Cefalù (16 m. above sea level) is a town of about 14,000 inhabitants in the province of Palermo, situated on the northern coast of Sicily. It is located about 70 km. from Palermo and is part of the Regional Natural Park Madonie.
But when was Cefalu born and who were its first inhabitants?
From findings in the two caves of the fortress, on the northern side, called “mares” and “doves,” Cefalù would have been inhabited since prehistoric times. The mythical Hercules around 1283 BC built a temple to the Holy Father Jupiter and the city also developed the cult of Hercules in which it dedicated altars and coins, and for which it was known (in the Punic language) as “Ras Melkart” or Promontory of Hercules.
With the advent of the Greeks in the middle of the eighth century BC, Sicily was inhabited by Phoenicians, Sicilians, and Elimi Sicans, the last so named after a grain (Elimos, in Greek), much cultivated in this population.
Diodorus dates the town of Cefalu in the fourth century BC. In his works, he speaks of Kephaloidios or Kephaloidion, a greek name with different diminutives (Kefalion, Kefalis) and different meanings.
The most appropriate would probably be “head” (capo) referring to the rock fortress which, seen from east to west, seems to be in the form of a reclining head, or “Kefalos” as “head of the source in the sea”, a clear allusion to the sources of water flowing into the sea, assuring the sailors a safe place to refuel.
Cefalù was, in antiquity, a place of myths, including the one so dear to the poet Stesicoro, which is the story of the shepherd Daphnis. In it, Echenaide marries the daughter of Juno. Despite his having sworn to be faithful, Daphnis betrays his wife with the beautiful but corrupt queen, Clymene. During a banquet Clymene slyly offers him wine mixed with the juice of bay leaves (a strong aphrodisiac), a deception which he does not notice. In a moment of great anger, and according to the Sicilian punishment for infidelity, Juno makes Daphnis blind. Daphnis so ends his days on the beach in Cefalu, where, upon his death, he is turned into stone at the behest of his pitying father, Mercury.
Another myth is that of the Greek goddess Artemis, the Roman Diana. Even today on the western side of the Rock, at 150 m., stands a building called the megalithic temple of Diana, perhaps linked to the cult of water, as suggested by the adjoining ancient tank (9th to 8th century BC.)
The nearby harbor called “Presidiana” would seem to indicate the place of a hypothetical inlet where Diana bathed regularly. In the local accent “Prissuliana” would seem a vulgarization of “Prisshulan,” or in Arabic “Refuge of water.”
Do not forget that, for centuries, an important amount of fresh water, known to sailors, had flown since ancient times. The reference point would have been the head-shaped reclining rock, Kefa.
This site, located east of the fort was probably used as a refuge, which is perhaps why the bay, now called “heat”, derives from “Calhur” (Refuge East) or from the ancient greek “Kalos” (beautiful) and “oreuo” (refuge.)
Certainly we can say that Cefalù had to be born as a fortified outpost in the late fifth century BC, with the current dimensions of the center surrounded by a curtain of megalithic walls, that in good part still exists in its original form.
After the First Punic War of 264 BC, Cefalu was taken by Roman deception in 254 BC, becoming, at first, città Decumana (subject to tax) and then under Augustus, città stipendiaria (for money manufacturing.) It had no great importance in this period besides minting coins.
After the fall of the Roman Empire the city was moved, for safety reasons, onto the Rock. The old location by the sea gradually went to ruin, even if it was not entirely abandoned.
From 468 to 535 A. D. Cefalu suffered the domination of the Vandals and Goths and then fell under the rule of Byzantium (ancient Constantinople now Istanbul.)
From the seventh century A.D., Arabs had carried out several raids in Sicily, but in June 827, the real Muslim invasion began with the conquest of the first town, called “district of arms,” Arabic for “Mazara” or Mazara del Vallo.
In 857 Cefaledio (Cefalù) was conquered and sacked by the Arabs and the city’s name changed to “Gafludi”. The men who submitted to the Arabs voluntarily were called “dhimmis” (free) and were allowed the enjoyment of their lands with the requirement of a tax called “Karadja”. The land was irrigated by water pipes (“Saia” in Arabic “Saqija”) that draw from reservoirs called “Gebbie” in Arabic “Gabiya” (still in use today). The crops were introduced: mulberry trees, cane sugar, oranges, and cotton.
Meanwhile, in faraway France (the land of the “Northmen” called “North Man” or Norman) the eldest son of the aristocrat, Tancred of Hauteville, which son was named Robert (called “Guiscard”, or “crafty”) had obtained from Pope Nicholas II, in 1059, the title of Duke of Apulia and Calabria as well as the promise of becoming King of Sicily if he would liberate it from Islam. At that time, Arab soldiers were increasingly making military incursions from nearby Calabria up to the gates of Rome.
In 1063, Cefalu was liberated by the Norman”Guiscard” and his brother Roger de Hauteville during an incursion from Calabria to Sicily to examine the territory. The opportunity to liberate the entire island came about 8 years later, in 1071, when Roger landed at Catania, while Robert “Guiscard” arrived in Palermo, crossing the Peloritani and Nebrodi. However, on the Madonie under “Pizzo Antenna”, he was intercepted by the Arab army.
The battle was decisive, fought on a plateau that is still called “TheBattle Plain.” Here the Normans defeated their enemies, and arrived in Palermo, beginning the siege until the conquest of the city on January 8, 1072.
In August 1129, Roger II sailed from Salerno to reach his father, Roger of Hauteville, in Sicily. During the journey, he found himself amid a storm of such violence as to be close to shipwreck. Roger II made a vow to the Blessed Saviour, that in exchange for sparing him and his crew, he would build a cathedral in His honor at the place of landing.
On August 6, after having landed in the port of Cefalu, he knelt in prayer and thanked the Saviour for the miracle. According to legend, he began the construction of the cathedral shortly thereafter.
In 1131, the city was “rebuilt” at the sea by Roger II, partially using the existing urban structures. The wall follow the coastline and adjust itself directly to the natural reef, then falls back towards the fortress to which it is joined. Fortifications opened at the four gates: I. Porta Terra, in Piazza Garibaldi; II. Porta Ossuna” in Columbus Square; III. Porta Marina (or Porta Pescara) to the west; and the last to the east IV. Porta Giudecca. The original structures, recognizable in the best preserved features, as in Piazza Garibaldi, or down the street of Discesa Paramuro and along Via Porpora, are those big blocks, not cemented by any kind of mortar.
In Piazza Garibaldi, the bottom of a tower is preserved , incorporated into the structures of the church bell of St. Maria della Catena, a former Church dell’Addoloratella of 1780. From here one accesses the gate, Porta Terra, the most important and ancient entrance that led directly into the Cardo Maximus.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the life of Cefalu was strongly characterized by the privileges bestowed upon the bishop. Roger II was a great king, making the kingdom of Sicily one of the most powerful and well ordered states of Europe. In 1129, he created the first parliament in history. England’s was not formed until 1264.
It was the first state bureaucracy, i.e., based on officials and not on a feudal organization (vassals, feudal lords, etc.). It was the first secular state, independent of the Church of Rome, and overall it continued, as in the Arab period, to apply a spirit of religious and civil tolerance that in the rest of Europe would be recognized only in 1598 (four centuries after )with the Edict of Nantes by Henry IV of France.
Few traces of the medieval city are preserved, because Roger II in rebuilding Cefalu (which was perhaps destroyed by his father during the liberation in 1063) took advantage of the ancient urban structure. The neighborhood that best preserves, in its morphology, the medieval look is that of Crucidda – Francavilla, parallel to Corso Ruggiero between the Duomo and the Rocca. Exactly in this neighborhood, with its characteristic structure, there is a preserved home tower, visible in the alley that runs alongside the church of SS. Sacramento. The tower, which is attributed to a hypothetical royal palace of Roger II, could indicate a link between the royal palace and the cathedral, according to the information from that time. There is an example of this at the palace in the town of Monreale.
The old town (centro storico), from a scenic point of view, presents an admirable harmony of north-south and east-west (Ippodameo) style, with the main street running through it, from the ancient Porta Terra – today Piazza Garibaldi – in the south, to the ramparts in the north, the old strada Reale now called Corso Ruggero (in honor of Roger II).
All roads to the north go up on the main street and originally the city was divided into “Chianu (levels) top and bottom. At the bottom level lies the medieval wash-house. The older inhabitants called it “U Ciumi” (The River.) There, a wide staircase leads down to two rooms covered by a low ceiling, one on the left with a lion’s mouth, where it drew water for domestic use and the other with rectangular tanks where the housewives rinsed the dirty clothes with the running water, rubbing them on the rough stones. What we notice is the abundance of flowing water. At the entrance, a plaque at the wall of Vincenzo Auria (1655) reports in Latin, “Here Cefalino flows, more healthy than any other river, purer than silver, colder than snow.” Almost certainly, natural canals carry, from the melting snows of the Madonie, a considerable amount of water to the sea of Cefalu, producing a variety of sources around the territory.
The Heart of the city is Piazza Duomo, in the past called “Chianu ru Signuruzzu.” Excavations of Prof. Amedeo Tullio have confirmed that the whole square was the former venue of the ancient Greek city.
The structure that dominates the square, besides the Cathedral, is the Town Hall. Originally a monastery of Benedictine nuns of St. Catherine, certainly medieval twelfth and thirteenth century, the complex is clearly visible in the drawing of Benedict Passafiume (1645.) During the Garibaldi era it was used as military barracks and in the excavations at the end of 900, there came to light finds of great archaeological value from the Greek era. Now the Town Hall since 1954, of considerable importance is the ancient hall of the trusses, used as a Council Chamber.
From excavations by the Institute of Archaeology, University of Palermo there was discovered in the Cathedral, on the porch right side, an early Christian mosaic floor and, in the layer below, remains of a pre-existing Roman basilica, (perhaps the result of the adaptation of a Roman temple, mentioned by Cicero in his Verrine)
The Cathedral was born June 7, 1131 The day of “Pentecost” by order of Roger II, who laid the foundation stone for the construction of the mighty artifact intended to be also his mausoleum. In 1145, two sarcophagi were placed in the transept. In April of that year, the will of Roger stated that he will be buried in the sarcophagus to the left of the transept. In 1148, a mosaic inscription divided into two records was placed in the apse, proving that the church, by the will of Roger, was enriched with mosaics. But regarding the charming legend of the storm and the vow he had made, you can not find any trace either in the mosaics or the sculptures, or even in the Cathedral, where this miraculous event was to have its immortality. After the untimely death of Roger II on 26 February 1154 in Palermo, the building underwent a slow process of decay, so that in 1215 King Frederick II, facing the cathedral clergy of the future, transferred the two sarcophagi to the Cathedral Palermo, to accommodate his mother Constance of Hauteville, daughter of Roger II and his father Henry VI, son of Frederick “Barbarossa”.
In 1263 Count Henry Ventimiglia financed the wooden covering of the roof, as is attested in the beam of the nave, in white, written in Gothic letters still visible today.
In 1267 Pope Clement IV sent to Sicily Rodolfo Cardinal, Bishop of Albano, to consecrate permanently on April 10 the Cathedral of Cefalu, (136 years after the start of work) and at the same time, one of Monreale.
In 1269 there was placed, on the Triumphal Arc, a painted and modeled wooden cross of remarkable size (today 5.13 m.), the largest among contemporary crosses. Decorated on both sides, one side is Christ crucified and the other is the Risen Christ (Easter.) It was turned according to the appropriate holiday. The interior is dominated by the solemn columns with pointed arches of the Arab taste, but overall by the imposing image of Cristo Pantocratore in the apse. The Solemn Blessing Christ, all in mosaics on gold background, holds in his left hand the gospel written in Greek and Latin. All of this testifies to the perfect harmony that the king was able to create between populations of different customs and habits.
Of the various designs of baroque and neo-classical, very little remains, after the removals which have occurred since the beginning of 1900. These alterations, however, have documented its continuing ability to adapt to changing tastes.
Since 1985 there have been added the 72 stained glass windows, of blown glass, in the pre-existing window spaces.
Leaving the building you come to a large terrace, called “Turniale” or “Sagrato” with stairs, added in 1580. Of particular note is the number of these steps to the altar, which is 33 like the years of Christ.
From January 2011 after the installation of the new Bishop Vincenzo Manzella, and by his expressed desire, the precious Ambo, for years left disassembled awaiting restoration, is now exposed ready to be restored in the place of origin.