Off the Beaten Path in Sicily: Palermo’s Qanats

The qanat (pronounced ka-naht) is an Arab-designed underground canal/irrigation system that directs water from a high-elevation aquifer water source to a town or agricultural area along a perfectly-calculated and very slight downward grade (see illustration). Invented by the Persians in 1000 BCE and functioning as a “below-ground aqueduct,” it is ideally suited to warm, dry climates, such as Sicily.

Visiting a qanat in Palermo

A vestige of Sicily’s Islamic period, Palermo’s qanats make for a fascinating visit. SottoSopra is a local nonprofit that guides small groups into a still-functioning qanat. You can contact them online or by telephone (+39 091/580433). If you don’t speak Italian, it might be best to have your hotel call and set up the appointment for you and to get explicit directions. It’s important to be aware that the water is cool and you get into it up to your chest, so come prepared with clothing that you can get wet (they will provide boots).

Qanat Underground Aqueduct Diagram by Approach Guides

How a qanat delivers water from a high-elevation water source to a lower irrigation area.

Where to eat in Palermo

Here are some of our favorite places to enjoy a bite to eat after a day spent touring the city:

  • Osteria Paradiso. Via Serradifalco, 23 (close to the Zisa). Only open for lunch, this is a very good place for super-fresh seafood and pastas. The owner speaks only Italian (and there are no written menus) but you can just ask them to bring out any of the pastas mentioned and you will be very happy. Closed Sundays.
  • Antica Gelateria Lucchese. Located on the south side of Piazza S. Domenico, 11, this is one of our favorite gelaterie in Palermo. Go with a granita here — the mandorla (almond) is the most traditional and delicious. Locals order their gelato in a brioche.
  • Mi Manda Picone. Via Paternostro 69 at Piazza San Francesco d’Assisi. Excellent wine bar that has a very extensive list of Sicilian wines by the glass. The bar also has a restaurant attached, so you can get food, if you wish.

Dome Mosaics of Martorana (Palermo, Sicily)

Due to its compelling colors, human-sized proportions, and central location in the downtown district, the Martorana will likely be the church that you return to a number of times during your stay in Palermo. It is our favorite stop on our tour of Palermo’s Norman churches.

Martorana Dome

Fig. 1. Dome mosaics, Martorana. Highlights added. Photo by: ChrisO.

About the dome mosaics of the Martorana

The focal point of the Martorana’s decoration is the dome (see Fig. 1), consistent with Byzantine tradition and the church’s original central plan layout. The dome’s decorative scheme is a simplified, more intimate version of that of the nearby Palatine Chapel.

  • A seated Christ Pantocrator — head backed by an inscribed cross halo and flanked by the letters ΙCΧC, a Greek Christogram for “Jesus Christ” — occupies the center of the dome.
  • A white ring around the Pantocrator image holds an inscription (see Fig. 2) that quotes, in Greek, from John 8:12: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”. It matches the inscription that appears in the open books held by the apse Pantocrators at Cefalù Cathedral, the Palatine Chapel, and Monreale Cathedral. Note, however, that the Latin translation held by the apse Pantocrators has been omitted.
  • Four winged archangels — Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel — symbolizing Christ’s divine incarnation in heaven, comprise the balance of the dome’s decoration. They are depicted bent over, with long torsos and extremely short legs. While the distorted proportions might reflect the mosaicists’ desire to symbolically convey their extreme deference to the Pantocrator, it might also be attributable to a poor adaptation from an earlier prototype in which the angels were kneeling rather than standing.
  • Interestingly, around the edge of the base of the dome (at the feet of the archangels, and virtually invisible from the floor of the church) is a wooden frieze with an inscription of a Byzantine hymn in Arabic translation.
  • Eight prophets — each standing with a single arm raised, as if directing beholders to the Pantocrator above — are wedged between the squinches and round arched windows. The mortal counterparts of the archangels, they symbolize Christ’s human incarnation on earth.
  • The four evangelists — Matthew (in northeastern corner), Mark (in northwestern corner), Luke (in southwestern corner), and John (in southeastern corner) — sit in the squinches.
  • Just below the Evangelists, on the eastern side, is a depiction of the Annunciation: Gabriel hovers on the left, announcing to the Virgin Mary (seated on the right) that she will conceive and become the mother of Jesus. On the western side is the Presentation of the Child at the Temple: Mary holds the baby Jesus on the left, handing him over to Simeon, the Jewish High Priest, on the right.

The Pantocrator

Dome Pantocrator

Fig. 2. Closeup, dome Pantocrator, Martorana. Photo by: LongIslander.

Just as with the Palatine Chapel’s dome Pantocrator, Christ suggests his gentler, more forgiving nature with his controlled arm raise and closed book (see Fig. 2). This compares versus an emphasis on his role as supreme god and apocalyptic judge in apse depictions.

Although the original central apse has been destroyed, it likely held an image of the Virgin Mary, consistent with earlier Byzantine prototypes. This is supported by the fact that the Martorana was dedicated to her and the side apses hold images of her parents (Joachim and Anne). Although mosaicists deviated from this traditional model in other churches, they likely adhered to it in the Martorana (and likely the original Palatine Chapel) given its pure central plan layout, wherein the dome over the crossing was still the position of greatest importance.

Visiting Martorana

Located in Piazza Bellini, the church is one of Palermo’s true gems.

Opening times

Officially, the church is open from 8am-1pm and 3:30pm-7:00pm from Monday through Saturday, and from 8:30am-9:45am and 11:45am-1pm on Sunday. However, the church is sometimes closed without warning, so try to visit early in your stay, as you may have to try a few times. Check the most up-to-date times on the Martorana official website.

Visiting tips

If you see an event going on in the church, try to poke your head in — events are one of the few times the lights will be turned on to illuminate the church’s glorious mosaic art.

Check out our art guide to Sicily

Italy Revealed: Mosaics of Sicily

Having finally won the island of Sicily from entrenched Islamic forces after thirty years of battle, the Normans set upon creating a multicultural kingdom to inspire the world. While the Norman civilization has since faded from history, its brilliant churches, glittering with mosaic decoration, serve as enduring reminders of its greatness.