The attempts made by various Muslim factions to capture Sicily are more than one can count; in this article, I’ll write a vividly-detailed account of each and every one of those attempts, from the mid-7th-century CE up until the Aghlabid invasion of 827 CE.
During the period between 752 CE and 798 CE, Muslim naval activity in the western Mediterranean declined in comparison to earlier eras. This decline was followed by a new form of raiding that involved small groups of unorganized and unofficial raiding parties from the eastern Iberian coast attacking Frankish and Italian shipping. These raids were highly successful in terms of the loot they brought, however, they were unable to gain long-term control or subjugation of the lands they raided due to the efforts of Charlemagne, who organized and enhanced the coastal defenses of the Carolingian realm from Narbonne to Rome.
As part of Charlemagne’s defensive strategy, the annexation of the Balearic Islands into the Carolingian Empire was essential, providing a substantial strategic advantage to the Franks over the Andalusians, and significantly reducing their operational capability in the western Mediterranean. During these early 9th-century raids, there is no clear evidence to suggest that there was an ideological motivation behind them, such as a religious military doctrine of jihad – instead, they seem to have been a way to acquire wealth and give restless Arab and Berber elements in the Iberian Peninsula an opportunity to channel their energy against external foes.
After 815 CE, Andalusian maritime attacks against the Balearics and Frankish interests in the Mediterranean declined drastically. This respite was due in part to the effectiveness of Carolingian naval defenses but was also attributed to the political situation in al-Andalus. In 818 CE, a rebellion broke out in al-Rabad against the Umayyad Emir of al-Andalus, al-Hakam I. This uprising was led by Hispano-Roman and Visigothic Muslim converts, who allied themselves with Andalusian Arab jurists. In response, al-Hakam suppressed all opposition, crucifying three hundred jurists and exiling twenty thousand of its inhabitants. Half of these exiles were welcomed by the neighboring Idrissid dynasty and settled in Fez, while the other ten thousand were welcomed in Alexandria by a local Bedouin Arab tribe. This exile of Andalusian warriors, sailors, and jurists to Alexandria had a significant impact on the decline of Muslim corsair activities in the western Mediterranean, which did not resume until 838 CE.
As the people of al-Andalus fled their homes, the economy of the Umayyad Emirate crumbled, but power was consolidated in the city of Cordova. This had a major impact on the corsairs, who were used to operating independently from cities like Valencia and Tortosa on the eastern coast of Iberia. Faced with the repression of al-Hakam, these sailors decided to leave for greener pastures. Many headed to Alexandria, while others joined forces with the Aghlabids in Tunisia in preparation for an invasion of Sicily. This mass migration is why there was a lull in attacks on the western Mediterranean between 818 and 838 CE. It also illustrates the connection between the autonomous raids of ghâzî warriors and centralized Islamic authority.
As the Muslims left the western Mediterranean, their activity in the eastern and central Mediterranean surged. After arriving in Alexandria, the exiles placed themselves under the leadership of Abu Hafs al-Balluti and took control of the city for a time. However, in 825 CE, an army sent by the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad defeated them and forced them to flee. Their destination was the island of Crete, which they had heard was rich and strategically important. They landed there in 826/827 CE and easily conquered it, establishing their capital at Chandax (al-Khandaq). From there, they launched raids on the Aegean Sea, devastating many of the islands.
In 829 CE, the Andalusians of Crete emerged victorious in a battle against a Byzantine fleet, allowing them to operate unchecked in the Aegean Sea. They even established bases in southern Italy, like Brindisium and Tarentum, from which they targeted Byzantine ships in the Adriatic Sea. They even went as far as to besiege the city of Ragusa/Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast in 868 CE and sack the city of Venice in 875 CE. Their raids came to an end in 961 CE when Crete was conquered by the Byzantines.
Politically, Abu Hafs and his successors had a significant degree of independence but acknowledged the authority of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mün, as he was engaged in a war with Byzantium and recognized the strategic importance of the island. The Andalusians left the local religious practices intact but implemented Islamic tax and administrative systems. They imposed Jizya, an Islamic poll tax, on the non-Muslim population and received support from the Tulunids of Egypt, showing a level of political and administrative skill. Additionally, their economy was strong and they were autonomous enough to mint their own coinage, and trade with al-Andalus, Egypt, and the Vikings in goods such as honey, olive oil, timber, and weapons.
While the Andalusians were conquering Crete and raiding the Aegean Sea, the Aghlabids were launching an invasion of Sicily. The North African admiral Asad ibn al-Furat, at the command of the Aghlabid Emir Ziyadat Allah, led an army of ten thousand heavy Arab cavalrymen and thousands of infantry units in an assault on the island in 827 CE.
Nevertheless, the Andalusian conquest of Crete was a significant blow to Byzantine naval power in the Mediterranean and gave the Andalusians control of the main sailing route from the eastern Mediterranean to the west. The Byzantine Empire was unable to assist Sicily against the Aghlabid invasion because the Andalusian raids in the Aegean and Ionian seas limited both their resources and manpower. However, it’s worth noting that the Aghlabid conquest of Sicily was different from the Andalusian raids, as it was an organized and officially sanctioned expedition carried out by a professional army.
Early Conquest Attempts
In the year 652 CE, the island of Sicily, then a part of the Byzantine Empire, faced its first onslaught from Arab ships. These fierce warriors, led by the valiant Mu’awiya ibn Hudayj of the Kinda tribe, were directed by none other than the Governor of Syria, Muawiyah I, and arrived in massive numbers with a fleet of two hundred ships. Their invasion was meticulously planned and executed, leaving Olympius, the Byzantine exarch of Ravenna, powerless to defend against them. The Arab conquerors remained on the island for several long years, looting and pillaging as they pleased.
Despite Olympius’ valiant efforts to reclaim the island, the invaders proved to be too formidable, and the Byzantine exarch was forced to retreat in defeat. Mu’awiya ibn Hudayj and his men were able to seize an enormous amount of spoils during this campaign, and when they returned to the Levant, they were greeted as heroes, their ships loaded with riches.
But the Arab attacks on Sicily did not end there. After the initial invasion, Mu’awiya ibn Hudayj continued to raid the island regularly, striking fear into the hearts of the Byzantine inhabitants. The island would never be the same, forever destined to get into the hands of the relentless Arabs.
In the year 668 CE, Abdullah ibn Qays, a powerful and ambitious leader, set sail with a mighty fleet of 200 ships from Alexandria, determined to conquer the island of Sicily. His ships, adorned with jewel-studded icons of silver and gold, were a sight to behold as they descended upon the unsuspecting islanders. The powerful Umayyad army, better prepared than ever before, descended upon Sicily, sacking the city of Syracuse and ravaging the countryside. For one month, they pillaged and plundered, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
But this was not the end of the Umayyad’s ambitions for Sicily. Decades later, in 704 CE, Musa ibn Nusayr, the governor of North Africa, sent his son on a series of campaigns against the Mediterranean islands of the Balearics, Sicily, and Sardinia. Then, in 727 CE, Bishr ibn Safwan led a Muslim force from North Africa against Sicily. And in 728-729 CE, Ubayda ibn Abd al-Rahman, the successor to Bishr, sent his own forces to attack the island, under the command of Uthman ibn Abu Ubayda and Mustanir ibn al-Harith. The island was repeatedly raided by Muslim forces, until around 730 CE, when a Muslim force from Syria once again descended upon Sicily, determined to conquer the island once and for all.
In 732 CE, a fierce raid on Sicily was led by Abd al-Malik ibn Qatan, while Abdallah ibn Ziyad orchestrated a Muslim attack on the island of Sardinia. The following year, the Byzantine Empire employed the devastating weapon of Greek fire to fend off a Muslim invasion of Sicily, led by Abu Bakr ibn Suwayd. However, the tide of battle would soon turn, as the Governor of North Africa, Ubaydullah ibn Habhad, launched an unsuccessful assault on Sicily the next year, only to follow it up with another attack on Sardinia.
But it wasn’t until 740 CE that the first true, calculated conquest expedition against Sicily was set in motion. Habib ibn Abi Obeida al-Fihri was at the helm of this ambitious endeavor, with the goal of conquering the entire island, starting with the city of Syracuse. Accounts of the siege vary, with one source claiming that tribute was paid, leading to the cancellation of the operation due to a Berber revolt in North Africa. However, another source states that Habib was able to successfully capture Syracuse. Despite being ready to claim the entire island, the expedition was unfortunately forced to return to Tunisia due to a Berber rebellion.
In the year 752/753 CE, Abd al-Rahman, the son of Habib ibn Abu Ubayda, launched a daring expedition against Sicily. He sent his brother Abdullah on a mission that would prove to be the most successful Muslim campaign against the island to date. However, just like the expedition in 740 CE, this one was also called off due to a revolt in North Africa. The Byzantines, sensing an opportunity, quickly refortified their position in the Mediterranean, making it safe from Muslim attack.
Abdallah I, the son of Ifriqiyan Emir Ibrahim I ibn al-Aghlab, was not deterred by this setback. He organized a massive invasion force to conquer Sicily. But his ships were met with fierce resistance from the cities of Gaeta and Amalfi. To make matters worse, a devastating tempest destroyed many of his ships, causing heavy losses to his fleet. Despite these challenges, Abdallah’s forces managed to conquer the island of Lampedusa, and they also ravaged the islands of Ponza and Ischia in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
However, the conflict was not over yet. A further agreement between the new patrician Gregorius and the emir established the freedom of commerce between southern Italy and Ifriqiya, marking the end of the hostilities. But the memory of this fierce campaign would be etched in the minds of both the Muslim and Byzantine armies, as a reminder of the brutal and costly nature of warfare and ambition.
In 819 CE, a thrilling chapter in history unfolds as Mohammed ibn-Adballad, a powerful and ambitious leader, sets out on an expedition from North Africa with a fierce Muslim army under his command. This fearless warrior, a cousin of the mighty Emir Ziyadat Allah I of Ifriqiya, leads his troops on a daring attack against the island of Sicily. The battle that ensues is a fierce and intense one, with both sides determined to emerge victorious. But despite the fierce resistance of the Sicilian defenders, the Muslim forces ultimately prevail, making a lasting impact on the island’s history. However, after this initial attack, there were no further Arab invasions of Sicily recorded in any historical sources until the infamous Aghlabid invasion of 827 CE.
The Real Invasion
The Aghlabids were presented with a golden opportunity to launch their invasion of Sicily when a Byzantine commander named Euphemius rebelled against Emperor Michael II. Euphemius was on his way to being arrested and mutilated for forcing a nun to marry him, but instead, he sailed for Syracuse and occupied the city, gaining the support of a large portion of the island’s military leaders. Euphemius successfully repelled an attempt by the island’s governor, Constantine, to retake Syracuse, forcing him to flee to Catana. Euphemius and his forces pursued and captured Constantine, ultimately executing him. Euphemius then declared himself emperor. However, his rule was short-lived as a close ally of his betrayed him, marched against Syracuse, and defeated Euphemius, retaking the city for the Byzantine Empire.
Euphemius, with a few loyal supporters, decided to seek refuge among the empire’s enemies and sailed to Ifriqiya. He sent a delegation to the Aghlabid court, pleading with the emir Ziyadat Allah for an army to help him conquer Sicily, promising to pay the Aghlabids an annual tribute in return. The Aghlabids saw this as a great opportunity to ease internal tensions and Ziyadat Allah approved the expedition, sending ten thousand foot soldiers and seven hundred cavalries, mostly Ifriqiyan Arabs and Berbers, led by the Iraqi-origin jurist and theologian Asad ibn al-Furat, in a fleet of seventy or a hundred ships along with Euphemius’ own ships.
On June 14th, 827 CE, the combined fleets set sail from the Bay of Sousse, and after a three-day journey, they arrived at Mazara in southwestern Sicily, where they disembarked. There, they were greeted by soldiers loyal to Euphemius, but tensions soon arose between the allies. A Muslim detachment mistook some of Euphemius’ supporters for loyalist troops, leading to a skirmish. Despite Euphemius’ orders for his troops to place twigs on their helmets as a distinctive mark, Asad announced his intention to wage the campaign without them. Soon after, the Byzantine general Balata appeared with a force of soldiers. The two armies clashed on a plain southeast of Mazara, and after a rousing speech from Asad, his men emerged victorious. Balata retreated first to Enna and then to Calabria on the Italian mainland, where he hoped to gather more troops. However, he died shortly after his arrival.
Siege of Syracuse
Asad left Mazara under the command of Abu Zaki al-Kinani and set his sights on Syracuse, the island’s capital. The Muslim army advanced along the southern shore towards the city, but at Qalat al-Qurrat, they were met by an embassy from Syracuse who offered tribute in exchange for the Muslims halting their advance. The proposal was likely a ploy to buy time for the city to prepare for a siege, but Asad, either convinced by the emissaries’ assurances or needing to rest his army, decided to halt the advance for a few days. Meanwhile, Euphemius began to regret his alliance with the Aghlabids and began secretly communicating with the Byzantine empire, urging them to resist the Arab invaders.
The Muslim armies, fueled by their determination to conquer new lands, resumed their march toward the city of Byzantium. As the city was already grappling with a formidable threat closer to home in Crete, it was unable to provide much assistance to the beleaguered island. Meanwhile, the Muslim forces were receiving reinforcements from Africa, further strengthening their position. The dux of the imperial protectorate of Venice, Giustiniano Participazio, made a valiant effort to come to the city’s aid, but unfortunately, he was unable to break the siege.
As the siege dragged on, the Muslim forces began to face their own struggles. Supplies grew scarce and a deadly disease swept through the camp, claiming the life of the Muslim leader Asad. He was replaced by Muhammad ibn Abu’l-Jawari, who now had the daunting task of leading the siege to victory.
Just as all hope seemed lost, a Byzantine fleet arrived on the scene, ready to engage the Muslim ships. The Muslim army, realizing they were outmatched, decided to burn their ships and retreat over land to the castle of Mineo. After a three-day siege, the castle eventually surrendered to the Muslim forces. The Byzantine city had narrowly escaped certain defeat, but the Muslim army’s relentless determination had left a lasting impression on the defenders.
The Failed Siege of Enna
Euphemius, a man with connections to the imperials, had a change of heart and decided to serve as a guide to the Muslim army. He saw an opportunity to manipulate the Muslims, who were still reeling from their defeat and without a strong leader like Asad to guide them. After Mineo surrendered, the Muslim army split into two groups: one group took control of Agrigento in the west while the other, with Euphemius as their guide, attacked the city of Enna. The garrison of Enna offered to acknowledge Euphemius as their leader, but during a meeting with emissaries, Euphemius was treacherously murdered.
In the spring of 829 CE, the Byzantine emperor Michael II sent a new fleet to Sicily under the command of Theodotus, a seasoned strategist who had previously served as governor of the island. Upon landing, Theodotus led his army to Enna where the Arabs were still laying siege. Although he was defeated in battle, Theodotus and most of his men were able to find refuge in the fortress. The Muslim army, now confident in their victory, even went as far as to mint their own coins on the island in the name of their leaders, Ziyadat Allah and Muhammad ibn Abu’l-Jawari. However, Muhammad died shortly after and was replaced by Zubayr ibn Gawth.
Theodotus, with his vast experience and strategic mind, was able to turn the tide of battle. He launched a surprise attack on a Muslim raiding party, routing them, and then the following day, he led his army to defeat the main Muslim force, killing 1,000 men and chasing the survivors to their fortified encampment which he then besieged. The Muslims attempted a daring nighttime breakout, but Theodotus was ready for them and ambushed them, causing them to flee.
The remaining Muslim soldiers sought refuge in Mineo, where Theodotus blockaded them, cutting off their supplies and soon, they were reduced to eating their horses and even dogs to survive. When word of the reversal of fortunes reached the Muslim garrison in Agrigento, they abandoned the city and retreated to Mazara. By the autumn of 829 CE, Sicily had been almost completely cleared of the Muslim invaders.
A Helping Hand
In the early days of summer, 830 CE, a formidable fleet from the powerful Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba in al-Andalus, under the command of the fierce Berber Asbagh ibn Wakil, known by his nickname Farghalush, of the Hawwara tribe, arrived in Sicily. Theodotus, a Byzantine general, had been enjoying a string of successes in the region, but his luck was about to change.
Theodotus, hoping that the raiders would quickly tire of their plundering and depart, chose not to confront them head-on. But the beleaguered garrison at the town of Mineo managed to make contact with the raiders and proposed a joint action. The Andalusians, seeing an opportunity to gain a foothold on the island, agreed on the condition that Asbagh was recognized as the overall commander. Together with fresh troops from Ifriqiya, they marched on Mineo.
Theodotus, unable to match the combined strength of the Andalusians and Ifriqiyans, was forced to retreat to the fortified city of Enna. The siege of Mineo was broken in July or August 830 CE, and the town was put to the torch by the invaders. The combined army then laid siege to another town, possibly Calloniana (modern-day Barrafranca). But once again, a devastating plague swept through their camp, killing Asbagh and many of his men. The town fell later in the autumn, but the Arab’s numbers were so depleted that they were forced to abandon it and retreat westward.
Theodotus, seeing an opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the weakened invaders, launched a pursuit. He inflicted heavy casualties on the Andalusians, and most of them departed the island. However, in the heat of battle, Theodotus himself met his end, possibly in one of the skirmishes. The island of Sicily was left in a state of turmoil, as both sides struggled to regroup and assert their dominance.
The Fall of Palermo
As the sun beat down on the ancient streets of Palermo, the city’s inhabitants trembled in fear as they heard the distant rumble of drums and the clash of swords. The Ifriqiyans of Mazara, along with their Andalusian allies, had marched across the island and laid siege to their city. For a year, the people of Palermo held out against the relentless onslaught, but their supplies were dwindling and their spirits were low. Finally, in September 831 CE, the commander of the city, the valiant spatharios Symeon, was forced to surrender in exchange for safe passage for the city’s senior officials and possibly the garrison as well.
But the fall of Palermo came at a great cost. Arab historians recorded that the once thriving city, with a population of 70,000, was reduced to just 3,000 survivors, who were taken as slaves. The city’s bishop, Luke, managed to escape and flee to Constantinople, where he informed Emperor Theophilos of the devastating news.
The fall of Palermo was a turning point in the Muslim conquest of Sicily. The Muslims not only gained a strategic military base, but also control of the city, which was renamed al-Madina, or “the City.” This allowed them to consolidate their power over the western portion of the island and establish it as a regular province under the Aghlabid dynasty. In March 832 CE, the first Aghlabid governor, Abu Fihr Muhammad ibn Abdallah, arrived in Palermo and quickly set to work quelling the often violent conflicts between the Ifriqiyans and Andalusians. The once grand city of Palermo was now under Muslim rule, forever changed and forever remembered as a pivotal moment in history.
Growth of an Emirate
The island of Sicily was a scene of intense warfare as the Muslim invaders sought to conquer the land from the Byzantine Empire. In the western third of the island, known as Val di Mazara, the Muslims were able to quickly gain control. However, the eastern portion of the island proved to be a far more difficult challenge.
Instead of large-scale campaigns and pitched battles, the war in the east was characterized by repeated Arab attacks on Byzantine citadels and raids, known as sa’ifa, on the surrounding countryside. These raids were primarily focused on looting and extracting tribute and prisoners from the local population. As a result, the southeastern third of the island, known as Val di Noto, suffered more heavily than the more mountainous and inaccessible northeastern portion, known as Val Demone.
For the first two years after the fall of Palermo, there were no reported operations in Sicily. The Muslims were likely occupied with organizing their new province, while the Byzantines were too weak to put up significant resistance. Additionally, the Byzantine Empire was facing mounting pressure in the East, where the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun launched repeated invasions of the Byzantine borderlands and even threatened to march on Constantinople until his sudden death in August 833 CE.
During the next few years, the Aghlabids struggled to gain control of Enna, a major Byzantine stronghold in central Sicily. In 834 CE, Abu Fihr led a campaign against the town and, after a series of clashes, managed to force the garrison to withdraw into the fortifications. The following year, Abu Fihr again raided central Sicily and defeated the Byzantine army under a strategos, taking his wife and son captive. After his success, he sent Muhammad ibn Salim to raid the eastern parts of the island, reaching as far as Taormina. However, dissensions among the Muslims caused Abu Fihr to be murdered, and his killers found refuge among the Byzantines.
Al-Fadl ibn Yaqub was appointed his replacement, and he immediately led a raid against the environs of Syracuse, and then another into central Sicily, around Enna. The Byzantine strategos marched out to meet them, but the Muslims withdrew to a mountainous and thickly forested area where the Byzantines could not pursue them. After waiting in vain for the Muslims to accept battle, the strategos was ambushed by the Muslims who put their men to flight. The Muslims seized most of the Byzantines’ arms, equipment, and animals, and almost managed to capture the severely wounded strategos himself.
Despite his success, Ibn Yaqub was replaced in September by a new governor, the Aghlabid prince Abu’l-Aghlab Ibrahim ibn Abdallah ibn al-Aghlab. This was a first cousin of the emir Ziyadat Allah and upon his arrival, he was met with fierce resistance from the Byzantine fleet. Although the Byzantine reinforcements tried their best to prevent the Aghlabid prince from reaching Palermo, they were successfully driven off by a squadron from the city under Muhammad ibn al-Sindi. Abu’l-Aghlab then avenged himself by launching devastating naval raids against Pantelleria and other localities, even beheading the Christians taken as captives. At the same time, a Muslim cavalry raid reached the eastern parts of the island around Mount Etna, destroying the villages, and crops, and taking prisoners.
In 836, Abu’l-Aghlab again launched attacks, this time seizing the fortress of Qastaliasali and raiding the Aeolian Islands, and taking over several forts on the northern coast of Sicily, most notably Tyndaris. Another cavalry raid was also dispatched against the region of Etna and was so successful that the price for Byzantine captives dropped significantly.
An Emirate Expands
In 837 CE, a fierce battle erupted as a Muslim army led by Abd al-Salam ibn Abd al-Wahhab relentlessly attacked the city of Enna. The Byzantine forces, determined to defend their land, fought back with valor and ultimately defeated the invading army. Unfortunately, Abd al-Salam was captured during the battle and held prisoner. The Muslim forces, not willing to give up so easily, regrouped and strengthened their position around the city, laying siege to Enna. As winter approached, one of the Muslim soldiers discovered an unguarded path leading into the city, allowing them to take control of the lower town. But the Byzantine soldiers, tenacious as ever, were able to hold on to the citadel. After negotiations, the Muslim army ultimately withdrew from the city in exchange for a large ransom.
The Byzantine emperor, Theophilos, was determined to protect Sicily and sent his son-in-law, Caesar Alexios Mousele, to lead a large army to the island. Mousele arrived in the spring of 838 CE and was able to successfully defend the fortress of Cefalù from a Muslim attack. He continued to lead successful raids against the Muslim raiders, but back in Constantinople, political enemies spread rumors of his supposed collusion with the Arabs and ambition to take the throne. Tragically, the death of his wife, Maria, also severed his ties to the emperor. In 839 CE, Theophilos recalled Mousele to Constantinople, sending the archbishop of Syracuse, Theodore Krithinos, to bring him back to the capital.
On the fateful day of June 11th, 838 CE, the emir Ziyadat Allah passed away and his brother, Abu Iqal al-Aghlab, took the reins of power. With fresh troops at his disposal, al-Aghlab set his sights on Sicily, a land that had been the site of fierce battles between the Muslims and their Christian adversaries. The departure of the Christian leader Mousele had created an opportunity for the Muslims to regain the upper hand, and al-Aghlab wasted no time in seizing it.
In the years that followed, the Muslims captured a string of fortresses across Sicily, including Corleone, Platani, and Caltabellotta. It is believed that they may have also taken control of other forts such as Marineo and Geraci. In 841 CE, the Muslims launched a devastating raid from Enna all the way to Grotte, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.
But the Muslims’ ambitions did not stop at Sicily. They also set their sights on the Italian mainland, and in 839 CE, they were called upon to assist the beleaguered Duchy of Naples against the Christian warlord Sicard of Benevento. However, instead of lending aid, the Muslims sacked the city of Brindisi. And when Sicard was murdered and civil war broke out in the Principality of Benevento, the Muslims seized the opportunity to take control of Tarentum in 840 CE and Bari in 847 CE. These two cities became the base of operations for the Muslims, from which they launched regular raids along the coasts of Italy and into the Adriatic Sea. These raids continued well into the 880s, with the most notable being from the Emirate of Bari, until its destruction in 871 CE.
In 842-843 CE, the Muslims, with Neapolitan support, captured Messina and Modica, putting the Byzantine Empire at a disadvantage. The following year, the Muslim army led by al-Fadl ibn Ja’far defeated the Byzantines near Butera, causing them to suffer a major defeat. Subsequently, the Muslim commander Abu’l-Aghlab Ibrahim was succeeded by Abbas ibn al-Fadl, who invaded the Val di Noto, besieged and captured Caltavuturo, and Enna. In 858 CE, Abbas’ brother Ali was able to defeat the Byzantine fleet of 40 ships in the first engagement but was defeated and forced to flee in the second. Thus, the Muslims were successful in expanding their territories and weakening Byzantine power.
In January 859 CE, the Muslims captured the impregnable fortress of Enna, with the help of a Byzantine prisoner. This was a major achievement, as it allowed them to expand their control eastward without fear of counterattacks. Following this victory, the Byzantines sent a large army and fleet under Constantine Kontomytes. Although the Byzantine navy was defeated in battle, their army induced several settlements to rise in revolt. Abbas suppressed these uprisings and marched against Kontomytes in battle. The Byzantines were defeated and forced to retreat to Syracuse, while Abbas secured his hold on Enna by strengthening its fortifications and repopulating it.
The Emirate Grows
In the Autumn of 861 CE, Abbas, the Muslim ruler of Sicily, died after a raid against the Byzantines. His corpse was exhumed and burned by the Byzantines, and his uncle Ahmad ibn Ya’qub was chosen to take his place. Unfortunately, Ahmad’s rule was short-lived, as he was deposed in February 862 CE in favor of Abdallah, son of Abbas. This new ruler was able to capture several Byzantine fortresses, despite suffering a defeat in battle. However, Abdallah’s rule was not supported by the Aghlabids, and he was replaced after five months by Khafaja ibn Sufyan.
Khafaja sent his son Muhammad on an expedition against Syracuse in 863 CE, but he was defeated by the Byzantines and forced to retreat. The next year, Khafaja led an attack against the environs of Enna, and although his son Muhammad was defeated in an ambush, they were still able to capture the cities of Noto and Scicli.
In 866, Khafaja set out on a campaign against Syracuse. He proceeded to march along the coast towards the north, where he encountered representatives of the people of Taormina. After a treaty was agreed upon, it was soon broken. Khafaja also captured Noto, Ragusa, and the fortress known as “al-Giran”, before an illness forced him to return to Palermo. The following year, Khafaja made another campaign against Syracuse and Catania, which were subjected to raids.
In September 867 CE, the Byzantine emperor Michael III was killed and succeeded by Basil I the Macedonian. His focus on the west allowed him to send admiral Niketas Ooryphas to relieve an Arab siege of Ragusa and re-establish imperial authority in Dalmatia. However, another fleet sent to Sicily was defeated by Khafaja in battle, after which the Muslims conducted raids around Syracuse. Afterwards, Khafaga’s son Muhammad launched an attack against mainland Italy, with a possible siege of Gaeta.
Upon his return to Sicily, Muhammad attempted to take control of Taormina through a treacherous plan, however, his main army failed to arrive in time, and, fearing capture, the Muslim detachment was forced to flee. Shortly afterwards, Khafaja led a raid on the region of Mount Etna, but was defeated by the Byzantines and suffered heavy casualties. With no other choice, he marched back to Palermo and was assassinated on his journey home by a dissatisfied Berber soldier. This was a major blow to the Sicilians and the cause of the murder is still unknown. After his death, his son Muhammad took over and governed sedately from his capital. However, his reign was cut short when he was murdered by his own court eunuchs in May 871 CE.
During his reign, Ahmad ibn Umar ibn Ubaydallah ibn al-Aghlab al-Habashi achieved a major success of lasting significance with the capture of Malta. In 869 CE, he sent a fleet to attack the island and by late August, the capital Melite fell, resulting in the plundering of the town and the destruction of its fortifications. The fall of Malta had important implications for the defense of the remaining Byzantine Sicily, as it enabled the Muslims to effectively blockade any aid from the East. From 872 to 877 CE a period of relative peace ensued due to internal strife in Muslim Sicily and the weakened Aghlabid rule in Ifriqiyan. Concurrently, Muslim raids in Italy continued until the Byzantines gained a major victory in 875 or 876 CE. Following the death of Louis II, the Byzantines seized control of Bari.
In 875 CE, the unwarlike Aghlabid emir Muhammad II ibn Ahmad died and his dynamic brother Ibrahim II took the throne of Ifriqiya, determined to conquer the city of Syracuse. He sent a fleet and appointed Ja’far ibn Muhammad as governor, who began his campaign by raiding Byzantine territories and occupying some forts near Syracuse. The siege lasted nine months, with the Muslims being well-supplied with siege weapons and launching persistent attacks. Finally, in May 878 CE, the city was sacked and its people massacred or enslaved. However, this victory was short-lived, as the province descended into chaos soon after with the murder of Ja’far and the usurpation of his governorship by his uncle and brother. Ibrahim II then placed his own son as governor before Husayn ibn Rabah was appointed and attempted to take the remaining Byzantine strongholds in the northeast, such as Taormina, with little success.
In December 886 CE, the people of Palermo ousted their governor Sawada ibn Khafaja and sent him to Ifriqiya. Another governor was appointed by Emir Ibrahim II and he successfully pacified the situation through raids and a victory against a Byzantine fleet off Milazzo in 888 CE, which allowed the Sicilian Muslims to launch destructive raids into Calabria. However, in the next year, Sawada returned, with fresh Ifriqiyan troops, and again failed to take Taormina. In March 890 CE another rebellion arose in Palermo, this time among the Sicilian Arabs and aimed at Sawada’s Ifriqiyans. This, coupled with a major rebellion in Ifriqiya in 894-895 CE, ended the Muslim attacks against the Byzantines and resulted in a truce in 895-896 CE.
The chaos escalated into a civil war between Arabic and Berber factions in 898 CE, prompting Ibrahim II to send his son Abu’l-Abbas Abdallah with an army in 900 CE. Palermo was taken over by Abu’l-Abbas on 18 September, and he also laid siege to Taormina and Catania. Val Demone was attacked afterward, and then Reggio was captured and subjected to a fierce sack. Abu’l-Abbas fought a victorious battle against a Byzantine fleet from Constantinople, defeating them and capturing thirty of their ships.
In early 902 CE, Emir Ibrahim II faced an uprising by his subjects, ultimately leading to his abdication. With the help of the Abbasid caliph, Ibrahim was replaced by Abu’l-Abbas. But instead of giving up power, Ibrahim decided to take up the cause of a Holy War and led a group of volunteers to Sicily. In a bold move, they attacked and defeated the Byzantine garrison at Taormina, laying siege to the city. Without any support from the imperial government, the city eventually fell to Ibrahim’s forces. Thus, the Muslim conquest of Sicily was achieved.
Capitalizing on his success, Ibrahim sent out raiding parties to attack nearby cities, either forcing their surrender or extracting tribute. He then crossed over to the mainland and began to march toward cities like Naples. However, his journey came to an abrupt end when he fell ill and died from dysentery during the siege of Cosenza on October 24th. His grandson then halted the military campaign and returned to Sicily.
The Emirate of Sicily
The fall of Taormina in 902 CE marked the effective end of Byzantine control over Sicily and the consolidation of Muslim rule over the island. However, the Arab-Byzantine warfare on the island did not end there. In 909 CE, Sicily passed under the control of the Fatimid Caliphate, who continued to conquer Christian strongholds in the northeast and Byzantine possessions in southern Italy, with occasional truces. The Fatimids retook Taormina in 962 CE after a 30-week siege and the following year attacked the last remaining Christian stronghold on the island, Rometta. This prompted an expedition by the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas to recover Sicily. The Byzantines initially recaptured several fortresses in the northeast but were repulsed before Rometta and retreated back to Calabria. The following year, the Byzantines were crushed in the Battle of the Straits (waqʿat al-majāz) off Messina. As a result, a lasting truce was concluded between the two powers in 967 CE.
In the late 900s and early 1000s, the island of Sicily was a battleground as various empires fought for control. The Byzantine Empire, led by Emperor Otto II, attempted to intervene in the ongoing raids on Italy by the Sicilian Arabs but were annihilated by the Sicilian Muslims in the Battle of Stilo. The Byzantine Empire then shifted its focus to consolidating its power in southern Italy, but eventually returned to Sicily in the 1020s under the leadership of Catepan Basil Boioannes. Despite initial success, the expedition was called off upon the death of Emperor Basil II. A final attempt was made in 1038 CE under the command of young general George Maniakes, who was able to regain control of the eastern coast of the island, but the conquest was ultimately left incomplete due to political struggles within the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs maintained control of Sicily until the arrival of the Normans in the 1070s, a conquest that took several decades to fully complete.
During the Arab rule in Sicily, new leaders implemented sweeping land reforms that ultimately led to an increase in productivity and the emergence of smallholdings, breaking the dominance of large landed estates. They also made significant improvements to irrigation systems through the use of Qanats, and introduced new crops such as oranges, lemons, pistachios, and sugarcane. The city of Palermo, as described by a Baghdad merchant named Ibn Hawqal who visited in 950 CE, was a thriving center of culture and commerce, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace and harmony. The suburb of Al-Khalisa, also known as Kalsa, was home to the Sultan’s palace, luxurious baths, a grand mosque, government offices, and even a private prison. The city was bustling with activity, boasting 7,000 individual butchers operating in 150 shops, and a population estimated to be between 250,000 and 350,000. However, when Christians took control of Sicily in the 11th century, most of the Muslim population, who made up more than half of the inhabitants, were expelled. As a result, by the early 14th century, Palermo’s population had dropped to under 50,000. But under the rule of Roger of Salerno, Muslims were respected and played a key role in the economic prosperity of the region.
Sayings About Sicily:
Arab traveler, geographer, and poet Ibn Jubair visited the area at the end of the 12th century and described Al-Kasr and Al-Khalisa (Kalsa):
“The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish for. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Córdoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor.”
And another translated version of Ibn Jubair’s reference to the magnificence of Sicily at the time:
“It is the metropolis of these islands (Palermo, Sicily), combining the benefits of wealth and splendor, and having all that you could wish of beauty, real or apparent, and all the needs of subsistence, mature and fresh. It is an ancient and elegant city, magnificent and gracious and seductive to look upon. Proudly set between its open spaces and plains filled with gardens, with broad roads, and avenues, it dazzles the eyes with its perfection. It is a wonderful place, built in the Cordova style, entirely from a cut stone known as kadhan (a soft limestone). A river splits the town, and four springs gush in its suburbs… The King roams through the gardens and courts for amusement and pleasure… The Christian women of this city follow Moslem women’s fashion, are fluent of speech, wrap their cloaks about them, and are veiled.”
Furthermore, While Ibn Jubair was staying four months in Messina, Sicily, he was living under the hospitality of the Arabic-speaking King William II, a.k.a William the Good; he quotes:
“He (William) has much confidence in Moslems, relying on them for his affairs… In them shines the splendor of his realm.”
Al-Idrisi, a prominent member of King Roger’s court, and sole creator of the ‘Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fi Ikhtiraq al-Afaq’ (The Delight of One Who Wishes to Traverse the Regions of the World), aka ‘al-Kitab al-Rujari’ (The Book of Roger), quotes:
“Sicily is the pearl of this century… Since old times, travelers from the most faraway country boast of its merits, praise its territory, rave about its extraordinary beauty, and highlight its strengths because it brings together the best aspects from every other country.”
In admiration of the royal villa near Palermo, Sicily, Abd ar-Rahman al-Butiri quotes:
“Send the well-seasoned, golden wine round, and drink from morning till night; Drink while the lute is playing to songs worthy of Mabad! There is no peaceful life save in sweet Sicily’s shade, under a dynasty that surpasses the caesarian dynasties of Kings. See these royal palaces, where joy has made its above, a wonderful home to which God granted perfect beauty. Here is the theatre, resplendent over every other building; here are the superb gardens, through which the whole world blooms again. Here are the Lions of its fountain, pouring out heavenly waters. Spring has arrayed these places in the splendid robes of its beauty and has framed their countenances in be-jeweled multicolored clothes. It has flavored the breath of the Zephyrs at morning and eve.”
There were plenty of historical sources on the Muslim invasions of Sicily, unlike the scarcity of accounts on the Muslim rule of Fraxinetum in Provence, which you can read here; the amount of information available was too much to put into one article
Nonetheless, I managed to cover a good portion of the essential data in about 7,000 words with some strong references from Ibn al Athir and various Andalusian historians, Muslim travelers’ accounts, and many more.
I hope you enjoyed this fascinating part of history. Until next time…