In 2008 Amie, Seth and Milo made a pilgrimage with me, accompanying my mother to her village in the mountains north of Sparta, in the region of southern Greece’s mainland known as the Peloponnesos. My mother’s village is in a region known for producing some of the finest olives on earth. More on that later. While there for some days we had outings, including to the walled fortress town of Monemvasia, built nearly 1,500 years ago. In the picture to the right you can see a photo I took from inside a hermitage, a cave where various monks lived throughout centuries, above the walled city.
When I opened the New Yorker this week, I was struck by a photo accompanying one of the stories. It reminded me of the photo I took, but the story below could not be more different than the story I would tell about this hilltop town in southern Greece:
Take any road in Italy, look up, and you’ll see a lovely hilltop town: a campanile, a castello, a few newer buildings spilling down the slope, as if expelled for the crime of ugliness. But even amid this bounty there is something exceptional about Matera. It clings to a denuded peak in the extreme south of the country, in the Basilicata region—the instep of Italy’s boot. Travellers are often shocked by the starkness of Matera.
It’s a claustrophobic outcropping of cave dwellings carved into limestone, like scrimshaw, with hardly a tree or a blade of grass to be seen. In the afternoon sun, Matera looks like a pile of tarnished gold thrown down by a careless giant. Its severe beauty is as much a tribute to human resilience as to the rugged landscape where it is situated. Most places in Italy encourage you to celebrate the prettiness that wealth bestows: exquisite iron grillwork, festive marble fountains. Matera is more visceral—a monument to endurance and thrift, to hard lives lived without waste.
Matera may look inhospitable, but people have been settling here for a long time: it is often cited as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, in a league with Aleppo and Byblos. There is something inherently alluring about this natural fortress, which towers above fertile plains and the Gravina River. A cave near Matera contains the remains of a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-year-old hominid; another has tools and bones from ten thousand years ago, and dozens of Neolithic sites dot the surrounding ridges. Matera was already a significant settlement in the Bronze Age.
Because of Matera’s narrow confines, rebuilding has been constant, making the city a palimpsest in stone. A dig in 1906, near the Duomo, in the town center, went thirty-five feet below the surface and found Christian coffins and the remains of a Saracen invasion from around 800 A.D. The scientists kept going, and below that they discovered statues, broken columns, and money from the Byzantine occupation, of around 400 A.D. Farther down, they uncovered ancient Greek and Roman coins and, under that layer, bits of ceramics from three thousand years ago. Matera stands at what has long been a crossroads between East and West. As Anne Parmly Toxey points out in her comprehensive 2011 study, “Materan Contradictions,” Greeks, Romans, Longobards, Byzantines, Saracens, Swabians, Angevins, Aragonese, and Bourbons all passed through the town. Man came here and never left—that’s the local boast. Given this history, it is jarring to learn that fifty years ago the government tried to make Matera go extinct…
Read the whole article here.