Historic, geographic, political and cultural contingencies brought about an extremely unusual concentration of syncretisms on this site, generated by heterogeneous elements as they combined. The individual buildings we are putting forward are not merely an ensemble but a "stratum": the typical socio-cultural world of a place and a time, preserved in the memory of the stones and bricks of the buildings, and in the tesserae of the mosaics with which they are decorated.
From the Greek colonisation to the Unification of Italy, the history of Sicily has been marked by an uninterrupted succession of rulers who came from the greatest imaginable variety of other cultures, each of whom left behind their own physical traces that built up the incredible stratification that now gives this island its character. Other parts of Italy, too, were affected by the same periods of domination which, in a wider sense, also extended to cover an area that includes all the Mediterranean countries, but Sicily was especially influenced by the Islamic conquest (827-1091) and later by the ways in which the Norman domination of 1071-1194 was conjoined to it, and that led to the emergence of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multilingual culture in whose architectural and artistic expressions we observe its two components, the Western and the Islamic, admirably fused together - without forgetting that there was also a third Byzantine component.
The elements in the group. The group consists of ten buildings that strongly represent "Arab-Norman" cultural syncretism between the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The components we have selected as the group are based on their excellent state of conservation (and this is one exceptional case in which buildings of the period have not degraded to the level of archaeology) and on the particular variations of the "syncretic" style that each of them assumed. In fact whilst each building is part of an organic whole, they individually assume unique characteristics that in each case are conjugated in new, different ways, each reflecting autonomously on the cultural traditions of this place, from the Islamic to the Byzantine, the Roman, and the Latin.
Of the ten buildings identified and which establish the configuration of the area as a whole, eight lie within the city of Palermo; the others are in the nearby cities of Monreale and Cefalù.
The ancient name for the fulcrum of Arab-Norman Palermo was Panormos (the "all-port" city), founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC. Never subdued by the Greeks, it was conquered by the Romans in 254 BC. The ancient Panormos consisted of two fortified nuclei: Paleopolis (the older of the two) and Neapolis. They were built on a rocky peninsula bounded by two now-vanished rivers, the Kemonia and the Papireto, which formed a deep, well protected natural harbour where they joined the sea.
Under the Arab domination (9th-11th centuries AD), Panormos was greatly expanded to become the principal urban centre of Sicily, one of the most important emporiums in the Mediterranean. Arab chroniclers have left us descriptions of a legendary oriental city richly filled with mosques, sumptuous palaces, and crowded markets piled high with valuable merchandise: a place comparable in size and splendour to Cordoba or Cairo, and reputed to number more than three hundred thousand inhabitants. Some signs of that Arab period are still visible in Palermo, particularly in its urban fabric, which still preserves some Islamic components. But very little remains of the buildings: only a few parts that survive because they were incorporated into Norman buildings. After the Normans conquered the city in 1071 they made Palermo an important place for trade and contact between the Byzantine East, Muslim Africa, and the Christian West.
Amalgamating diverse artistic tendencies, they developed an original architecture known as Arab-Norman, in which Arabic architectural compositions, methods for constructing roofs, and decorative motifs of Islamic origin are combined with the rational equilibrium of Byzantine planning or the severity of Romanesque building. On the site of the ancient Paleapolis, the old castrum of the Aghlabid era (9th century) was enlarged and equipped with towers and transformed into a palace worthy of its new rulers: Palazzo dei Normanni. On flat land behind it, stretching as far the first slopes of the hills, the Normans established a complex system of parks (the Genoardo), dotted with palaces such as the Zisa and the Cuba and with pavilions, fountains, and fishponds. The whole city became a vast construction site, in an aim to reinforce the authority of the crown and its alliance with the cathedra of the bishop. Physical evidence of this activity is apparent in the numerous religious buildings of the period, most notably San Giovanni degli Eremiti, San Cataldo, the Cathedral, and Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio ("La Martorana"). Each of these is the product of a unique combination of heterogeneous elements. Assisted by Muslim, Byzantine, and Latin craftsmen, an extraordinary cultural, artistic, and architectural synthesis was able to flourish at this time, of which the highest expression is the Cappella Palatina.
Under the House of Anjou (1266-1282) Palermo entered a period of decline but then under the House of Aragon (1282-1513) there were ambitious building programmes and a general reorganisation of the urban structures was undertaken. Later in the baroque period, Palermo again underwent profound transformation; palaces, churches, monasteries, and oratories all flourished in a period of new construction that was intended to glorify those in power. After the city passed to the Bourbons in 1734, eventually becoming Italian in 1860, there was a neoclassical phase followed by an especially rich period of new Art Nouveau building. But even though Palermo experienced this highly articulated urban and architectural development from the Middle Ages onwards, it was above all the Arab-Norman phase that gave the city its basic configuration and equipped it with a founding ensemble of religious and secular buildings that as a group and a style are unique in the world.
The same historical phases that affected Palermo are also found further east at Cefalù, an indigenous centre that was inhabited in antiquity by the Greeks and was later conquered by the Syracusans and then the Romans. In the Byzantine period the inhabited part of the city was relocated further uphill; during the Arab conquest it was named Gaflundi and incorporated into the Emirate of Palermo, and then in Norman times the inhabited part moved back down to the shoreline, where it reconnected with the pre-existing urban structure. Cefalù's most important buildings date from that time, of which the most outstanding is the Cathedral and its cloister, founded by Roger II as a place of burial for himself and his successors. In the interior of the basilica, the timber roof bears traces of pictorial decorations by Islamic craftsmen; the extraordinary mosaic decoration of the chancel walls, and the great middle apse with its imposing figure of Christ Pantocrator, are Byzantine.
Monreale is of Norman origin, if we exclude an earlier Arab settlement on the slopes of Mount Caputo. Located about 8 km south-west of Palermo, the whole of Monreale developed around a monastic Cathedral complex built by King William II in 1172 to meet his needs for prestige and security.
The Cathedral follows typical Romanesque planning and is characterised by the imposing mosaic decoration of its interior, which is again Byzantine. The exterior is dominated by the quasi-Islamic motif of interlaced arches, and the cloister of the Benedictine convent exhibits a profusion and variety of forms, techniques and decorative motifs derived from various models.