"Palermo, past and present" Top 5 Page for this destination Palermo by TheWanderingCamel
Palermo Travel Guide: 470 reviews and 1,177 photos
The period of Palermo's past represented in this photo was one of the most extraordinary times in the history of all Europe. The photo was taken in La Zisa, a palace built by King William I, 120 years into the Norman dynasty's rule, and yet, here in this one small building we can see the evidence of how, in this place, at that time, Catholic Normans, Byzantine Greeks and Muslim Arabs lived together in a climate of respect and tolerance, encompassing western Catholic and eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, that was unique in its time and that still largely eludes our world today.
When William's grandfather conquered Sicily it had been under Arab rule for some 250 years. The Arabs had seized the island from the Byzantines who had held it for nearly three hundred years before that. Here, at La Zisa, built for a Norman king, we see Arab stone masonry in the stalactite ceiling, Byzantine-inspired mosaics on the walls and - around the door, the new Cosmati mosaic from Rome. The same ability to recognise the virtue in using the best workmen for the job in building his palace informed the organization of the Kingdom - Arab court officials, Greek admirals and Norman soldiers meant the skills and strengths of each section of the population were used to the greatest advantage and to the mutual benefit of all the king's subjects.
Within 30 years of La Zisa's completion, Palermo's golden age, which had begun with the Arab conquest, came to an end. As the influence of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope increased, the tolerance that had created this sophisticated, glittering world fell away. The city remained the island's capital, experiencing good times and bad times as a succession of rulers - some home-grown, some foreign - came and went. The good times brought wealth, culture, handsome buildings and beautiful parks to the city. The bad brought plague, poverty, revolt, riots and repression.
By the middle of the 20th century, Palermo was a crumbling mess. World War II bombing raids, earthquake damage, crime and poverty had turned a once-beautiful city into a crowded, decaying place to be avoided by the people who came to Sicily to relax in the sun
Palermo today still gets something of a bad press. Reports (more than a little exaggerated) of crime, corruption, chaotic traffic and crowded, dirty streets are sufficient to keep many tourists from visiting the city even for a day.
The fabulous mosaics at the Palatine Chapel were the main drawcard for us and when we were told the chapel was closed for restoration we were somewhat disappointed to say the least. In the event, the chapel being closed was the catalyst for us seeing far more of the city than we might otherwise have done - and what we saw, we liked so much we know we want to return some day to see more, much more.
Yes, it is crowded, and parts of it are dirty and, no doubt , dangerous but it's also exciting, vibrant, full of history and interesting things to see and do. Centuries of being at the cross-roads of Mediterranean powerplays between North and South, East and West, have left a rich heritage of architecture (secular and ecclesiastical), culture and cuisine. Serious efforts are being made to repair the decay and restore the grandeur to the city that owes its style to Byzantines and Arabs, Romanesque Normans, Renaissance Italy and Baroque Spain.
Syracuse was charming, Taormina's picture-postcard perfect, Segesta and Selinunte both are serenely beautiful, but it's edgy, lively Palermo I want to go back to - though I shall wait until the Palatine Chapel's restoration work is done.
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