Cefalù

History of Cefalù

The city of Cefalù, the ancient Kephalodion - a greek term that means "Head" and refers to the natural shape of the Rock which dominates the city - has a privileged position in the territory of Palermo.
Built around an imposing stronghold that had a defensive role in the past centuries, Cefalù is one of the 15 Sicilian municipalities of the Madonie Park, a natural and historical site which preserves interesting archaeological finds - farms, churches, mills - as evidence of the human passage on this area in the remote ages.
It is a special place where the historical past is still alive in the local handicraft activities and in the old folk wisdom, and perfectly melting with the beauty of the natural park.

The visitor is struck by its natural position, the splendid Romanesque Cathedral rising among a tangle of rues, the medieval elements scattered along the slopes, from the Rock to the Corso Ruggero, dotted with little suggestive streets and arches binding the buildings together.


Nowadays Cefalù has become a tourist seaside resort, equipped with all sorts of tourist facilities, able to guard the signs of its important past, while adapting its urban design to the needs of a modern city.

The origins

The origins of Cefalù are not certain but it would seem that it originated from an indigenous site which grew and developed even thanks to the contacts had with the several peoples which dominated the area from the V century B.C. on.

Historical background

Cefalù boasts several archaeological finds like the ruins of an ancients castle, the Cathedral, renowned for its mosaics, the Madralisca Palace which houses the homonymous museum containing outstanding works of art.
The remains of a megalithic sanctuary, the Temple of Diana, lie on the rock which dominates the city. The temple dates from the IX century B.C. and are evidence of a human settlement since pre-Hellenic times.
The archaeologists helped to reconstruct the history of the place from its far off roots, when its name was Kephalodion and was in contact with the Hellenistic centres of the Island.
Few though important archaeological finds were found on this area, mostly in the caves of the "colombe" (doves) and of the "giumente" (mares) and in the dolmen tank of the Temple of Diana.

The Temple of Diana was probably built in the V century B.C. and afterwards restored. Its religious role is documented by the nearby ruins of Byzantine churches.
It has a megalithic structure and a polygonal shape with big blocks, various rooms and a corridor that leads to the only access to the temple.

The historical documents recount that in the year 396 B.C. the inhabitants of Kephalodion formed an alliance with Imilcone, a Carthaginian general. Then, when Carthage expansion was stopped by Dionigi the "old", Cefalù capitulated to Siracusa.
During the first Punic war in 254 B.C. the city was conquered by the Romans that called it Cephaloedium. Under this new domination the city had to endure a period of decline and its role reduced to "civitas decumana".
After the Western Roman Empire collapse there was a territorial withdraw as the urban settlements constantly moved back from the coast to a new urban area, set on the Rock.

The findings concerning the Hellenistic-Roman periods are the city walls, the Temple of Diana, the ruins of several streets decorated with rich pavements, the medieval alleys, the necropolis which shows several monumental tombs ranging from the IV to the I century B.C.

The city walls are well preserved and give Cefalù the aspect of an impregnable fortress. Their structure is completed by towers and bastions. Particularly, the remains of a tower were merged into the Church of the "Madonna della Catena".
On the northern side the walls are best preserved thanks to the restoration works over the centuries. Here were recovered most archaeological findings.
Originally, four doors gave access in town, and were called: Porta Terra, Porta d'Arena or d'Ossuna, Porta della Giudecca and Porta Marina. This last has only survived; it has a gothic arch and offers a spectacular outlook over the sea.

The streets are renowned for their rich pavements. Two are specially worth mentioning: a street from the Augustan period situated under the cathedral and one, cobbled paved, dating from the V century B.C., by the cathedral too.
The today's urban plan lies on the main street, the Corso Ruggero, that split up the city in two areas: the medieval quarter, on the one side, made up of a maze of streets and views, and, on the other, one more regularly designed.


Another street harbours the mentioned Porta Marina and the remains of a medieval wash-house, known as 'u ciuni' (the river), that was still in use until a few years ago and whose origins are not certain. Here, going down the lavic steps you enter a room with a low roof and a vault. Some rock mouths on the walls make the water flow into the room.
A cave under the building drives the water to the sea. Next to the wash-house there is the thermal baths known as "Il Bagno di Cicero", which also gives its name to a nearby square.
Also worth mentioning are the ruins of three ancient dwellings, dating back to the III-II century B.C. The historical importance of these places is due to the recovery of a jar containing some bronze coins from the late IV century B.C.


With the coming of the Normans in 1063, headed by Ruggero II, it began a period of wealth and prosperity, and the city even became a bishop seat.The Norman settlement is testified by several monuments such as the Arabian-Norman Cathedral and the Osterio Magno, Ruggero II's probable residence, recently restored and opened as a public place.
The Osterio Magno's varied architectural elements are evidence of the changes and the evolution of the building over the centuries.
It consists of two parts: one, more ancient, made of gild lavic stone, from the end of the XIII century, whereas a quadrangular tower characterizes the other more recent side.

Cefalù enjoyed a large economic prosperity until the second half of the XII century, when the civil wars broke out in the Island, first between the Swabians and Anjous, then between this latter and Aragonas..

In the year 858 Cefalù was conquered by the Arabs and annexed to the Emirate of Palermo. They called it Gafludi.

Anther important finding dates from this period: a mosaic pavement showing some plants and animals among which stands out a dove drinking from the bowl of eternal life.
Ancient inscriptions were found in the southern side of the Hellenic necropolis, and are preserved in the Mandralisca Municipal Museum.


During this period of contests the city was often under the control of the Ventimiglia family, one of the most powerful of the reign.
New bloody conflicts struck Cefalù in the beginning of the XV century, caused by the power struggle between the Vicar Queen Bianca di Navarra and Bernardo Cabrera, between 1410 and 1412.
Starting from the XV century Cefalù met a new flourishing period. In the following centuries the historic and politic events of the city were strictly intertwined with those of the rest of the Island.