Ceglie, the Messapican stronghold
The village of Ceglie Messapica, situated at the base of the Castle, was originally built as a point of lookout and fortification. At the heart of the village is a Norman tower dating back to the beginning of the last millenium. In following years, at its side the over 30 meter tall square tower was built that strikingly stands out from the ancient center. The tower/center was originally surrounded by walls that were accessed at the time via the Monterrone Gate, the Giuso Gate and the Arch of the Cross Gate, all of which are now destroyed.
A bit of history
Kalia, Καιλια, in Greek, was the original name of Ceglie. It served as the most
important defensive center of the Messapi during wars with the Spartan settlers – the
settlers who later founded Taranto and who were looking to expand their reach throughout all of Southern Italy. In the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C., the city consisted of
around 20,000 inhabitants protected by a system of defensive walls made of specchie
and paretoni which are over 20 m tall in some points.
Many of the walls are archaeological ruins: in the countryside there are 18 specchie that hint at the grandeur of the surrounding walls which were presumably elliptical in shape, some of which also acted also as crypts. Of great historical importance are the archaeological ruins discovered during recent excavations for the construction of a new Church. These contain significant relics dating back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. such as coins, vases, and various ceramic and iron objects.
Madonna della Grotta
Particularly striking is the small church of Madonna Della Grotta, or the “Cave of
Mary”. Built over a natural cave, it was the place of worship of Byzantine monks around
the 900s A.D. Unfortunately, this site of great historical relevance and beauty has been left in a state of abandonment despite numerous outcries from the Ceglian community. The beautiful small church and the underlying cave, which was witness to the important presence of Eastern monks and contributed greatly to the cultural growth of the Valle d’Itria in the Middle Ages, is sadly at risk of collapsing.
The Eastern Monks in Valle d’Itria
In 726 A.D., the Byzantine Emperor of Constantinople Leo III ordered the destruction of all images representing God, Mary, and the Saints, and initiated a religious persecution that forced a great number of monks and worshipers to flee from the East. Landing on the Puglian Coast, they found themselves in the Karstric caves of Upper Salento typical of the morphological-nature habitat they were used to. Usually inside the small caves were one or more couches to rest, a crypt adorned with wall paintings depicting the Saints, and an altar used for the celebration of Mass. The monks served an important role in medieval communities in Valle d’Itria and in Upper Salento. In addition to building various crypts and small churches – such as the Church of St. Nicholas of Patara in Cisternino, the caves of San Biagio to S. Vito dei Normanni and to Ceglie the crypt of Saint Michael, the Crosses and the church of Saint Anna – the monks were important references for the local community since, as they were well educated and knew how to read and write, they could transfer their knowledge to adults and children, including farming techniques. It was also thanks to their contributions that olive-growing increased in our lands at the end of the Middle Ages.
Things to see
- Le grotte di Montevicoli Located only 1.5 km from the city center, they offer a spectacular underground route around 100m long strewn with magnificent stalagmites.
This article has been translated by Rachel Carlton, Student at RICE University of Houston Texas: “Hi there! My name is Rachel Carlton, and I am a student at Rice University majoring in Cognitive Sciences and Linguistics. I’m especially interested in the intersection between language and thought, and I really love learning new languages! In my free time I enjoy listening to music and cheering for FC Barcelona”