There used to be a verdant garden around the Cuba palace in Palermo: it was known as “Genoardo”, a word of Arabic origin meaning “Paradise on Earth”.
The etymology of the name “Cuba” itself is uncertain: it might come from the Latin “cupa” (barrel) or the Arab “qubba” (dome) or “kubba” (deposit). What we do know is the palace was built in the end of the 12th century by Norman king Roger II. Immersed in an artificial lake, surrounded by luxuriant gardens and wonderful pavilions, it was the place where the kings of the Hauteville dynasty and their successors took refuge, to rest amongst citrus groves, fountains, and music. The Zisa – a palace Roger’s son William, known as “The Bad” or “The Wicked”, would built a few years later – was also surrounded by the Genoardo.
The tower-shaped building is one of the masterpieces of Arab-Norman architecture, a synthesis of various styles – Romanesque, Byzantine, Arab – and a testimony to the curiosity and cultural openness of the Christian princes of the Norman court, who were ready to pick up the legacy of their Muslim predecessors in Sicily.
In the 1800s, an epigraph in Kufic script – a style of calligraphy developed in Kufa, Iraq – was found, giving further proof of their more-than-tolerant approach. Part of the inscription reads, “You will see the egregious room of one of the most illustrious sovereigns on Earth, William II, Christian king.”
A reminder that the Middle Ages are more surprising and beautiful than you probably expect.