There are numerous Palermo attractions for the multitudes of visitors that flock to the capital of Sicily. Because Italy, especially southern Italy, is such a devoutly Christian region of the country, you will find that there is a church in Palermo seemingly around every corner. San Giovanni Degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits) is one that you should definitely make a point of visiting if you are in the city.
The history of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti has its roots in the Arab conquest of the island in the ninth century. For the relatively short time of only one hundred years, Arabic was the official language and Islam the official religion, and the Arabic Middle Eastern influence on Sicily continues to live on. Today, while dining, you are apt to find eastern dishes on the menu, and the Sicilian dialect has hundreds of words derived from Arabic that are left over from that period of conquest. Many mosques still dot the skyline around the city.
During this time of Arab occupation, the city competed for importance in commerce, art, culture, and architectural grandeur with Cordoba and Seville in Spain and Cairo in Egypt. When the Christian Normans routed the Arabs (sometimes called Saracens) from the mid-eleventh to the thirteenth century, this church in Palermo was built in 1132 on the site of a former mosque. San Giovanni Degli Eremiti is one of the finest of the existing Arab-Norman structures on the island. The history of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti, and these Islamic and Norman roots are evident in its structure.
You can view the entire history of San Giovanni Degli Eremiti and the various occupations of Sicily in a study of its art and architecture. Its five red domes dominate the cityscape, making it one of the landmarks of the city. Both the domes and the delicate and ornate filigreed windows are Islamic in origin, as are the lovely cool gardens that are fragrant with flowers and citrus blossoms. This gives the church an appearance that would look at home in Istanbul, Cairo, or any other Islamic city. Even the bell tower is topped with a small bulbous Moorish dome, but its pointed windows are Norman and Gothic in design. Within the lush gardens is a Norman cloister that is part of the Benedictine monastery, and this is centered around a cistern or well designed to catch rainwater that is of Moorish design. Inside, is a single simple nave with graceful columns supporting the roof and domes soaring above.
This church in Palermo is one of the closest (only about ten city blocks) of the city attractions to the fascinating Capuchin Catacombs. The San Giovanni Degli Eremiti and the Capella Palatina (Paletine Chapel) with the finest Arab-Norman art in the city are located in the Albergheria District, not as visited by tourists as the city center. But it is a historic neighborhood with palaces, churches, narrow cobbled streets, and a colorful open-air market. The church has been deconsecrated as an active church, and now serves as one of the Sicily museums.