The Arab period in Agrigento: the history of Kerkent
“Girgenti, the most populous amongst noble cities, very crowded with
foreigners who come and go. It has mighty and strong fortress
and thriving districts… people flock from all over
and ships and caravans gather here ”
On 17 June of the year 827, people of different origins (Arabs, Berbers, Spaniards, Egyptians, Syrians, Persians) but united by the Muslim religion, under the command of the septuagenarian lawyer Asad ibn al Furat, landed in Mazara del Vallo, waging a war of conquest of Sicily which ended more than seventy years later.
Agrigento was taken for the first time in 829; sacked and perhaps completely destroyed, it was finally occupied in 840 and repopulated mainly by Berbers belonging to the Howwara and Wedzagia tribes. They made it their capital and remained until their expulsion from the island in 1015.
After the bloody period of the conquest, the city resumed the character of a thriving agricultural and commercial centre. The Muslims introduced the “canna meli” sugarcane , cotton, some varieties of citrus fruits, dates, melons, sumac suitable for tanning and mulberries for silk production. The proximity to the coast of Africa promotes trade, the development of which soon makes the old port at the mouth of the river Akragas inadequate and requires the transfer of the seaport in a more suitable place where today is Porto Empedocles.
The defeated population, Christian and Jewish, does not lose the right to live according to their own laws and their own beliefs or the right to property, but must pay the gizjah, an yearly tribute of protection and the harag, a property tribute destined for the poor based on the fertility of the fields and on different crops, which could be reduced in the event of natural disaster. The Islamization is almost complete so few Christians survive by the time the Normans take over. The Greek Akragas and the Roman Agrigentum now become the Arab-Muslim Kerkent that occupies the area known today as the Hill of Girgenti. The walls are open, to the north by the Winds’ Gate or Bab-er-riiah (Bibirria ) and to the west, the Ma’ssara (Mazara) Gate or “of the presses” for its proximity to the factories for the production of sugar,. Outside the wall lies the Rabato, ie the suburb outside the city. Below the Mazara Gate, the Bath Gate that leads to the public baths.
As in the rest of Islamic Sicily literary, scientific and legal studies flourish. The most prominent scholar is Mohammed-ibn-al-Hasan-ibn-Ali, known as Abu Bakr Al-er Robe’i Al Kirkenti, a Maliki jurist who taught law in Sicily and Alexandria.
The Arab-Muslim civilization thrives in Sicily until the end of the eleventh century, when rebel Arab emirates begin to appear on the island. The struggle between different emirs, in 1061, gives the Normans the opportunity to intervene militarily in the island. Kerkent, which had been at the head of an emirate that controlled one third of the Sicilian territory, is taken only in 1086, after a long siege.