One of the gifts of being over sixty (actually, well past 60) is the freedom to enjoy learning about other people who inhabit our beautiful planet.
Recently I visited Sicily and Southern Italy. One of the most eye-opening visits was to the ancient urban structure of the Sassi dwellings in Matera in the Basilicata region of Sicily. Known as the Sassi, the inhabitants lived in caves carved out of the side of the mountain. If you enlarge the photo (click to enlarge), you can see how the dwellings and churches seem to be stacked on each other as well as the lava draped over some of the buildings.
Used by international film directors as a setting for biblical movies, the area looks like an ancient Jerusalem. You may see this background in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of The Christ.”
The idea that people lived in caves as late as the mid-20th Century is mind -boggling. Conditions were such that these people kept their livestock in the caves with them, sometimes for warmth in the winter. They had no running water and often they had only enough food for one meal and that meal went to the worker in the family.
With the most valuable possession being the donkey that could carry the worker to a farm in hope of finding a day’s work, it slept inside the cave with the family. To say that sanitary conditions were the worst possible is an understatement. Poor health was a trademark for the Sassi.
Needless to say, illness and starvation played a large part in their everyday lives.
Ironically, these deplorable living conditions took place midst the lush, bountiful farms that surround the area. Driving outside the area you can see verdant valleys bursting with grapes, figs, apples, pistachios, kiwi, wheat, and many other crops.
How could this happen? Were the Sassi afraid of change and kept to themselves?
The government ignored the conditions until an Italian writer, Carlo Levi wrote about it in the novel “Cristo si e Fermato a Eboli” (the Shame of Italy). Levi was an Italian writer and anti-fascist activist who was exiled to the Basilicata region where he encountered these people. In the late 50′s, the government forcibly evicted the Sassi because the conditions were becoming too public.
Going through this area I felt a sense of awe, incredulity, and gratitude that I live where I do. It also made me feel somewhat helpless knowing that there are probably many people in the world living under similar conditions. Always underneath such horror is fear…fear of change, of being killed and the worst to me is fear of God.
Exploration of this part of Italian history was a bit daunting; however, modern day Italy is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. If you would like to view some of the wonder and beauty of Italy, I’ve posted some photos on Facebook. This link opens the album without your having to sign in to Facebook. When there, click on each photo to enlarge and the narratives will be on the right-hand column just below the photo of me. That way you can take a mini-trip with me.