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.

Matera Sassi

20 June 2013 Matera – Sassi

Holed up here for 3 nights. Back to Bari on the 21st to fly to Palermo in Sicily.


Sassi is the olde (that’s old as in well Before that fella Jesus made a name for himself) part of Matera. Built on a high, craggy mountainside above a deep ravine, the prehistoric Sassi originially dug deep into the calcarenitic cliffs to build shelters then subsequently, over many centuries, developed it into a city with water systems and cysterns and streets and heaps of churches – as you do. The troglodyte Sassi people are suspected to be some of the first human settlers in Italy. Many of these ‘houses’ are really only caverns and the streets, in some parts of Sassi, because of the steepness of the slopes are often located on and over the roof tops. We entered and ate and drank in a couple of places restored from the original cave dwellings and it was welcomingly cool inside, but originally would have only been lit by fire and oil lamps. We have some great photos but if you google search you can find images too. It is pretty impressive and only a 10 minute walk to reach the beginnings of it from our accommodation (but it is nigh on 40deg here of late; it’s sweltering). A group of riggers was setting up the same fretwork display we saw in Polignano de Mare in the upper piazza of Sassi. It is an impressive, white wooden fretwork design that can be broken down and easily reconstructed on its wooden poles and reaches to 30 metres high, and is covered all over with lights to create a festive ambience. I guess they go from town to town setting this up and breaking it down in time with local fiestas. Missed this one too but saw the setting up – impressive.

Matera SassiThe ancient town of Sassi grew in height on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as ‘la Gravina’. Until the late 1980s this was considered an area of poverty since these houses were, and in most areas still are, mostly unliveable. Current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented and now the locals excel in ripping tourists off. We walked most of it yesterday and even way into the ravine and across the stream to an ancient and now abandoned cave chapel – we were thoroughly toasted; should perhaps have waited for a cooler day but I don’t know if that is going to happen. It was a good walk.

Cars. Those stunted, sawn-off runts of vehicles called Smart Cars are very popular here, and there are even smaller versions. Given that there are (apparently) 60 million people here in this space called Italy not much bigger than NZ and car ownership is a god-given right of all Italians – vroom, vroom – it makes sense. Not many of those monster 4WDs, so popular with the shopping mother in Perth, here.
Birds. The prevalent bird here appears to be the swallow. They are to be seen in large flocks at dawn and dusk swooping and diving in their insect-collecting activity above the domes, streets and cliffs, their distinct scimitar wings scything the air.

Food. Don’t get me started.

Food. Oh, OK. We have a much better understanding of pasta now – and yep, they prefer it served ‘al dente’ all right. That’s enough – for now. Basta Pasta.

Drink. Still can’t find a bottle of wine with a screw cap. Ah, but wadda the Italians know about vino, eh?

Met an Italian policeman on one of our train journeys. He was returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan where, as part of their greasing up to America they were teaching the Afghan police western processes. He said the head of police there was – and here he rapped his knuckle against the carriage wall – like a plank. I suggested that things were not going to change much there, and he ventured that it would take another fifteen years, and raised his eyes heavenwards. He considered the main problem was that the Afghans had no sense of Nation. He was going home to his village. I wasn’t able to get any deeper sentiments from him in the brief time we had; he was, after all, a policeman. But I enjoyed our little friendly encounter. He was a nice man.

Here is something for you all to consider. You have heard it said that you live (especially in West Oz) in a highly-controlled, Nanny State. Well, the following observation perhaps is indicative of just how – as a people, as a race – completely controlled, manipulated and Nannied you (OK, we) are.

I detest the smell of cigarette smoke as many of you do, but in NZ and Australia, almost overnight, regulations were set in place (and rigorously enforced) that outlawed smoking in buildings and now, public places. And the people obeyed. Most of us welcomed this, but in our joy did not understand just how much control was being applied over our collective personal liberty. The same anti-smoking controls are in place here, but a good 50%+ of the population still smoke – are you getting my drift? Not only that; in our countries, punitive laws were put in place that prohibited us from riding a bicycle without a safety helmet. Now I know one or two you agree with this law, but once again, it was a massive, oppressive and successful exercise in control over the people (it should never have been any more than a voluntary option – think about that). Now, what I am going to say may be dismissed by y’all because Australia and NZ are not suffering from a Global Financial Crisis and, hey, ‘what would these Italians know anyway, eh? Maybe they are, as a race, all stupid.’ Point being, they don’t wear helmets to ride bicycles and continue to smoke and I see in them something more worthy in their NOT succumbing so readily, so easily to government control whereas Australians with all their pride and so-called freedom just buckled and did what they were told was good for them (thanks Aunty) almost overnight. No one is going to stop you wearing a cycle helmet here if you want – or in any of the other European countries – but (and maybe it is because the people here HAVE been oppressed in the recent past) the governments are not game to try that kind of control just yet. You (we) had better watch our governments down under as they now know they can buckle the people using manipulated statistics and (very expensive) ad campaigns. Does anyone actually know how much he/she is being saved in dollar terms because everyone wears cycle helmets and with (virtually) nobody smoking cigarettes anymore? Do we now have a surplus of hospital beds available through this successful exercise?

Here endeth my rant for the day. Ve haff vays of making you . . . . . .

I first bought an Italian Vespa scooter when I was about 20 years old. I was sold on it because of the poster picture of a couple riding it; the (glamorous) passenger riding side saddle and helmetless. Well today in Sassi, of all places, I saw exactly that. Beautiful. The Italians tend to have this metaphoric finger stuck up in the air at all authority as they go about their daily affairs. I love it.