History of the Arabs in Calabria
By Leone Radiconcini
Antonio Maurizio Loiacono was born in Reggio Calabria in 1981. He graduated in Societies Cultures and Institutions of Europe at the University of Messina. His thesis about the Arabs in Calabria during the Middle Ages won the Anassilos Giovani 2016 prize, given to remarkable research made by young scholars of different fields. We from the Euro-Gulf Information Centre interviewed him for our series Lessons from History in relation to his recently published book: Storia degli arabi in Calabria (History of the Arabs in Calabria), edited by Città del Sole.
1)Can you give us a little bit of the political/geopolitical/historical context of the Arab settlements in Southern Italy?
The political history of Calabria in the Middle Ages, and Southern Italy at large, is crucial to the comprehensive understanding of the historical era. It is there that we can witness the actions and interests of the two superpowers of the time: the Arabs (specifically the Abbasid Empire) and the Byzantines. The two Empires were fighting over the control of strategic commercial routes and resources. They were ascending together on the stage of the imperialist fight over the control of the Mediterranean sea, with alternate moments of war and peace. Two other important points need to be highlighted, and they both go against common knowledge: in the Mediterranean basin, the Byzantines were not declining but instead they were a powerful entity in many moments of the early Middle Ages and the pillages made by the Arabs were not randomly executed but carefully planned and part of a grander strategic design to expand their power.
2)Indeed, as you just said and wrote in your book, there was a clear project implemented by the Arabs in order to expand their power over the Mediterranean sea, and those acts that were perceived as random pillages were instead carefully structured plans, can you elaborate more on this subject?
In order to understand the Arab strategy in Southern Italy, we should analyse the fundamentals of their actions in the area: Amantea immediately became a stronghold of the Arab presence, ruled by a fleet commander; Santa Maria Capua Vetere (the former Roman Capua) was attacked, Brindisi was occupied; they had designed to capture Reggio. What do all these places have in common? They were strategic centers for the Romans. Therefore it is probable that the Arabs were studying the Roman geography in order to follow in the Romans’ footsteps and enhance their power in the area: those cities were strategically relevant because they were vital crossroads of communication. For example, during the Middle Ages, Bari was the most important center in Apulia while Brindisi was a declining city. The decision of taking Brindisi first has to be connected to the importance the Romans gave to that city, even though they later understood the new commercial dynamics and decided then to move to Bari, a much more important trade center.
3)How do you think one could summarise the nature of the Arab ruling in Southern Italy? How did it end and which legacies (political, economic, cultural) did it leave behind?
It is hard to give you a comprehensive picture of the nature of the Arab ruling in Southern Italy, as, unfortunately, the historical sources are not very helpful in this endeavour. Michele Amari, the founder of the modern Oriental Studies structure in Italy, utilised the method of analogy with other areas ruled by the Arabs, such as Egypt or Crete, in order to understand the ruling of Sicily. Therefore, a comparison with those places can be useful, generally speaking. We do have some testimonies about some elements of the Arab ruling in Southern Italy, and specifically on the Emirate of Bari, that can shed a light over the policies implemented in the wider region. For example, we know that religious freedom was granted, and the Arabs tried to preserve the previously existing Christian institutions, so that Christian pilgrims headed towards the Holy Land were still departing from Taranto. Peaceful religious coexistence, rather than religious wars, was part of the culture, and the conquerors never tried to forcibly convert the local people to Islam.
With regards to their legacy, there are many evidences that Arab neighborhoods survived in all the port cities even after the Byzantine conquest. The use of Arabic as a mean of communication also survived until the eleventh century. Moreover, another important element that survived the end of the Arab ruling is the political and economic policy of redistributing large estates to small farmers.
4)The influence of the Arab culture over the Western one is certainly true but hardly known by the many, do you believe that a deeper knowledge of such a link between the two could be a useful tool towards a more peaceful and cooperative coexistence?
During the Middle Ages, arguably, Arabic was truly the international language. It was learned by the intellectuals of the time because it was the language of scientific innovation. The extension of the Arab Empire made possible to create a link between the Mediterranean basin and the Far East.
From this link, an intense exchange was created which furthered and strongly accelerated mutual development throughout the introduction of new technologies, innovative agricultural methods and financial tools. This sort of dynamic and productive exchange is proof that the encounter of different cultures does not imply only a fight over power, but can often be mutually beneficial. If it was possible for our ancestors to improve their lives through mutual acknowledgement and respect, I do not see how it is not possible for us. In this sense, the Middle Ages modus of how different cultures related to one another could be a model for us today.
5)How was the experience of Calabria different from that of other regions in Southern Italy? (Sicily, Apulia?)
The case of Calabria is interesting for several reasons. The area was never completely conquered by the Arabs and was therefore a land of fight and encounter between different cultures. Apulia, in this sense, is similar to Calabria, but the plain territory made that region more attractive for the establishment of the Emirate in Bari. Calabria was a land in which different people tried to open new trade and communication routes. Even more relevant is the fact that Calabria was a shelter for the dispossessed and persecuted. An example is the fight in Sicily between Sh‘ites and Sunnis in 934 A. D., after which the latter, having been defeated, escaped to Calabria in great number, to the point that the sources state an almost total depopulation of the city of Agrigento. The geomorphological structure of the region made it a perfect place for hiding.