History of Cinisi

See Cinisi guide for highlights and historic monuments

We have reliable information about Cinisi from Arab times, and then later from the mid-14th century onwards, but studies have also allowed scholars to identify an area of ancient settlement, which had a great military and economic importance in Roman times. The Roman period at Cinisi has given scholars much food for thought.

From the archaeological point of view, in the area of “Torre Molinazzo” (Cinisi-Terrasini) some ancient late-Roman docks  and fragments of pottery from the same era have been found. Also an anchor was found, of which V. Giustolisi said:

"In the Zone D [which] corresponds to the water north of the top of Molinazzo tower, just 30 metres from the coast, they found a lead anchor stock  (Inv No 352 A). The sample has a straight shape and a quadrangular mooring ring with a breast line in the middle." [1].

Ancient history in Cinisi - and was it linked to Heirkte?

To take a step back, from the historical point of view, a century-old dispute which is still a basis for intense discussions regarded the identification of Mount Heirkte, referred to by Polybius (200-118 BC), and which raised from the outset a considerable interest among experts and plays a key role in understanding the history of Cinisi.

The location of Eircte (Heirkte) is a difficult subject that scholars have wrestled with since the 19th century, when Julius Schubring [1839-1014] identified Eircte as being on Mount Pellegrino [2].

Everything started with a passage from Polybius (1, 56, 1-11), who spoke of a fortress called 'Herkte'. Polybius said that during the first Punic War the Carthaginians of Hamilcar Barca (248-183 BC) camped in a "high place called Heirkte, located on the sea between Palermo and Eryx", while the Romans put themselves in front of Palermo [3].

Over the years, the hypothesis proposed by Schubring did not entirely convince everyone and other sites were assumed to be that of Heirkte: in addition to Mount Pellegrino, some scholars suggested Mount Palmeto (near Cinisi), Mount Pecoraro, Mounts Belliani, and Mount Castellaccio, a mountain that dominates the current Cinisi [4].

At a certain point,  the hypothesis advanced by V. Giustolisi [5] seemed plausible; in fact, he supposed that Heirkte coincided with Mount Pecoraro. This new proposal found wide consensus; in fact, excluding the identification of Eircte on Mount Palmeto, for the lack of archaeological proofs, and exploring the hinterland of Cinisi and Terrasini, Giustolisi thought to identify Eircte with Mount Pecoraro.

Although a highly controversial topic, a decisive speech by Giovanni Mannino, an expert on the area, explained why Eirkte would be on Mount Pellegrino:

"I later learned that Holm, a hundred years before me, similarly concluded: 'It is no doubt that Herkte is Mount Pellegrino near Palermo'. Knowing the mountains of western Sicily, it was easy for me to deny any comparison of the various alternatives proposed to the mountain of Polybius, that is Mount Pecoraro, Mount Palmeto and Mount Castellaccio" [6].

Roman Cinisi

Beyond the question of the exact location of Heirkte, we can note that the territory of Cinisi was important in Roman times and these ancient relations with Rome also justify the etymological issues, which were and are now highly questionable, because on the one hand some scholars interpreted Cinisi as an Arabic name (such as M. Amari [7]), while others, suspecting that the site had a more ancient origin, preferred to support a Latin etymological origin, which the Arabs then altered.

There are other reasons that lead us to believe that Cinisi and its territory had been widely "Romanized." For example, there was a "rocky sanctuary called the 'Madonna of the Furi' (in the mountains between Cinisi and Carini), whose unusual name is probably based on the name of a previous settlement, a 'chorion' [small village] then disappeared. The hypothesis was formulated by H. Bresc and it is very suggestive and in any case it seems entirely plausible" [8].

About the term "Furi ', we observe that the “Gens Furia” had significant business interests in Sicily, and that a “Furius” is attested in Roman brick stamps as being a property owner in the area [9]:

"The valley between Mount Pecoraro, Longa Mountain and the coast of Myrcene in the area of Cinisi (...) is called 'Furi', a place name that could date back to the noble 'Furius' " [10].

The "Romanization" of the territory confirms the doubts concerning the etymology of Cinisi, which Amari thought to be of Arab origin.

It is noteworthy that in Arab times this stretch of coast was probably known as 'Sàqiàt Gins', that is the 'bindolo of Cinisi' [= noria, that is a water wheel that has the function of lifting water using the power of a water course ]." [11].

G. Alessio suggested that the name Cinisi derives from the Latin "Cinis-cineris", meaning "ash": "Even clear voices of Latin or Romance etymology should not be exempt from an Arabic etymology, as Cinisi, from the Latin 'Cinis-cineris' = ash" [12]. It has been suggested that the term "ash" refers to  the ruins of an ancient city situated near Cinisi.

In this sense it may be possible that it was the mysterious and untraceable city called "Cetaria”, which, according to Ptolemy (100-175 AD), was so named because of the existence of a fishing net [See M. Amari, “Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia” ["History of the Muslims of Sicily"], Le Monnier, 1858, pp. 432-433 note 8]. "Around the Tower called Molinazzo in the Middle Ages there was the seaport of Cinisi. However, in the absence of more solid evidence, the location of Cetaria remains uncertain" [13]

Arabs in Cinisi history

However, there is is no doubt that the Arabs played an important role in the history of Cinisi. The name is mentioned by Arabic and Latin sources, particularly in a document of Pope Innocent III (1160-1216), who, despite everything, had to enter into diplomatic relations with the Arabs:

"The pope entered into diplomatic relations with the Muslims of Sicily (...) This is important because it explicitly appoints some places occupied by the Muslims, that the previous sources  vaguely mentioned as 'tutiora sarracenorum oppida' [the very solid cities of the Saracens] (...) [However],  the names that are immediately locatable (Jato, Calatrasi, Cinisi ...) are sufficient to define with a good approximation the area occupied by the Saracens in Sicily [14].

But who were the Arabs who occupied Palermo and the nearby areas as Cinisi? An interesting contribution to the knowledge of the "first Arabs" who arrived in Sicily is from E. Galdieri, who observes: "[...] With regard to Sicily, we have some interesting data about the diverse composition of the first contingent sent to occupy Mazara del Vallo: The flower of Muslim warriors of Africa gathered for a holy war: Arabs, Berbers, especially the tribe of Howara, (…) the Persians of the Khorassan' [15].

The permanent presence of the Persians in Sicily was confirmed and reiterated in a study published in English in 1975 and in Italian two years later (1977): 'In 947, at Palermo, the Banu at-Tabari, a noble tribe of Persian origin, rose up against Ibn Attàf' [16].

More recently, a strong artistic and cultural Iranian influence has been the basis of an original, though not entirely convincing, interpretation of the architecture of the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and of the famous cycle of paintings on its ceiling (...) which would seem to have its cultural and formal roots in the Iranian and thus pre-Islamic world […]”  [17]

Norman invasion of Cinisi

The Arabs made Cinisi an almost impregnable stronghold, so much so that they fiercely resisted the Norman conquest, only capitulating after a long siege [18]. The attack of Norman Count Roger against Cinisi was told in verse by Geoffrey Malaterra (11th century) [translation by A. Graham Loud: "He himself went with the Calabrians to besiege Cinisi, which had also rebelled against him"].

And so at one and the same time Count Roger conducted two separate sieges in the same area, and maintained them both most effectively. He moved very shrewdly from one to the other, eagerly pursuing and encouraging them, dealing with every matter himself, leading attacks on the enemy, frightening them sometimes through feints and sometimes by raids, cheering up his own men by generous gifts and even more generous promises to enhamce their loyalty to him, and he continued to do the enemy damage.

"It was the sixth month; summer marks the campaigning season:/ One looks for ways to do damage, the other seeks to make him retreat./They inflict injuries and receive them. So they pursue each other;/The enemies remain at each others' throats, both equally determined./It was harvest time; this proves a problem for their weary troops./ The crops are burned: this event perturbs the people of Jato./ He now attacks the men of Cinisi, and their situation becomes grave ./ They take counsel, preparing to save the harvest;/ But when force fails, they seek to secure this through diplomacy./They meet the count and try to appease him,/ They make a treaty; they abandon trickery as their defence,/ Their crops are saved and they are reconciled to the count.” [19]

According to some authors, the ancient Arab hamlet of Cinisi, of which today no trace remains, was situated in the district which now bears the name "Castellaccio", in a strategic position in a ravine protected from behind the mountains; as Idrisi said, it was a "vast hamlet", built on the side of a mountain:

"[Cinisi is a] vast hamlet, built on the coast of a mountain that [seems to] dominate it; it has alongside a very extensive land, favorable to vegetation, strewn with beautiful pastures" [20]

According to Maurici [21], it is possible to suppose a 'doubling' of Cinisi: "one was the regular residence of the population, located down the hillside, as evidenced by Idrisi and glazed ceramic findings, the other located at the top, perhaps normally uninhabited and inhospitable (...) but well protected and defensible".

It seems that Cinisi survived the Norman conquest: "After the Norman conquest, in 1093, Cinisi was included in the diocese of Mazara; its name, followed by the words 'cum omnibus suis pertinentiis' [with all its appurtenances] was cited (...) together with the names of some large settlements such as Partinico and Carini.

Arrival of the Swabians

We can therefore assume that the hamlet of Cinisi survived the Norman invasion [22]. Things went differently under the reign of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250). We know that "Cinisi was remembered among the rebel strongholds against Frederick II of Swabia"; in this context he fiercely repressed some places on Mount Jato, which presumably also involved Cinisi, which "was destroyed" [23].

The destruction of the hamlet led to a kind of downgrading of the area. The medieval documents continued to talk about the "hamlets", but in reality they were reduced to mere "tenimenta terrarum," “that is, fiefs without population or stable settlement structures (...) The land of Cinisi and the Muslims’ fortress remained, after 1250, almost depopulated: in 1263 [Cinisi] is called 'tenimentum terrarum cuiusdam casalis quod vocatur Chinnisi' [trans: "plot of land of a hamlet called Cinisi"] [24]

The 13th and 14th century in Cinisi

We have more accurate sources on Cinisi in the second half of the 13th century, when the estate was governed by Matteo Pipitone[o]. The Pipitono belonged to the aristocracy of Palermo and Matteo Pipitono and "appeared in 1263, when the squire of King Manfredi (1232-1266) received a concession, without feudal service, of the hamlet of Cinisi".

After the death of Matteo, the "tenimentum" of Cinisi was divided equally among the sons of Matteo Pipitono, Corrado, Nicola and Matteo [25].

The term "tenimentum" ["terrarum"] generally signified a semi-deserted estate, but as pointed out by E.I. Mineo, the "tenimentum" of Cinisi was "of major economic sense (...) and in the first decades of the 14th century it would be repopulated".

We can therefore speak of a new village, which corresponds to the current Cinisi, only after important historical events in the area - that is, when the Monastery of San Martino delle Scale obtained the privilege of repopulating some large "tenimenta" that were completely unsettled.

After the Pipitone, another owner of the  "tenimentum" of Cinisi in 1382 was judge Fazio de Fazio, who later donated it to the Monastery of San Martino delle Scale, the origins of which date back to 1347.

More recent history of Cinisi

Around 1610 a part of the lands of the "tenimentum" of Cinisi  was granted in emphyteusis (a sort of lease allowing use of the land), attracting many families who built their homes around the new Benedictine monastery that was built by Abbot Andrea da Palermo around 1617, and gave way to development of the new village.

In the following centuries many rivalries flamed between the Monastery and the La Grua, Lords of Carini. One reason for the dispute was the question about the parish autonomy:

"Cinisi and Terrasini asked the Bishop of Mazara (...) to free thems from Carini, on which they depended. Having accepted the request, the church dedicated to Santa Fara was built as  Parish Church of Cinisi and Terrasini. Meanwhile, most probably from the early 17th century, (...) a  colony of fishermen came to settle (...) who founded Favarotta [26].

Another reason for the dispute between Cinisi and the La Grua was due to some hunting privileges that they obtained from King Alfonso of Aragon (1394-1458) in the territory of the Monastery:

“Gilberto La Grua in 1450 received the privilege of hunting on the estates that separated Cinisi from Roccapalumba, among their estates of Carini and Vicari. They took advantage of the privilege to raid the ‘mandre’ [=farms] of the Abbey of St. Martin, to steal dogs and imprison the inhabitants of the village” [27]. We observe, however, that the relationship of Cinisi with the neighboring municipalities historically is one long quarrel.

From the economic point of view, the development of Cinisi is linked to agriculture, particularly in the production of lemons and especially in past centuries of the so-called “manna” generated from ash [manna ash], in which the area was particularly rich.

Today, in addition to traditional activities,  tourism has also seen a significant development

For a detailed visitor guide see Cinisi


1. See, V. Giustolisi, “Le navi romane di Terrasini, e l'avventura di Amilcare sul Monte Heirkte”, 1975, p. 41

2. "Historische Topographie von Panormos”, Lübeck, 1870, pp. 24 ff.

3. See more on this important topic in an article by P.E. Arias, “Un problema di topografia storica alle porte di Panormos ...”,  in "Melanges de l'Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité", Année 1991, Volume 103 Number 103-2, pp. 377-404

4. See V. Mangiapane, “Cinisi. Memorie storiche e documenti” Palermo, 1910, p. 9

5. “Le navi romane di Terrasini e l'avventura di Amilcare sul monte Heirkte”, Palermo, 1975, pp. 57-60

6. See G. Mannino, “Risultati di ricerche speleo-archeologiche nel territorio di Terrasini”, in “Sicilia Archeologica”, 2004, p. 126

7. “History of the Muslims of Sicily”, 1868, vol. I, p. 160: "Cinisi, land of Arab origin"

8. See, “Atti della Accademia di scienze, lettere e arti di Palermo”, 1984, p. 168

9. see "Kokalos", 2004 , p. 225

10. See R. Rizzo, “Papa Gregorio Magno e la nobiltà di Sicilia [" Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) and the nobility of Sicily"], 2008, p. 39 footnote 156

11. See “Sicilia Archeologica”,1974, p. 59

12. See G . Alessio, “L'elemento greco nella toponomastica della Sicilia”, Sansoni antiquariato , Vol I, 1954, p. 8

13. See, “Sicilia Archeologica, 1982, p. 60

14. F. Maurici, “Uno stato musulmano nell'Europa cristiana del XIII secolo” [“A Muslim State in Christian Europe of the Thirteenth Century”], in "Acta Historica et Archaeologica mediaevalia", Edicions Universitat Barcelona, 1994, p. 267

15. M. Amari, "History of the Muslims of Sicily," (reprint), ed. Giannotta, Catania 1985, chap. X, p . 186.

16. See A. Amhad, “Storia della Sicilia islamica” ["History of the Islamic Sicily”]

17. See E. Galdieri, “Sull'architettura islamica in Sicilia”, in “Rivista degli studi orientali”, Pisa-Roma, 2001, p. 55, footnote 30

18. Maurici, p. 268

19. See G. Malaterra, “The Deed of Count Roger of Calabria and Sicily ...”, Unpublished translation by Graham A. Loud, 2005, pp. 52-53

20. See M. Amari," Bibliotheca Arabo-Sicula", 1880, Volume 1, p. 82

21. “Castelli Medievali in Sicilia”, 1992, pp. 83-86

22. See M. Giuffrè, “Città nuove di Sicilia, XV-XIX secolo ...”, Vittorietti, 1979, p. 56

23. See “Sicilia archeologica”, 1985, p. 75

24. See F. Maurici, “Federico II e la Sicilia: i castelli dell'imperatore”,  1997, p. 102 and 126

25. See E.I. Mineo, “Nobiltà di stato: famiglie e identità aristocratiche del tardo Medioevo : la Sicilia” , 2001, pp. 148 ff.

26. See “Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani”, “Bollettino”, 1973, p. 298

27. See H. Bresc, “Un monde méditerranéen”, 1986, Vol. 2, p. 906