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Cave Dwellings of Matera

Cave Dwellings of Matera

The Italian City of Matera is home to one of the most eccentric landscapes in Europe. Matera houses ancient caves called the Sassi di Matera, occupied from the Paleolithic period. The Sassi (culled from the Latin word 'Saxum', which means a hill, rock or a huge stone) is said to be one of man's first communities in Italy, with evidence of life dating back to 7000BCE. It is planted in the Murgia Plateau Area and extends between Basilicuta and Apuila. The caves are houses caved into Calcarenitic (Clastic Limestone).

The Caves house various structures, such as Churches with hand-sculpted designs. The Structure of the Sassi is similar to the ancient sites found in Jerusalem, and this feature has encouraged the filming of various Christian – themed movies, including the Nativity Story, shot in 2006, and St Matthew, shot in 1964, amongst others

The Sassi was tagged a national disgrace after a visit from the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi in 1950. The visit drove the government to make decisions that started a chain of steps which had an immediate effect on the lives of the city. Residents of the Caves with a population of about 16,000 people, were moved out of their homes by the Italian government to a new housing project in the modern city of Matera in the 1950s due to the caves' poor living conditions and increased mortality rates from diseases. Most of the residents strived to adjust to their new living conditions, including running tap water and a boiler. Despite their struggles, this phase marked the start of a new era for the Sassi as the caves became hosts to various artists and movie productions.

The Sassi were left uninhabited for years till a competition was held on what to do with the city, Some of the previous occupants wanted the caves destroyed because of the residual memory of the place, but the younger demographics saw beyond its last state and were in awe of its beauty and its potential if revived. In 1986, a law was passed for people to move back into the Sassi, but some of the occupants refused to return as they had become used to their new residency, which had facilities the Sassi lacked. However, the government facilitated the restoration by financing the rehabilitation of the Sassi. The caves were put in the limelight when Matera was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1993, and the movie 'The Passion of Christ' was filmed there in 2004. The Sassi became a Tourist destination in 2014 when the city became Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2019. There was a change in the economy of the cave town. Some of the occupants used their homes as Air B&Bs and holiday lets. As the doors of the Sassi are being opened to the rest of the world, some of the other occupants are still struggling with the changes as they complain of being dislodged from their homes and the character of the historical sites is being changed.

Despite the Sassi, one of Italy's top holiday spots, the caves still lack basic amenities and a shortage of hotel beds. The city of Matera now welcomes about 600,000 tourists a year.