Nestled in the rugged landscape of southern Italy lies Matera, an ancient city where humans have lived for millennia. With its chaotic cluster of whitewashed houses that rise up from the gorge on which it was built, the city feels distinctly biblical. But behind Matera’s limestone walls lie the secrets of a prehistoric past that take us way back before the time of Christ.
Matera is a city unlike any other. Perched atop a rocky ravine in the Basilicata region – the instep of Italy’s boot – it feels otherworldly, like an ancient civilization frozen in time. Just by looking at it, you can see that it’s one of the oldest living cities on earth. But there’s an entire primeval world concealed under its cobbled streets.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that several filmmakers have handpicked this city as the backdrop to their biblically inspired movies; it was the perfect stand-in for ancient Jerusalem in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, for instance, and Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur. But despite its movie credits, the city’s past tells a story of struggles and secrets.
Today Matera is home to around 60,000 people. But it wasn’t always a thriving community. For decades, up until the 1980s in fact, part of it was a derelict ghost town. Stone houses had been left to crumble, abandoned almost entirely except for a few shepherds who refused to leave.
You see, living conditions in Matera had deteriorated over the years – or, perhaps, had simply never caught up with the rest of the country. Hidden away on top of a steep hill with little access to the outside world, there was no electricity, no proper sewage system or running water – even as late as the 1950s.
People here were living in squalor. Large families were squeezed into small spaces with very little natural light, and farm animals were kept inside. Unsurprisingly, disease was a major problem. Malaria, cholera and dysentery were all common ailments, and the average life expectancy was 35. The child mortality rate was as high as 50 percent.
The rest of the country, though, had little idea just how bad things had gotten in Matera. After all, few people ever came and went. But in 1945 renowned painter Carlo Levi published a memoir, Christ Stopped at Eboli, which exposed Matera’s grim living conditions to the nation. Levi wrote that peasants were living “in a world that rolls on independent of their will, where man is in no way separate from his sun, his beast, his malaria.” Matera quickly became notorious and the city was branded “the shame of Italy.”
And so in 1952, an embarrassed Italian government decided to take drastic measures to do away with this impoverished city. Officials began forcefully removing inhabitants and relocating them to more modern areas – in total, 15,000 people were evicted. And part of the city was left to deteriorate – until 1993, when it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But why, exactly?
Well, the normal way of life here, as it turned out, was considerably more primitive than people had previously thought. Indeed, the stone facades that resembled modern houses had actually been concealing a far less sophisticated form of dwelling. Behind their doors lay an intricate puzzle of holes and tunnels extending deep into the mountainside.
That’s right, the people of Matera had been living in caves. A complex of 1,500 caves to be precise, all naturally occurring inside the rock face and, for the most part, completely concealed from the outside. And the deeper you delve, the more secrets these ancient dwellings reveal.
Encompassing an area of some 2,500 acres, the caves actually form a vast and elaborate maze underneath the city, an entire subterranean settlement. Within it, there are hundreds of houses, churches and monasteries all carved inside the natural caves. But just how long have these remarkable dwellings been there?
Astonishingly, archaeologists discovered artifacts from the Neolithic period, which helped them determine that the caves were first inhabited as early as 7000 BC, making them one of Italy’s earliest ever human settlements. Back then, they were home to a clan of prehistoric troglodytes – or, as we’ve come to know them today, cavemen.
In their earliest form, these troglodyte houses comprised simple caves with a wall of rocks to fill the opening. Over time, as the population grew, inhabitants adapted and dug out new holes and channels in order to accommodate the rising numbers.
Over the centuries, as our cave-dwelling ancestors continued to develop and learn more skills, more sophisticated structures were added. These included stairs and alleyways carved from the surrounding porous rock – or tufa – and, eventually, the facades of houses that we see today.
More than 150 churches were built within these cave walls, too. Many were actually constructed by monks fleeing persecution during the Middle Ages. The Crypt of Original Sin, a breathtaking 9th-century monastery full of painted frescoes, was only discovered in the 1980s.
These primitive dwellings have come to be known as Sassi – which means “stones” in Italian – and they are now reckoned to be the longest-inhabited cave settlement in the entire world. And that’s because, remarkably, there are people still living in them today.
After the area was declared a World Heritage Site in the ’90s – UNESCO called it “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” – old inhabitants began to return to their caves. Most of these had been empty for decades.
Today there are approximately 2,000 residents – who still fondly refer to themselves as cavemen – living in the Sassi again. And there is no other place on earth where they’d be able to say that they live in pretty much the same houses as their ancestors did 9,000 years ago.
And though not a huge amount has changed since the days of no running water and cattle living in the kitchen, many of the underground dwellings have recently been given a new, stylish lease of life. Now some grottoes are home to lavish restaurants, luxury spas and boutique hotels. Fancy spending an evening at a jazz club inside a prehistoric cave, anyone?
Matera’s shameful past is, thankfully, far behind it. Today, its historical significance is recognized worldwide, and a stay in its one-of-a-kind cave hotels is rapidly becoming one of Europe’s trendiest travel experiences – over a quarter of the city’s residences are listed on Airbnb, in fact. From the prehistoric to the present, then, there’s no denying that Matera has always been a place unlike any other.