Arabo-Norman Palermo and the Cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale: UNESCO World Heritage 2015

William II of Sicily, Wikipedia - Monreale Cathedral
William II of Sicily, Wikipedia – Monreale Cathedral

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.

Picture by Eleonora Orlando
Zisa: photo by Eleonora Orlando

“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.

Picture by Eleonora Orlando
Mayor of Palermo: photo by Eleonora Orlando

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”.

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Leila Orlando
Leila Orlando
She's a woman from Palermo.. and that says it all. Mother, teacher, educational blogger, first degree in Modern Literature, second degree in Art History, master in Visual Culture. Loves simplicity and minimal style. Never gets bored."

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  1. Great article! I would just like to add a few details about the seven sites within the city of Palermo:
    The Palazzo dei Normanni (Palace of the Normans or Royal Palace of Palermo) originally an ancient Punic-Roman fortress rebuilt as a palace in the 9th century by the Arabs then chosen as the main residence of the Kings of Sicily during the Norman domination. Today the palace is the seat of the Regional Parliament of Sicily, Europe’s most ancient parliament. The Cappella Palatina (the Palace Chapel) built by the Norman King Roger II within the Royal Palace is a beautiful chapel dedicated to St. Peter decorated by Arab and Byzantine artists. The mosaics of Christ the Pantocrator and other religious images on a gold backround are artistic masterpieces. Byzantine images blended with Arabic designs create an ecumenical fusion of Catholic, Islamic and Byzantine culture, literally under one roof.
    The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti dates back to the 6th century and was converted into a mosque after the Islamic conquest of Sicily, then restored to its Christian origins during the Norman domination. The church is notable for its brilliant red domes which clearly show the persistence of Arab influence in Sicily.
    The Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio is also known as the Chiesa della Martorana after a convent of Benedictine nuns was founded on adjacent property by Eloisa Martorana. The nuns of the Martorana were well-known for their fruit-shaped sweets made of marzipan. The frutta di Martorana is still known as one of Palermo’s most famous and distinctive speciality.
    Tha Church of San Cataldo located on the central Piazza Bellini is annexed to the Church of Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio. The church is a typical example of Arabic-Norman architecture, unique to Sicily. The plan of the church shows the simple and severe Norman forms but at the same time it shows features of Islamic and Byzantine architecture such as cubic forms and typical spherical red domes on the roof.
    The Cathedral of Palermo was founded by the Archbishop of Palermo in 1184 on the site of a Muslim mosque. His main aim was to exceed the glory of the magnificent cathedral of nearby Monreale. The most prominent characteristic of the Cathedral is its many architectural styles due to its history. The exterior shows the 13th and 14th centuries Gothic style. The south porch is a masterpiece of the Catalan style while the Norman style can be seen through a decorative Islamic overlay. The four bell towers date from the 14th century and the dome from the 18th century. Inside, the cathedral is a royal pantheon where many tombs of Sicily’s kings are kept.
    The Zisa Palace or Castel was constructed in the 12th century for the king William I of Sicily. The castel was conceived as summer residence for the Norman kings as part of a large hunting resort known as Genoardo (Paradise on Earth in Arabic). The Normans were fond of the Arabic culture and lifestyle therefore they wanted to emulate the richness and splendor of the emir residences. Today the Zisa Castel is the site of the “Cantieri Culturali della Zisa” that hosts various cultural events.
    Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (Admiral’s Bridge) erected during the reign of Roger II (between 1130 and 1140) testifies the professional skill of the Arab and Norman engineering supported by Byzantine bridge-building experience. The seven main pointed arches alternated with five smaller ones, gave the bridge sturdiness but at the same time lessened the pressure of the river water on the structure. Because of the numerous overflows, in 1938 the Oreto River was diverted and a beautiful garden has taken its place. With the opening of the “Linea 1” of the Palermo tram the site can be easily visited.

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