was founded in the 8th century
BC by Phoenician tradesmen
around a natural harbour on the north-western coast of Sicily. The Phoenician name for the
city may have been Zîz, but Greeks called it Panormus, meaning
all-port. The city was never a Greek city-state,
but was later part of the Greek speaking Eastern Roman Empire. Palermo
is widely considered to be the most conquered city in the world.
Palermo remained a Phoenician city until the First Punic War (264-241 BC), when
Sicily fell under Roman rule.
The Roman period was one of comparative calm, Palermo coming under the
provincial administration in Syracuse.
When the Roman Empire was split, Sicily and Palermo came under the rule
of the Eastern Byzantine Empire.
In the 9th century, Sicily
was divided into two prefectures by the Byzantines. The two prefects
went to war with each other, and Euphimius, the winner, dreamt of
reuniting the Roman empire. However, he lacked an army, so he asked the
rulers of North Africa, at the time the up-and-coming power in the
Mediterranean, to lend him theirs. Within a week of the Arabs' arrival
in Palermo in 827, Euphimius died mysteriously, and they declined to
By 878 all of Sicily, except for a few Byzantine enclaves near
Taormina, was controlled by the Saracens. In 905 they captured those
Under Muslim dominion Palermo became an important commercial and
cultural center, a flourishing city broadly known in all Arab world.
But they were also years of tolerance: Christians and Jews were
permitted to follow their own credo.
In 1060 the Normans launched a crusade against
the Muslim emirate of Sicily, taking Palermo on January 10, 1072 and
the whole island by 1091. The resulting blend of Norman and Arab
culture fostered a unique hybrid style of architecture as can be seen
in the Palatine Chapel, the church San Giovanni degli Eremiti and the
Sicily in 1194 fell under the
control of the Holy Roman Empire.
Palermo was the preferred city of the Emperor Frederick II. After an
interval of Angevin rule
(1266-1282), Sicily came under the house of Aragon and later, in (1479), the
kingdom of Spain.
Sicily's unification (1734) with the Bourbon-ruled kingdom of Naples as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies inflicted
a devastating blow on the elite of Palermo, as the city was reduced to
just another provincial city, the royal court residing in Naples.
Palermo rebelled in 1848 and held out against the Neapolitan crown
until May 1849.
The Italian Risorgimento and
Sicily's annexation (1860) to the kingdom of Italy gave Palermo a
second chance. It was once again the administrative centre of Sicily,
and there was a certain economic and industrial development.
Palermo survived almost the entire fascist period unscathed, but during
the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 it suffered heavy damage.
The importance of Palermo got another boost when Sicily became (1947)
an autonomous region with extended self-rule. But any improvement was
thwarted by the rising power of the Mafia, which still today is a
dramatic feature of the city, as well as the whole Southern Italy.
Palermo is a city with monumental problems, but is also a city of
almost three millennia of history, beautiful palaces and churches,
colourful markets, marvelous food and a distinctive cultural identity.