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Sicily’s list of invaders features all the usual suspects: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Spaniards and, more surprisingly, the Normans with their delightful Monty Python–style names (King Roger, William the Bad, Walter the Archbishop…).

The island’s most deeply ingrained cultural influences, however, originate from its first inhabitants – on the one hand the Sicani from North Africa, and on the other the Siculi from Latium (Italy) and the Elymni from Greece in the south. The subsequent colonisation of the island by the Carthaginians (also from North Africa) and the Greeks, in the 8th and 6th centuries BC respectively, compounded this cultural divide through decades of war when powerful opposing cities, such as Palermo and Catania, struggled to dominate the island.

Although inevitably part of the Roman Empire, it was not until the Arab invasions of AD 831 that Sicily truly came into its own. Trade, farming and mining were all fostered under Arab influence and Sicily soon became an enviable prize for European opportunists. The Normans, desperate for a piece of the pie, invaded in 1061 and made Palermo the centre of their expanding empire and the finest city in the Mediterranean.

Impressed by the cultured Arab lifestyle, King Roger squandered vast sums on ostentatious palaces and churches and encouraged a hedonistic atmosphere in his court. But such prosperity – and decadence (Roger’s grandson, William II, even had a harem) – inevitably gave rise to envy and resentment and, after 400 years of pleasure and profit, the Norman line was extinguished and the kingdom passed to the austere German House of Hohenstaufen with little opposition from the seriously eroded and weakened Norman occupation. In the centuries that followed, Sicily passed to the Holy Roman Emperors, Angevins (French), Aragonese (Spanish) and Austrians in a turmoil of rebellion and revolution that continued until the Spanish Bourbons united Sicily with Naples in 1734 as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Little more than a century later, on 11 May 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi planned his daring and dramatic unification of Italy from Marsala.

Reeling from this catalogue of colonisers, Sicilians struggled in poverty-stricken conditions. Unified with Italy, but no better off, nearly one million men and women emigrated to the USA between 1871 and 1914 before the outbreak of WWI.

Ironically, the Allies (seeking Mafia help in America for the reinvasion of Italy) helped in establishing the Mafia’s stranglehold on Sicily. In the absence of suitable administrators, they invited the undesirable mafiosi Don Calógero Vizzini to do the job. When Sicily became a semi-autonomous region in 1948, Mafia control extended right to the heart of politics and the country plunged into a 50-year silent civil war. It only started to emerge from this after the anti-Mafia maxi-trials of the 1990s, which led to important prosecutions against members of the massive heroin and cocaine network between Palermo and New York, known as the ‘pizza connection’.

Today most Sicilians continue to be less than enthralled by an organisation that continues to grow rich on money from the illegal drugs trade, human trafficking and – that old, ubiquitous cash-flow booster – extortion and protection which, experts say, many businesses in Sicily still pay. At least the thuggery and violence of the 1980s has diminished and there have been some important arrests. On the downside, the defeat in April 2007 of Rita Borsellino (the sister of Mob-slain anti-Mafia prosecutor Paolo Borsellino) by Salvatore Cuffaro was a political knife in the back. Cuffaro is a Christian Democrat politician re-elected as the island’s governor despite being concurrently on trial for Mafia association. In contrast, Borsellino has dedicated the last 14 years to combating the Mafia, including becoming deputy chairperson of Libera (Free), an association founded to encourage a sense of lawfulness and justice among young Sicilians.