Brief History of Sicily


Sicilian Cooking Plus is a collection of recipes for lovers of Sicilian cooking, traditions and history.
In this limited selection of classic and popular recipes, we will try to pass on the flavor of Sicily and its people as well stories and myths linked to Sicilian cooking. We will outline a brief history of Sicily and illuminate aspects of this island unknown to some.

Trinacria, that beautiful triangle-shaped island now called Sicily, lies in the center of the Mediterranean Sea.
Because of its strategic position, the climate, the richness of the land and the beauty of its landscape, this island was disputed and occupied by many conquerors.






(4,000 B.C. - 1,100 B.C.)


In the Paleolithic era, western Sicily became home to the Sicani (1,400 B.C.), a people coming from the Iberian Peninsula and eastern Sicily to the Siculi (1,100 B.C.), a population coming from the Italian peninsula.
The myths tell stories of gods and goddesses inhabiting the island and of the Elymians (1,300 B.C.) a people coming from what is today Turkey, who in the Bronze Age occupied western Sicily, chased the Sicani into the mountains, founded Segesta and instituted the cult of Venus, the goddess of love. The Elymians introduced to Sicily new edible plants, among them the chick-pea.





(1,100 B.C. - 800 B.C.)

The Phoenicians occupied the western costal area of Sicily, and founded Palermo, Solunto and Mozia.
Phoenician Ship

They established textile manufactures, increased ceramic production to high levels of quality and quantity and grew and exported wheat, useing the island as a center for the expansion of their trade. They developed the alphabet, which was adapted by the Greeks, modified by the Romans and used today in all western languages.




(800 B.C. - 700 B.C.)


Carthaginian Coin 

Next, the Carthaginians dominated part of the island for its strategic position in support of their military aims to conquer the known world, using the large supply of trees to build ships and abundance of wheat to feed their army. They built trading posts accross the island but spent all their energy defending it.






(700 B.C. - 500 B.C.)

Greek Temple (Moncada)

The Greeks colonized Sicily for its lush land and mild climate; they promoted agriculture, introducing the olive tree, cultivating artichokes and cardoons and increasing the production of wheat. They developed the production of wine and established farms for rearing cattle and sheep to increase the manufacture of cheese. They founded cities in the eastern and southern parts of Sicily, among them Naxos, Catania, Syracuse, Selinunte, Gela, Lentini and Agrigento and built roads, infrastructures, housings and temples, some still existing.
Their colonization from 735 BC to 264 BC was one the most splendid periods of Sicily’s history. Schools of art and science were instituted.
Poetry and comedy flourished with Theocritus, Stesicoro and Epicarmo.
Feace, the architect who built many infrastructures including the gigantic temple of Zeus, was the pride of Agrigento.
Excellence flourishedin all fields. In law, notable figures were Diocle from Syracuse and Caronda from Catania; in philosophy, Empedocles from Agrigento, Gorgia from Lentini and Evemero from Messina; in medicine, Acrone from Agrigento and, Erodico from Lentini, Sicily can also be proud of a giant in the field of science, mathematics and physics, Archimedes of Syracuse.

 Anfora (Moncada) 
Archimedes established the value of “pi “, the number, written as a Greek letter for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; he perceived the laws of calculus and discovered laws of physics; he invented the lever, the pulley, the burning mirror, the catapult, many war devices, and the hydraulic screw, a sort of pump to raise water, used presently in Trapani and Egypt.
We must credit Archestratus from Gela, for writing the first book about the art and pleasure of good eating and cooking.
The Greek called Sicily Megale’ Hellas (later, the Romans called it Magna Grecia), meaning Great Greece, and this is the reason that all the great, important Sicilians living during this period are portrayed as Greeks.






(400 B.C. - 500 A.C.)


Rome dominated Sicily until the fourth century AC.


The Romans made Sicily a province of the Empire. They built aqueducts, theaters and many beautiful villas, but they imposed heavy fiscal burdens on the population and monopolized the commerce of wheat that provided for the Roman people and to feed their soldiers. Sicily was known as the granary of Rome.
Now, Sicilian wheat is exported all over the world for seedling and mostly Canadian wheat imported for local use.
The Roman aristocracies celebrated their feasts with provisions, fruits, vegetables, games, honey and wines from Sicily and used expert Sicilian cooks to prepare their banquets.
Indeed, Sicilian cooking influenced the Roman culinary style; the Romans copied Sicilian dishes and cooking techniques, making them their own.




(525 A.C. - 827 A.C.)


The Byzantines settled in Sicily from 525 AC to 827 AC and they were not well accepted by the population. They imposed heavy taxes, necessary to support the army fighting the Muslims. The Byzantines transformed many Greek temples into Christian churches, collected funds to build cathedrals and monasteries, imposed the Christian religion on the population and established the military draft.

They alsointroduced the Byzantine mosaics and founded schools to train in this art.
Very little is left of the artistic and beautiful mosaics, apart from the discipline that the Normans emulated and heightened to the magnificence of, for instance, the Cristo Pantocreatore in Monreale, Palermo and Cefalu’.


  Cristo PantocreatoreLa Martorana




(847 A.C. - 1060 A.C.)

The Arabs 

The Arabs inhabited Sicily for about 200 years, and during their reign, Sicily achieved a stage of welfare, prosperity and order.

The island was divided into districts, with a kaid (master or leader) in charge of each territory.
In the beginning the Arabs tried converting the Christians to Islam, but after a short period of difficulties, they established the gezia, a tax of a meager amount, which provided protection and freedom of religion. The behavior of the occupants was accommodating and benevolent.
The Arabs introduced to the western world their numerals, the decimal system, a new account structure of debits and credits, and the checks. Being traders, they established centers all over the island, and built new cities, fortifying and beautifying the existing towns. They changed many Christian churches into mosques; they built gorgeous palaces, and flourishing gardens with luxuriant plants and fruit-bearing trees.
In Sicily, they began the cultivation of lemons, dates, sugar cane, eggplants, peaches, apricots, melons, pistachios, bergamot, and many herbs and spices, and most importantly, they improved the utilization of the island's water-basin resources, realizing a modern system of irrigation, beneficial to agriculture. The new irrigation system made it possible to grow rice, which was exported to Europe, where this new staple food was unknown.

By means of loans and tax concessions, the Arab rulers divided large estates into small farms so that peasants and farm workers could became landowners and thereby take better care of the farms and increasing the agricultural production. They planted a great deal of mulberry trees for the cultivation of silk worms and for the bark needed in paper production. Paper was a new product replacing papyrus and it was traded extensively.
There was growth in all fields of business and it required trade schools to teach silk making, jeweler’s craft, papermaking, masons and artists to build their villas and mosques. Factories were founded to manufacture the silk, refine the sugar cane,  make products in gold and silver and produce paper.
The expert Sicilian cooks devised different cooking techniques using the new products, and new dishes with unique tastes were created.
During the Arabs’ control the first pasta factory was built in Trabia near Palermo, and couscous became popular in Trapani.




(1060 A.C. - 1198 A.C.)

 Palazzo Normanno

The Normans settledin Sicily, from 1060 to 1198 and among their many changes, they made Christianity the official religion of the land.
A new form of government was instituted with a monarchy having defined authority, and new laws were enacted to grant equality and freedom of religion to the different ethnic groups living in Sicily: this resulted in a form of government many centuries ahead of its time.

Palermo La Cattedrale


The Normans recognazed the diverse ethnic backgrounds of their subjects, and merged the ideas, the science, art and architecture of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs; Saracens scholars were employed to create some masterpieces like the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, the Cathedral in  Palermo, Cefalu’, Messina, Catania, Monreale and decorations in churches and buildings all over Sicily.
The Normans brought from the north the “stockfish” that became popular for its taste and because it is easy to preserve.





(1198 A.C. - 1250 A.C.)


In 1194, Henry the VI emperor of Germany became king of Sicily though marriage, and his son Frederick II ruled from 1198 to1250. He was called stupor mundi, wonder of the world,for his talent as a statesman, governor and legislator, as well for his knowledge of science, philosophy, fine arts and languages. He patronized Islamic, Jewish and Christian scientists, poets and artists. In the court of Frederick II the Italian language was born and poems and essays were written in the new language.

The Normans


Frederick II organized the Sixth Crusade and conquered Jerusalem in 1228.
He built castles and fortifications in strategic locations at the Sicilian coast line.
He founded the University of  Naples, the first state-funded university.






(1250 A.C. – 1860 A.C.) 

During the next 500 years, the French, Spaniards, Savoia, Austrians, and again the Spanish occupied and attempted to conquer Sicily. 


 Barocco Porta Felice PalermoChiesa S. Maria Catania


In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi defeated the Borbonic ruler (a dynastic family from the Spanish peninsula), which resulted in Sicily entering the new Kingdom of Italy the following year. 



Of those who invaded Sicily, some were apparently good rulers and some bad. However, all imposed taxes, exploited the people and imposed their will and way of life. Sicilians worked all the time to adapt and transform those experiences to their advantage by enriching their customs, the cultural patrimony of Sicily and the art of cooking and good eating. 


Many of the invaders fell in love with the land, the climate and the island’s people and became Sicilian forever! 

In modern history, Sicily is part of Italy, with an independent, self-ruling, regional government.