This morning we traveled out of Palermo and towards the town of Cefalu. As we drove away from the city and traveled east along the coast, the Sicilian landscape transformed into picturesque rolling hills of farmland dotted with small towns made up of both individual villas and condominiums. Upon arriving in Cefalu, the land was noticeably more hilly and as we drew closer, the Cefalu Cathedral could be seen looking over the town. On top of the hill, we could also see a Norman castle, which was built upon a huge rock, known as La Rocca. The outline of the castle as well as the multiple levels of guard walls surrounding it were visible from far below and looked like a formidable fortress protecting the town below.
The town of Cefalu as it is known today is a coastal fishing town and looks much like the typical images of Sicily that we see on postcards and in guidebooks. Narrow stone streets lined with shops and small restaurants wound up the hill, leading us to the cathedral and La Rocca beyond. From the house windows above, families had hung their wash alongside colorful flowers and plants and lights celebrating the recent Epiphany holiday. As we approached Cefalu Cathedral, two towers of Romanesque style could be seen peaking over the other buildings. Vincento, our tour guide, described the cathedral as “the giant” and the city below it as “the dwarf.” On the front wall of the cathedral, arrow slits could be seen on the first and second floors. Near the door of the cathedral, there was a circle engraved, about 1.5 feet in diameter; this circle actually represented the typical size of a basket of durum wheat. Both of these characteristics display an interesting detail about sacred spaces that we often overlook in modern times. The church (or cathedral in this case) was for many towns and cities the center of social, economic, and political life- as well as religious. Both business and personal interactions took place outside the walls of a space that served as the visible and intangible center of faith and religion. The functionality of these spaces as places of community and kinship enhances their importance within the town. For us, this was an interesting dynamic to encounter.
This point also brought up an interesting question: why did the Normans build these churches in such earnest when they conquered Sicily? The answer to this question involves many different factors. The Norman conquest of much of Italy was shown to the people they conquered as a crusade. In agreement with the Pope, each new Norman conqueror was first and foremost conquering the land for the purpose of the church, more specifically the Western Catholic Church. The Cefalu Cathedral, begun in 1131 by Roger II, was one of these such establishments. Not only did this agreement benefit the Pope and the entire Roman Catholic faith by expanding the number of believers, but also the Norman conquerors who wanted to establish, expand, and solidify their kingdom among people who were basically foreigners. This situation was quite ideal for both parties involved and accounts for many of the churches that we see in modern Sicily today.
After visiting inside the cathedral and looking at the Byzantine-style mosaics and frescos inside, we continued on for a hike up the hillside towards the ruins of the Temple of Diana. Along the way, we saw remnants of cisterns used by the fortress as well as storehouses for grains, ovens used for baking bread, and multiple sections of stone walls. At the temple, we climbed upon the ruins and could see the entirety of the town below us – the beautiful beach, the marina where smaller ships were kept and the expanse of houses and farmland. Although only our second full day in Sicily, the beauty was unmatched by anything previously seen, and there is only more to come!