Palermo (Sicilian: Palermu, Greek: Panormus, al-Madinah during Muslim rule) is a historic city in southern Italy, the capital of the autonomous region Sicily and the province of Palermo. The city is noted for its rich history, culture, architecture and gastronomy, playing an important role throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old. Palermo is located in the north-west of the island of Sicily, right by the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
The city was founded by the Phoenicians, but named by the Ancient Greeks as Panormus meaning all port. Palermo became part of the Roman Republic and eventually part of the Byzantine Empire, for over a thousand years. For a brief period it was under Arab rule where it first became a capital. Following the Norman reconquest, Palermo would become capital of a new kingdom from 1130 to 1816 the Kingdom of Sicily. Eventually it would be united with the Kingdom of Naples to form the Two Sicilies until the Italian unification of 1860.
The metropolitan area of Palermo is the fifth most populated in Italy and in the top eighty of the largest in all of Europe with around 1.2 million people. In the central area, the city itself has a population of around 670 thousand people, the inhabitants are known as Palermitans or poetically panormiti, the language spoken by its inhabitants is the Sicilian language.
The religion of Roman Catholicism is highly important in Palermitan culture, the patron saint of the city is Saint Rosalia, her feast day on July 15 is perhaps the biggest social event in the city. The area attracts significant amounts of tourists each year and is widely known for its colourful fruit, vegetable and fish market at the heart of Palermo known as the Vucciria.
Evidence for human settlement in the area now known as Palermo goes back to the Pleistocene Epoch, around 8000 BC. This evidence is present in the form of cave drawings at nearby Addaura crafted by the Sicani, who according to Thucydides arrived from the Iberian Peninsula (perhaps Catalonia). During 734 BC the Phoenicians, a sea trading peoples from the north of ancient Canaan built a small settlement on the natural habour of Palermo, some sources suggest they named the settlement Zîz. The Greeks who were the most dominant culture on the island of Sicily, due to the powerful city state of Syracuse to the east, instead called the settlement Panormus. Its Greek name means "all-port" and it was named as so because of its fine natural harbour. Palermo was then passed on to the Phoenician's descendants and successors, in the form of the Carthaginians.
During this period it was a centre of commerce; however a power struggle between the Greeks and the Carthaginians broke out in the form of the Sicilian Wars, causing unrest. It was from Palermo that Hamilcar's fleet which was defeated at the Battle of Himera was launched. Palermo eventually became a Greek colony when Pyrrhus of Epirus gained it during the Pyrrhic War period in 276 BC. However as the Romans flooded into Sicily during the First Punic War, the city became under Roman rule only three decades later. The Romans made sure that, in the words of Roman consul M. Valerian to the Roman Senate; "no Carthaginian remains in Sicily". This period was quite a calm time for Palermo, which was growing into an important Roman trade centre, also during this period Christianity first began to be practiced in Palermo.
As the Roman Empire was falling apart, Palermo fell under the control of several Germanic tribes; first were the Vandals in 440 AD under the rule of their king Geiseric. The Vandals had already invaded other parts of western Europe establishing themselves as a significant force. However, they soon lost these newly acquired possessions to another East Germanic tribe in the form of the Goths. The Ostrogothic conquest under Theodoric the Great began in 488; although the Goths were Germanic, Theodoric sought to revive Roman culture and government instead. The Gothic War took place between the Ostrogoths and the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire. Sicily was the first part of Italy to be taken under general Belisarius who was commissioned by Eastern Emperor Justinian I who solidified his rule in the following years.
After the Byzantines were betrayed by admiral Euphemius, who fled to Tunisia and begged the Aghlabid leader Ziyadat Allah to help him there was a Muslim conquest of Sicily, putting in place the Emirate of Sicily. The Arab rulers allowed the natives freedom of religion on the condition that they paid a tax. Although their rule was short in time, it was then that Palermo displaced Syracuse as the prime city of Sicily; it was said to have competed with Córdoba and Cairo in terms of importance and splendor. The Arabs also introduced many agricultural items which remain a mainstay of Sicilian cuisine. After dynasty related quarrels however, there was a Christian reconquest in the form of the Normans from the Duchy of Normandy, descendants of the Vikings.
Palermo was back under Christian rule by 1072 thanks to Robert Guiscard of the House of Hauteville. It was under Roger II of Sicily that his holdings of Sicily and the southern part of the Italian Peninsula were promoted into the Kingdom of Sicily; the kingdom was ruled from Palermo as its capital, with the king's court held at Palazzo dei Normanni. Much construction was undertaken during this period, such as the building of the Palermo Cathedral. The Kingdom of Sicily became one of the wealthiest states in Europe, as wealthy as fellow Norman state the Kingdom of England.
Sicily in 1194 fell under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. Palermo was the preferred city of the Emperor Frederick II. Muslims of Palermo were migrated and expelled during Holy Roman rule. After an interval of Angevin rule (1266-1282), Sicily came under the house of Aragon and later, in (1479), the kingdom of Spain until 1713 and between 1717–1718. Palerrmo also managed by Savoy between 1713–1717 and 1718-1720 and Austria between 1720-1734.
The Italian Risorgimento and Sicily's annexation (1860) to the kingdom of Italy gave Palermo a second chance. It was once again the administrative centre of Sicily, and there was a certain economic and industrial development. In the second half of the 19th century Palermo expanded beyond the historical centre, especially towards Via della Libertá. Monumental public buildings were erected and a new thoroughfare was cut into the dense old town, called Via Roma. The city was one of the main centres of Art Nouveau style in Italy.
The importance of Palermo got another boost when Sicily became (1947) an autonomous region with extended self-rule. But any improvement was thwarted by the rising power of the Mafia, which still today is a dramatic feature of the city, as well as the whole Southern Italy.
Palermo has a noteworthy architectural heritage and is notable for its many Norman buildings.
The Cathedral has a heliometer (solar "observatory") of 1690, one of a number built in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The device itself is quite simple: a tiny hole in one of the minor domes acts as Pinhole camera, projecting an image of the sun onto the floor at solar noon (12:00 in winter, 13:00 in summer). There is a bronze line, la Meridiana on the floor, running precisely N/S. The ends of the line mark the positions as at the summer and winter solstices; signs of the zodiac show the various other dates throughout the year.
The purpose of the instrument was to standardise the measurement of time and the calendar. The convention in Sicily had been that the (24 hour) day was measured from the moment of sun-rise, which of course meant that no two locations had the same time and, more importantly, did not have the same time as in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was also important to know when the Vernal Equinox occurred, to provide the correct date for Easter.
The Orto botanico di Palermo, founded in 1785, is the largest in Italy with a surface of 10 ha.
Close to the city is high Monte Pellegrino, with spectacular views of the city, its surrounding mountains and the ocean. .
In 2007, there were 666,552 people residing in Palermo (in which 1 million live in the greater Palermo area), located in the province of Palermo, Sicily, of whom 47.6% were male and 52.4% were female. Minors (children ages 18 and younger) totalled 21.64 percent of the population compared to pensioners who number 16.54 percent. This compares with the Italian average of 18.06 percent (minors) and 19.94 percent (pensioners). The average age of Palermo resident is 37 compared to the Italian average of 42. In the five years between 2002 and 2007, the population of Palermo declined by 2.92 percent, while Italy as a whole grew by 3.56 percent. The reason for Palermo's decline is a population flight to the suburbs, and Northern Italy. The current birth rate of Palermo is 10.75 births per 1,000 inhabitants compared to the Italian average of 9.45 births.
As of 2006, 97.79% of the population was of Sicilian/Italian descent. The largest immigrant group came from South Asia (mostly from Sri Lanka): 0.80%, other European countries (mostly from Serbia and Poland): 0.3%, and North Africa (mostly from Tunisia): 0.28%.
Saint Lucy is also honoured with a peculiar celebration, during which inhabitants of Palermo do not eat anything made with flour, but boil wheat in its natural state and use it to prepare a special dish called cuccìa. This commemorates the saving of the city from famine through the intercession of St Lucia. A ship full of grain mysteriously arrived in the city's harbour and the population was so hungry that they did not waste time in making flour but ate the grain as it had arrived.
The airport can also be reached by trains departing from Centrale, Notarbartolo and Francia stations.