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Saracen Towers      (also, Sighting Towers)

As you approach the Sorrentine coast from the sea, they look like mere specks, indistinct bits of stone along the shoreline below the town and high on the slopes of Montechiaro to the north-east. These are the "Saracen Towers," a reminder of a time when the citizens of Sorrento had more serious things on their mind than how to carve those inlaid wooden souvenirs called intarsio. Other examples of these towers can be seen scattered all along the coasts of Southern Italy—indeed, from Gaeta to Amalfi, alone, there are more than 350 of them.

Some may have been restored and partially incorporated into more modern buildings such that it is difficult to make out what they originally were. But as you sail south from Amalfi down the coast of the Campania region, past the many small modern harbors such as San Marco, Pisciotta, Marina di Camerotta, etc. and around Cape Infreschi just before Scario, you come to a stretch of cliff faces and mountains along the coast that still have no roads and are still isolated. Once the backdrop of modern buildings disappears, the towers start to stand out—distinct, visible and lonely. They are posted, in some cases, just a few hundred yards apart, ringing all of southern Italy. The Norman founders of the Kingdom of Sicily started building them in the 11th century and the Spanish viceroys of the same kingdom were still building them 500 years later. They all served the single purpose of watching for an enemy more feared than even the Goths and Huns who had destroyed the Roman Empire —the Saracens.

"Saracen" is a vague word; the meaning has shifted over time. Ptolemy's Geography from the second century mentions Sarakene as a region in the northern Sinai peninsula and mentions a people called the Sarakenoi. What it meant to Italians in the Middle Ages, however, was 'Muslim Invader', whether the Arabs who rode the initial wave of Islamic expansion into Spain and Sicily in the 8th and 9th centuries, or the Ottoman Turks who took Constantinople in the 15th century. Indeed, after that traumatic event for Christianity, the front in the war between the two faiths moved decisively to the West, and though Muslim thrusts into Europe by the 16th century were largely just harassment, people here still remembered that the Saracens in the past had more than once attacked even Rome, itself. The word "Saracen!" was enough to set the population trembling, for it was very often the towns along the Sorrentine and Amalfi coasts that bore the brunt of raids by the likes of Khayr Ad-Din, the feared pirate known as "Barbarossa"—Red Beard.

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