Describing Sicily’s history as ‘rich’ would be a gross understatement. But, without going into too many boring details, allow me to share some interesting facts about Sicily you might want to have in mind when you are visiting the island.
No matter if you spend one week in Sicily or only a few days exploring Catania, Palermo, Taormina, or any other less-known Sicilian village, you will find it hard not to fall in love with the island.
The largest Mediterranean island, Sicily hides plenty of small colorful villages, beautiful beaches, archeological sites with Greek and Byzantine roots, and delicious food. The island is the perfect destination for history lovers, foodies, and nature lovers alike, and home to some of the famous “1 EUR houses” you’ve heard of.
Sicily has many hidden gems to discover on an off-the-beaten-path vacation, and here are some interesting facts you might want to check out before planning your vacation.
20 Interesting Facts about Sicily
Palermo was founded by people from today’s Lebanon
The island’s current capital and one of its oldest cities, Palermo, was founded by people from today’s Lebanon, the Phoenicians, in 734 B.C. Later, Palermo was ruled by the Carthaginians; a North African civilization also descended from the Phoenicians.
Sicily was mostly Greek-speaking for 1500 years
The first Greek settlers arrived almost 2800 years ago. They dominated the island for 500 years until the Roman conquest. However, the island maintained its Hellenistic culture during the 700 years of Roman rule. Moreover, after the Fall of the Roman Empire, the island was ruled by the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire for another 400 years. We were this close to having Kirios Zorba instead of Don Corleone!
Messina was pandemic ‘ground zero’
Almost 700 years before the Covid-19 pandemic, Messina was on the brink of an apocalyptic event worthy of a Holywood blockbuster.
In 1347 “death-ships” began floating in the city’s vicinity; all the crew and passengers dead or dying, their bodies covered in disgusting buboes oozing pus and blood. As it turned out, it was the beginning of the Black Death, a pandemic that eventually killed between a fourth and a half of the European population. Compared to it, our Covid-19 situation seems like a minor inconvenience.
Catania was buried by lava 17 times
Living in the shadows of Mount Etna, Sicily’s famous active volcano was always a risky proposition. Catania was buried by lava 17 times in its long history, creating successive archeological layers: under the current city, one can find the Roman one, which, in turn, is built on the Greek city. I wouldn’t move either, given the view!
Syracuse was the largest Greek city in the world
Under the local ruler Hiero II, Syracuse grew into the largest Greek city of its day. At that time, Syracuse was a cultural, scientific, and economic powerhouse, one of the major cities on the planet. One shouldn’t be surprised if New York or London would be nothing more than sleepy backwaters a few centuries down the line.
Palermo was one of the largest Islamic cities in the world
By 1050 A.D., during the Islamic Emirate of Sicily, Palermo became one of the most important Islamic cities in the world and the third-largest city in Europe after Byzantine Constantinople and Islamic Cordoba. Under Arabic rule, Palermo was a major center of learning, culture, and commerce, while Christian Northern Europe was a comparatively barbaric place, rife with violence, fanaticism, and superstition.
Sicily was a Viking kingdom
For over 150 years, between 1038 and 1198 A.D., the island was a Norman kingdom. The Normans descended from Vikings who settled in Normandy at the beginning of the 10th century. The Normans were joined by Varangian mercenaries, the Swedish equivalent of the Danish and Norwegian Vikings, and together they conquered Sicily from the Arabs. Could you imagine Viking spaghetti?
Sicily was a German kingdom
Sicily was a German kingdom once and part of other Germanic realms twice in its history.
First, during the last days of the Roman Empire, Sicily was conquered by the Germanic Vandals, who ruled the island until 535 A.D., when the Byzantines annihilated them.
Then, between 1197 and 1266 A.D., the Kingdom of Sicily was ruled by the Hohenstaufens. King Frederick of Sicily would later become the famous Emperor Frederick II Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire (a medieval Empire based in Germany, not to be confused with the ancient Roman Empire).
Lastly, between 1720 and 1734, the Kingdom of Sicily belonged to the Austrian Habsburg rulers.
Sicily was a Spanish kingdom
As incredible as it may sound, the island was also a Spanish possession for hundreds of years.
First, between 1282 and 1713, Sicily was ruled by members of the Aragonese royal family, initially as an independent kingdom and later as part of the Crown of Aragon and the subsequent Spanish Crown.
After a brief period under the Savoyards and Austrian Habsburgs, Sicily returned to Spanish rule under the Bourbon dynasty. The Spanish domination ended with the birth of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860.
It might explain the current football (a.k.a. soccer) rivalry between the two nations.
Malta was part of the Kingdom of Sicily for 700 years
Today an independent E.U. country, Malta was part of the Kingdom of Sicily from 1091 until 1814 when it became a British Protectorate. However, since 1530, Malta was ruled by the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (a.ka. Knights of Malta or Knights Hospitaller), although nominally, they were vassals of the Kingdom of Sicily.
Sicilians used the first ‘heat-ray’ in human history
After Hiero’s death, the emerging power of Rome decided to occupy Sicily and put an end to Syracusan independence. However, they were in for a big surprise!
Syracuse was protected by miraculous machines engineered by the famous local inventor Archimedes; the fierce defense led to a protracted siege. Among other incredible gadgets, it is said that Archimedes built a heat ray weapon he used to set the Roman ships on fire. But, alas, the city eventually fell in 212 B.C., and one of the Roman soldiers killed Archimedes despite the proconsul’s orders to spare him.
Taormina was one of the first modern LGBTQ-friendly holiday destinations
In the second half of the 19th century, Taormina became one of the top LGBTQ-friendly holiday destinations. A German photographer who moved to Taormina in 1877, Wilhelm von Gloeden, helped transform the city into one of the progressive leisure centers of the Western world, his nude male photos attracting sexual minorities from the repressive societies of the day; the British Empire was an especially dangerous place to live for homosexuals, as exemplified by Oscar Wildes’ sentencing to two years of hard labor in 1895.
The Sicilian Mafia aided the Allies against the Nazis
‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ they say. It was certainly true during the Allied Invasion of Sicily.
By 1943, Nazi Germany had a strong military presence on the island. Given their animosity towards Mussolini, the Sicilian Mafia assisted the Allies’ amphibious invasion of Sicily by providing maps of the island’s harbors, photographs of its coastline, and names of trusted contacts inside the criminal organization.
Sicily has some of the best-preserved Classical Greek monuments
The Temple of Concordia near Agrigento is the best-preserved Doric temple in the world alongside the Parthenon in Athens; the similarities between the two buildings are hard to miss. But, interestingly, not all archeologists agree that the place was dedicated to the goddess Concordia; we’ll probably never know which divinity this place of worship was dedicated to. Still, it looks great!
The Valley of the Temples is NOT a valley
One of the major tourist attractions of today is Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples. It contains the remains of seven ancient Greek temples built in the Doric style, the largest concentration of these types of buildings outside mainland Greece. However, as you’ll surely notice during your visit, the place is actually a ridge, not a valley.
Catania was bombed 87 times by the Americans and British
During World War II., Catania was the target of heavy Allied bombing due to its two German airfields; it suffered 87 raids, significantly damaging parts of the city and killing circa 750 inhabitants. Finally, British Forces entered Catania on 5th August 1943 A.D.
Sicilian music was shared with Extraterrestrials
Sicily’s traditional music is more rooted in Greek, Byzantine, Arabic, and Spanish culture than in the Italian one, given its long and incredibly diverse history.
American musicologist Alan Lomax’s research into Sicilian traditional music made him choose a Sicilian sulfur mine lament for the Voyager Golden Record. One day, the Voyager spacecraft will meet an Extraterrestrial Civilization, and that sad Sicilian song will be among the first human music E.T. would ever hear.
Sicilians speak the Sicilian language
Today most inhabitants of Sicily are bilingual, speaking both Sicilian and Italian.
Sicilian is a distinct Romance language similar to Italian, bearing significant Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Catalan, and French influences. Related dialects are also spoken in Calabria and Salento regions.
Sicilian is mostly spoken in informal, family circles, while most islanders use a Sicilian-Italian mix called the regional Italian language of Sicily.
Sicily has 7 UNESCO World Heritage sites
Given its unique history and amazing natural beauty, UNESCO listed seven sites on its World Heritage list. These are:
- Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples
- Villa Romana del Casale
- Aeolian Islands
- The Late Baroque Towns of Val di Noto
- Syracuse and the Rocky Necropolis of Pantalica
- Mount Etna
- Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale
The Aeolian Islands Were Reportedly Swallowed by the Sea
On New Year’s Day in 1909, a rumor appeared in international newspapers that the Aeolian Islands had been “swallowed up by the sea” during a time of volcanic activity. While communication with the islands was interrupted for a time, they were not otherwise inconvenienced. Fake news!
Sicily travel resources
Sicily during winter – is it worth visiting?
Plan your ultimate Southern Italy itinerary