December 22

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1095 Birth of Roger II of Sicily

The Normans were a scurvy crew. Essentially Vikings with a haircut, they spread from the territory they had extorted from the King of France in 911 all across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. They were banditti, mercenaries, and crusaders, eventually setting up kingdoms in England, Ireland, southern Italy and the Levant. The most glorious of these was the Kingdom of Sicily, wrested from the Muslims who had invaded the island in the 9th century. For a couple of glorious centuries the Normans ran a nation blending the best of Catholic, Byzantine, Jewish, Lombard and Muslim art, law, architecture and statecraft. Its capital at Palermo was the largest city in Europe and visitors today still marvel at churches such as the Cappella Palatina featured above.

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The Capella was commissioned by the first king of Sicily, Roger II, whose birthday is today. His state was multi-relgious and tolerant and to his court came scholars, scientists and artists from around the Mediterranean. His armies and fleets warred against the Byzantine empire and against Arab powers, from whom he successfully conquered a section of the North African coastline. He died in 1154.

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