Photo: Roberto La Rosa, Shutterstock

The Mediterranean as a bridge and a border

The large sea basin, which includes the Black Sea, covers an area of 2,700,000 square kilometres. It has an extension of 3,860 kilometres – from the Strait of Gibraltar (Arabic: Jebel Tariq; named after Tariq bin Zijad, the ‘Umayyad leader and general who led the first Muslim advance into Iberia in 711) to the coast of the Middle East. The north-south extent of the Mediterranean at its furthest point is 1,600 kilometres, while on average it is half that distance.

Today, no less than 21 European states are concentrated in the Mediterranean area: Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Malta, France, Spain, and Portugal.

The first Islamic territories formed here almost simultaneously in the easternmost and westernmost parts, the first formed in the Southern Caucasus on the shores of the Black Sea in the middle of the 7th century. The other in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula at the beginning of the 8th century.

In periods of direct or indirect rule (in the case of dependent territories), which included large areas of Russia as far as Moscow, but also regions of present-day Switzerland, southern Italy, southern France, all the largest islands such as Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Majorca, there was a Muslim presence in this part of Europe for more than 1,300 years (from 651 to the present). This had a decisive impact on the creation of its cultural identity, its ethnic and religious composition of populations in the region, its geostrategic importance, and its political reality.


In the Balkan Peninsula region in particular, intensive contacts with Muslims began as early as the second half of the 7th century – especially in the coastal areas of Thrace, the Bay of Thessaloniki, the western coast of Albania and as far north as the cities of Trogir and Zadar.

Of course, the emergence of the Ottoman Empire and its subsequent growth into the Balkans, during the period from the late 14th to the mid-15th century, opened the way for the massive and lasting presence of Islamic culture, political institutions, economic measures, modes of production in agriculture and handicrafts, but also philosophical, religious and spiritual practices in this part of Europe.

After their final expulsion from Spain in 1492 (the total extermination of Muslims/Moriscos and Jews/Maraños was completed in Spain in 1612) and from Portugal in 1356, hundreds of thousands of Jews were taken to the Balkans by Sultan Bayezid II. At the same time, the process of the emergence of significant Muslim populations (through voluntary acceptance of Islam as well as immigration from other parts of the vast Ottoman territory) began in Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, and parts of Croatia (Dalmatia, with the exception of a small belt of land including the coastal towns and the whole of the north-east, which became known as Slavonia).


Not only educated European citizens, even some professional historians express open suspicion when they are told that Muslims lived on all Mediterranean islands since the 7th century. One of the obvious reasons for this is that these facts are not only underrepresented in the European educational system at all levels, but they have also been systematically removed from books, media and almost all levels of information.

The fact is that the first Arab-Muslim advance on Sicily – under Muawiya in 652 – was a complete success after the Byzantine army was defeated by the Muslims at Alexandria. In the middle of the 8th century, the Arab navy attacked Corsica and Sardinia, but also eastern Sicily’s Syracuse. The land seizure in Sicily began in 827 under the Aghlabids, a dynasty in Al-Qairawan (Kairouan) in Tunisia. By 902, the Muslims had full control of the island. From 827 to 1092, Sicily was an integral part of the caliphate.

Although the Aghlabids took Sicily, they did not bring about any significant architectural or economic changes to the previous ways of life in Sicily. The full development of the whole island was achieved under Kalbid rule. At that time Palermo flourished as one of the most populous and developed cities in Europe. Contemporary chronicles testify that “… Palermo was a truly amazing capital. The city of 300,000 citizens and 300 mosques (…).” For this reason, it was considered a capital of the Islamic world at the time.

Island fortresses

At about the same time, Islam spread to the western Mediterranean. First the Balearic Islands were opened (698-1229), then Sardinia (707-1015) and much later Corsica (850-1077). In 886-7 Malta, the key to the central Mediterranean, was conquered by the Arabs and remained in Muslim possession for 130 (until 1090) years. The fact is that the Balearic archipelago was first taken and finally lost. A history of more than 500 years of an essentially Islamic culture illustrates the depth of an intercultural mix that was prevalent in this part of our continent. The conflict over these islands was permanent – except for brief pauses when the opponents drew strength. The Muslims called these islands in the Mediterranean At-Tughur Al-Jazariy (Frontier of Island Fortresses).

Crete was ruled twice by a Muslim authority. First in the period from 824 to 961 and the second time between 1645/68 to 1898. It is worth noting that contemporary Greek sources are full of accounts of mass killings of local non-Muslim inhabitants, while many surviving Christians are said to have been forced to become Muslims. This is not usually supported by facts. Most Greek books on the history of the island are more elegant in their presentation of Crete’s Islamic history. Either they ignore it completely or they mention it only with a half-sentence.

An interesting and very instructive example of religious understanding and respect is found in the history of Cyprus. Several times the control of the island changed back and forth between Arabs and Byzantines. In 688, Cyprus was immediately divided by the Emperor Justinian II and the Caliph Abdalmalik (also known as the “Father of Kings” because four of his sons became Caliphs). They signed a treaty in which they agreed, among other things, that there should be no garrisons on the island and that tax revenues should be divided fairly. In 985, Cyprus was taken by the Byzantine Emperor Nikifor. The Ottomans added the island to their territory in 1571 and kept it until 1878.


The power of the Muslim Arab, or rather Berber, dominions, caliphates and tayfas was so great that in 837 the port of Naples and the city were subjected to Arab attacks and even remained occupied for a short time. Four years later (841), Bari on the Adriatic coast was taken by the Arabs. At the same time “(…) triumphant Arabs appeared at the gates of Venice (…)”.”In 847 Bari (again) and Taranto (for the first time) were opened to the Muslims and two short-lived emirates were founded. The emirate of Bari lasted from 847 to 871. In 849, and again three years later, Muslims landed at Ostia, the port of Rome.

It is important to keep in mind that Islamic civilisation, culture and science were very advanced at this time and that European philosophy, and the social and natural sciences were equally developed under the direct and decisive influence of Muslim scholars. Many fields of research were introduced directly by Muslim scholars at the beginning of the 14th century at universities in Italy, France, and England, as well as in other parts of Western Europe. At the same time, Arabic studies were part of the Oxford and Paris curricula.

It is time to ask ourselves what conclusions we can draw from this evidence. One is that the history of Europe’s Islamic communities supports the hope that we might see a Europe in which Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religious, cultural and ethnic communities can live in sincere and wholehearted respect for their mutual differences.

There are things we live by and things we live for. This means that the categories of self-interest and forbearance should be gradually raised to a higher level to be replaced by the categories of respect and affection. To cut a long story short, they all knew how to live together as brothers and sisters, even if only for a short period of time.

This period, even if short, makes plausible the desire to see a multi-religious and multi-cultural Europe in which we live in accordance with its pluralistic background; a Europe that recognises its Muslim identity just as it accepted its Christian and Jewish identities. All are entitled to the same rights on this continent. These rights belong to everyone through the fact that the political, cultural, and spiritual identity of modern Europe was created through the intense exchange and historical contribution of all!

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