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While most history-nerds are obsessed with Rome, the truth is that the rest of Italian history is just as fascinating, which is exactly why we wrote this article about the history of Palermo!
Our list covers the MUST KNOW parts of Palermo’s history. By the end of this list, you’ll never look at this Italian capital city the same way…
Let’s go ahead and jump right into it…
Table of Contents
One of Palermo’s claims to fame is that they are the ‘most conquered city in the world’. While there is some debate as to whether or not it’s technically been the most conquered city, it’s certainly one of the most conquered cities in all of the Mediterranean!
Palermo’s location on the Mediterranean gives it a very strategic location, and because of that, the city has been conquered by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Spanish, the Bourbons, the French Anjous, and many more!
Palermo was founded in the 8th century BC by the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians come from the Levant (roughly around modern-day Lebanon and Syria) and were a civilization known for their trade, commercial interests, as well as being masters of the sea. This combination lead them to establish harbors and trading centers all throughout their Mediterranean empire – Palermo being one of the most important cities!
After being ruled by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, the Romans conquered Palermo in mid-200 BC. But unlike the prosperous conditions under their former leaders, Roman-ruled Palermo deteriorated quickly and suffered greatly for hundreds of years.
After a less-than-memorable stint under Roman rule and a brief stint under Byzantine rule, the Arabs conquered the city in 831 and kicked off a new chapter in Palermo’s history. Renamed to ‘Balharm’, the Arabs opened Palermo up for trade and quickly turned it into one of the most important cities in all of Europe. The Arabs were known to be very tolerant rulers, allowing the natives to practice their own religions so long as they paid their taxes.
Such lax policies enabled Palermo to experience peace and harmony, and the city became a cultural and economic powerhouse for centuries. Much of what Palermo is today can be traced back to its Arab influence.
Reigning from Denmark and Iceland, the Norman’s grew in power in the 10th and 11th centuries as they conquered massive parts of England and France. From 1050-1072, the Normans expanded into the Mediterranean and successfully conquered Calabria and Sicily, thus ending the Arab rule. During the Norman rule, Christianity was made the official religion of Sicily, but Muslims and Jews were still allowed to practice their religions.
Building upon the success of Arab rule, Norman rule initiated the Golden Age of Palermo, as the city arguably became the most important in all of Europe! The combination of Norman and Arab culture and architecture is what gives modern-day Palermo it’s unique feel.
After the Normans, Palermo came under the rule of the Holy Roman Empire – who then expelled all Muslims from the city. This decree took a heavy toll on the economy, destroyed the cultural harmony of prior years and contributed to the population declining to less than 50,000 inhabitants.
Soon after, the city experienced a handful of other rulers (namely the Bourbons and the Aragonese) and conditions continued to deteriorate. It would take centuries for the city to fully recover again.
In 1861 a movement to unite Italy began. First, Sicily was invaded by the Empire of Sardinia, and immediately thereafter the Empire of Sardinia unified with the rest of Italy to create the United Italian Kingdom. The Italian kingdom wouldn’t be complete until 1871 when they were able to regain control of Rome from France.
Once this was accomplished, Rome immediately became the new capital of Italy. During this time, the traditional Sicilian language began to fade as the government promoted the traditional Italian language in schools. Nowadays, most Sicilians speak Italian (as opposed to Sicilian) as their primary language.
Need more specifics? Find out where to stay in Palermo based on what you want to do there!
Under Arab rule, Palermo was one of the most important cities in all of Europe and saw a remarkable period of cultural harmony and economic prosperity. During this time, the population of Palermo hit over 350,000 people, making it the 3rd largest city in Europe (only behind Constantinople and Cordoba).
After the Normans took over Palermo, the city continued to prosper, and more and more people immigrated to the cosmopolitan powerhouse.
During this time the population of Constantinopole (the previous most-populated city in Europe) dropped dramatically, and due to this, many historians believe that Palermo was briefly the most populated city in all of Europe! Yay for the gold!
The population of Palermo currently stands at 1.2 million people, making it Italy’s 5th largest city behind Rome, Milan, Naples, and Turin. Palermo is the largest city in the province of Sicily, the second-largest being Catania. Palermo saw it’s population decline nearly 5% from 2000-2010 – mostly due to emigration the suburbs and to Northern Italy.
While Palermo has a long history of immigration, almost 98% of the current population is of Italian descent. The other 2% is made up primarily from South Asians (primarily from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), North Africa, and Eastern European countries.
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At the street-crossing of Via Maqueda and the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, you will find one of Palermo’s most iconic attractions – the Quattro Canti.
Built in 1620, this square was ahead of its time and was one of the first examples of ‘town-planning’ in Italy and Europe as a whole. The project was under the supervision of Sicilian architect and painter Mariano Smiriglio who later would also design Palermo’s iconic Porto Felice.
The Quattro Canti is an octagonal piazza, containing fountains, statues, 4 streets, and 4 buildings. Heavily influenced by Baroque architecture, the piazza pays tribute to the 4 seasons, the 4 Sicilian Kings, and the 4 patronesses (saints) of Palermo.
For better or for worse, the island of Sicily is probably most famous for being the birthplace of the Cosa Nostra… or better known as the Italian Mafia. Originating in the mid-19th century, the mafia spawned from a Sicily that had a large crime problem, and an inefficient police force to handle that crime problem.
This imbalance led the Sicilian locals to seek the protection of extralegal protectors – and BOOM! Just like that, the mafia was born.
In 1924, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini visited the island of Sicily and had a meeting with local mafia boss Francesco Cuccia. It is said that at this meeting, Cuccia (perhaps accidentally) insulted Mussolini, which Mussolini never forgave him for. One year later, Mussolini declared war on the mafia and organized crime in Sicily and set up a task force in Palermo.
From 1925-1929 Mussolini waged war on the mafia and set up prefect Cesare Mori to live in Palermo and oversee the campaign. While the campaign did not completely destroy the mafia (as Mussolini had promised) it was in fact very successful in suppressing the Cosa Nostra, and damaged their infrastructure for decades to come.
After the Allied invasion of Italy, Palermo was in a state of anarchy. Bombings decimated the city, convicts escaped from prisons in masses, and ultimately there was a large power vacuum – which the Cosa Nostra took advantage of. Members of the mafia had local power and were able to use their platform as anti-fascists to their advantage to gain more political leverage with the Allies. Slowly but surely, the mob grew in power and began to expand from the rural areas of Sicily and deeper and deeper into Palermo.
There were two mafia wars – the first war was in the early 1960s, and the second war was in the early 1980s. These wars resulted in hundreds of deaths of mafioso and innocent civilians, as well as the targeted assassinations of politicians, policemen, and judges.
Ultimately the mafia wars turned out terrible for the crime syndicates as they inspired nation-wide crackdowns on organized crime. The second mafia war was particularly brutal, and many mobsters began cooperating with local authorities in return for immunity or relocation.
This marked a new era in the traditionally-secretive mafia, and lead authorities to a better understanding of how the organization operates.
While the Mafia is weaker than it was in previous decades, they are still functioning in Palermo and Sicily, and have business ties with the Mafia in New York City.
While authorities speculate that the Mafia is still involved in drugs, there seems to have been a clear shift of priorities as they are more involved in money laundering, online gambling, and wholesale food.
Planning a trip? See our list of the best things to see in Palermo!
While the north of the country clearly dominates the Italian League (currently 16 of the 20 teams are from Northern Italy), Palermo is considered to be one of Southern Italy’s most successful clubs of all time. The club boasts three 5th-placed-finishes in the Italian Serie A-League, as well as 5 titles in the Serie B league.
While Palermo hasn’t had a lot of time on the international stage, they did compete in UEFA 2005-2006. After topping their group, S. S. D. Palermo beat Slavia Prague in the round of 32 but lost to German club Schalke 04 in the round of 16. So close!
But the success of S. S. D. Palermo did not last long. In 2018 the football club had serious financial problems. During this time they had to let go of a number of players, had a change of ownership, and ultimately were excluded from all club play after failing to show evidence of an insurance policy (a no-go in Italy).
The club has since been reinstated but had to start from Serie D – which is the highest non-professional football league in all of Italy. The club won the league for Serie D, and has now been promoted to Serie C.
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Palermo is a beautiful city with a fascinating history. Although the past few centuries have been tough for Palermo, the city is clearly on a path to recovery. Crime is down, tourism is up and the city may very well be around the corner from another golden-era.
What fact did you find most interesting about Palermo’s history? Let us know in the comments below – thanks!
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Born in Los Angeles, Aaron Hovanesian is one of the original staff writers for Hotel Jules. Having backpacked the world as a young man, Aaron now prefers to travel the world in luxury, proudly staying in the world's most amazing hotels and properties.When Aaron is not traveling he lives in Western Colorado he can be found brewing his own beer (probably an IPA) or spending time with his two amazing golden retrievers.