The Sassi in Matera are one of the most outstanding examples of troglodyte settlements in the region. Constructed by primitive man, this settlement is still intact and has adapted perfectly to the ecosystem and the terrain of the area, which was first inhabited in palaeolithic times. The later settlements in the region are like taking a walk through the important stages of human history, because of which the area was named to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site List in 1993.
History of Matera
Matera is located in the region of the Basilicata in Italy. It is believed that the area’s first official town, Matheola, was founded in the 3rd century by the Romans. In 664 AD the town was conquered by the Lombards and became a part of the Duchy of the Benevento. In the 7th and 8th centuries the ghettos that were located close by had been colonized by the monastic institutions and the Benedictines. The next two centuries saw struggle between the Byzantines, Saracens and the German Emperors, which included Louis II. These conflicts almost destroyed the entire town. After the Norman settlement in Apulia, the town was conquered by William Iron Arm in 1043.
A brief communal phase was rocked by earthquakes and pestilences, after which, in the 15th century, the city became a possession of the Aragonese and was given to the Tramontano family as a fiefdom. The citizens of the city rebelled in 1514 and killed the sitting count.
Matera would become a part of Pugalia territory and was named capital of the region of La Basilicata. It held this distinction until Joseph Bonaparte reassigned the title to the town of Potenza in 1806. In 1927 the town became the capital of the province of Matera and in 1943, during the thick of World War II, the people of the town rose against the Germans. Matera was the first city in Italy to fight against the Nazis.
The Sassi of Matera, which literally means “stones of Matera,” are prehistoric dwellings carved out of caves. Situated in an old part of the town they are mainly composed of Sasso Caveoso and the Sasso Barisano, which were built later. The town has gained recognition and popularity for the Sassi and its rich history.
The Sassi originated as a prehistoric settlement and are thought to be one of the earliest human settlements in Italy. The Sassi are small houses dug into rock, which is quite typical to the region of Apulia and Basilicata where many of the houses are actually only caverns. In some places in the old town the streets are located on top of the roofs of other houses. The ravine close to the old part of the town is known to the locals as La Gravina.
The Sassi in Recent Times
During the 1950s the Italian government forced the area’s population to relocate to the modern parts of the city. Still many locals continued to live in their ancient houses. Matera is the only place in Italy where people live in the same dwellings built and inhabited by their ancestors over 9,000 years ago.
Until the 1980s the area was considered to be poor, mostly due to the fact that most of these houses were considered unlivable. In recent years, however, the local administration has become quite tourism-oriented and has promoted the popularity of the Sassi with the help of the European Union, UNESCO, the Italian government and even Hollywood. There are several hotels, restaurants, businesses and pubs that are thriving in the region.
The similarities between the old city and ancient sites in Jerusalem has meant that many Hollywood movies have been filmed in the area. One movie filmed in Matera was Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.
The Rupestrian Churches of Matera
Matera has a large number of chapels and churches. While this is not uncommon in Italy not many places in the country have such a large and extensive collection of religious buildings. Many scholars believe that the earliest churches used for praying were the ones that had been erected in this region of Matera.
The Cathedral of Matera
The Cathedral or the Duomo was built in 1268 and is one of the most important monuments in the area. The Cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria della Bruna and was built in the Romanesque-Apulian architectural style. The Duomo has a tall bell tower and close to the gates can be seen a statue of Maria della Bruna along with statues of Saints Peter and Paul. The highlight of the building is the beautiful rose window, which is divided into sixteen small columns. The decoration of the cathedral dates back to the 18th century when it had been restored in the Baroque style. A beautiful fresco of the Last Judgment, done in the Byzantine style and from the 14th century, was also discovered in the cathedral.
There are several other monasteries and churches in the city that date back to different eras in the history of the Church. Some of these are just simple caves, decorated with a single altar and frescoes, situated along the ravine. Many are large cave networks with huge underground chambers. It is believed that these chambers might have been for meditation by the cenobitic and rupestric monks.
The beauty of Matera is heightened by the history of the city. Imagine walking these ancient streets where prehistoric humans also once tread. There is so much to discover in this region of Italy, including viewing the Sassi and the area’s churches.