Despite Matera has become a prominent tourist attaction in the last years and despite in 1993 the UNESCO has declared this old town to be a World Heritage site, a lot of people still do not know what the “Sassi of Matera” really are.
Some people think of them as a “heap of stones”, others think of the Sassi as huge rock blocks constituting a sort of monument and others even cannot imagine what they would find out once arrived in Matera.
The Sassi districts constitute the most ancient part of Matera: they are so ancient that they are considered to be the second most ancient town in the world, dating back to the prehistoric age (maybe the paleolithic age). Since then, the old town had been evolving and transforming and it kept on being lived until the ’50s (when these districts were depopulated). Since the ’80s the Sassi have come to a new life thanks to the importance Matera today has as a tourist phenomenon.
A whole town carved out of calcareous rock (usually known as “tufa” stone): a system of dwellings dug out deeply in the tufa stone that than has been used to build tha main facades. The Sassi of Matera are a real town made up of tunnels, cave dwellings rising one over the other: each cave dwelling has its own cistern gathering the rain-water, a clever and well-structured system that, over the centuries, has guaranteed the community water and drinking resources.
Matera can be considered to be the capital of the “cave culture” having a very vast structure, made up of a fortified barycentric acropolis, the so-called “Civita”, surrounded by a series of small, mostly semi-rural cave dwellings carved out of the slopes of the canyon (known as “Gravina”) and occupying the uneven land of the Murgia, with cone-shaped bell-towers arising from a cityscape of incomparable beauty and distinction. Each group of dwellings was structured as a place of worship and a common area (the “vicinato”) where cave houses were combined with services (cellars, stalls, oil mills, sheepfolds and the “neviere”, that is, cellars where people used to gather the snow which had fallen down during the winter to keep food cool in the summer) by following the morphological structure of the site.
In some way, the Sassi of Matera can be compared to a huge sculpture made up of a tangled system of alleys, stairs, caves and stately mansions, arches and landings, gardens and wide terraces, all carved out of the rocky promontory close to the Gravina, the deep canyon which takes its name from the river flowing through it. The Civita is the most ancient district: it rises up on the highest part of the promontory and it dominates and divides the other two districts, the “Sasso Caveoso” and the “Sasso Barisano”. In the Civita you will find many stately mansions and the “Duomo” (the cathedral) which was built on its acropolis, from the ruins of the Matellan, Quadra and Capone towers that once surrounded it.
The Sasso Barisano rises on the north-west side of the Civita, the valley that the Cathedral overlooks. The Sasso Caveoso lies south of the Civita and, despite of the precence of several stately mansions, it is the district which has been completely carved out of the rock: the ancient cave churches and dwellings and the cellars are prove of this.