should serve as a key [End Page 235] to understand similar situations evolving in other parts of the Mediterranean and of the world as a whole. A must read indeed.
Giovanna Summerfield is Professor of Italian and French and Associate Dean of Liberal Arts at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.