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Matera, Italy: A Step Back in Time

Above is a video / slideshow with a collection of images from our visit to the charming and ancient town of Matera, in southern Italy.

Matera is a unique and fascinating town of 60,000 people in southern Italy’s Basilicata region – almost in the heel of Italy’s boot. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world and the oldest in Italy and Europe.

The oldest period in human history is the “Paleolithic Period” and dates to around 15,000 B.C. This is when the last ice age was winding down and woolly mammoths roamed the earth. It’s also when the first people settled in Matera. What’s so unique about Matera is that those inhabitants and their ancestors never left. During the Iron and Bronze ages – with the advent of metal tools – these settlers dug their homes and cisterns from the soft and porous volcanic stone that formed the landscape of this area.

Amazingly, the people of Matera remained in their cave dwellings until the 1950’s when the Italian government relocated them to new housing, and their descendants are still living there today. For perspective, Rome is typically referred to as an ancient city - at 3,000 years old – and it rightfully deserves that label. Matera, on the other hand, makes Rome look modern.

Most of the cave dwellings don’t look like traditional caves from the outside. Some of the earlier Paleolithic caves that are located across the ravine from the city center are more what we typically imagine a cave dwelling to look like - carved into the side of a mountain. But most of the dwellings were carved into rock and look like homes stacked on top of one another as if there was a giant rock spill from the sky. The interiors of the caves, however, are still very much cave-like in their appearance.

The two main quarters in Matera were built this way . . . and they are what’s known as the two Sassi – from the Latin word Saxum, meaning a hill, rock, or great stone. The streets in some parts of the Sassi often run on top of other houses. This design was quite innovative when it came to sharing water, since water would be gathered on the plateau above the town and then flow down so that the entire community could share it. The city’s system of water collection was revolutionary for its time. The people dug a very sophisticated network of tunnels and cisterns that branched throughout the community. They collected rainwater and snow and funneled water from a nearby spring.

From Paleolithic times up until the 1950’s, the people of Matera called these caves home – often living in extreme poverty with no running water, no electricity, or sewage systems. By 1952, the situation became untenable in Matera - families and their donkeys were sharing the same space (often a one-room cave), malaria was running wild through the village, there was high infant mortality, and conditions were so bad that the government of Italy passed a law forcing the people of Matera out of their old quarters and into new, modern buildings. This updated version of Matera is up the hill from the Sassi, and it’s where most of Matera’s residents live today.

The residents of the caves never wanted to leave their dwellings and they pleaded to return, primarily because they missed the sense community they felt when they lived in the caves and were forced to rely on each other. Finally, in 1986, those who agreed to restore the Sassi (mostly the wealthier inhabitants) with their own money were allowed to do so. And, in 1993 Matera was designated a UNESCO World Heritage. UNESCO described it as the “most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region.”

Several of the cave houses have been renovated and serve as cultural museums. There are also hotels, bars, and restaurants that emerged from the “ashes” of these ancient cave dwellings. Ironically, many of the lodgings offer luxury cave accommodations . . . a far cry from the poverty and squalor endured by the residents for so many millennia.

Matera has earned the nickname “The Second Bethlehem” and it’s easy to see why. It’s been used as the setting for several movies wanting an appropriate representation of Jerusalem. It was also featured in the latest James Bond movie, “No Time to Die”.

As Carla and I walked the streets of Matera we could not help but be moved by the history of this ancient city. But more than the history of the place, it was the struggle and endurance of the people that truly moved us. It’s easy to only see Matera through the eyes of how it appears today, with its old-world charm and romance. Viewing it through that lens would be to miss the struggles, the endurance, and the brilliant ingenuity of a people that have survived since the Paleolithic era. What they accomplished is truly remarkable. And no matter how bad the conditions were before the Sassi’s came to an end, these “cave dwellers” should be celebrated, honored, and revered – their perseverance and ingenuity is an inspiration to the capability, drive, and endurance of the human spirit.

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