While not one of the original Hellenic city-states, Palermo has a superb location on the northern shores of the central island of the central sea; its harbor is guarded by the two picturesque cliffs and the fertile plain that forms the “compagne” is hemmed in by a semi-circular cord of rugged mountains. “Perhaps there are few spots upon the surface of the globe more beautiful than Palermo,” writes Arthur Symonds. “The hills on either hand descend upon the sea with long-drawn delicately broken outlines, so delicately tinted with aerial hues at early dawn or beneath the blue light of a full moon the panorama seems to be some fabric of fancy, that must fade away, `like shapes of clouds we form,’ to nothing. Within the cradle of these hills, and close upon the tideless water, lies the city. Behind and around on every side stretches the famous Conco d’Oro, or golden shell, a plain of marvelous fertility, so called because of its richness and also because of its shape; for it tapers to a fine point where the mountains meet, and spreads abroad, where they diverge, like a cornucopia. The whole of this long vega is a garden, thick with olive-groves and orange trees, with orchards of nespole and palms and almonds, with fig-trees and locust-trees, with judas-trees that blush in spring, and with flowers as multitudinously brilliant as the fretwork of sunset clouds.”
During the days of Phoenician and Carthagenian supremacy Palermo was a busy marta great clearing-house for the commerce of the island and that part of the Mediterranean. But during the days of the Saracens it became not only a very busy city but also a very beautiful city. The Arabian poets extolled its charms in terms that sound to us exceedingly extravagant. One of them wrote : “Oh how beautiful is the lakelet of the twin palms and the island where the spacious palace stands. The limpid waters of the double springs resemble liquid pearls, and their basin is a sea; you would say that the branches of the trees stretched down to see the fishes in the pool and smile at them. The great fishes in those clear waters, and the birds among the gardens tune their songs. The ripe oranges of the island are like fire that burns on boughs of emerald; the pale lemon reminds me of a lover who has passed the night in weeping for his absent darling. The two palms may be compared to lovers who have gained an inaccessible retreat against their enemies, or raise them-selves erect in pride to confound the murmurs and the ill thoughts of jealous men. 0 palms of two lakelets of Palermo, ceaseless, undisturbed, and plenteous days for ever keep your freshness.”
With the coming of the Normans Palermo enjoyed even greater prosperity than had been experienced under the liberal rule of the Saracens. This was the most brilliant period in the history of the city. The population was even more mixed than during Moslem supremacy. Besides the Greeks, Normans, Saracens, and Hebrews, there were commercial colonies of Slays, Venetians, Lombardians, Catalans, and Pisans.
The most interesting public monuments at Palermo date from the Norman period; and while many of the buildings are strikingly Saracenic in character and recall similar structures erected by the Arabs in Spain, it will be re-membered that the Normans brought no trained architects to the island, but employed the Arabs, Greeks, and Hebrews who had already been in the service of the Saracen emirs. But the Arab influence in architecture was dominant, and it survived well into the fourteenth century.