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The ancient city of Matera – one of the first human settlements in Italy

Here is one idyllic Italian city that we don’t hear about every day. This beautiful and ancient city is situated in Southern Italy, in a province called Basilicata.

Carved out in the canyon of the river Gravina, Matera stands mighty since prehistoric times. Because of a unique historical part of the city called “Sassi,” Matera is also known as the “Subterranean City.”

Matera / Photo credit

It has been proven that humans lived here 9,000 years ago, but the official history of the city begins with the Romans, in the third century BC. The original name of the settlement was Matheola, probably inspired by a Roman consul called Lucius Caecilius Metellus.

Since the year 664 AD, after the Lombards conquered it, the province of Matera has changed many owners and ruling families.

The historical part of the city known as Sassi di Matera / Photo credit

During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Byzantine and the German emperors fought over it; later, it was ruled by William Iron-Arm. At the beginning of the 17th century, Matera was so important that it became the capital of the whole Basilicata region – a title that the city held until 1806 when the capital was relocated to Potenza.

Matera also played an important role during WWII when it became the first Italian city to fight against the Wehrmacht actively.

Panoramic view of the Sassi as seen from the Canyon of Gravina / Photo credit

Probably the most interesting part of the city (although it is breathtaking in its entirety) is the historical center, the old part of town called “Sassi di Matera.”

Sassi (meaning “Stones”) are prehistoric homes built by the cave-dwelling people (troglodytes) that inhabited this region thousands of years ago. The Sassi settlement is very similar to the dwellings in the village of Mellieħa in the northern part of Malta.

A closer look at the Sassi / Photo credit

Evidence show that life can be traced here as early as 7,000 BC, and because of this, “Sassi di Matera” is considered as one of the first settlements in modern-day Italy.

These Sassi dwellings are painstakingly drilled into the face of the calcarenite rock, which is a type of limestone typical for the Basilicata area. The subterranean homes in some parts so tightly pack that streets were built on top of the houses.

There are many stairways across the whole city / Photo credit

Due to some changes in the state policies and because of a malaria epidemic threatening it in the 1950s, the Italian government decided to relocate the residents of the Sassi in a newly built part of town.

People seemed no to care much about the situation and many of them decided to stay there, as this quote from the English Fodor’s guide would state:

“Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.”

The interior of one of the Sassi dwellings

The Gravina stream separates the city above it into two parts. Besides being hardly reachable, medieval Matera was also well dug into the rocks, but this feature made resources such as water hardly available.

That is why people started making massive reservoir systems (cisterna) and channels.

The interior of one of the old cisterns

One of the largest water reservoirs lays beneath Piazza Vittorio Veneto, with walls up to 15 meters high, navigable by boat.

As the population in Matera started to grow, many of the old cisterns were repurposed as houses.

It is pretty amazing how some of the locals still live in the same cave homes as their ancestor, with entrances still marked with their family names.

The church of “San Francesco d’Assisi” / Photo Credit

The Cave homes are not the only attraction in Matera; the place is also the address of some beautiful churches. Matera Cathedral, for example, bears the name of Santa Maria Della Bruna since 1389 and it has a 52m tall bell tower.

The historical center of Matera has a primeval charm, and because of it, many film directors choose it as a perfect location that depicts Jerusalem.

Another view of the Sassi

Many biblical movies are actually filmed around here, films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).

Love historic buildings? Here is another story from us:“Roman Lighthouse” at Dover Castle is the oldest building in England

Today Matera is a thriving city with many businesses, taverns, and hotels, and its beauty fascinates thousands of visitors every year.

Boban Docevski

Boban Docevski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News