When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey. In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call
Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale
That trips off the tongue doesn’t it? What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge! Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town, and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.
So what were UNESCO thinking? Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:
…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).
If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.
From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit. I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography). As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.
When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason. I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold. Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below. With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash, I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures. These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes. The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.
Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.