( Provincia di Palermo)

                                                                          Assessorato Beni Culturali

 THE GURFA, ALIA, HISTORY AND MISTERIES  - Artistic-Historical paper on The Gurfa, Alia.

The Gurfa is situated in the territory known as Alia, in the south east of the county of Palermo. To reach Alia take the S.S. 121 Palermo – Agrigento exiting at the junction for Manganaro and continue on this road till you reach Alia (km 189). Proceed through the village to the S.P. 53 that takes you to the hills on which, to the south west, stands an ancient rock with several openings forming this mysterious complex that is today known as “the Grotte della Gurfa”, a name that as Silvana Braida noted may cause one to think that these grottos are of natural formation when in reality they are a man made architectural monument fashioned out of the reddish sandstone that forms the hill. The complex question of dating and attributing of this monument is further complicated by the lack of archaeological finds in the area. Inhabited since the hypogenous!!!  And used for agricultural purposes till the late 1990s.

“…The lack of any kind of documentation or archaeological evidence has led to scholars formulating many hypotheses as to the origins of the complex; for example:

-they have been attributed to a pelagic people (Orsi),

-regarded as a Neolithic settlement, due to evidence of a necropolis on the hilltop (Cumbo),

-compared to the Mycenaean sepulchre room, the aulic example that is part of the “treasure of Atreo” within which a large domed circular room, also -having rope holes, is regarded as such (Rocco),

-compared to the large hypogeum of the Hal Saflieni in Malta that is attributed to the megalithic age and culture (Braida),

-considered to be a late Roman settlement, Byzantine, or early medieval (Trasselli-Maurici) but belonging to the Saracen culture

-and finally considered to be definitely medieval (Bresc).

“The only fact that is uncontested is that there is also a necropolis on the same sight. The name is of Arab origin, however, this does not does not necessarily mean that the complex is also of the same origin. What it does indicate is that Muslims used the site in the period between the Muslim conquests of the island up to the uprising during the reign of Frederic 2nd (mid 9th century and the first quarter of the 13th century).

A number of theories have emerged as to the significance of the name: the term Chufra (from the Arab Hufrah) would indicate a “grave”; Gurfa, could be interpreted as “steep mountain side”; Gurfa (from the Arab Yurfah/Yurf) translates as “room on an upper floor”(Caracausi). Even today, in North Africa, there are settlements that are known by the name Gurfa, a name that is used to indicate a grain store/barn (Pelitteri). .…..”the Gurfa is first recorded, as an existing prosperous and populated hamlet (Arab), in documents pertaining to 1150 when King William granted the sight to be used as a hospital for the lepers of Palermo after which, it and all it possessed, became part of the estate of the Teutonic Order…..the complex, that appears to be carved out of the rock, is on two different levels; the lower floor has two rooms ,with independent entrances, that are connected via a gallery that runs along the façade (external wall). The first of these rooms is square and is notable for the unusual formation of the pitched ceiling. The second is surprising both because of its size (12.5 metres in diameter and 16 metres high) and shape, bell-shaped (campaniform), with an opening in the centre of the roof. Steps, carved out of the rock wall, lead to a small, body high, opening leading to the upper floor that consists of four (parallelepiped shaped) chambers, smaller than those on the lower floor, that are connected by short passage ways. The end of one of these passageways terminates in a large opening that overlooks the large bell shaped chamber below, suggesting that at one time the two levels were linked vertically…The view from this site of Mount Cammarata and of the Keep/Castle of Castronovo supports the hypothesis that the Gurfa is part of the Platani network” (From documents belonging to the planning department (Alia) The Suburban Park of the Gurfa, produced by the Archaeology Department, Planning Office, Palermo, BB.CC.AA.).

The most recent studies, research by Carmelo Montagna, result in the discovery and publication of an IHS inscribed Trident and Christian Monograph which, would suggest that the complex could be placed in archaeological terms with the network of waterways formed by the Platani-Fiumetorto/San Leonardo rivers thus leading to a further study of the Minoan and Mycenaean records, which illustrate protohistoric cultural evolution, that according to ancient historians date back to “ three generations before the Trojan Wars”: “ the tale of the saga of Minus in Sikania ends in his tragic demise and burial in a monumental tomb, isolated in the hinterland, incorporated in an architecturally grandiose Temple dedicated to Aphrodite and open to the cult for worship. His testimony was made in the protohistoric age near Kamikos, in an edifice designed and built by Dedalo for King Kokalos, to be found in the valley of the river Halykos / Platani. …Precisely because the Tholos of the Gurfa, with its unique symbols, is the largest in the Mediterranean even compared to the celebrated Tholos of Atreus in Mycenae it would be reasonable to assume, lacking any other reference points, given the artistic and architectural style that it probably belongs to the “dedalic” school. There is evidence, in fact, at the Gurfa, in the valley of the river Platani and in areas that are similar across Sicily of a school of architects and craftsmen that can, given the evidence, be associated to Dedalo. …. one of the greatest and oldest craftsman/ builders of the Mediterranean, in any event, the greatest architect of  protohistoric Sicily, had a hand in the Tholos of the Gurfa…. In the absence of any other evidence, the most probable conclusion is a connection with the mythological figure of Daidaleos-Dedalo who was to have been involved in the sepulchre/tomb of the mythological figure Minos-Minos in Sikania…” (from Carmelo Montagna, Signs, Symbols and archaic sacredness at the Tholos of the Gurfa, in : Tracking Minus, 2005).

The monumental Tholos complex, with its burial chamber and its “curtained” ceiling, can be associated, because of its size of Mediterranean supremacy, to those, recorded around 1400 B.C., of  Mycenae (Treasure of Atria) and Orchomenos (treasures of the Mayans) allowing a probable allocation of the site as a Treasure of Minos/Minosse  in Sikania. Research is still on going in order to establish this fact, which, is presented by the author of Il Tesoro di Minus (2009).

And yet…”in the attempt to make some sort of sense to the architecture of the entire complex of the Gurfa it seams reasonable to assume that it has a background that is that of the tholos appertaining to the culture of the Mycenaean’s in the valley of Halykos-Platani. What we have is a grandiose tomb/temple belonging to the protohistoric age, the probable result of an intercultural exchange between people from across the seas and the indigenous Sikanians, the former identify themselves with their knowledgeable use of the symbol of the trident. The creation of artefacts could therefore be traced back to a period after an unpredicted tragic event that probably occurred within the coastal area of Makara-Minoa that necessitated the building of a monumental tomb for the “hero” leader of a cult. The hypothesis of shared rituals and liturgies, introduced by the indigenous people, leads to the probable conclusion of a restructuring of an existing important place of worship, both shared and central, for the entire Sikanian territory. This is why the Gurfa is at the geographic heart of Sikania and along the important waterways: the Platani-Fiumetorto/ St.Leonardo, from Heraclea Minoa and Himera and from coast to coast…” (Carmelo Montagna Gurfa Aurea. Considerazioni sull’insediamento rupestre della Gurfa di Alia e sul suo dedalico costruttore: tracce protostoriche di ‘geometria sacra’ e ‘divina proporzione’, di ‘sezione aurea’, nel contesto della ‘Cultura della Thòlos’ della valle del Platani-Halykos  e del Mediterraneo, research awaiting publication).



- C. Leone Cardinale, Alia: notizie geografico-storico-etnografiche e documenti diversi intorno alla sua origine, Palermo 1901, reprinted by Comune di Alia 2001;

- Biagio Pace, Arte e Civiltà della Sicilia Antica, ed. Dante Alighieri, 1st edition 1935. Vol IV (ed.1949);

- Eugenio Guccione, Le Grotte della Gurfa, in: Un mese a Palermo, anno III, n°7, Luglio 1976;

- Silvana Braida, Alia. Le Grotte della Gurfa, opuscolo del Comune di Alia, undated. The same researcher, architect and architecture historian has researched this topic at different times, published in: Le Grotte della Gurfa, in: Incontri e iniziative- Memorie del centro di cultura di Cefalù, n°1/1984;

- AA.VV. La Gurfa e il Mediterraneo- Atti del Convegno di Studi storico-archeologici sulle Grotte della Gurfa (Dicembre 1995), reprinted ed. 2001, Comune di Alia;

- Islam in Sicilia. Da Alia a Nàlut, le mille e una Gurfa, Atti del Convegno di Studi-28 giugno 1997, Antonino Pellitteri, Comune di Alia;

- Francesco Tomasello, Le tombe a tholos della Sicilia centro meridionale, Cronache di Archeologia 34-35/1995-96, ed. CNR-Università di Catania, 1997;

- Palermo and province– Archeologia / Testimonianze archeologiche della Provincia di Palermo, ed.2005, Azienda Autonoma Provinciale per l’Incremento Turistico di Palermo, Amedeo Tullio, archeologist, pp.30-31;

- Carmelo Montagna Sulle tracce di Minosse, ed. Comune di Regionale BB.CC.AA. e P.I., 2005 (Atti del Convegno di Studi 2004);

- Carmelo Montagna, Thòlos e Tridente. Il simbolo del tridente e la civiltà della thòlos nella valle del Platani, ed. Comune di Regionale BB.CC.AA. e P.I., 2007.


(Historic-artistic paper by Carmelo Montagna, 20.1.2009)

 (traduzione effettuata dalla Dr.ssa LINA RIFUGIATO)