Ancient Origins: The Arab Outpost Belik (824 – 1642 A.D.)

Mount Elimo was populated by Arab-Saracen people; Elima, therefore, like so many other cities, changed its name and physical construction into a hamlet that the Arabs called Belik. Its river was no longer called Crimiso, but instead “the Belik river” and finally, the Belice river. The powerful Qadi Asad ibn al-Furat (759-828) came to take the place of the Emir Almumenin. Since the Siculs did not give any respite to their rebellious spirit against the powerful Saracen invaders, the latter, in order to render themselves more secure in their dominion, asked for the command of Muhammad Ibn Ali Giavari, whose fame as a brutal and bloody oppressor was well known. The Saracens were obstinate in their fanatical conquest, and what followed was the fall of Messina in 831, the fall of Palermo in 832, and the Syracusan capital fell on March 21, 878, after 10 months of cruel siege and thus the Arabs became the rulers of the island.

From the year 898 to 950 there was yet another disaster, when the slave wars aggravated a serious famine, and the poor Sicilians were reduced to eating mice, dogs, cats, animal skins, and there were even parents who, because of their hunger, ate their own children. The ferocious Khalid ibn Ishaq, (Fatimid Commander in Ifriqiya and Sicily), who was sent by the Emir Abu Al Kasem Al Kaiem, disembarked at Palermo October 27, 937, in order to subdue the rebellion of the people of Vallo di Mazzara.

The repression was fierce, all of the many prisoners were deported to Africa, many tens of thousands of persons died faithfully here in the Vallo. The same fate that befell Vallo could have happened to Elima.

Discord arose between the various Emirs of Sicily as they argued about dividing up the island among themselves, in 1044, Hasan al-Samsam, was chased out of Sicily, the castle of Elima, however, remained in the hands of the Emir of the Vallo di Mazara, Abd Allah ibn Mankut Mazara who held court in Trapoli, was the last ruler of Elima. The Emirs raided Adalkamo, Antulium, Zabuth and Sakka; Sicily was so strongly held that it seemed to be a province of the African Emir. But the disagreements, as I mentioned, among the Emirs were such that they requested the Emir of Syracuse to come to Sicily, one Ben al Temak who, along with Counts Ruggero (Roger de Hauteville, who became Roger I of Sicily) and Roberto (the Norman Robert Guiscard, son of Tancred, then conquered Sicily in 1060 after taking Apulia and Calabria), hoped to vindicate himself with Ali ibn Nima ibn al-Hawwas (died in 1061), the Emir that is of Castrogiovanni (Enna) and of Agrigento, who was his brother-in-law.

The entry of the Normans into Sicily was truly providential and triumphant. the fight between the Arabs was inspired furiously by religious fanaticism. Ruggero I of Hauteville decisively took Sicily from the Saracens, completing the conquest in the decade of 1061-1071, assuming the title of “Great Count of Sicily.” Roger I (c. 22 June 1101), nicknamed Roger Bosso and The Great Count, was a Norman nobleman who became the first Count of Sicily from 1071 to 1101. He was a member of the House of Hauteville, and his descendants in the male line continued to rule Sicily down to 1194.

His son Ruggero II was solemnly crowned King, in Palermo, in 1130. Roger II (22 December 1095 – 26 February 1154) was King of Sicily, son of Roger I of Sicily and successor to his brother Simon. He began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130. By the time of his death at the age of 58, Roger had succeeded in uniting all the Norman conquests in Italy into one kingdom with a strong centralized government. Roberto Guiscardo, who valiantly assisted Ruggero’s brother in the fight against the Arabs, died in Cefalonia in 1085. The Arabs had to renounce the dominion of Sicily 234 years after it began.

Belik, of course, lost its importance as a fortress, and only ruins remained of the castle, according to Ruggero in 1096 in the Documents of the Church of Mazara, and later in William’s Census of 1182, where one reads that it is still deserted, “Belik quod desertion est.” Silence reigned there for centuries and all that time not a single dwelling was to be found there; the memory of the Arab presence on the mountain is renewed every now and then, when a farmer digs deeply in the earth and finds archeological fragments.

Another hamlet of minor importance in the area of Belik was on the west side of the mountain, in the locality called Marrasini, named for Marakesh, which, according to the notes of De Burigny’s general History of Sicily, has completely disappeared. With regard to the Arabs on mount Elimo it’s worth reading P.C. Annorac who wrote, “Elima, oh, the chase of the Arabs out of Sicily.”

This definitively closes the millennium and the tumultuous life of our Castellaccio [Castle Ruins], a name that refers to the mountain because of the ruins of its castle, the mountain was also called the Mount of Roses.

Its life profiles three civilizations: the Elimic, the Phoenician-Arab and the Christian. Our people who came here in the year 1642, have held onto the memories, but memories of the Saracens have been embellished by the fantastic tales of the power of arrogance, and of terror of deportations and of killings: the word saracinu means gigantic, muscular and terribly ferocious and it forms the expression: testa di saracinu [lit. Saracen head].

The tales are also enhanced by the mirage of treasures hidden and locked in enchantment in seven closed rooms in the belly of the mountain, riches that would bring immense wealth to the Sicilian people. The fable or story that is traditionally recalled by the people is this: every year under of serene sky, starry and illuminated by silver moonbeams, the Great Turk, buried in Arabia, raises his head from his sepulcher, looking towards Sicily and yelling: e ‘mpedi Munti li rosi? [has the Mount of Roses still not been opened?] from Sicily comes to him the baleful echo of Yes! then with a lamenting voice the Great Turk rests his head in the sepulcher saying: Poor Sicily. The fable seems rather sensible if we consider the supposition that the Arabs, pressed by the Normans and obligated to flee, hid their treasures in the subterranean caverns of the mountain so that they would not fall into the hands of the conquerors.

From the Roman castle nothing can be seen, abundant stones are found, large and square, of the type used for columns, large blocks like stairs, mostly broke material that has mostly been used by the townspeople for industry; and for the most part used for shelters and walls. This erasure of memories was influenced by the aversion of the Christian farmer for the Saracen race. From the rout of the Arabs the crest of the mountain was looked upon almost with terror and came to be defined by the name “Castellazzo” one rarely reads of the place in ancient documents: castellacium, and in the dialect it is pronounced Casteddrazzu; Salita Castellaccio is the name of the street that divides the town into two sections: that is, east and west.

That upper plain until a few years ago was dressed in the green of healthy vegetation: vineyards, fruit trees, and abundant, delicious figs.

For years, however, due to a lack vigilance against the abuse of farmers, this has all been lost and the mountain has returned to being nude and barren.

This is the only major elevation in this area, and it dominates the areas to the north, east and south, from the gulf of Castellammare, turning on the right side, dominating the Crimiso to its mouth. In the quiet summer mornings an extremely vast view may be enjoyed, crowned on the horizon by the tallest mountains of Sicily and when it’s not hazy, 24 towns can be seen.

At 2/3 of the mountain’s height, in 1642, the illustrious Marquis of Gibellina constructed the town of Poggioreale, on the locality of Bagnitelli, which along with Mandra di Mezzo, Fenestrelle, Busecchio, Ravanusa, and Mondella, belonged to the territory of Gibellina, composing the properties of the Marquisate.

The new community was founded 4 kilometers away from Gibellina (as the crow flies), in the territory of Gibellina, and it became independent from Gibellina in 1779. I am pleased to conclude this interesting and vital chapter of the ancient history of our place by recalling that in the “Flistory of Gibellina” one can clearly read: “On the advice of Thucydides, Inveges, Atnico (lexicon topographicum: Noble Sicily, n. Ill 3 – 389), Gibellina rebuilt the very ancient temples, perhaps under another name it would have been only a very tiny community dependent on nearby Elima, and whose provincial territory was ceded from Gibellina to Poggioreale when this was built.. – the history of the investiture of Gibellina ties in with and agrees with the statement that Poggioreale and its territory was Bagnitelli, of Gibellina.

Lo Presti echoes this when he writes the Marquis who ordered the construction of the dwelling in Bagnitelli in order to populate the New Land which was situated underneath a large Poggio [Hill] in the plain, and named it Poggioreale [Royal Hill].

In Heraldic parlance, the Mountain of Poggioreale is called “Mount Elimo.”

In the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Italian communities one reads: “Poggioreale” hill town, dedicated to agriculture, with production of wine, grain, fruits and vegetables. On the historic Mount Castellaccio, so named due to its Roman origins, the city of Elima existed.

And now I am pleased to conclude with the words of Caronna,

”With good reason we are proud of our Mount Elimo and of our city Elima, and that though there are the many words, inscribed on the marble here in our main piazza, they will always be sculpted in our heart as long as people write and speak in the world.”

[This webpage is excerpted from the book: “The History of Poggioreale, Sicily – From 1640 to 1956.” Originally written in Italian by: Canonico Dottore Francesco Aloisio in 1956. Adapted and translated by: Dr. Jeremiah P. Spence, Ph.D. of Austin, Texas. 5th Edition. International Order of Genealogists Publishing. Ireland. 2019. ISBN: 9781072403371. The book can be purchased online at: https://www.amazon.com/History-Poggioreale-Sicily-1640-1956/dp/1072403374/ ]