Muslims in medieval peninsular southern Italy; Part 1- An introduction

During the eighth and ninth centuries Muslim power was at its apex with the Umayyads and Abbasids controlling lands from Afghanistan to Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula and from Yemen to the Caucasus. Cordoba and Baghdad were probably the greatest cities in the world in terms of population, economy, living standards, technology and learning. Whereas Europe was still recovering from the political and administrative fallout after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the church which had been a unifying force was also in crisis from a growing split between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople especially over iconoclasm, the Photian schism and the resulting two separate Fourth Councils of Constantinople. Of course this is a bit of a generalization but certainly the momentum was with the Muslim world until the devastating invasion of the Mongols followed by the Crusades which was then followed by a period of chaos and fragmentation.

Many may think of the Iberian Peninsula especially Spain when it comes to Muslim expansion, conquest, settlement and rule in Europe and the more initiated may think of Sicily as well. However the mainland of southern Italy saw its fair share of Muslim expansion and even rule during the ninth century albeit on a smaller scale. Muslims had been encroaching on the Italian mainland since the eighth century and by the end of the ninth century the Arab Aghlabid dynasty, nominal rulers of the Abbasids based in Tunisia, had conquered most of Sicily. While this was happening Arab mercenaries were being used in the conflict between the Benevento and Salerno duchies by the 840s (it should be noted that the term Arab is used loosely and could refer to Berbers). Also concurrently Aghlabids were visiting the mainland on the western coast both on trading and raiding campaigns and other Muslims, most likely Berbers, were involved in raids and piracy on the south and east coasts.

The most famous of these settlements and most official was the Emirate of Bari located on the eastern coast on southern Italy which was historically under Byzantine administration. It lasted for 24 years and had three Emirs. Despite its humble beginnings being found by a Berber Aghlabid servant it eventually received recognition from the Abbasid caliphate as a bona fide governorate of the Caliphate. It was the only Muslim settlement to receive this level of formal recognition however due to its modest beginnings, initially unsanctioned establishment as well as its short lifespan, this episode of history has been largely forgotten by both Muslim and Christian chroniclers. The Emirate of Bari finally fell to a military campaign led by the Holy Roman Emperor Louis II in 871.

Another significant settlement was Tranto located on the southern shores of Apulia before the heel of the Italian boot. Initial occupation began in 840. There was much coordination with the Emirate of Bari although they remained two separate political entities. It’s unclear if they declared the establishment of an emirate however no formal recognition seems to have been bestowed upon them like that of Bari. Tranto was eventually recaptured by the Byzantines in 880 though raids and even another brief occupation would continue over the following century.

Most of the Muslim settlement activity of southern Italy from the ninth century occurred on the coast however they did make some inroads inland and by 860 the Apulian towns of Matera and Oria were also captured by the Muslims and provided a geographic link between the settlements of Bari and Taranto. These settlements were short lived and both fell to Louis II in 867. It seems these Muslim settlements of southeast Italy could not withstand the combined forces of Louis II and Basil the Macedonian of the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires.

There were some other limited occupations in the southwest including Reggio and Amantea in Calabria. These however can be considered more a part of the Aghlabid expansion continuing from Sicily. In 871 the Aghlabids attempted to take Salerno but it would prove to be the first and last attempt for them to take a major Campanian city. Reggio would later be captured in 916 under the Fatimids as an extension of the Emirate of Sicily and they would rule the area until 1060 when the Normans led by Robert Guiscard took over. It seems that at least some the Lombards and Aghlabids preferred a mutually beneficial commercial relationship to open conflict.

This has been a brief overview of the Muslim settlements on peninsular southern Italy in the ninth century. If you have enjoyed the article please follow the blog as more articles on these settlements, the interesting interactions between Muslims and Christians, perspectives of Muslims and the resulting impacts will be posted.

The photo is of Matera courtesy of Flickr user taughtbythirst and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

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