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Palermo: Ancient Rivers and Modern Streets

Palermo: Ancient Rivers and Modern Streets

Tom Verso (October 31, 2010)
Palermo: Admiral’s Bridge over the former Oreto riverbed.

On a sweltering late August day, pedestrians at Palermo’s Via Roma / Vittorio Emanuele intersection were perplexed when a serene man in their midst claimed to “Enjoy the cool ‘fresh-water’ Cala swishing his feet.”

Knowing that the ‘salt-water’ Cala was hundreds of meters away, one rhetorically asked: “Are you crazy!?”

“No”, replied the man, “I’m an historian”. And, thought to himself: “Best not to mention the Roman fireballs being catapulted from Foro Umberto I”



Historians come to know the past based on documents from and about the past.  Documents are commonly thought to be in the form of newspapers, diaries, letters, literature, etc.  However, maps are also documents and those who enquire into the past should not ignore the social implications that can be gleaned from the geographic information contained in map documents.   For example, the history of Sicily cannot be divorced from the history of Palermo.  All the coveters of Sicily came to Palermo. When studying the history of Palermo, maps are especially important because of the radical geographic change the port of Palermo has undergone during its history.  From the first Phoenician settlement circa 750 BC down to the present, the geography of the Cala port area has undergone continual change in the direction of reducing its size and significance.  When reading about the historic events that took place at Palermo, it would be a mistake to envision them taking place in the modern geographic city setting.  As the great historian of Sicily Edward A. Freeman succinctly put it:   “It was in ancient Panormos, not modern Palermo, that Frederick the Emperor reigned and let his dust.”   

Map Documents of Palermo’s history

  Map I: “Panormous & Solous"   Edward A. Freeman, in his absolutely brilliant scholarly 1891 book “History of Sicily from Earliest Times”, includes the map below describing northwestern Sicily circa 750 BC when the Phoenicians were colonizing the area.  

Map I
Nomenclature – Panormous not Zis (Sis)

Notice the location labeled Panormous.  That’s the ancient Greek name for present day Palermo meaning ‘All-haven’.  Although Palermo was originally a Phoenician settlement, Freeman uses the ancient Greek word Panormous. Currently, there are numerous on-line popular history articles about Palermo, aimed at the general reading public and/or tourist market, which refer to the Phoenician settlement by the Semitic name Zis or Sis.     Freeman rejected the name Ziz [i.e. Zis or Sis?] for detailed scholarly reasons that would go beyond the scope of this presentation.  However, summarizing he wrote:  

“The name Ziz it seems now to be left an open question...It may be that some day a Semitic name for the All-Haven may be brought to light.” P 250
  That day as far as I can determine has not come.  I have not been able to find any scholarly references to ancient historic documents wherein the Phoenician word Zis or Sis is used to name the colony that became Palermo.  No doubt there is much speculation; however, I do not believe there are documents that have “brought the Semitic name to light”; i.e. documents that definitively establish the Phoenician name as Zis or Sis. However, I am not a classical scholar.  It seems to me, the burden of documentation (parenthetical or footnote reference) for such claims is on those who refer to ancient Palermo as Ziz or Sis.  

Panormos –“All-haven”

Freeman tells us the Greek name Panormos (All-haven) was a generic name at the time of Greek colonization; it was used to name many ports in the Mediterranean. However, Panormos (All-haven) was an especially appropriate name for the site that would become the city of Palermo.  He writes:  

“The Greek name Panormos is shared by not a few other havens in many parts of the Greek seas; but it was never more worthily applied than to this, so truly and specially the All-haven, which the native historians of the island ruled to be the fairest haven of all Sicily.”(p. 250 emp+)

However, the port of Palermo as seen today hardly qualifies as “the fairest haven of all Sicily”.  He writes:  

“The site would hardly have been so named if what the ancients looked at had been the Palermo of the present day.  A visitor who had seen the Great Harbour of Syracuse and the Zanklon of Messana, might be inclined to wonder at the judgment of the native historian which placed the haven of Panormos first of all.” (p. 252)
To understand why the ancients considered today’s mundane Sicilian port of Palermo “the fairest haven of all [ancient] Sicily” one has to study the geographic evolution of the site.  Using maps below, the evolution from “fairest” to mundane will be developed.   Map Ia: Close up view of Panormos   For purposes of discussion, the Panormos area on the Freeman map has been enlarged and labeled to establish the relationship between the ancient Phoenician settlement and the modern city of Palermo.  

Map Ia
The red line indicating present day Via Vittorio Emanuele added to Freeman’s map gives a sense of how the original colony relates to the present day city.  Notice that the line crosses over a portion of water between the sections Freeman labels “Old Town” and “New Town.”  Today the rivers on either side of Via Vittoio Emanuele no longer exist and the Via does not cross any water; indicating that the geography of Palermo has changed dramatically from ancient times to the present.  Also, Freeman comments:  
“All-Haven looks far different now from what it was when the glance of the first Phoenician shipman marked it...His ships could then anchor in waters which have since changed into the streets of a great and busy city.”
“An inlet of the sea, making its way inland by a narrow mouth, presently parted off into two branches, and left a tongue of land between them.” (p. 258 emp. +)
The Cala bay of today’s Palermo originally projected inland where it met the two rivers forming an inland harbor. In short, The Rivers Papireto and Kemonia and the inland portion of Cala bay have “changed into streets”.    Freeman indicates two sections of Panormos: “Old Town” and “New Town”.  Old Town is the original Phoenician settlement located on a peninsula bounded by two rivers and an inlet bay.

Map II from Britannic 1911 edition (text added)  

In the Encyclopedia Britannica 1911 Edition, an article on Palermo co-authored by Edward Freeman included a late nineteenth century map of Palermo with the outlines of the two ancient rivers and the expanded Cala harbor inlet overlaid on the city streets.   I have overlaid texts for purposes of discussion and placing the rivers in a contemporary context.  

Map II
Color codes:
- BLUE indicate current places
- GREEN the old rivers
- RED line the Via Vittorio Emanule
- DashRED line the section of Via Vittorio that passes thru the old harbor section
-Dash MAROON line the current Via Roma built circa 1890
- ORANGE underlines give emphasis to map texts
- Lampedua’s house is noted as a point of interest for his readers
Notice:   1) Underlined in orange are the sections of the city “Old Town” and “Neapolis” (i.e. Greek for “New Town”).  As with Map Ia above, “Old Town” is located on a peninsula formed by the Kemonia River on the south and the Papireto River on the north.  This was the location of the original Phoenician settlement.   2) The Cala inlet came inland much further than it does today forming a harbor up to today's Via Roma and along “Old Town.”   3) The section of today’s Via Vittorio Emanuele from “Old Town” to “Neapolis”, as indicated in map Ia above, would have been covered by the harbour waters in ancient times.  

“The fairest haven of all Sicily”

  This map clearly indicates why Panormous was “the fairest haven of all Sicily”.  Ships in the harbor would be protected from the ravages of storms, rough seas and enemy navies.  They could be loaded, unloaded and repaired in calm protected waters and environment.  Generally, the geography was protective and created a sense of security for the inhabitants. The geographic character of the harbor today would have offered none of these advantages to the ancients.

Map IIIRiver geology  

This map comes from a geological study of Palermo earthquakes: “MICROTREMOR MEASUREMENTS IN PALERMO...” Giovanna Culterera et al (see:  

“Past earthquakes (1726, 1823, 1940) were related to the presence of two ancient rivers, Papireto and Kemonia, which were buried and filled during the 17th century.
“The two riverbeds are about 150 m wide and 10-30 m deep, and they met in downtown Palermo reaching the sea at the old harbor.”
As with map II above, this is a late nineteenth century map, which the geologists have on laid the ancient waters, and I have annotated. The water locations were determined by scientifically analyzed material brought up from ‘boreholes’ the geologist drilled.  Thus, they were able to differentiate the area of seawater from fresh water in the ancient harbor. 

Note: Two significant differences between Map II and Map III  

1) On the Freeman Map II, the upper end of the Kemonia River near Piazza Vitoria shows the river widening into a lake or pond.  This widening does not appear on the geologist’s map.  However, it may be that the ancient lake (pound) was not very deep and the urban development removed the geological residuals.  Accordingly, the geologist’s boreholes would not pick up indications of the lake (pound).  This is just my speculation.  

2) Very interesting to me is the geologist’s map labels the peninsula between the two rivers as Neapolis.  This clearly contradicts Freeman who labeled the same area “Old Town” and places “New Town” (Neapolis) at the entrance of the bay on the shoreline.   The geologist did not indicate the source of their nineteenth century map so it is not possible to reconcile the differences.  However, given the very great depth of Freeman’s documentation of ancient Sicily, in multiple publications, it is reasonable to suspect the geologist map is mislabeled.  However, one should keep an open mind and do further reading until the contradiction is resolved one way or the other.  

Nomenclature: River Names  

As noted above, Freeman eschewed using the Semitic name Ziz for want of convincing documentation.  While he does not comment on the river names it is interesting that he does not use the names Papireto or Kemonia; rather, he identifies the rivers as ‘North’ and “South” (i.e. Papireto and Kemonia respectively).  It may be that the Greek names were applied to the rivers many centuries after the origins of Panormus.  Consider the following:  


Papireto (as I understand it) is the Greek word for Papyrus, and the “North River” was called Papireto because papyrus was grown on the river. However, there is a significant disagreement about when papyrus was grown on the “North River”.   There are currently writers of popular history and tourist on-line publications who claim that the Phoenicians brought it from Egypt to Sicily and there are records of it in Greek areas of Sicily in 300 B.C.  However, they cite no scholarly documentation.   In opposition to these claims, in an 1885 publication “The Wanderings of plants an animals from their first home”, the author Victor Hehn writes:
“ is a historical fact that the ancients knew nothing of the papyrus plant in Sicily, so that it could not have existed in that island.  It must have been the Arabs that brought it from Syria shortly before the beginning of the tenth century
“Ibn Hauqal, who wrote in 977-8 AD, is the first writer that mentions it.  It was probably planted first on the little river near Palermo, which was called Papireto after it... (p 233 emp. +)
  I cannot judge the accuracy of the Hehn’s work; however, the fact that he extensively cites ancient Greek an Latin sources in the ancient languages suggest that his work must be treated with deference.  Those who would contradict him are obliged to cite similar scholarly sources and provide similar rigorous analysis.  


Jeremy Johns in his 2002 book “Arabic administration in Norman Sicily” writes:
“Kemonia, comes from the Greek meaning ‘the winter [river]’ the name of the seasonal water-course which ran to the south of the city centre... (p. 220 footnote 22).
Interestingly, Johns makes the claim that the Kemonia was a seasonal river and its name implies it ran in the winter and dried in the summer.  However, Freeman makes no mention that I am aware of that the ‘South River’ was seasonal.   

Indeed, it seems that it was anything but seasonal in ancient times because there are numerous sources indicating the river was a primary line of defense for the Phoenicians against the Greeks and Romans and in turn the Romans against the Carthaginians.  A river that dried up in the summer would not be much of a defensive line.  

Accordingly, it seems that Kemonia was not an ancient denotation of the “South River”.  Rather, it came about at a much later time when the flow of the river had significantly diminished. Again, there seems to be a need for more rigorous scholarship about the river nomenclature.  Or, perhaps there is but I am not aware of it!  

[Note: I am not suggesting that popular history/tourist works go into detail historiographic discussions.  But a parenthetical reference citation would be appropriate –seems to me]  

Where did the rivers go?  

Freeman argues that the “All-have” water system gradually and continually decreased over the centuries.  He writes:  

“Since the fourteenth century of our era the two branches of the haven have been gradually filled up, and have become dry land; a small survival only of the All-haven abides in the little port called the Cala. 
“And we may be sure that the changes which have gone on so actively in these later centuries had begun much earlier...We are tempted to think that Atilius found a greater All-haven than Belisarious and Belisarious a greater one than Roger. (p. 260)
Specifically, as to the demise of the Papireto, accordingly to Hehn (above):  

“ the year 1591 the then Viceroy caused the whole district to be drained because of the malaria bred by the Papireto, and the papyrus grove was destroyed. But even now (1885) the place is called Piano del papireto, and the papyrus is still cultivated in the public gardens there.” (p.233)
  And, the Kemonia: as indicated above it seems to have just transitioned from a full river to a seasonal river to no river.  

Current maps of Palermo’s
Ancient Rivers and Modern Streets
  Below are two Google maps of Palermo on which I have attempted to roughly draw the outline of “All-haven” waters; first current streets map and second a current satellite view.

They are meant for illustration - not perfect representation.    

Map IV Google Street Map with “All-haven” overlay
Map V Google Satellite map with “All-haven” overlay


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very good! thank you!

very good! thank you!