Roger II (22 December 1095 – 26 February 1154) was King of Sicily, son of Roger I of Sicily and successor to his brother Simon. He began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130. By the time of his death at the age of 58, Roger had succeeded in uniting all the Norman conquests in Italy into one kingdom with a strong centralized government.
The term Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture, Norman-Sicilian culture or, less inclusive, Norman-Arab culture, (sometimes referred to as “Norman-Arab civilization”) refers to the interaction of the Norman, Arab and Byzantine cultures following the Norman conquest of Sicily from 1061 to around 1250. This civilization resulted from numerous exchanges in the cultural and scientific fields, based on the tolerance showed by the Normans towards the Greek-speaking populations and the Muslim settlers. As a result, Sicily under the Normans became a crossroad for the interaction between the Norman-Catholic, Byzantine-Orthodox and Arab-Islamic cultures.
An intense Norman-Arab-Byzantine culture developed, exemplified by rulers such as Roger II of Sicily, who had Islamic soldiers, poets and scientists at his court. Roger II himself spoke Arabic perfectly and was fond of Arab culture. He used Arab troops and siege engines in his campaigns in southern Italy, and mobilized Arab architects to help his Normans build monuments in the Norman-Arab-Byzantine style. The various agricultural and industrial techniques which had been introduced by the Arabs in Sicily during the preceding two centuries were kept and further developed, allowing for the remarkable prosperity of the Island. For the following two hundred years, Sicily under the Norman’s rule became a model and an example which was universally admired throughout Europe and Arabia.
The English historian John Julius Norwich remarked of the Kingdom of Sicily: “Norman Sicily stood forth in Europe –and indeed in the whole bigoted medieval world– as an example of tolerance and enlightenment, a lesson in the respect that every man should feel for those whose blood and beliefs happen to differ from his own.”
John Julius Norwich
During Roger II’s reign, the Kingdom of Sicily became increasingly characterized by its multi-ethnic composition and unusual religious tolerance.Normans, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Longobards and “native” Sicilians uniquely existed in harmony, and Roger II was known to have planned for the establishment of an Empire that would have encompassed Fatimid Egypt and the Crusader states in the Levant up until his death in 1154.
One of the greatest geographical treatises of the Middle Ages was written for Roger II by the Andalusian scholar Muhammad al-Idrisi, and entitled Kitab Rudjdjar (“The book of Roger”). Although the language of the court was French (Langue d'oïl), all royal edicts were written in the language of the people they were addressed to: Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Hebrew.
Roger’s royal mantel, used for his coronation (and also used for the coronation of Frederick II), bore an inscription in Arabic with the Hijri date of 528 (1133–1134).
Islamic authors would marvel at the forbearance of the Norman kings:
“They [the Muslims] were treated kindly, and they were protected, even against the Franks. Because of that, they had great love for king Roger.”
Interactions continued with the succeeding Norman kings, for example under William II of Sicily, as attested by the Spanish-Arab geographer Ibn Jubair who landed in the island after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1184. To his surprise, Ibn Jubair enjoyed a very warm reception by the Norman Christians. He was further surprised to find that even the Christians spoke Arabic, that the government officials were still largely Muslim, and that the heritage of some 130 previous years of Muslim rule of Sicily was still intact:
“The attitude of the king is really extraordinary. His attitude towards the Muslims is perfect: he gives them employment, he choses his officers among them, and all, or almost all, keep their faith secret and can remain faithful to the faith of Islam. The king has full confidence in the Muslims and relies on them to handle many of his affairs, including the most important ones, to the point that the Great Intendant for cooking is a Muslim (…) His viziers and chamberlains are eunuchs, of which there are many, who are the members of his government and on whom he relies for his private affairs.”
Ibn Jubair, Rihla.
Ibn Jubair also mentioned that many Christians in Palermo wore the Muslim dress, and many spoke Arabic. The Norman kings also continued to strike coins in Arabic with Hegira dates. The registers at the Royal court were written in Arabic. At one point, William II of Sicily is recorded to have said: “Everyone of you should invoke the one he adores and of whom he follows the faith”.