The city center of Matera is flanked by the hillside Sassi, a peasant neighborhood that boasts an incredible assemblage of cave houses. They are considered the longest-occupied cave dwellings in the Earth’s history, inhabited since prehistoric times right up until today.
Until the 1950s, Matera was an embarrassment to Italy. As the fascists modernized the country, it remained woefully backward, without an effective plumbing system and riddled with poverty and disease. A resettlement plan evicted some of the Sassi di Matera residents from their old-fashioned cave houses in the poorest part of the city. Once the neighborhood was emptied out, the government planned to raze the hillside with dynamite.
However, when scholars investigated the city they came across sites like the Crypt of Original Sin, a secret 9th-century monastery. They realized just how old the settlement really was. The cave dwellings contained evidence that people have been continuously living in them since at least 7,000 BC.
A 150,000-year-old hominid skeleton was found in one cave, along with Neolithic tools. The Ancient Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, and many others passed through here, leaving behind physical artifacts as well as cultural ones like the painted caves inhabited by unknown artists of ages past. Matera has been around as long as Fertile Crescent cities like Aleppo and Jerusalem, and so has been used as the set for films like The Passion of the Christ and Ben-Hur.
Despite the government’s efforts in the 20th century, the Sassi lifestyle hasn’t changed in centuries. People moved back into the caves, which provide surprisingly cozy shelter. Social life occurs in the central courtyards, which also contain the communal ovens where people bake their bread.
Though Matera is now a tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site, its hard-to-reach location makes it feel exclusive and secret. The neighborhood now has boutique hotels, restaurants, wineries, a jazz club, and a spa, but even its most affluent buildings are housed in caves.