By virtue of its position in the center of the Mediterranean and its fine climate and fertile soil, Sicily has been a magnet for travelers, invaders and conquerors over the years. It is said to be the most conquered island in the world.
All of this coming and going has left a vibrant culture in cities like Palermo, as witnessed in the sprawling street markets, the immense variety of good things to eat, and in the architectural treasures that dot a map of the city. Palermo is beautiful and alive, and a week is not nearly long enough to explore all its treasures.
There was a particular slice of time that left a rather large footprint in Palermo. It begins with the Arabs, who invaded the island in the 9th century and by the 10th they owned it.
Arab domination upon the island began to falter in 1060 when Robert Guiscard and Roger Altavilla (then of Sicily) initiated its conquest, with the support and protection of the Catholic Church: they were Normans and faithful to the Pope, and their military action was – so they said – lead by their profound faith. Faithful or not, they succeeded in their intent and, 31 years later, in 1091, Sicily was a Norman land. ~ The Arab-Norman Itinerary of Palermo
It wasn’t until 2015 the UNESCO recognized the overwhelming influence of the Arab and Norman influence in Palermo and vicinity, designating specific sites considered of special beauty and authenticity in relation to their Arab and Norman heritage. They make up Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale
Of these, there is a favorite of mine I want to show you. It is San Giovanni degli Eremiti or the Monastery of St. John of the Hermits, a mosque turned into a monastery.
In 1132, the Norman King Roger II, son of the Great Count, reconsecrated the mosque as a church. The king charged the monastery to the famous Sicilian hermit-monk Saint William of Montervergine, founder of an obscure Benedictine order known as the Williamites. William was known for keeping a domesticated wolf, who the hermit had miraculously tamed after the wolf had killed one of his donkeys. ~ San Giovanni degli Eremiti
San Giovanni degli Eremiti
Once you pay the entrance fee, you’re free to meander along a path through lush gardens inside the walls of the monastery, first arriving inside the empty, domed church. Look up to see the geometry of the dome.
By the time you have reached the cloister, you’ll realize something’s different. It’s the garden that brings it all to life. Other cloisters seem barren by comparison.
And you might look up to see the characteristic red domes that indicate a stylistic preference that becomes a time marker for the city’s Arab-Norman treasures. Don’t be misled by the red color of the domes, they might not have been as widespread as we think. An architect who found pieces of red plaster on some of the domes decided to paint all the domes in red.
After your visit, you may wish to head over to the Norman Palace. You can see it visible in the top of this picture.
The main attraction inside the Norman Palace is the Cappella Palatina or Palatine Chapel, the royal chapel of the Norman kings of Kingdom of Sicily. It’s quite impressive.
Entrance Fees and Opening Times
At the time of writing, San Giovanni degli Eremiti on Via dei Benedetti 16, Palermo is open Monday, Sunday and Holidays 9.00-13.30 (last ticket sold 13.00)/ Tuesday to Saturday 9.00 to 19.00 (last ticket sold 18.30). Entry is 6 euro for adults, 3 euro for children. Check the latest times and fees.
There is a small bar across from the monastery that serves a wide variety of sandwiches in case you get a bit hungry.
More on Palermo & Sicily
We stayed at a wonderful apartment called Downtown House that was fully equipped and provisioned with coffee, fruit, pasta, and artisan bottled pasta sauces so that we could eat the first night without shopping. It was near the train station and the Ballarò market. There was a vegetable stand just outside the apartment. The owner, Dario, was very attentive to our needs. It was inexpensive and makes a 5-star stay in the fascinating city of Palermo.