A double dream. So was born the story of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù. A dream lasting more than eight hundred years. In 1171 William II, after a hunting expedition, fell asleep under a carob tree on a mountain above Palermo and dreamt of the Madonna. She revealed to him the place where a treasure of golden coins was hidden with which the Norman king would have to build a shrine dedicated to the Madonna herself. The king found the treasure and constructed the marvellous Cathedral and cloister of Monreale.
Eight hundred and forty-four years later, Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale have also been able to fulfil another dream. After some years of preparatory work, a visit from the technical delegation of UNESCO in the September of 2014, and after the preliminary phase concluded with favourable opinions in March 2015, finally in Bonn on the 3rd July 2015 the three town seat of Arabo-Norman architecture became a UNESCO Work Heritage Site, the only Italian one approved in 2015.
“There was only one conflicting opinion, the ambassador of Japan, who lamented the lateness with which UNESCO decided to approve the proposal”, reported Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo and president of the UNESCO candidature pilot committee, during the presentation on the 6th July 2015 in the Castello della Zisa in Palermo.
He added: “This recognition is a cause for pride and a great joy for Palermo and Palermitans, but also for all Sicilians. The placing of the Arabo-Norman itinerary on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, with seven of the nine monuments in Palermo, is an international confermation of the cultural, artistic and historical beauty and grandeur of this city, a heritage for one and all, and it will certainly lift tourism and new economic development in Palermo and the entirety of Sicily.”
The Arabo-Norman itinerary, recognised by UNESCO, is made up of nine mounments, seven of which are in Palermo, such as the Royal Palace with the Palatine Chapel, the churches of San Giovanni degli Eremiti and Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio (known as the Matorana), the church of San Cataldo, Palermo Cathedral, the Zisa Palace and the dell’Ammiraglio Bridge (Admiral’s Bridge). The final two are the cathedrals, with their respective cloisters, of Cefalù and Monreale.
The UNESCO recognition is added to the 6 UNESCO sites already instituted in Sicily: the late Baroque towns of the Val di Noto, Syracuse and the Necropolis of Pantalica, Mount Etna, The Roman Villa Casale, the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and the Aeolian Islands. The Puppet Theatre (Opera dei Pupi), the vines of Pantelleria and the Mediterranean diet are the three other more intangible sites found in Sicily. Italy, followed by China, holds the world record with its 51 World Heritage Sites.
The Palermitani had a dream, they have achieved it, now the city will be working to ensure that the recognition becomes a driving force for tourism, our true treasure, our golden hoard, buried for a long time and now retrieved. Ninety per cent of registered accomodation is sold out and a thirty per cent increase in tourism is forecast. But the recognition is not only an opportunity for the territory to grow tourism and its economy.
The Mayor of Palermo concluded with this: “We will continue to guard and undertake the protection of this heritage, so that it can be passed on intact to future generations. This recognition, if that’s possible, is still more significant and important, just at a time when Islamic fundamentalism has been carrying out atrocities and would like to push us into a clash of cultures, because it reminds us that diverse cultures and religions, like those of the Arab, Norman and Byzantine, can live together, influencing each other in a reciprocal cross-fertilisation, as happened in the past, and as is the case today in Palermo, a city of peace and dialogue between peoples, where, last March, we signed the Palermo Charter, at the end of the International conference: ‘I am a person, from migration through suffering to mobility as a right’. The EU Institutions should reflect on the profound message that comes from UNESCO’s choice here”.