History of Mazara del Vallo

See Mazara-del-Vallo guide for highlights and historic monuments

We know from Diodorus (90-21 BC) that the place now known as Mazara del Vallo was an "emporium" near Selinunte:

"[…] Diodorus speaks about an ‘emporium’ close to ('parà') the Mazaro River that was taken by Hannibal  (247-182 BC) in 209 BC during the march from Lilibeo towards Selinunte (...) a harbour area (‘emporion’), which was the nucleus of what would later become the town of Mazara [1].

In fact, the Greek word "emporion" is just a specific "place", such as a port station or a market place. Stephen of Byzantium (6th century AD) also spoke about a "froùrion" (small castle) near the Mazaro River, and the "Mazarioi" (inhabitants of Mazara): “Mazara, a small castle of Selinunte, whose inhabitants were called ‘Mazaresi’".

Hence the assumption arose that the “froùrion emporion” (fortified emporium) was  a Phoenician town called “Mazara” having the same name of the nearby river. Which confirms, in essence, the ancient existence of Mazara.

Greeks and Phoenicians

We can see that Mazara was the last town of the Greeks on the eastern side of the Mazara River, where it still stands today. In fact, the Phoenicians only controlled the western side, along with the small fortified town located to the west at Lilybaeum.

In essence, Mazara was called the "town between the borders" precisely because (according to Bochart) it was situated on the river that marked the boundary between the territories of the Greeks and Phoenicians. On the other hand Mazara and the  "Mazaro" River were always identified as an administrative "border", not just by the Phoenicians, but also by the Arabs and Normans, who retained the same administrative districts.

The "emporium" located on the estuary of the Mazaro River fell in 409 BC into the hands of the Carthaginians.

Roman Mazara del Vallo

Later, under Roman rule, the town had a period of remarkable prosperity. The discovery of some decorated sarcophagi in Mazara is clear evidence of wealthy families in Roman times. However, with regard to the Roman age, despite the importance of the town, the data is sporadic:

"we have insufficient knowledge on Mazara, poorly documented and remembered as a simple 'statio' [staging post] by the 'Itinerarium Antonini'. The contribution of archeology is particularly relevant in the case of Mazara. Some remains of an ‘insula’ with a mosaic floor dated between the third and fifth centuries BC were found under the Norman church of  ‘San Nicolò Regale’; we also know of three marble sarcophagi, placed in the cathedral (...) and the remains of walls at the mouth of the Mazaro River (…)

It is hard therefore to reconstruct even a schematic image of the town before the Islamic and Norman age. However, it is certain that Mazara, since Roman times, was something more than a small village of fishermen, but is likely that from the Middle Empire Mazara knew a period of [intense] development [...]" [14].

To this we can add the findings due to underwater archeology, like the "Dancing Satyr", discussed at length below.

Arrival of the Byzantines

After the period of Roman rule, Mazara passed to the Byzantines. Besieged and conquered in turn by Geiseric (389-477 AD), Odoacer (433-493 AD) and Theodoric (471-526 AD), in 535 it was conquered by Belisarius (500-565 AD), who opened the way to the Byzantine rule, which lasted until the year 827.

It was in this year the Byzantine rule ended in Sicily, after almost 400 years, and that Muslim rule began, with the Arab landing at Mazara on June 17, 827.

Arab landing at Mazara

Regarding this Arab landing at Mazara, a memorable event about which all scholars agree, a “topographic” problem arose. In fact, they puzzled  about the claim by some Arab chroniclers that the Arab army immediately attacked an area known as “al-Qal'al k.rat” (fortress of the harbour). Michele Amari gave a solution to the problem, identifying "al-Qal'al k.rat" with the ancient “Acrae”, the current “Palazzolo Acreide” .

Almost all other scholars came to agree, although with much hesitation because, actually, “Palazzolo Acreide” is a bit far from the place of landing, or from Mazara. P.J. Alexander writes:

“[...] Finally, there is the question about the path taken by the Arab army in  827. There is no doubt that the invaders landed at Mazara in the western part of the island, and then they headed east to Syracuse. But the rest is very doubtful". P.J. Alexander noted that the words used by the Arab chroniclers Ibn al-Atir [died 1233] and Nuwayri [died 1332], "word for word" were these: "[... ] 'al-Qal'al k.rat' (...) 'fortress of the bay or harbour' [...]" [15].

Despite the assumption by M. Amari, we still do not know for sure where the "phantom" fortress was located. Unless the Arab chroniclers had used a circonlocution to indicate Mazara, which also presents all the requirements of the Arabic expression, because  Mazara is, at the same time, a "fortress" ("froùrion") and also a "harbour".

In summary, perhaps the Arab chroniclers, instead of naming "directly" Mazara ["The army landed at Mazara"], they wrote: "The army landed in the 'fortified harbour' or 'close to the fortress of the harbour '".

Thus, the landing at Mazara of the Arab troops, commanded by Asad Ibn Al - Furat, marked the beginning of Muslim rule in Sicily. The Arab period was glorious for "Mazara del Vallo", which became an economic, commercial and cultural heart of exceptional importance, almost like Palermo.

In an important work by De Simone [16] we read that Mazara developed some important cultural projects, such as a philological and grammar school, and a law school, whose most famous student was a "witty" Imam, Al Mazari, known as the "Mazarese" (that is "native of Mazara" ), who wrote an important treatise of medicine.

The harbour of Mazara soon became the landing point of refuge for ships coming from the nearby African coast and was among the leading trade towns of the Mediterranean for the wealth of goods produced by local industries in salt, sugar, tuna and silk. Al Idrisi, born in Mazara (1099-1165), described it:

"a beautiful, superb and unbeatable town (...) It has strong and high walls , very pretty houses, wide streets and markets filled with commodities and products, sumptuous bathrooms and large shops, as well as vegetable and flower gardens with beautiful plants" [17].

Norman era in Mazara del Vallo

In 1080 Count Roger (1031-1101) established the new diocese of Mazara, and “[…] as it appears on a diploma of February 1081, Count Roger wanted to define the territorial boundaries of the new ecclesiastical district (...)  and he chose Mazara, like Troina, as a new heart of the episcopal jurisdiction […]” [4].

The Arab culture continued to exist even after the expulsion of the Arabs by the Normans and in the following Swabian age. We have to think about the figure of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), in whose court the Arabic language was taught and the Emperor himself appreciated the Arab philosophers, so Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), called him the ‘Sultan of Lucera’ [18].

After the Norman conquest Mazara became the capital of the vast territory that took the name of "Val di Mazara" and in 1093 it became the seat of a bishopric which had jurisdiction over the area.

The papal recognition of the diocese of Mazara was made official by Pope Urban II (1035-1099) with the bull of October 10, 1098 and confirmed by his successor, Paschal II (died in 1118) October 15, 1100. At the end of the Swabian age the “Val di Mazara” also fell into anarchy instigated by the great feudal families of the time.

Recent centuries in Mazara del Vallo

In modern times, especially the 16th century and thanks to the old farm structures created in the Arab epoque and further encouraged in Norman and Swabian age, the feudal agrarian production was remarkable.

In the 17th century, however, we see a general impoverishment of the area, and the disappearance of many of the hamlets that  characterized the period of Arab rule, because a large percentage of the total population resided in cities. The area was now characterized by a farm crisis that became more acute during the Spanish domination.

From the middle of the 19th and into the 20th century Mazalla del Vallo had thriving economic activity linked to fishery. Today the city is focusing on a revaluation of land and its cultural heritage to promote mainly the tourism sector.

Mazara del Vallo etymology

With regard to the etymology, V. Amico said: "[...] Bochart says that the name 'Mazara' derives from the Punic word 'Mazar', which meant 'terminus' [border] among the Latins, since the town was once perhaps on the boundary between the Greeks and Carthaginians." [2]

Indeed Bochart wrote: “In some Jewish texts the 'Mazar' River is intrepreted as a 'border' (...) or ‘inside the boundaries’”" [3]. Bochart then also explained the meaning of his choice: ”[ I think that it is not a wrong choice (...) After many Greeks occupied the island [of Sicily], only Mozia, Solunto and Palermo were left to the Phoenicians, as we read in Thucydides".

In past centuries there were many doubts among scholars about the existence of a place called "Mazara". For some authors Mazara coincided with Selinunte, and they believed that in Roman times Mazara was called the "New Selinunte" [5]. T. Fazello was quite opposed to this assumption:

"Diodorus said that Mazara is clearly different from Selinunte; on the contrary it is further, and his words are these:" Hannibal (…) departing from Lilybaeum, moved towards Selinunte, and having arrived at the Mazara River took a small castle which was situated on the side of this river" [6].

These are therefore the conclusions reached by the critics, summed up in a few words by A.T. Manni Piraino: "With regard to the 'vexata quaestio' about the autonomy of Mazara in Roman times, such as Segre remarks, we know from Stephen of Byzantium of the ethnic 'Mazaraioi' (the inhabitants of Mazara). ‘The Itinerary of Antoninus’ also seems to confirm the existence of a settlement named Mazara” [7].

According to Piraino, the words “koinon 'Kinakòn” would refer to a “Phoenician community” :“[…] The 'Kinakès' (...) would be the Phoenicians living in Mazara; and we may conclude that the ‘koinon’ was a corporative or religious structure which presumably safeguarded  their interests in a business centre of considerable importance. Probably the membership of the 'koinon' were dyers, or more general merchants[…]".

Before these proofs, we must recognize that Schmoll was perfectly right to assert the Phoenician-Punic origin of Mazara “which was not an Arab foundation, as some authors have erroneously supposed, given that the name is already in the classical sources". [8]. Therefore, after painstaking investigation, we can say positively that "Mazara" was the name of an ancient Phoenician fortified town situated on the side of the “Mazaro” River.

Thereby fail the assumptions proposed by many scholars even today, that the word "Mazara" is of Arab origin. This deep-rooted opinionvery likely derives from the observation of the importance that the Arabs had in the development of this town. According to this assumption, supported by many scholars until the 19th century, the term “Mazara” means "mill" or "marsh":

"[...] We do not doubt that the name of Mazara (...) may derive from an Arabic word. Cascini (...)  believes that it meant "mill." But it seems more likely that it derives from the word 'Zarat', 'palus' (marsh) with the addition of 'mim', forming the name of the place; hence the term 'Mazarat' meaning ‘swampy area’ [...]" [9].

If this assumption is no longer sustainable, then we’re looking at a very different ball-game when we consider the second part of the name "Mazara", or "del Vallo". With regard to the second term, "Vallo" (Latin 'Vallis') the problem has been takled by D. Minuto, who rightly attributes this name to the Arabs:

"[...]The explanation of the term 'Vallis' takes us into the heart of the Byzantine history of this region. The chronicler Geoffrey Malaterra (12th century) used the term 'Vallis' to translate the Byzantine term 'eparchy'. In fact, when the Normans arrived here, the region was an 'eparchy', that is an important section of the territorial administration, which corresponds to the concept of province or district.

Godfrey Malaterra called it 'Vallis' because the Arabs had divided the island into three 'valleys', or the 'Valley of Noto',  'Valley of Mazara' and 'Demenna Valley'. Michele Amari, although unconvinced that the name 'valley' goes back to the Arabs, however, acknowledged it. In fact, he said that the Arabic term 'wilaya' means 'land', or jurisdiction of 'Walè', and 'walì' were the name given to the Arab magistrates appointed to the control of the provinces, or the various branches of the civil service [... ] " [10].

Making a synthesis between the old term (border) and the Arabic term (country, territory), we could say that "Mazara del Vallo" means "Borderland."

For completeness, we note that two other etymologies exist. The first proposes the etymology of "harbour" (harbour = “Mazar”), but this assumption collides with the fact that we should admit an Arabic root (“marsa”), such as “Marsala” (Marsa-Ali = Harbour of Ali ), which does not exist for the reasons mentioned earlier for "marsa"[harbour] [11].

The other assumption proposes the etymology of "fortress", which undoubtedly possesses a remarkable consistency. In the 19th century I. Taylor wrote: “Mazara [According to Gesenius, p. 425], which still preserves its ancient name is the 'castle'” [12].

Perhaps this etymology arises from the fact that Diodorus had already defined Mazara as a "froùrion," a term that can be translated as a "little castle". In fact, in “Dizionario Epigrafico di Antichità” we read: "[...] ‘Castellum’ (Greek 'froùrion') as the diminutive for 'castrum', would indicate a small camp, a fortress with the garrison of soldiers [...].  It can be also interesting to note that among the shades of meaning of "castellum" and "froùrion" that may also indicate a “number of settlers and soldiers” and even a ‘residential area’ " [13].

See also Mazara del Vallo for a destination travel guide.


1. See Stefania De Vido, “Gli Elimi: storie di contatti e di rappresentazioni”,  Scuola Normale Superiore, 1997: 259

2. See V. Amico, “Dizionario Topografico della Sicilia”, Palermo, 1859, Vol II: 62

3. See Samuelis Bocharti "Geographia Sacra", 1674: 616).

4. See, “Ruggero il Gran Conte e l'inizio dello stato Normanno”, Bari, 1977: 49

5. See “Enciclopedia Italiana di scienze, Lettere e Arti”, Treccani, Vol 31: 675

6. See T. Fazello, “Storia di Sicilia deche due”, Palermo, 1830, Vol. II: 125

7. See A. T. Manni Piraino, “Mazara e un 'koinòn' Kinakòn' di età Romana imperiale”,  in "Oriens antiquus", 1969, Vol. 8: 121-125

8. See“Il bilinguismo degli antichi” , 1991:  33

9. See S. Morso, “Descrizione di Palermo Antico[a]”, Palermo, 1827: 230-231

10. See Domenico Minuto, “La 'Vallis salinarum'”, in“Polis. Studi interdisciplinari sul mondo antico”,  Rome, 2006: 325

11. See Michele Amari, "History of the Muslims of Sicily”, Florence, 1854, Vol I: 467

12. VediI. Taylor, "Words and Places", 1864: 99 and note 8

13. See E. De Ruggiero, “Dizionario Epigrafico di Antichità” , Rome, 1959, Vol. IV, fasc. 33:  1087-1088

14. See F. Maurici, in Terze Giornate di studi sull'area elima”, Atti, II,  2003: 887

15. See P.J. Alexander, "Religious and political thought and history in the Byzantine Empire”, Variorum, 1978: 96 and 115

16. “I luoghi della cultura arabo-islamica”, in “Centri di produzione della cultura nel Mezzogiorno Normanno-svevo”, Bari, 1997: 73 ff.

17. See Al Idrisi, “ L'Italia descritta nel 'Libro di Ruggero'”, edited by M. Amari, Salviucci, 1883: 37

18. See De Simone, p. 73 ff