History and culture come in layers — and understanding history and culture is often a matter of recognizing those layers.
Sicily, perhaps more than any corner of Europe, is a layer cake of civilizations. This is the southern border of both Europe and Christendom. And, like the tide ebbs and flows, so does the point where Islam and Christianity meet. That comes with tension, which was sorted out as elegantly a thousand years ago as similar problems are sorted out in the Mediterranean Basin today. When the Catholic Normans took Sicily from the Muslim Arabs, they were sure to plant their sword firmly by tearing down mosques and building bold churches that stood like fortresses, proclaiming, “This is now Christian again.”
Here in the cathedral at Monreale (six miles southwest of Palermo), I’m enjoying an exquisite interior, twinkling with 800-year-old gold-leaf mosaic Bible stories and supported by a dozen or so ancient pillars. That’s right…the pope wanted to cement the Vatican’s relationship with Sicily’s new Norman overlords with an appropriate gift. So he tore down an ancient Roman temple and shipped the columns (complete with fine capitals) to Sicily.
(I’m in Europe for 100 days this spring and summer. Follow my travels on my blog: http://www.ricksteves.com/blog)