Three churches, three cathedrals, two buildings, a bridge: these are the nine wonders of the Arab-Norman Palermo listed by UNESCO as World Heritage in 2015. Built during the Norman Kingdom of Sicily (1130-1194), these buildings are the result of a combination of different architectural and artistic traditions: Byzantine, Islam and Western, their fusion has given life to a unique style, proof of the fruitful coexistence between people of different origins.
The Palazzo Reale, or Palazzo dei Normanni, was the luxurious palace of the Norman sovereigns. Built from the initiative of Roger II, founder of the Kingdom of Sicily, the structure was enriched with terraces, exterior galleries, gardens and ponds with an Arab flair. Following the death of Frederick II (1250), the building was completely abandoned for approximately three centuries, until the Spanish viceroys chose it as their residence, greatly modifying its original look.
The building still contains at least two Arab-Norman jewels of extraordinary beauty: the Ruggero Room, decorated with mosaics depicting a hunting scene, and above all the Palatine Chapel. You will be dazzled by Byzantine mosaics with scenes from the Old and New Testament which cover the walls of this small treasure chest. Lift your gaze beyond the mosaic up to the ceiling: the wooden stalactites you see are muqarnas, decorations common in the largest and most elegant mosques, truly unusual for a Christian church! Even more surprising, the muqarnas are painted with elements which include human figures - expressly prohibited by Muslim culture - indication of the expressive liberty permitted in art in Norman Palermo.
A short distance from the Palazzo Reale, stands the imposing Palermo Cathedral, consecrated in 1185. Over the centuries, the building underwent restoration and mixed elements were added, giving life to an unusually harmonious combination. Of great scenic impact, the cathedral floor, which is enclosed by an ornate balustrade with statues of saints, among which the much loved “santuzza”, the patron saint of Palermo, Saint Rosalia. The “key element” of the Cathedral is probably the elegant portico in Gothic-Catalan style. We challenge you to find, on one of the columns of the portico, the engraving of a passage from the Koran in Arab letters.
The Cathedral of Monreale, city located 5 km from Palermo, is famous for the surprising Byzantine mosaic decoration with gold background, which almost entirely covers its walls for approximately 6,340 square metres: a compendium of stories from the Bible dominated by the gigantic Christ Pantocrator in the major apse. It is possible to visit the Benedictine Monastery which is located next to the Cathedral. With a square plan, it encloses a beautiful garden bordered with a portico with ogival arches sustained by 228 matching columns, delicately decorated and with capitals which are decorated with Bible scenes.
The Cefalù Cathedral stands out in the distance, coming into the visitor’s view as he get closer to the Sicilian city, looming with its massive shape between the rock which dominates the town and the sea. At the two sides of the façade, the two angular towers streamlined by the single-mullioned and three-mullioned windows seem to guard the portico with triple arches from which it is possible to gain access to the shrine. Also here, an imposing Christ Pantocrator dominates the scene inside the cathedral.
Let’s return to the city and admire two churches which are very different but stand one next to the other: Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio and San Cataldo. The first, also known as the Martorana, has preserved some of the most beautiful Byzantine mosaics in Palermo regardless of the various changes experienced over the centuries. San Cataldo captivates with its essential structure: the interior is unadorned but very evocative, the exterior is characterised by the red cupolas of Arab inspiration which, together with those of the Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, have become a symbol of multiculturalism of Norman Palermo.
The Church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, which at one time was part of the richest convent of the city, is an oasis of peace amid the city traffic. Its five red cupolas are one of the symbols of Palermo. The inside of the church, today unconsecrated, is simple and austere. The cloister is enchanting, with its series of agile columns which support the ogival arches, protected by a lush Nineteenth century garden with trees of various varieties, such as citrus, agave, palm, laurel oak, pomegranate, rose, olive, medlar.
Al-ʿAzīza, “the splendid”, is the Arab name of the Palazzo della Zisa, a place of pleasure whose construction was begun by King William I and completed by his son, William II, around 1175. It was built inside the vast park of the Genoardo, from the Arab Jannat al-arḍ, “paradise on earth”. The castle was in fact surrounded by an Eden of gardens, waterways, ponds for fish. The Zisa has also undergone several restorations. It has been opened to the public only recently, after a series of restorations aimed at recovering its original appearance. Today, it is the site of the Museum of Islamic Art, precious testament to Muslim architecture and medieval art. Its ventilation system was very ingenious guaranteeing freshness in the interior areas also during days of sirocco. Do not miss the Sala della Fontana, which takes its name from the fountain situated on the wall facing the entrance, the water reached the fountain through a channel in the floor. Mosaics and muqarnas contribute to making the surroundings more adorned.
Site of the decisive battle between the Red Shirts of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the Bourbon army who protected the southern entry into the city, the Ponte dell'Ammiraglio, the Admiral’s Bridge, was built in 1131 by Giorgio d'Antiochia, admiral to King Roger II. The twelve pointed arches gave the structure significant stability, such that it withstood the great flood in Palermo in 1931. The flow of the Oreto river was diverted in 1938 for reasons of public safety, and today, the bridge is surrounded by a garden with roads lined with trees, agaves and succulents.
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