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History of Sciacca, Italy


See Sciacca guide for highlights and historic monuments

History and etymology of Sciacca

Sciacca was formerly situated in the territory of Selinus, which included the famous "Baths" known since antiquity as the "Thermae Selinuntiae" and “Aquae Selinuntiae”, located about twenty miles east of Selinus. We do not know with absolute certainty when Sciacca was born, but the most likely hypothesis is that it was a place founded or rather "re-populated" by the inhabitants of “Selinunte” after their city was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 409 BC.

Many of those who managed to escape the massacre, says Diodorus [90-27 BC] [1], sought refuge in Agrigento, but when the Carthaginian storm passed, most of them returned to rebuild their town or to find a new place in the surrounding area, creating a new village which was called “Sciacca”.

Ancient and roman History of Sciacca

Turning to historical data, we see that the antiquity of Sciacca is attested to by writers such as Pomponius Mela (first century AD), who wrote that “inter Pachynum et Lilybaeum Agragas est et Heraclea et Thermae” [8], namely that "between Pachino and Lilibeo there were three cities, that is "Agragas","Heraclea"and "Thermae" (“Terme=Sciacca”) and by Strabo (58-25 BC) who mentioned the “Thermà Selinoùntia” [VI, 275] (“Baths of Selinunte”).

After the destruction of Selinunte many took shelter to "Thermae", which became more populous. Since it is a border town (see etymology below - the name probably refers to 'The Separating"), it was for a long times fought over among the Greeks, the Carthaginians, and finally by the Romans, who conquered it after the First Punic War.

With the Roman conquest, Sciacca became an important city, a role it held through the centuries, as the main 'post office' town in Sicily. The fall of the Roman Empire also marked the end of the prosperity of Sciacca, who suffered destructive invasions by the Vandals and the Goths.

Arrival of the Byzantines and Arabs

Defeated by Justinian, Sicily came under the dominion of the Byzantines. During the Byzantine rule some hermit monks settled in the territory of Sciacca, including San Calogero, who christianized some people in several places of Sicily. He stayed in Sciacca as a hermit in a cave on Mount Kronio, now also known as Mount San Calogero.

However it was the Arabs that marked forever the history (other than the name) of Sciacca. Since the 9th century they had begun a policy of expansion in the Mediterranean and in 827 conquered Mazara and finally, with a widespread penetration in eastern Sicily, in 840 they also conquered "Thermae", which became under their rule "As Saqqa(h)" or Sciacca.

Al Idrisi (1099-1165) wrote of it: "[...] From Girgenti to 'As Saqqah' along the sea, is a day's journey, that is 25 miles. The land of Sciacca is situated on the seashore on a site open and smiling. (...)  Sciacca is in the same territory as 'Qal at al ballut' , (the 'fortress of the oaks', City of ‘Caltabellotta’). It is a good castle and a towering fortress [...]" [9].

The Arabs later fortified the city with massive walls and a tower, which were further strengthened under the Normans and Frederick II (1194-1250). Count Roger (1031-1101) built the famous "Old Castle". Sciacca was dominated by the Normans and their descendants for many years.

In particular, it was ruled by the descendants of Giliberto Perrollo, a Burgundian who came to Sicily in the wake of Count Roger, whose daughter he married. From 1208 Sciacca and Sicily was ruled by the powerful figure of Frederick II and then by his descendants, until the advent of Charles of Anjou (1226-1285). Sciacca also participated in the so-called "War of the Vespers" against the rule of  Anjou.

Then the city was ruled by Guglielmo Peralta (died in 1392), who was responsible for the construction of the "New Castle". Throughout the 16th century Sciacca was the center of the struggles between the powerful local families of Peralta, Perrollo and Luna.

Between the 17th and much of the 18th and 19th centuries the city was ruled first by the Spanish and then by the Bourbons, until the unification of Italy in 1861.

Origins of the name Sciacca

With regard to the etymological meaning of this name, over the centuries many scholars have formulated various hypotheses, and all plausible enough at the time although many of which have been "eliminated" by later studies. Incidentally, despite the diversity of many of them, almost all were based on Arab origins, with some exceptions.

Accordino to G. Alessio [2] Sciacca derives from “Ex aqua [Calida]” ( “hot water”), with obvious reference to the famous thermal baths of Sciacca. This hypothesis of G. Alessio was crushed without mercy by G.B. Pellegrini, who judged that "instead it is shown that the Arab sources have ‘As Saqqa(h)’ and that  ‘Sciaca’ , ‘sciacca’ and ‘Ciacca’ means ‘narrow valley fracture’ or ‘crack’ [3].

We observe that "Sciacca" as "crack" is certainly the most accredited hypothesis, and the one on which almost all scholars converge. Another hypothesis, according to which the name  derives from the Arabic "Syan," which refers to the concept of "Bath" and "Thermae". With  this regard, in the 'Italie Pittoresque" we read:

"[...]The road that leads from the ruins of Selinunte to the ruins of Agrigento (here we go from a series of ruins to another), crosses an unhealthy country. Sciacca is the only city on the straight line; it is picturesquely situated at the foot of the mountains of Giummara. Its modern name comes from the Arabic word  ‘Syac’ which means 'baths', which is nothing but the translation of its old name 'Thermae Selinuntinae'” [4].

The hypothesis of Sciacca from "Syac" would seem attractive and even linguistically "apparently" acceptable, since "Syac" means Baths. However, it’s a pity that the term "Syac” ... does not exist!. In the “Archivio storico per la Sicilia” (1938:  1-3 et seq.) one says in this regard:

“[...] In 840 Sciacca was subjugated by the Arabs with the promise of obedience and tribute, and one says that its name comes from 'Syac', which in Arabic language means 'bath'. Unfortunately, it seems that this word does not exist (...) Sacco says that ‘the word ‘sciacca’ is nothing but the feminine active participle of the first conjugation of the [Arabic] verb ‘Saqqa’ , which represents the idea of ‘separate’, ‘split’, ‘crack’  (...)

Since Arab writers used this name preceded by the article ('As Saqqah'), this shows that they regarded the term as belonging to their language, because in Arabic the article pre-sets only to geographical names of indigenous origin (...). So 'As Saqqah' means the "separating" [...]" (Sacco mentioned in the 'Archive' is Giuseppe Sacco [5], who actually proposed an etymology that even today, as we said, is the most reliable.)

Sciacca, in effect, separates Mazara from Girgenti. So this etymology is correct if we take into account that in reality Sciacca is a "border town", and for this reason it was always the center of battles between the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans.

The notations of Francesco Savasta are very interesting, who assumed Sciacca to be a name of Arab origin: "[...] Sciacca is written in Latin with the letter 'S'; however, it was originally written with the letter ‘X’, that is  ‘Xacca’, and rightly so, because this name derived from the Arabic name ‘Xech’, which translated into the vernacular means “Mistress”, and" Governor ", [...]" [6].

In conclusion, Sciacca would refer to the "Separating" and "Governor" of its territory - the two etymologies are not far from one another, giving both the concept of “important city”, at least for its position as a border town. In any case, as we have seen, albeit with some nuance of meaning, no scholar questions the origins of the Arab name of the city.

With regard to the presence of the "X" instead of "S", the notation of Savasta is also confirmed by the production of majolica, of which Sciacca is justly famous. Writing a book for collectors of majolica, L. De Mauri states that "[...] the factory of [tiles] Sciacca is of the same age as those of Palermo and Trapani.

The Majolica of Sciacca [dating from the 17th century] has many similarities with those of Palermo, but a trained eye can distinguish them (...) They often bear the initials SPQR, or SPQS, and the date. (...) The brand SPQS means 'Senatus Populusque Saccensis' ["The Senate and the people of Sciacca"], and sometimes instead of "S" appears  the 'X' ('Xaca' instead of 'Saca'). We don’t understand the meaning of 'R' in “SPQ-R”, perhaps it is due to the fact that the uneducated potters of Sciacca copied the code from the vessels that came from the continent [...]" [7].

See also Sciacca for our detailed travel guide.

References

1. “Bibliotheca Historica”, XIII

2. "Archivio storico siciliano”, 1936-1937 No. 2-3

3. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Gli arabismi nelle lingue neolatine”, Paideia, 1972: 273

4. See AA.VV.," L'Italie pittoresque ", Paris, 1850: 39

5. See “Storia della città di Sciacca”, Napoli, 1925

6. See Francesco Savasta, “Il famoso caso di Sciacca” ["The famous case of Sciacca”], Palermo, Pensante, 1843:  1-3

7. See L. De Mauri, “L'amatore di maioliche e porcellane” ["The Lover of Ceramics and Porcelain"],  Milan, Hoepli, 1988:  223

8. See Pomponii Melae, “De Chorographia Libri Tres” edited by G. Parthey, Berolini, 1867: 59, II, lines 118-119

9. See M . Amari, “Biblioteca Arabo-Sicula”, Loescher, 1880, Vol I: 77-78