Site of a Byzantine Last Stand

Having thus celebrated some achievement, it’s time to go back into the past again this post and pick up the story of the 2015 trip to Sicily. As you may remember, I had got through my report of the International Numismatic Congress in Taormina as far as the afternoon of the third day, when there was time set aside for excursions. My party and I had not booked onto any of the official expeditions, but we had on the other hand heard that there was an actual genuine Byzantine inscription on a church above the town, and since one other member of the party was an actual Byzantinist and I had lately been employed as one, and since certifiable Byzantine remains in Taormina proper had been hard to pin down, our path seemed pretty clear, though also quite steep…

The road up out of Taormina to Castelmola

The road up out of Taormina to Castelmola, and I do mean up

Taormina, it turns out, is a town in that classic Mediterranean model where the site was chosen because of the harbour, but precisely because it’s a harbour and anyone might arrive there, it was also found sensible to build another town, way way up the hillside, and fortify it good and proper. You’ve seen me at one such place in the form of Roquebrune-Cap Martin, but Taormina is another, and its partner settlement is a place called Castelmola, which was now our destination.

The fortress of Castelmola, Sicily

The fortress of Castelmola, viewed from about two-thirds of the way up the hill, believe it or not

Now, actually, as it turns out, Taormina has two such partner settlements, because when the Muslims ruled here they had a nearer refuge fortress, in a pattern much like a Spanish hisn. I’d have liked to see that, since as mentioned any sign of the Islamic period in Taormina otherwise was impossible to find, but it was apparently closed for works, and in any case Byzantinists. But as it happens, we could see it quite well, if not from close up, as we climbed, and in fact I can give you a better idea of the climbing by perspective on the Muslim fortress than my actual photos of the climb would reveal.

The supposedly Muslim fortress of Castello di Montetauro, Taormina, Sicily

From ground-level

The supposedly-Muslim fortress of Castello di Montetauro, Taormina, Sicily

From slightly higher…

The supposedly-Muslim fortress of Castello di Montetauro, Taormina, Sicily

From considerably higher…

The supposedly-Muslim fortress of Castello di Montetauro, Taormina, Sicily

And, from Castelmola itself!

I was testing a new camera on this trip, and was delighted to find its zoom lens up to my requirements, which means that even though I never got near the fortress I can actually give you a pretty good idea of its configuration. I guess that its being so close to intact has a lot to do with its obvious utility as a shore fort, and it seems not just to have Byzantine roots (though I’m not sure that’s more than assumption) but a subsequent history of use by the Normans, Emperor Frederick II, the Aragonese and the Habsburg Spanish, but I assume that it probably always pretty much filled the hill and it is to the Muslim period that local signage attributes it, as if that was the restoration target, so maybe this is actually a reasonable picture of a Muslim hisn, until such time as I get to one of the Spanish ones.

Castello di Monte Tauro, Taormina, Sicily, from above

Close-up of the ‘Saracen castle’

Anyway, interesting though that was it was not where we were going, and in fact, once we got up to Castelmola we found almost all the other Byzantinists up there too. There are two foci of interest for such persons, the fortress, and the church. I mean, it’s a beautiful little village and apparently even one of the cafés goes back to 1700, but this blog is for medievalising, not coffee, sorry. Of the fortress, there is not a lot left, but it seems to have basically been a thick-walled hall or court with a tower at one side.

Interior view of the fortress of Castelmola di Taormina

Interior view of the fortress

Apparently, what we see here is substantially or entirely Norman-period, so probably built around 1100, but much remodelled in 1578 after also being rebuilt by the Aragonese in 1334.

Interior view of Castelmola di Taormina, Sicily

Interior view, panning right from previous

The original building up here may have been very early Roman, but it’s not clear to me how we might know that. Since then, anyway, each set of invaders has made it its own; Sicily’s history basically goes a lot like this wherever you are.

Interior view of the fortress at Castelmola, Taormina, Sicily

Interior view facing the other way

We know that there was a Byzantine fortress here before any of that, however (which presumably also went through Muslim hands in between), because there is an inscription saying so, which is not preserved at the castle but at the cathedral of San Nicolà di Bari. This is itself a sixteenth-century building that looks appropriately like a fairly austere wedding cake…

The church of San Nicolà di Bari, Castelmola di Taormina, Sicily

OK, a fairly tall wedding cake, but definitely iced

… but it is into its walls that the inscription has been set, and here it is.

Byzantine and modern inscriptions on the wall of the church of San Nicolà di Bari, Castelmola, Taormina, Sicily

Late ninth-century Byzantine epigraphy in the dark grey, probably ninteenth-century explanation in the white marble, both illegible in full sunlight

Now, I took photos from several angles and have subsequently employed software, but this is honestly as legible as I could get it. Even the civic-minded transcription above it is basically unusable. It was partly that the sun was high and Mediterranean-bright, but I think it’s also that both inscriptions are just worn down pretty badly. Nonetheless, what it apparently says, in Byzantine Greek that I can’t find a text of, is: “This castle was built under Constantine, patrikios and strategos of Sicily”, and this man is usually taken to be one Costantino Caramalo, who held the office of strategos around 900, and was the man who actually lost this castle to the Muslims in 902. If so, the Byzantine refurbishment of this Roman site must have been something of a flight to the hills that in the end, couldn’t stave off the inevitable. Whether it would have been any comfort to him and his men that, 1100 years on, a visitor would find it almost impossible to detect any sign of Muslim occupation here, I don’t know, but it does mean that this illegible inscription has quite the weight of human investment and loss hanging off it, for those few that know.

View from Castelmola, Taormina, Sicily, out to sea

View from Castelmola out to sea, whence invaders have always come

One response to “Site of a Byzantine Last Stand

  1. Pingback: An awful lot of numismatists in Sicily, II | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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