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Italy’s Own Jerusalem

This blog post was updated on December 2, 2021.

As Easter Sunday creeps closer, some may find themselves in churches with funny bonnets and hats on their heads. Others may just have an ordinary Sunday, depending on religious beliefs.


Whether you believe in the story of Christ’s death or not, Jerusalem largely becomes the focus this time of year.


Supposedly the site of Jesus’ death, pilgrims flock to the city for Holy Week. Even those just looking to soak up the history and culture head to Jerusalem in spring.


However, many cities around the world boast those biblical auroras, even if they are far, far away from the saints, sinners and saviors.



In Italy, it is hard not to feel as though the city of Matera in the Basilicata region could be the setting for some great religious moment in time. I am not alone. Filmmakers have been selecting the southern Italian city for its biblical landscape for decades. If there is a place to feel a higher power outside of the Holy Lands or within mosques, temples, or simple churches, Matera may be it for a number of reasons.


Home to some of the oldest spirits in the world—Matera was first inhabited in Paleolithic times, making it one of the oldest settlements in the world. The reason human beings began settling here could be in part to the landscape. The rock-out settlement creates a harmony between man and the natural environment. People began carving out caves, otherwise known as sassi, as their homes into the rocky landscape. Since those first settlers, Matera still very much looks like a city carved into the side of a mountain.


A writer’s antithesis of salvation—Most people don’t think of Italy as being third world. However in the 1940s, Carol Levi aimed to open up the world to just how impoverished Italy’s south was. Mussolini exiled him near Matera for his anti-fascist views. Levi tackled the area in Christ Stopped at Eboli, referencing Italy’s south as so destitute that Christ couldn’t possibly have visited. Matera’s landscape of carved out cave dwellings certainly lends that eeriness. Walking through today, there is no struggle of imagination to picture what the city once looked like, a long way from heaven.


A setting for scandal—In the 1950s, residents of Matera began living in the sassi due to extremely poverty. Infested with disease due to the living conditions, the infant mortality rate reached 50%. The government stepped in and forced residents out of their caves and into government block housing. It is known as one of Italy’s biggest scandals. You can sense the strife in the air of Matera, especially when the clouds cast a shadow over the sassi, leaving a ghostly gray tone to the city.


Mel Gibson and filmmaker funny business—Jog your memory back to the days when it seemed Mel Gibson was more concerned with being seen in churches than in court rooms, the filmmaker and actor choose Matera for his Jerusalem for the film The Passion of Christ. The sassi served as Gibson’s biblical backdrop. Today, you can go through the Stations of the Cross in and around Matera, following the movie’s path to the crucifixion. Mel was not the only one to recognize Matera for its on-camera biblical appearance. Pier Paolo Pasolini also shot The Gospel According to St. Matthew on Matera’s grounds.

Have you ever found a city somewhere outside the Middle East that had that biblical feel?


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