History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

Kitab Rudjdjar and the Emirate of Sicily

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The Arabs did not only invade Spain but also Italy, at least the southern Italian island of Sicily. Already in the eighth-century they started raids here and much as in Spain the raiders turned into occupiers. In 831, Sicily was wrestled from the Byzantines and an emirate established, with Palermo as its capital, and it lasted, albeit in increasingly weakened form, until 1072. Much as in Spain, the Arab occupation transformed a provincial backwater into an economic and cultural center. A land reform reduced the power of the landed estates and increased the productivity of farming. The irrigation systems were improved and the Arabs introduced new crops such as oranges, lemons, pistachios and sugarcane. In the eleventh-century, Palermo had a population of 350,000, making it the second largest city in Europe after Cordoba. In 1091, the Normans captured the island. The Normans were Vikings from France who started out as mercenaries working for the Byzantine kings of southern Italy, but who before long began making war on their own behalf. Yet in sharp contrast to the situation in Spain after the Reconquista, the Normans did not try to destroy Arab Sicily. On the contrary, Arab scholars and artists were given new commissions and Arab bureaucrats continued to be employed by the government. Visitors were astonished to learn that even the king’s own chef – a key position for anyone interested in poisoning his majesty – was an Arab. The result was a blend of Arabic, Byzantine and Norman influences which still is on display in some of the churches of Palermo.

The court of king Roger II, reigning between 1130 and 1154 CE, was particularly splendid. Although its official language was French, the king spoke Arabic fluently, and the administration communicated with its subjects in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. People were encouraged to convert to Christianity, but Islam was tolerated. Indeed many Christians in Palermo spoke Arabic and wore Muslim dress.The geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, was one of the scholars employed at Roger’s court. In 1154, after 15 years of research, he produced the Kitab Rudjdjar, the Tabula Rogeriana, or the “Book of Roger,” a description and a map of the world. The text provides an exhaustive description of the seven climate zones, including the physical, cultural, political and socioeconomic conditions of each region, and the map would for the next three centuries provide the most accurate representation available of the world. The map has Mecca at its center, it has the north pointing downwards, and the world is a sphere which, al-Idrisi calculated, has a circumference of 37,000 kilometers – a number wrong by only 10 percent. The original copy of Kitab Rudjdjar was destroyed in the 1160s, and the Norman court was destroyed soon after that, and next Sicily came under the power of the Catholic church. A persecution of Arabs began in the 1240s and Byzantine influences were wiped out too. By the 1330s, Palermo was once again a provincial backwater – now with only 50,000 inhabitants.