Lifestyle & Travel

Jul 1, 2017

THE CAVE CITY

One can almost say it is a "bipolar" city. It is "only" one of the most ancient places inhabited by Man in the world, having its origin even in pre-historic ages. And it's also one of the most preserved ones.

Located in Southern Italy, the city of Matera is one of the most ancient cities in the world continuously inhabited, as Aleppo, in Syria, and Byblos, in Lebanon.

It spreads along the hillside of the rocky canyon of Murgia and it is calculated to have been founded over nine thousand years ago. For this reason, it's not easy to speak over Matera without telling a bit of its known history.

In the paleolithic ages, the regions' caves were the perfect shelters for our ancestors. It is known today that some of these caves were natural formations and other were, meanwhile, dug into the rock.

This way, the city grew in a chaotic manner, given these excavations were piling up without order or connection. The excavations were made in depth (from up-side down) what generated the labyrinth we can visit nowadays.

This allowed the creation of two or three environments with different functions, being the lowest, colder and wet and, therefore, used as food storage or animal stable, in order to generate the heat which warmed the upper environments destined to housing.

Later in time, the city got into the nomad routes who would take shelter there in their voyages in search of pastures for their cattle. Some of these shepherds established there and the city grew with new caverns until the arrival of Greeks and Romans who started a more organised administration.

Between the 8th and the 13th century, the monks from the Greco-byzantine church took shelter in the city and that is why most of the caverns were transformed into rustic churches. And today, the city is clearly divided in two rather different parts.

At the highest spot of the city, quite visible throughout the region, rises the Matera Cathedral, built between 1230 and 1270.

This second part, more modern, began developing over the 17th century. By this time, began to appear the buildings that make up the newest area of town, taller and more plan.

Given livestock and agricultural activity in the region, were being built, dwelling houses, landlord mansions, convents and monasteries. Tanks were also being built to collect water and an innovative hydraulic system for that age, which guaranteed supply and distribution of water throughout the whole city.

Out of this growth, were generated the natural social cleavage and, as the higher city flourished, the lower cavern zone went degrading. Most of all because this growth gave birth to new streets and new buildings which obstructed the water clever distribution system, affecting agriculture and provoking a disease growth such as Malaria, referred in many of that eras' books.

In 1853, John Murray classified Matera, in his "Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy" as a dirty city and the "its lower classes are said to be the most uncivilized in the whole province of Basilicata". This didn't stop the population from growing until it reached 15 thousand people on the first half of the 20th century.

The region became thus a national shame and a symbol for hunger and poverty. The government which took place in the post-war period decreed then that the lower city should be completely evacuated, readjusting the 15 thousand people to live in the upper side of the city. The Sassi (the name given to these caverns which, in fact, really means stone, in Italian) were to be destroyed or, the ones in less bad conditions, recovered.

Finally, in the 1980's, the Italian government destined some money for the recovery of the city and, after the proclamation of the city for Mankind's Heritage by UNESCO, in 1993, the European Community got associated to this cause and the city was reborn, only now as tourist attraction.

By its history and landscapes, many were the movie directors who used the natural sceneries of Matera for film making. From Alberto Lattuada, with his movie "She Wolf", from 1953; to Pier Paolo Pasolini in "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" from 1964; and 2004's Mel Gibson, with "The Passion of the Christ".

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