History of Alcamo


See Alcamo guide for highlights and historic monuments

The ancient civilization of the Elymi is present in historical sources, but it is rather lacking in archeological evidence. This is explained by the fact that the Elymi soon "merged" with other peoples such as Phoenicians and the Greeks who colonized Sicily, making it extremely difficult to find traces of them.

In the article about the history of Castellammare-del-Golfo (close to Alcamo) we alluded to the fact that this territory was part of the ancient settlement of the Elymi. In fact, during archaeological excavations some achromatic and black ceramics relating to the Elymi were found, although only in small amounts.

Early history of Alcamo

See further down this page for the possible ancient origins of the town

The history of the Lords of Alcamo was described in a concise but effective way by P.M. Rocca [11]. According to Rocca, in 1340 King Peter II [1304-1342] gave Count Raimondo Peralta and his heirs and successors 'in perpetuum' the “Terra” of Alcamo and the castle of Bonifato.

After the Peralta dynasty, and then the reign of Frederick III (1355-77), Alcamo was ruled by Guarnerio Ventimiglia, and after him, by Enrico Ventimiglia, who conquered it in 1391. We can read in a diploma (with a mixture of Latin and Sicilian dialect) what follows:

“Illustrious Prince and Lord, King Martin of Aragon ... Your faithful servant Enrico Ventimiglia implores Your Majesty. The above-mentioned Enrico begs your Majesty to confirm to him and his heirs the ‘terra’ and the Castle of Alcamo."

In 1398, Alcamo was liberated from feudal rule and confiscated as State property by King Martin (1356-1410). But this merger lasted only until 1407, when King Martin gave Alcamo and Calatafimi to his cousin Giaimo De Prades. In 1408 Giaimo bequeathed it to his daughter Violante, who then, in 1414, brought it to Don Giovanni Bernardo Caprera.

In 1457 Bernardo Caprera sold it to Pietro Speciale, with the condition that he could buy it back, and in fact it was bought back in 1484 by Anna Caprera and Xinienes De Foux, granddaughter of Caprera. Alcamo was then inherited by the Enriquez, who were Lords of Alcamo until 1600.

Today Alcamo is a town dedicated to the production of agricultural products but it has also enhanced its cultural-tourism sector, thanks to a proper appreciation of its remarkable artistic heritage.

Ancient origins of Alcamo

Tracing the origins of Alcamo to a particular site - farmhouse or village - has proved rather complicated and there are several differing views on the matter...

The territory of the ancient Segesta, towards the end of the classical and Hellenistic times is characterized by scattered rural settlements, especially of farms. Diodorus [90-27 BC] called these "epaulis," a term indicating precisely "a house in the country."

Close to the farms there were some villages, located in specific areas of particular economic and strategic importance, such as “Ponte Bagni”, attested by sources as "Emporium Segestanorum" or "Aquae Segestanae sive [or] Pincianae" or Alcamo on Mount Bonifato" (see Castellammare del Golfo for details).

With regard to “Aquae Pincianae”, we add only that the change of name was presumably due to the decline of Segesta (hence the loss of the name) and the establishment of a huge landed estate, which bore the name of the owner. In the case of "Aquae Pincianae" some scholars have assumed that the owner of the place was called “Maesius Picatianus”, who lived in the 2nd century AD, and whose name was corrupted into "Pincianus.”

G. Nenci, however, thought the name referred to a tenant mentioned by Cicero (106-43 BC), who was called "Phimes"; it is possible that in ancient times the famous "Aquae" were called "Phimianae", and the name had been later corrupted into "Pincianae" [1].

And now we’ll go on to look at the problem about Alcamo and Mount Bonifato. It must be said that the territory of Mount Bonifato is considered to be one of ancient settlement. According to studies by A. Filippi:

“the mountain was inhabited at various times; archaeological findings suggest a primitive indigenous settlement dating from the 5th century BC, which then was inhabited in Late Antiquity, even if not continuously, whereas the evidence is certain for the Arab, Norman and Swabian times. We have found the remains of an ancient castle, antecedent to the 13th century, and later renovated by the Ventimiglia" [2].

However, the problem of the birth of Alcamo is rather intricate. The issue was formulated by the scholars of the 19th century in a different way. Some of them said that we should speak of a city called "Old Alcamo”, founded by the Arabs at the top of Mount Bonifato, and then separately of “New Alcamo”, re-founded by Frederick II of Swabia (1094-1250) and later enlarged by Frederick III of Aragon (1274-1337).

In this case we may correctly speak of a sort of "continuity" between the two villages. In fact, Vincenzo di Giovanni, in his study on Alcamo, wrote that:

“in the 'Cambridge Chronicle' (...) we read that 'in 913 AD Amran, Lord of Alcamo was killed in Palermo".

V. di Giovanni pointed out that "Alchams" should be interpreted as a clear reference to Alcamo. If this is true, Alcamo therefore already existed from 913, and one could rightly assume that it was even older. V. di Giovanni also said that Gregorio reported a similar document, in which ‘Alcamo’ appeared in the form of "Al Cami” [3].

Beyond the fact (that is by no means certain) that the two villages had the same name, it seems there existed an older village on Mount Bonifato, and it seems confirmed by contemporary studies, which show that on Mount Bonifato had risen:

“one of the oldest settlement of Alcamo. The village is located northwest of the castle, whose ruins are visible today (the most significant ruin of which is the so-called 'Saracen Tower') and near which now stands the small shrine of the ‘Madonna dell'Alto’” [4].

According to other scholars of the late 19th century there were two contemporary villages which had different names:

“The current Alcamo existed simultaneously to the other town located on the Mount, which was not called at all Alcamo, but ‘Longuro’ and then ‘Bonifato’ [5].

Considering the presence of two contemporary villages with the same names, Rocca began from the studies by M. Amari, noting that Yakut [Ibn-Al Vardi Yakut was an Arab geographer] mentioned two names:

"Michele Amari (...) mentioned the names of 24 cities quoted in the Sicilian 'Mo' Gem’ by Yakut, among which Alcamo and Bonifato (...) We have no reason to assume that Yakut referred with two different names to the same town" [6].

Origins of the name Alcamo

As with the difficulties in tracing the origins of the town, there are also many different interpretations regarding the etymology. For example, G.B. Pellegrini:

"against the absurd assumptions of previous scholars, traces the Sicilian name 'Alcamo', attested in the Arab sources as 'Alqamah', to the Arabic anthroponym ‘Alqamah’, in turn derived from 'alqam' indicating the ‘coloquinta’ (a type of medicinal plant)" [7].

G.B. Pellegrini took the intuition already suggested by Michele Amari, and quoted by Francesco D'Ovidio in a study on a great medieval poet of Alcamo, Ciullo d'Alcamo, to whom the town dedicated its Main Square. About the etymology of the city, D'Ovidio wrote:

"M. Amari explained me that Alcamo is derived from 'Alqamah', meaning 'coloquinta' [in Latin, "Citrullus colocynthis"; it is an herb of the Cucurbitaceae family, which has a very bitter pulp; it was once used as a purgative], and it is not an uncommon man's name " [8].

N. Des Vergers also came to a similar conclusions:

"This Muslim city, formidable for its situation at the beginning of the 13th century, was moved to a less fortified place after the wars between Christians and Muslims. There are some remains of ancient fortifications on the site. It was said that it derives its name from a certain Adelcam, who was supposed to have been one of the Muslim conquerors of Sicily ... Moreover, the name of Alkamah, mentioned by Edrisi and Ebn-Djobair, has a very prosaic etymology, deriving from the 'Colocynthis' plant, that is the fruit of the lotus" [9].

Taking the “prosaic etymology” by N. Des Vengers, P.M. Rocca was not very convinced and proposed another interpretation, which has been ignored:

"In my opinion it is not likely that the etymology of the name is derived from the ‘colocynthis’ plant, that is the 'fruit of the lotus', and I think that the name derives from the Arabic term 'Alhama', that is 'land of the baths', alluding to the waters of Segesta that are close to the area of Alcamo" [10].

See also the Alcamo guide if planning a visit.

References

1. See S. Bernardini, F. Cambi, A. Molinari, I. Neri, “Il territorio di Segesta fra l’età arcaica e il medioevo …”, in “Atti terze giornate di studi sull’area elima”, Pisa-Gibellina, 2000, I, pp. 91-133

2. See A. Filippi, “ Ricerche archeologiche sul Monte Bonifato ...” ["Archaeological research on Mount Bonifato…”] , 2003, pp. 7-9

3. Occisus est  Panormi Dominus Amran ‘Al Cami’ "(See V. di Giovanni, “La topografia antica di Palermo dal secolo X al XV”, 1889, Vol I, p. 487

4. See M. Collura, “Sicilia sconosciuta: itinerari insoliti e curiosi”, Milan, Rizzoli, 1998, p. 67

5. See P.M. Rocca, “Notizie storiche della città di Alcamo”, in “Rivista Universale” , 1876, p. 492

6. P.M. Rocca, “Delle muraglie e porte della città di Alcamo”, in “Archivio storico Siciliano”, Palermo, 1894, p. 378

7. See“Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani”, “Bollettino”,1992, p. 336

8. See F. D'Ovidio, “Il Contrasto di Cielo D'Alcamo”, in “Versificazione italiana e arte poetica medioevale”, Milano, Hoepli, 1910, p. 630

9. See N. Des Vergers, “Nuova raccolta di scritture e documenti intorno alla dominazione degli arabi”, Palermo, 1851, p. 225

10. See P.M. Rocca, “Rivista universale”, p . 492

11. See "Archivio storico siciliano”, 1905, pp. 77 ff.