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Water and wealth in medieval Sicily: The case of the Admiral's Bridge and Arab‐Norman Palermo (10th–13th centuries)

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The Muslim capture of Palermo in 831 transformed a small Byzantine outpost into the capital of Islamic Sicily and a Mediterranean metropolis. Central to this urban growth was Palermo's role as an agricultural and trading hub: the city's geophysical situation on the north‐western shores of Sicily linked it with a fertile plane where rivers flowed north into the Tyrrhenian Sea. Throughout the medieval period, Palermo's dependence on this area's water resources made questions of water use and management a key concern in the medieval city. However, there has been little scholarly debate about such issues. With an eye to recent archeological studies concerning the Oreto districts, this article will explore such dynamics by analyzing an important piece of architecture which crosses the Oreto river: the so‐called Bridge of the Admiral. This bridge was recently made a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered one of the most significant works of medieval Mediterranean engineering. Until now, research has concentrated on questions of its date and commissioning: scholarship has largely assumed that it was constructed in 1132 by George of Antioch, the admiral of King Roger II. However, as this article will demonstrate, there is little evidence to support this conclusion. This study will approach the debate by analyzing the spatial setting of the bridge. In so doing, it will be shown how an investigation of the bridge's toponym and topography can elucidate details concerning both the bridge's commissioning and the institutional relationship between the Oreto area and the city of Palermo. This article is categorized under: Human Water> Water as Imagined and Represented Human Water> Water Governance
Map of Sicily and the plane of Palermo (Credits: T. Jäckh/J. Sennekamp) (With urban centers attested in Rapoport (Ed.), 2014, pp. 136–139/462–466; data basis for the cartography: USGS (): USGS. Earth Explorer, https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/, last accessed April 16, 2018; OSM (): © OpenStreetMap‐Mitwirkende, https://www.openstreetmap.org/#map=6/51.330/10.453, last accessed April 20, 2018; Geofabrik (): Geofabrik, https://download.geofabrik.de/, last accessed April 20, 2018)
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Palermo, città principalissima nella Sicilia / Presbiter Horatius Maiocchus inventor; Natalis Bonifatius fecit; Romae apud Claudii Duchetti, anno D[omi]n[i] (Bibliothèque nationale de France GED‐1568; public domain)
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Panormus Metropolis Siciliae (G. Ballino, De'disegni delle più illustri Città e Fortezze del Mondo con una breve istoria delle origini ed accidenti, Venezia 1569; reproduced in: Cesare Barbera Azzarello, Raffigurazioni. Vedute e Piante di Palermo dal sec. XI al sec. XIX, Caltanissetta 2008, p. 50, tab. 6; with kind courtesy of Edizioni lussografica, Caltanissetta)
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Panormus oder Palermo hauptstatt (S. Münster, Cosmographie oder Beschreibung aller Lender, Herrschaften, fürnemsten Stetten, Geschichten, Gebreuchen, Hantierungen etc, Basel 1548; Staats‐ und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg, 2 Gs 580, p. 179; with kind courtesy of Staats‐ und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg)
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The Bridge of the Admiral (detail), across the former river‐bed of the Oreto, Palermo (Photo: T. Jäckh)
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