13 September 2011


Sicily has pretty much been at the top of my "wanna go there" list for several years. At the moment, anywhere in Europe might do. I am reading The inheritance of Rome: a history of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham (Viking, 2009) and it was interesting to come to the passage below about Ibn Hawqal. It doesn't discourage me from visiting Sicily; rather, it adds to the story.

"The Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal (d. c. 990) hated Palermo and the Sicilians. Palermo itself, conquered by the Arabs from the Byzantines in 831, was rich and impressive, and Ibn Hawqal spends many pages on its amenities: the large mosque (ex-cathedral) which could contain 7,000 people; more than 300 other mosques, in an unparalleled density, sometimes actually adjoining each other; the very numerous and varied markets; the specialized papyrus production, the only one existing outside Egypt; the richly irrigated gardens surrounding. But the Palermitans wasted this latter fertility on cultivating onions, which they ate raw; the consequence was that 'one does not find in this town any intelligent person, or skilful, or really competent in any scientific discipline, or animated by noble or religious feeling.' No one was qualified to be qadi (judge) there; they were all too unreliable. Schoolmasters were very numerous, but all idiots; they did the job in order to avoid military service; nevertheless, the Sicilians as a whole considered them to be brilliant. They pronounced Arabic wrong; they could not hold down a logical argument (Ibn Hawqal provides examples); they had no idea what Iraqi legal and theological schools believed, 'even though their doctrinal position is very well known.' Nor did the Sicilians know Islamic law properly, particularly in the countryside. Ibn Hawqal was so incensed about all this that he actually wrote a whole book about Sicilian idiocy, unfortunately lost; but he tells us quite enough in his huge geographical survey, The Book of the Depiction of the Earth. He ends amazed that the Sicilians could be so poor, at least these days (in the 970s), when their land was so rich. The only thing they made really well was linen." (p. 318)

Definitely not very complimentary. It was especially compelling to read this so soon after the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and all of the articles on cultural and political diversity. By the way, I have no problem with people teaching as a way to avoid military service, though clearly it would be good if they did it well.

(In the book, the word "qadi" about halfway through the quotation has diacritics: macron on the vowels and a dot below the "d.") (The image is from the Wikipedia article on Ibn Hawqal with caption: 10th century map of the World by Ibn Hawqal.)

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