Happy Easter!

Last week a friend’s little boy was eagerly – indeed passionately – telling me about what he called “the Jewish Easter”. When I realised he meant Passover, it suddenly struck me that the Italian word for Easter – Pasqua – is derived from Pesach, Hebrew for Passover.

He had learned about the Jewish flight from slavery in Egypt during his preparation for first communion, which requires two years of after-school bible study. Despite the etymology, I still find it strange to liken Easter to Passover.

Sicilians celebrate Easter by eating lamb, because the gospels say that Jesus and the apostles ate a lamb at the last supper. Sicilians in Palermo also make Easter lambs from martorana (marzipan), which make Easterish decorations as well as being delicious.

My husband brought home so many this year that they formed a large flock. He will be called “Bo Peep” by me and my son until they are all eaten up.

As with so many other traditions, Sicilians are going global, so their lambs often have a few Easter eggs lying at their feet.

The egg started with the Eastern Orthodox Christians, where eggs symbolised rebirth from death long before Christianity. This symbolises the resurrection perfectly, of course.

Eggs were also one of the foods traditionally given up for Lent. Giving up eating eggs in spring time is another tradition going back to the dawn of time, since spring is the correct season to let your eggs hatch out into a new clutch of chicks. You have to give up drinking so much milk and renounce having the cream, as well, when your cows have newborn calves to feed. The arrival of Christianity and Lent gave everyone the chance to feel pious about the necessity of eating rather miserly food for a while in Spring time.

martorana lamb

Well, the chicks have hatched, the calves and lambs are fed, and I think it is time to feast.

Happy Easter, everyone!

A sing-song at Segesta

Today, dear readers, I proudly offer you a guest post written by an actual, professional journalist!  His own blog, DorsetDaze, features his witty writing and gorgeous photographs.

Here, he describes his trip to the ancient Greek temple at Segesta.  His day involved the classic Sicilian blend of sublime and ridiculous, in equal measure.

*****

ACCORDING to the books, it’s about 80 kilometres from Palermo to Segesta – a bit under an hour even on a bad day.

We did it twice – different days, different routes, same sat-nav, same result: each time it took us twice as far and twice as long.

So near and yet so far.... The Greek temple at Segesta

So near and yet so far…. The Greek temple at Segesta

That’s not Segesta’s fault, of course; blame a bewildered sat-nav, a confused driver and an embarrassed, incompetent navigator.

The journeys were made during our recent nine-day visit to western Sicily when we based ourselves in a rented apartment in the capital Palermo.

The ancient Greek temple at Segesta, along with those at Selinunte and Agrigento, were top of our must-see list and Segesta proved the hardest to track down.

Why two visits? On the first, we put all our trust in the satellite technology and it responded with such an absurd, circuitous route that it was 4.30 when we reached Segesta, where we were confronted by a smugly officious official informing us that the site closed at 4pm.

Naff off! The footballs' on telly in half an hour, and I'm going home.

Naff off! The footballs’ on telly in half an hour and I’m going home.

We drove to a nearby hilltop, parked the car and revelled in the spectacular view of the great temple. It wasn’t enough, it wasn’t up close but it was dramatic and it would have to do.

Two days later, however, while en route to Erice, we spotted a road sign and realised that Segesta was only a kilometre or two away and vowed to call in on the way back.

But after leaving Erice, we found ourselves on another cross-country route along roads that petered out into rutted tracks, sometimes in deep mud, under ever-darkening skies. Nevertheless we arrived at Segesta in good time.

6 view from amphitheatre

One of these roads leads to Segesta. You have to try them all to find out which.

 

And all the miles, all the mud and all the frustration were so worth it: our visit to Segesta was one of the highest of highlights of the entire holiday.

We walked the fairly short distance up the hill to reach the magnificent temple that had so beguiled us when we saw it from afar two days earlier.

The only other visitors on this warm February afternoon were a super-heavyweight middle-aged couple from America’s east coast. He strode on ahead, clicking away furiously with his camera and reading aloud from his guidebook, while she lagged behind, stopping frequently to clutch her chest and fan her face. We presume she must have died up there because we never saw her again.

After the temple we joined a newly arrived group of excitable Italians on the bus that transported us to the amphitheatre and old city ruins high in the hills.

The Greek theatre at Segesta.

The Greek theatre at Segesta. Bring your own cushion.

When we disembarked, our fellow trippers swarmed like children at playtime around the steep tiers of the amphitheatre. The experience and the views were unforgettable.

And then came one of those surreal moments of Italian craziness that we have come to know so well over the years: one of the tourists walked purposefully to the stage down in the bowels of the theatre . . . and burst into song.

Nessun dorma!!!  O sole mio... tra la la laaaa!

Nessun dorma!!! O sole mio… tra la la laaaa!

The strains of ‘Nessun dorma’ rang around the ancient edifice, as sweet a voice as you could imagine, and when he’d finished his impromptu performance, the entire gathering broke into appreciative applause.

Most of the Italians, in fact, seemed far more interested in the singing, debating the various shortcomings and merits of their children or bemoaning the price of fish than ever they were in the awesome chunk of ancient history that enfolded us. Then we all got back on the bus and it was over.

8 In full voice

Encore! Encore!

We shan’t forget Segesta – our memories are a heady mix of magic and, of course, a little dash of slapstick.

5 view from amphitheatre

 

7 A song begins

 

A new book: SICILIAN CARD GAMES an easy-to-follow guide

Book front cover

 

‘SICILIAN CARD GAMES an easy-to-follow guide’ gives very clear instructions for twelve Sicilian card games, with photographic illustrations.  It is the only book of Sicilian card games in print worldwide.

Sicily has its own unique deck of playing cards, and lots of games exclusive to the island.  Card games are an indispensable part of the festivities at Christmas, Easter and other family gatherings.

Many games are simple enough to be enjoyed by young children as well as older players.  They are hilarious, but a great way to make children practise mental arithmetic without realising it.

Other games are more complex and quite challenging.  Most village squares have a full-time squadron of old men who play cards to pass the time.  They shout loud enough to startle the dead and smack their winning cards down like a butcher hacking through bones with a meat cleaver.

The games in the book are: Buona sera Signorina, Cavalli, Cu cu!, Camicia, Asino, Sette e Mezzo, Trentuno, Centocinque, Brìscula, Tresette, Terziglio, Scopa.
The book includes an interesting explanation of the origins of Sicilian playing cards.

This book makes an entertaining and economical gift for all ages.  And it is written by your dear friend, The Sicilian Housewife!

AMAZON PAPERBACK PRICE    US$ 5.99    EURO 4.50    £ 3.99

KINDLE EDITION    US$ 2.99    EURO 2.68    £ 1.85

***PACKS OF SICILIAN PLAYING CARDS CAN BE ORDERED ON AMAZON.COM***

Here is a sample game from the book.

Buona Sera Signorina

This is a past-paced and hilarious game which requires speedy reactions rather than judgement. It is a great favourite with children… and adults who have not grown out of laughing!

The cards

A Sicilian deck of 40 cards is used. Suits are ignored.

The players

Two or more. All players must be able to reach a single pile of cards at the centre of the table, which may place some limitations on the number of players.

The play

All the cards are dealt.

Working anticlockwise around the table, each player turns up one card; each card is placed on top of the previous one at the centre of the table.

The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards.

All players must perform specific actions when certain cards are turned up:

  • If the card is a lady, everyone must say “Buona sera Signorina” (“Good evening, Miss”);

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  • If the card is a cavalier, everyone must say “Buona sera Signore” (“Good evening, Sir”);

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  • If the card a king, everyone must stand up, whistle and salute at the same time (anyone unable to whistle is permitted to blow a raspberry instead);

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  • If the card is an ace, everyone must slap their hand down on top of the pile of cards…. or on the hands of the previous players.

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The last person to perform the right action, or the person whose hand is uppermost when an ace is turned over, must take all the cards. If anyone performs the wrong action, he must take all the cards. If two players both happen to make the wrong action, they must divide the heap of cards between them and take half each.

The first player to eliminate all his cards is the winner. Play continues and, one by one, players are eliminated. The game continues until one loser – who has the entire pack of cards – is found.

Sea Urchins, Anyone?

Sicilians absolutely love sea urchins – as food, rather than as wildlife. They crack them open and eat them raw by scooping their insides out with a piece of bread.

This is why, off many parts of the Sicilian coast, sea urchins are becoming rare.

We went to the stunning Lo Zingaro nature reserve at the weekend, and a friend went diving. He said the sea was practically empty. There were a few plants and just one single sea urchin, cowering in fear of hungry Sicilians.

This one is upside-down. It tried to bite our fingers with its five “teeth” when we touched them. Its little spines were slowly waving about, probably trying to work out where it was and why it could not walk.

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In some other parts of Italy, people think they are poisonous and never touch them. When my brother-in-law went diving near Ostia, he found kilometres of the sea bed carpeted with them. He harvested hundreds, despite the fact that his Roman friends thought he would die.

This is cracked open and ready to eat.

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A lot of water runs out when you open them. Sicilians call these large, reddish sea urchins “females.” There is also a smaller, more common black type of sea urchin which they call the “male,” which has far less inside it.

I taught English to a marine biologist who told me that, in reality, they are two completely different species of sea urchin, and it is almost impossible to distinguish the male from the female in either species.

Here you can see the teeth, which are very large inside the animal.

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Both types creep around slowly on the sea bed, eating small starfish and other small animals, and being eaten by larger starfish. Sicilians call the orange part “eggs” and the black part “poop”. But the marine biologist told me the orange is not eggs, and the black is not poop. Which I am glad about, since my hubby ate it.

Literary Islands: Giuseppe di Lampedusa

The Sicilian Housewife:

This article offers a deeply insightful analysis of the Sicilian character taken from “The Leopard,” Sicily’s most famous novel. This article is by Rochelle Del Borello, a fellow Sicily blogger who writes thought-provoking articles and posts gorgeous photos.
If you visit her blog, say Hello from me!

Originally posted on Unwilling Expat:

Image

Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il gattopardo) is my favorite Sicilian novel of all time. The sumptuous world of the Prince of Salina is a precious link to Sicily’s baroque aristocracy. It also inspired one of the best international cinematic productions with the classic 1963 film adaptation directed by Luchino Visconti starring Burt Lancaster as the prince.

The Leopard’s author was a bit of an anomaly in himself, a painfully shy, reclusive, Sicilian nobel, whose novel was finally published after his death at the same time as Jack Kerouac’s modern free spontaneous prose masterpiece On the Road exploded onto the scene in the states. You could not find a work so contrary to its times as this elaborate historical novel, yet it is still the most poignant and truthful portrait of the Sicilian mentality, I’ve ever read.

The Leopard is an essential guide to understanding the nature of the Sicilian…

View original 963 more words

Ten ways to tell you’ve been living in Sicily too long

1. You wear an anorak when it is 25 degrees centigrade and you don’t even feel hot.

2. You sometimes give your child an octopus to eat for dinner.

3. Whenever you get in a draught you just KNOW you will have a cervicale the next day. This is an exclusively Italian type of headache caused by draughts, being a woman, and being over thirty. To suffer from cervicale you have to fulfil all three conditions.

4. You park diagonally on zebra crossings, half up the pavement, in front of the police station. If a policeman tells you off, you ask him what’s his problem?

5. Most of your clothes have sequins or diamante on them because it’s so hard to find anything in the shops without them. This problem even seems to afflict the men.

Silverrectsequinshirt

Office shirt for Sicilian men?

6. You do your supermarket shopping in high heels, a necklace, and of course sequins.

7. You are not remotely surprised when you happen to bump into an acquaintance in the street and he gives you an armful of broccoli from his garden, or possibly a bottle of his own home-made olive oil.

8. You drive with one hand permanently resting on the horn, ready to hoot at all the pedestrians and vehicles which will spring in front of you.

9. You feel guilty about not ironing your husband’s jeans, socks and white vests. (In extreme cases, maybe you do iron them?)

10. When you go back home you find the coffee undrinkable. And you sneer at the olive oil. But the tea is a real treat.

"It's the taste!"

“It’s the taste!”

PHOTO GALLERY: Palermo and other Sicilian towns

I am delighted to have permission to reblog this from
All the pictures, and the article, are by Dave, a talented photographer with an eye for the unusual.

Sicily: a land of many faces

March 13, 2014

Traffic and graffiti: two of Palermo's trademarks.

Traffic and graffiti: two of Palermo’s trademarks.

SICILY, eh? One minute it can make you smile, the next it makes you want to weep. It all depends on which of Sicily’s many faces you’re seeing.

Five minutes spent in its crazy capital Palermo and you’re mourning the neglect of its glorious palazzi and the poverty that confronts you on all sides.

Escape the madness and visit instead its ancient treasures – the Greek temples, the incomparable mosaics, the Mediterranean beaches – and you’ll wonder why the whole world isn’t queuing up to pay homage.

If Italy’s southernmost region leaves your emotions in turmoil, then leave it to the food, the wine, the climate and the warmth of its people to win you over. Sicily encapsulates all southern Italy’s dottiness and then sprinkles in quite a lot of its own.

Twelve years after exploring the eastern half of the island and being captivated by Syracuse, Etna, Taormina and Catania, we kept our promise to ourselves to check out the western part. A first-floor apartment in central Palermo was our base.

It is a city that perfectly illustrates past glories. Like Naples, it is adorned with once-magnificent palazzi now, almost without exception, in a dire state of decay, graffiti, neglect. The streets are litter-strewn and unmaintained.

The traffic is a nightmare cross between rush-hour in downtown Mumbai and a souped-up dodgem ride, all played out against an ear-splitting backdrop of car horns, revving engines, ambulance sirens and excited Sicilian voices.

It is insane, anything-goes driving; a free-for-all, a never-ending skirmish involving cars, trucks, buses, bikes and pedestrians. The faded zebra crossings are ignored totally; road rules are non-existent; no-one gives way. If you don’t have an iron nerve, don’t drive in Palermo.

The Lord Fiat gave the Sicilians hooters on their cars so they make full use of them. Whatever you take with you, don’t forget to pack your earplugs. Palermo teems like a disturbed ant hill, swarming with people and traffic. Every niche is crammed, every second filled with noise.

For all its progress in recent years Sicily remains trapped in grinding poverty in many areas and jobs are as scarce as dent-free cars, but siren manufacture and ambulance driving are two areas were the prospects are bright; there will always be a demand.

When it comes to everyday life, Palermo is more Slumdog Millionaire than La Dolce Vita.

Accustom your central nervous system to Palermo’s throbbing pulse, however, and the city offers much to enthral the visitor. Foot power along its crowded, uneven pavements is probably a more reliable way to get around than taking a bus.

Extraordinary Roman, Byzantine and Arabic mosaics, a legacy of some of Sicily’s many conquerors down the centuries, make the Cappella Palatina, and King Roger’s adjacent royal apartments, a must-see destination

Likewise, in the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Sarpotta’s famous sculptures, fashioned from stucco with marble dust added to give them their unique sheen; and Palermo’s best art gallery, the Palazzo Abatellis.

Palermo Cathedral is as impressive as you’d expect but with a pleasing simplicity that you wouldn’t, while the Church of San Salvatore is unusual and appealing with its theatre-style interior – it was used as such for many years. The city’s main theatre, the cavernous and splendid Teatro Massimo, is the largest in Italy and third largest in Europe. A guided tour is money well spent.

Like all Italy’s great cities, Palermo has street markets that are an entertainment in themselves. The characters who cling to them are friendlier than they look as they set out their wares, including fruit, vegetables and array of fish freshly hauled from the Gulf.

For all its fascination, Palermo would probably not be a destination of choice for many travellers. Escape its ear-bashing bedlam and you discover a very different Sicily: dramatic landscapes, quiet little settlements and some of the best archaeological sites in Europe.

The island’s previous incumbents have left some marvellous reminders of their civilisations and none more so than the Greek temples, from long before Christ. The sites at Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta have long been on the tourist map and don’t disappoint.

To stroll in the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, among the ancient olive trees and perfumed Mediterranean flora, on a warm spring-like February day, and with hardly another soul in sight, was truly a memory to savour.

The little town of Erice, perched sky-high on a mountain near Trapani, and famed throughout the ancient world as the home of the goddess Aphrodite, provides views that seem to embrace half of Sicily, while the great mosaic-encrusted cathedral at Monreale is a favourite wedding destination for romantics from all over Italy’s mainland.

It’s a multi-layered confection, is Sicily, and the harder you look, the less you understand. Mother Nature, an eclectic past stretching back through the mists of time and some once-dazzling architecture have bequeathed it so much.

Even the dark shadow of the Mafia seems to be receding. The islanders, exhausted and despairing after decades of bloodshed, have found the courage to offer defiance, as evidenced by the prominent memorials to the victims and the rash of posters declaring enough is enough.

Yet Sicily’s friendly, proud inhabitants seem happy enough to drift through their lives while all around them so much of their heritage decays and great palazzi turn into slums.

It’s their land, of course, and what right do we outsiders have to criticise? Sicily, warts and all, has no shortage of fans.

The thing is, though, that with a little more enterprise and a bit more energy, so much of it could be so much better.

Porta Nuova in Palermo

Porta Nuova in Palermo

Palermo police attend a street demonstration against job losses in Sicily.

Palermo police attend a street demonstration against job losses in Sicily.

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo royal apartments

Palermo royal apartments

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

Palermo

A memorial to victims of Sicily's Mafia.

A memorial to victims of Sicily’s Mafia.

Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Some of the wonderful mosaics at the Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Some of the wonderful mosaics at the Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Cappella Palatina in Palermo

Palermo cathedral

Palermo cathedral

Palermo cathedral

Palermo cathedral

Palermo cathedral

Palermo cathedral

The Quattro Canti corssroads in Palermo

The Quattro Canti corssroads in Palermo

The Quattro Canti corssroads in Palermo

The Quattro Canti corssroads in Palermo

Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Oratorio di San Lorenzo

Palermo harbour

Palermo harbour

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

Teatro Massimo

A graffiti-covered old palazzo in Palermo.

A graffiti-covered old palazzo in Palermo.

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Dog tired at Ballaro market

Dog tired at Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Ballaro market

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

The cloisters at Monreale cathedral

The cloisters at Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Mosaics in the cloisters at Monreale cathedral

Mosaics in the cloisters at Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Monreale cathedral

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Garibaldi's balcony at Erice

Garibaldi’s balcony at Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

Erice

The Greek temple at Segesta

The Greek temple at Segesta

Segesta

Segesta

Segesta

Segesta

Segesta

Segesta

The Greek amphitheatre at Segesta

The Greek amphitheatre at Segesta

Segesta

Segesta

The wall-filling Triumph of Death (anon) painting, the star exhibit at the Palazzo Abatellis gallery in Palermo.

The wall-filling Triumph of Death (anon) painting, the star exhibit at the Palazzo Abatellis gallery in Palermo.

Palazzo Abatellis gallery in Palermo.

Palazzo Abatellis gallery in Palermo.

The theatrical interior of the Church of San Salvatore, Palermo

The theatrical interior of the Church of San Salvatore, Palermo

Church of San Salvatore

Church of San Salvatore

Agrigento - Temple of Heracles

Agrigento – Temple of Heracles

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia

A bronze of Icarus at Agrigento

A bronze of Icarus at Agrigento

Agrigento Necropolis

Agrigento Necropolis

Agrigento - Temple of Juno

Agrigento – Temple of Juno

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

The ancient view of the ocean has been partially blocked by the modern addition of a visitor centre at Selinunte!

The ancient view of the ocean has been partially blocked by the modern addition of a visitor centre at Selinunte!

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

Selinunte

NOW GO AND VISIT DORSETDAZE FOR MORE OF DAVE’S WONDERFUL PHOTOS!

Brain Drain, Sicilian Talent, and the World’s Oldest University

Did you know the world’s oldest university was founded by a Sicilian? It’s in Cairo, and he actually founded the whole city, too.

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Cairo: I was here on my honeymoon. Poor Hubby was profoundly shocked to consider how shabby Palermo looks in comparison.

This shows the terrible problem of Brain Drain has existed in Sicily far longer than most people realise. To get a concept of how big an issue this is, consider that there are 5 million Sicilians living in Sicily, and 17 million Sicilians living in the United States. I could give you a big list of statistics that you would skim over but, just trust me, there are lots of Sicilians all over Europe too, and they are still leaving this island in their droves. There are no opportunities for talented people here…. only for well connected ones who can get jobs by pulling strings.

The Sicilian who founded Cairo was called Jawhar al-Siqilli which means “Jawhar the Sicilian”. We do not know exactly when he was born, for at the time of his birth he was a slave of no importance, so we only know it was some time in the early 10th century.

We know exactly when he died – February 1st 992 AD – for by that time he was the most important military leader in Fatimid history, founder of the largest city in the Arab World, and founder of the world’s oldest university.

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Jawhar was born in a Sicily just conquered by the Arabs of North Africa. The island had been invaded and plundered for several centuries by a motley succession of Germanic tribes, and ruled in chaotic fashion by a series of Byzantine emperors while the Arabs spent 100 years fighting to gain control of Sicily. On this island of many cultures and races, Jawhar was born to a Greek-speaking Byzantine woman reduced to slavery just when these turbulent times were starting to settle.

At a young age, the slave boy Jawhar was shipped from Sicily to the city of Qayrawan in North Africa. This was when his original Greek name – like his birth date, considered too unimportant to record for posterity – was replaced by the Arabic name Jawhar. He was given to the Caliph Ismail al-Mansur on account of his obvious intelligence and cunning. Had he been less intelligent, he would no doubt have been left behind: brain drain, as I said earlier.

When this Caliph’s son Al-Muizz (953-975) took the reins, Jawhar gained his freedom and became his personal secretary. Before long he became Vizir and the highest-ranking military commander of the Fatimids.

As commander of the Fatimid Arabs, Jawhar resumed the military expansion of the Fatimids, taking various parts of North Africa from other Arab rulers. He conquered Fez in Northern Morocco, and pushed towards the Atlantic. After the Western borders had been secured, Jawhar as-Siqilli pushed towards Egypt and occupied the land around the Nile in 969 AD. Before this conquest, a treaty was made with the Vizir of the Ikhshidids granting Sunnis freedom of religion. For this reason the Fatimids under Jawhar encountered little resistance. Afterwards Jawhar ruled Egypt until 972 AD as viceroy.

He founded the city of Cairo in 969 AD to serve as the new residence of the Fatimid Caliphs. Jawhar named the city Manriyyah, but the Caliph Al Muizz renamed it al-Qahira – Cairo – which means “The Victorious”. Cairo is not only the capital of Egypt, but now the 16th largest city in the world. It is by far the the largest city in the Arab world (North Africa and the Middle East).

In 970 AD Jawhar also commissioned the construction of al-Azhar Mosque, a beautiful building still standing over a thousand years later. Additions and embellishments have been added through the centuries.

595px-Cairo_-_Islamic_district_-_Al_Azhar_Mosque_and_University

Al-Azhar mosque and university, founded by a Sicilian

Alongside the mosque, Jawhar founded Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world. Its students studied the Koran and Islamic law, logic, grammar, rhetoric, and how to calculate the phases of the moon. Cairo would eventually become one of the world’s centres of learning at that time, with the university library of Cairo containing hundreds of thousands of books. By bringing together the study of a number of subjects in the same place it was the first university in the world to survive as a modern university including secular subjects in the curriculum. The university of Bologna, often cited as the world’s oldest university, was founded over a hundred years later in 1088. Perhaps people say Bologna was the first university just because it was the first one without minarets attached.

After the establishment of the residence at Cairo, Jawhar fell into disfavour with al-Muizz. Under his successor al-Aziz (975-996) however, in whose accession to the throne Jawhar played an important role, he was restored to favour and to power. He was regent again until 979 AD, but was finally stripped of power after being defeated in a campaign against Syria.

Starting as a slave boy in Sicily, Jawhar was taken to a foreign land, learned a foreign language, gained his freedom and the greatest power in the land besides the caliph, conquered vast areas and many people, and lived to be more than 80 years old. Yet the greatest legacy of this little-known Sicilian remains the magnificent city of Cairo and its thousand-year-old university.

Having left his homeland, Jawhar, like so many Sicilians who leave this island, never lived here again. I wonder if he missed it.

*****

I would like to thank a reader of my blog named Alessandro Riolo for bringing the existence of Jawhar al-Siqilli to my attention.

*****

Evil Eye paper cover

Blessed by a Pregnant Nun at Sciacca Carnival

The Carnival of Sciacca in Sicily may not be as famous as the Venice or Rio carnivals, but it is just as much fun.

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The day started with such heavy rain there was even talk of calling it all off, but in the end the rain stopped and the festivities started.

All the children were in costume, even though it was so cold that most of them had anoraks and bobble hats over the top. Even the babies in their pushchairs were dressed as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, bumble bees, ladybirds and in one case, Father Christmas.

Among the adults, I spotted a large group of men dressed as brides, complete with wedding veils. Their girlfriends were wearing suits and top hats. I burst into spontaneous laughter when I saw two girls in magnificent, giant feathery headdresses like those worn in Rio de Janeiro: they had stretched matching sequinned bikinis over the top of their tightly zipped anoraks and jeans!

My favourite costume was this Egyptian mummy…..

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…until I saw a monk and a nun dancing with their three gap-toothed children, who stole his thunder. The nun had a spreading headdress like a 17th century Dutch painting. I am devastated that my photo of them did not work, so I have reconstructed the look for you in police identikit style:

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The Mother Superior told me they were expecting kiddie number four, and had got their cosume idea from Sister Roxana Rodriguez, a nun who gave birth in Italy recently and named her son Francis, after the Pope, to prove she is quite devout really.

“Bless you my child,” said the Mother Superior as we parted company.

Of course this is exactly the kind of naughtiness that Carnival is all about. Back in the old days it was a festival when people broke every rule of their staid and very inhibited society, talking and flirting openly with strangers of the opposite sex, holding hands and dancing saucily – all behind the safe anonymity of their funny carnival masks. To do this any time outside carnival would have led to the ruination of a girl’s reputation and thus ended any prospect of marriage.

To encourage the joking and general risqué behaviour at carnival time, rude foods were invented. They were supposed to use up the rich and luxurious ingredients that were to be forsaken during the 40-day fasting period of Lent. Sicilian cannoli were originally a carnival food designed to look phallic: if you imagine carefully sculpting the cheese at one end, I think they could be made to look unappetisingly realistic.

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The cities in Italy each have their own specific Carnival character, derived from characters in Roman comedy plays. They are normally stupid and cheating servants who cause slapstick mayhem. The King of the Carnival in Sciacca is called Peppe Nappa. The children learn songs about him to sing at the party.

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Notice the Rod Stewart wig there. Among those not in full costume, silly headgear was the order of the day. There were lots of jester hats, daft wigs and flashing devil horns, but I also saw a horned Viking helmet, some top hats, a feathery Indian head-dress and one man with a large, frondy fern growing off the top of his head.

The best came last, though, when I found Spiderman, queueing up to buy a pancake with Nutella and ground pistachio nuts.

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“The trouble is,” he told me, “to eat this, I shall have to reveal my true identity.”