Cave Churches

In our travels a recurring, interesting feature has been the ‘Cave Church’.

From the famous Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves of Ellora and Ajanta in Northern Maharashtra India (thought to date from 600 to 1000 AD) to a delightful, compact cave church in Castelmola (in the Province of Messina, Sicily) they are places that at once inspire awe and wonder, and offer interesting and varied art forms from a long-distant past.

Take the Sassi di Matera in southern Italy for example: here in this fabulously interesting neighbourhood inhabited since Neolithic, and even Palaeolithic times and where there is bountiful evidence of its Troglodytic inhabitants, we encountered many chiese rupestri (cave, or ‘stone’ churches). Often utilising the Trogladyte caves, they were excavated by Basilian monks fleeing persecution during the Byzantine Empire and thought to be inhabited between 8th and 13th centuries.

Cave Church - Matera Sassi Italy

Cave Church in Matera Sassi

Our favourite was the little-visited cave church of Madonna dei Derelitti at the foot of the Gravina (gorge). We had the place to ourselves (primarily because it is at the bottom of this very steep-sided gorge and accessible only by a series of goat tracks) while tourists crawled all over the more easily accessible ones. We suffered though (this should please those religious among you who believe that life on earth should be one of sufferance) as the temperature was up in the high thirties and we were exposed to the sun all the way down – and up.

Cave Church in Castelmola Sicily

We found classic examples of cave churches in Caltabellotta in Sicily too, while they also abound throughout Greece and Cappadocia in Turkey, where in the 7th century thousands of Christians were forced to flee either to underground cities or rocky caves for refuge.

Cave Church in Caltabellotta Sicily

Why transform a cave into a place of worship? God knows. But these chapels and churches became intimate and cardinal places of worship for those Christians hiding in the caves and were kept secret for two hundred years.

Architecturally, too, half the work is already done for the builder, while in the hot climes, where most of these cave churches seem to exist, they would also have offered some cooling respite from the heat of the day. For the curious traveller it is always worth poking your nose into them.

Caltabellotta . . . A Day Trip

12th June 2015

900 Metres Above Sea Level

Caltabellotta Sicilia Italia

Caltabellotta sits 900 metres above sea level on a craggy mountain. And another eighty metres above, attached to its highest rock, is the remains of the much embattled castle, Castillo Luna. What an amazing history this hilltop village has: settled, besieged and attacked by the Arabs, Normans (these were Vikings, predating their settlement in Normandy in France), the Spanish, and even the Germans. If you have the time the following extract is worth reading but in doing so, consider its distance from Norse, German and Spanish lands; the incredible steepness of the town’s upper reaches and access to it from below; and the fact that in those days there was no mechanisation – just heaps of slaves apparently. Geez they must have had great legs – and perhaps some four-legged friends:

“From the Sican reign of King Kokalos to the county of the Peralta family (13th century BC – 14th century AD), Caltabellotta, one of the most ancient towns of Sicily, lies on mount Kratas, in the southern section of the Sican Mountains. Its unique strong position on the mountain has made it a significant and strategic place for over two thousand years, throughout which Caltabellotta has been the protagonist of the history of a territory that goes from the river Belice to the river Platani. Fought over, dominated, sacked and destroyed by the peoples that occupied Sicily in the subsequent ages, Caltabellotta has always managed to survive and regenerate itself, sometimes changing its location and even its name. Two caves, located on the summit of Mount S. Pellegrino, bring us back to the prehistoric origins of Caltabellotta. The four necropolises that surround the town bear witness of a Sican presence back to the ancient Bronze age. The first settlement on the nearby Mount Gulèa dates back to the protohistoric age; then it extended to the adjacent S. Benedetto terrace first, and to the nearby villages later, generating the town of Inycon. Initially the acropolis was founded on top of Mount Gulèa, but the royal site was moved around the 13th century BC to the nearby rock called Camico, today Gogàla, the eponym of its illustrious king Kokalos. The town, which became legendary for resisting a siege which lasted five years, is today listed among the most famous acropolises of ancient times, together with the contemporary Mycene, Pergamon of Troy and Cadmea of Thebes. In the 6th century BC, Caltabellotta achieved a high development level but, after its Hellenization, it had to change its Sican name Inycon, recalled by Herodotus and Plato for the last time (5th century BC), into the Greek name Triokala, mentioned for the first time by Philistus of Syracuse (5th century BC). The new place-name was the synthesis of three beneficial properties: abundance of water, fertility of the soil and a strong defence system (Diodorus). In 258 BC, during the first Punic war, the town was destroyed by the Romans. However, unlike all the other Sicilian fortified settlements whose memory has been lost, Triokala had a revival because its inhabitants refounded Trokalis (the New Triokala) in the vicinity of the village of Sant’Anna, today called Contrada Troccoli. The history of Gogàla had the same course of the old town, but its history did not finish in the 3rd century BC because it was later called to witness more extraordinary events. During the Second Servile War (104-99 BC), the slaves’ leader, Salvius Tryphon, decided to avoid the town as he thought it was a cause of inertia and sloth (Diodorus), and with his men settled on the San Benedetto terrace and Gogàla rock, giving a new life to the town destroyed by the Romans. This lasted for only five years, because the clash was concluded with the defeat of the insurgents. The thousand surviving slaves were led to Rome in chains by Satirus and preferred suicide rather than fighting against the wild beasts in the arena, thus marking an important page of history with their sacrifice. Under the Roman rule first and the Byzantine rule later, Trokalis had to live as a tributary town for over ten centuries. With the triumph of Christianity, the settlement became the seat of a Sicilian diocese, whose borders were once again marked by the rivers Platani and Belice. The story goes that its first bishop was San Pellegrino, who had come from Lucca of Greece. In the 9th century AD, the population, threatened by Saracen raids, was forced to go back again on Mount Kratas top, where a new settlement was founded in a corner of the Gogala, today called Terravecchia, and was called Balateta (R. Pirro). When the Arabs arrived (860-1091), the village adopted the name Qalat al Balat, which meant fortress built on the balate, the way the local flat stones were called (Edrisi), and from which today’s name Caltabellotta derives. The Muslims were chased away by Count Roger in 1091 and moved to the nearby Sciacca, where they settled in a neighbourhood that is still called Ràbato. The Arabs were followed by the Normans who closed the access way to Qalat al Balat with a city wall and two gates (Salvo Porto and San Salvatore). The Normans remained until December 29, 1194, when William III, the last heir to the Norman throne, and his mother, Queen Sibyl, were taken by fraud from the Castle of Caltabellotta, where they had took refuge, and were accused to have plotted against Henry VI of Swabia, were arrested and led to Germany as prisoners. This event inspired Wolfram von Eschenbach at mid 1200… the castle of Caltabellotta in his Parsifal. The Normans were replaced by the Swabian dynasty. The return of Guy d’Ampierre from the crusade led by the French king Louis IX was celebrated in the same castle in 1270 with a rich banquet whose noble participants were cheered up by the most renowned minstrel of the time, Adam le Roi. When the Vespro Revolution burst out (March 31, 1282), Caltabellotta followed the example of the Palermitans. The war between Angevins and Aragonese ended on August 29, 1302 with a peace treaty signed in Caltabellotta and Frederick III of Aragon who had come to help the Sicilians became king of Sicily with the title of Frederick II. The Spanish domination marked a period of decadence of the central political and administrative role of Caltabellotta and its territory was divided into counties. In 1338, by will of the king, Peter II of Aragon, the Admiral of the reign, Raimondo Peralta, was designated as the first count of Caltabellotta. In the summer 1400, after the marriage between Artale de Luna and Margherita Peralta Chiaramonte, the daughter of William, the county passed under the Luna family, who received the lands and castles of Bivona, Cristia, Giuliana, Poggio Diana and Sciacca as dowry.
The Spanish remained until 1713, when Sicily was assigned to the Piedmontese Amadeus II and, after a short period of Austrian rule, in 1734 it was annexed to the Borbone reign of Naples. The rest of its history is recent. Obviously, today Caltabellotta no longer holds the political and administrative power it had once as a capital city of the Sican reign of Kokalos, but it has preserved the privilege of (virtually) ruling all the surrounding towns from the top of its Castello Luna (the Luna Castle). In summer nights, the lights from all these villages and towns mark the border of the entire area where once massive castles rose. Today, what remains is its wonderful position, at about 900 meters of altitude, with a valley sloping down towards the coast, as a European observatory on Africa. “The extraordinary aerial beauty of Caltabellotta”, as W. Goethe wrote. This enchanting town that cuddles the stars lies at the same latitude as Tunis: it is sometimes covered with snow in the winter or is wrapped up in a thick fog, but the sun makes it always look as a charming fresh and ventilated town at only 20 km from the African sea. Its historic centre consists in a network of small Medieval streets, yards and squares with many signs of its Arab past and houses that, after fine restoration works, are the ideal place for a long stay, made even more pleasant by the friendliness of its residents, by the genuine goodness of its products, by the richness of its cultural and entertainment events.”

Having a couple of drinks in a local bar we were directed to a great restaurant, the proprietor of which treated us right royally and didn’t rip us off. We both had pasta al fungi and lamb chops with mint and oregano, and shared a litre of local red wine – this latter, I have to explain to those already tut-tutting at the quantity, was to restore our flagging vitamin levels after our walking up and around (from the town’s lower part where the bus dropped us off) the city’s massive heights for about three hours.

Lunch in Caltabellotta

Lunch in Caltabellotta

Sciacca Caltabellotta B (6)

We had a great and scenic hike encountering more necropoli (didn’t get to fossick in them this time); ancient cave dwellings and churches; a modern shepherd (with mobile phone and headphones) with his roaming flock of sheep and a couple of dogs up on the slopes – the herd had clonking bells attached which enhanced the scene; far-reaching rural vistas and more olde churches up high whose bells occasionally pealed to increase the atmospherics. It is a neat and compact little olde city with ye olde ruined castle upon high. From where we viewed that castle there was an exceedingly steep walkway that went all the way to the top of that highest rock just above the castle – but the entrance to it was closed due to repair. I was relieved, to be quite honest, because it looked to be one of those “world’s great but perilous walks” – I swear, the steps appeared to be on the edge of sheer drop-offs (blow the photo up and have a look). But, lower down, refreshing ourselves at that bar we were assured in broken English/Italian that there were ‘two doors – one open, one closed’, and that somehow we had missed the other track around the back. We didn’t have time to make a second attempt. It was a very satisfactory day’s outing.

Caltabellotta Sicilia

Siciliy – Land of Abandoned Building Projects
I thought southern Spain was bad: concrete-grey, incomplete and lifeless structures; no tradesmen or workers on site; scaffolding either rusting in place or removed; many people losing money invested and many going unpaid for their work done. Yet over here in Sicily and southern Italy there is far more evidence of this economic cancer and big, commercial structures stand crane-less, idle and hollow too. It is an effect of ‘The Crisis’ (as they almost affectionately, but resignedly, refer to the decline in their economy). It is, however, analogous of cancer. There is money here: big, old money as evidenced still in the prosperous wine and olive oil trade, but little, if any, trickles down and in listening to people’s opinions of their politics, one person in particular is responsible – Berlesconi. Apparently he started his personally gainful destruction of the Italian economy well before the European Economic Crisis struck. But they shrug their shoulders resignedly – and I can empathise, what the hell can you do against such powerful despots whose first move in office is to buy and own all the media? One young man lamented that, for a while at least, even Mussolini was good for the country.

Exploring Caltabellotta
Exploring Caltabellotta