The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

4
The civil war and Sicilian ṭā’ifa period

The origins of political, economic and military crisis

According to the Book of Curiosities, the constellation of Leo rose obliquely over Sicily. The malign celestial influence this exerted on the mundane rendered the island’s population difficult to govern and given to rebellion. The anonymous Arabic author of this particular section of the Sicily account was most probably writing towards the end of the debilitating rebellions-cum-civil strife which engulfed Muslim Sicily from the mid-1030s. Yet, this disastrous state of affairs appears unavoidable only with the benefit of hindsight, and had taken almost two generations to manifest itself in repeated crises. Given its apparent economic and military strength, the atmosphere of the Kalbid golden age in the late 900s was reminiscent of the halcyon days which preceded the downfall of the Spanish Umayyads in a near contemporary period. However, both the late Kalbid economy and the military were held in a delicate balance and required careful handling.

Analogy and horoscopic speculation aside, the Fatimids’ move to Egypt by the 970s not only distanced Sicily from Ifrīqiya from a political standpoint, but it also removed high-minded, politico-religious ideologies from the western and central Mediterranean. In addition, it displaced the economic centre of gravity away from the entrepôts of exchange, supply and consumption further towards the east. In so doing, it revealed, for a brief time, the potential for a politicoeconomic reconfiguration of the south-central Mediterranean. This opportunity also presented risks for both Sicily and Ifriqiya. With regard to their allegiances, the Kalbid amīrs remained faithful viceroys of the Fatimids. Indeed, the horizons of their economic aspirations remained as limited as their political outlook, and they failed to seize the opportunity to profit from controlling a wider ebb and flow of goods, or to develop industries to higher levels, preferring instead to appropriate the island’s wealth via taxation and to whittle it away on their own lifestyles and palaces. As such, the late Kalbids continued to oversee the island in its role as a great producer and supplier of materials, but they did not become involved in the profitable carriage of goods across the Mediterranean and to Egypt, even if, in some cases, they had awarded themselves concessions

-70-

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