The siege of Messina, Val di Noto and Syracuse

In 843 AD, the Muslim leader Faḏl Ibn Ğa’far of the tribe of Hamadān, taking advantage of the military support offered by the republic of Naples, landed at the port of Messina and began the looting and to reprisals within the city.

Worthy of note was the resistance shown by local citizens, “heroic people in all times”, whose value was necessary to intimidate the Muslim invader at least in the first moment of the conflict, as the city was subsequently conquered by the army of Faḏl Ibn Ğa’far.

This was followed by the capture of another city called “Meskān” by the Kurdish historian Ibn al-Aṯīr (d. 1233 AD), but not mentioned in the works of ancient geographers. After a careful and scrupulous research, Michele Amari believes that, probably, the city noted by Ibn al-Aṯīr in his writings could be identified with the “Mihkān”, that is Alimena, of which the well-known Arab geographer al-Idrīsī (d. 1165-1176 AD), who worked at the court of the Norman ruler of Sicily Roger II (d. 1154 AD).

Given the geographical position that the city of Alimena covers within the Sicilian territory, located between Palermo and the Val di Noto, the Muslims decided to proceed in the direction of the latter, whose conquest was marked in several stages: the first it was represented by the siege of the fortresses of Modica in 845 AD, successfully completed.

It is important to remember that precisely in that year we witness the invasion by the Muslims of the Italian island of Pantelleria, then known as “Cossira”. The conquest was dictated by strategic reasons, as the “small island”, located south west of Sicily and north east of Tunisia, represented an important hub of communications between Sicily and Africa.

The second stage of the invasion of the Val di Noto concerned the conquest of Lentini in 847 AD, which also ended successfully. Subsequently, the Muslim militias left for Caltavuturo in 851 AD, where even the prisoners of war were exterminated, and the following year they went to Castrogiovanni, capturing many prisoners who, however, on that occasion, were sold as slaves.  

The Muslims then arrived in the city of Butera in 853 AD, whose siege lasted for five months. Ten years later, we are witnessing the resumption of hostilities with the Byzantines, again lords of Castrogiovanni, which will lead to the capture of Noto in 864 AD, whose fortress was conquered following the betrayal of a resident of the city who showed the Muslims the way of access.

The city will be conquered a second time by the Muslims, led by the warrior Ḫafāǧya two years later, together with Ragusa and Girgenti; in 869 AD, Ḫafāǧya commissioned his son Muḥammad to lead the Muslim army to take possession of Taormina, but the failure of the enterprise forced them to return to Palermo.

In 877 AD, a new governor of Sicily, called Ğa’far Ibn Muḥammad (d. 878 AD), led the Muslim militia to conquer Syracuse, after sacking Rametta, Taormina, Catania and other Sicilian cities of which they were not the toponyms have been preserved. The success of the work was undoubtedly ensured by the inventiveness shown by the Arabs during the conflict, making recourse to new instruments of war capable of making the blows inflicted even more lethal:

“[…] they used machines of such might, that the stones, making a parable up high, killing some man falling back, breaking through some roofs, and bringing more fear than they give, thundered the right to open the breach, like our big artillery ».

The sources, regarding the events of Syracuse, even report that, to tear down the walls of the fortresses, the Muslims used ballistae, military machines of Greek and Roman invention consisting of a sort of crossbow functional to throw stones or large darts.

Despite the arrival of the Byzantine Basil Macedonian he managed to pull back the army of Ğa’far Ibn Muḥammad, who withdrew to Palermo, the Muslim troops resumed the attack in 878 AD, knocking down the tower of the great port and colliding with a Byzantine militia that saw the support of Syracusan citizens, ready to take the field against the Muslim invader.

Among the ranks of the inhabitants of Syracuse there were not only brave men, but even women who gave their help in battle. Muslims plundered streets and temples, slaughtering anyone in their path, by burning their corpses.

The survivors, on the other hand, were reduced to slavery, but it is important to remember that a rather small number of Syracusans managed to find salvation, setting sail for Greece. With the capture of Syracuse, the Arabs had conquered “the last significant Christian stronghold of the island”.

Other conquests and reprisals followed over the years, but the occupation of the entire island will be completed only in the second half of the 10th century AD, specifically in 965 AD43, Sicily, in this way, was no longer part of the Empire Byzantine, but it became a Muslim emirate, an event that is commented by the Arabist Michele Amari with the following sentence:

«In a word, Sicily had become Byzantine inside and out; infected by the consumption of an empire in decline; so that, contemplating her miserable conditions, we cannot regret the Muslim conquest that shook her and renewed her “

Luca Mezzasalma

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *