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D + 13: Two Sister Islands

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

We changed flags today. The French was replaced by the Italian tricolour and the Corsican One Moor had to give way to Sardinia’s Four.

Sardinia's flag has four severed Moor heads (Spanish name for the Arabs) on the Cross of Saint Georges. The four heads represent Aragon's victories over the Muslims in Zaragoza, Valencia, Murcia and on the Balearic Island. The cross of St Georges refers to Genoa. In the original flag the bandana covered the eyes - in our times they are just worn as bandanas.

At their narrowest point, the two sister islands are just 11 km or 6.6 miles apart. Their geology and geography is similar. But history took a different track. For a long time however, it was in sync. In Castelsardo, today’s final destination, the Genovese Castle of the Doria family greets us. In Bonifacio, Stairs for the King of Aragon were chiseled into the outer cliffs.

The steps of the Aragon King in Bonifacio

The Doria Castle on top of Castelsardo in Sardinia

For more than 2’000 years, from Phoenician times to the 13th century, the two sister island shared common masters. Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Pisans and Genovese treated these islands more or less as one single entity. It started to change when the Kingdom of Aragon expanded into the Mediterranean. The two islands became subject to European power politics and ended up on separate sides. The local people did not have a say and when they tried, were brutally suppressed.

The beautiful harbour of Bonifacio

Aragon did not have the resources to become a dominant power in the Mediterranean were it not for its alliance with Venice. In th many wars between Venice and Genoa, the Serene Republic needed support and found a willing ally in the Kingdom of Aragon. The Catalan state was able to provide the much desired manpower. The alliance was a disaster, however. Venice was defeated in the war of 1350 – 1355 and Aragon stood alone.

Promptly, the Genovese attacked Barcelona with their fleet and blockaded Sardinia. As a trading republic, Genoa was not interested in conquering territory. All it wanted were safe places for trading and doing business. Rather than using its own army, Genoa supported local Sardinian rebels against their Catalan overlords. But this came to an end when a Genovese fleet was defeated before Alghero in 1354. From now on, Sardinia had a different master with a different culture.

The mighty bastions of Bonifacio were impossible to breach - viewed from the west today

In the years 1410 – 1444 Aragon tried again to expand its influence and take Corsica. But the island was too close to Genoa. The republic fought back. The war zigzagged for many years, towns changed hands frequently, Aragonese ships bombarded Liguria and Porto Venere but eventually Genoa prevailed. Corsica stayed under Genovese rule. The split between the two islands became permanent.

Typical Sardinian coast with plenty of 250 million year old granite boulders

The conflict became obsolete when Constantinople fell in 1453. The lucrative business they fought over was gone when the Turks closed the Bosporus. Both Genoa and Aragon suddenly faced a powerful common enemy. The appearance of the Ottoman Empire let to a symbiotic arrangement between Spain and Genoa. Genoa provided naval assets and bankers, Spain became its overall protector against France and its Turkish Ally.

The coast which had once no economic value is today a magnet for toutists

The separate ways the two sister islands now followed were never reversed. Sardinia would become Piedmontese in the 18th and Italian in the 19th century. Corsica was sold to France in 1764 and remained French ever since. One speaks Italian, the other French. Of the original cultures only pockets remain.

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