Cefalý in Scily - The Capital of Norman Achitecture


Our charming little town stretches over a mountainous projection of the Tyrrhenian coast. It lies in the shadow of a tremendous rock called "Rocca", which is also the town's symbol. The favorable climate combined with the beauty of the landscape and the historical treasures make Cefalý one of the most attractive touristic highlights in all of Palermo's province. Besides tourism, agriculture and fishing are the two major important lines of business. Little is known about the origin of Cefalý.

It must have begun as a fortified outpost, almost certainly Greek, towards the end of the feet of the "Rocca", where today the well-preserved historic center of Cefalý is located. The town is surrounded by a wall of megalithic construction, a good part of which is still original. The name Cefalý may derive either from the Greek "Kephaloidion" or the Punic "Kefa". Both mean "head" and refer to the shape of the Rocca which resembels a small head. Situated on the "Rocca" is  a megalithic structure known as the "Temple of Diana".

The temple dates back to the end of the 4th to the beginning of the 5th century before Christ and was built around a cistern. The cistern was used for water rituals and proves together with two grottos at the eastern side of the "Rocca", that people had settled up on the hill long before the city was founded.


During the Byzantine era, the town, like many others along the coast, was relocated for reasons of security on the "Rocca". There are visible substantial remains (embattled walls, cisterns, chapels, barracks, and a row of ovens) which are datable to the early Middle Ages. A polychrome mosaic, which also dates back to the 6th century, has been discovered under the entrance of the cathedral. It is the most ancient testimony of the early Christian community in Cefalý. In 858 Cefalý was conquered by the Arabs and annexed to the emirate of Palermo. It was then liberated by the Norman when Count Roger took possession of it in 1063. After 1131 Roger II rebuilt the town on the coast. To this period belong the renowned monuments, which gave Cefalý the title of the "Norman town". These include the Church of St. George and the wash house (belonging perhaps to an earlier period), both located at Via Vittorio Emanuele, the cathedral, the cloister, and the Palazzo Maria, the Cathedral Square (Piazza Duomo) and the Osterio Magno with its interesting three-mullioned window at Corso Ruggero.

The most important monument in Cefalý is without a doubt the Norman-Arab cathedral. The cathedral was built due to Roger II who safely reached the coast of Cefalý after being shipwrecked. So, as a way of saying thank you to the Lord, he promised to build this cathedral. However, other say that this legend was invented to hide his true military and political motives. The construction of the cathedral started in 1131 on a site already occupied by an earlier Christian structure (q.v. the polychrome mosaic), and from then on continued, with numerous and often large-scale changes in plans, for several decades. Even today the building is still incomplete.

The cathedral is one of the largest in Sicily and was built in the Norman style. Many of the local craftsmen who worked on it were of Arab and Byzantine descent, which you can also see in the architecture. The pointed arches and the paintings on the roof are characteristically Arab and the mosaic decoration is Byzantine. Of particular interest are the mosaics in the apse portraying Christ as the judge of mankind (the Pantocrator). This same motif was later to be used in the Cathedral of Monreale and in the Palatine chapel in Palermo. Annexed to the cathedral is the outstanding cloister, embellished with small twin columns topped by remarkable sculptured capitals.

A stay in Cefalý is not complete without a stop at the Museo Mandralisca. Here, one can visit a valuable archaeological collection and a small picture gallery which houses a true masterpiece: the "Portrait of a Man" by Antonello da Messina (1470-1472).The museum also includes a shell collection.

An excursion to the Shrine of Gibilmanna (Santuario di Gibilmanna) is also recommended. It is located only 15 km from Cefalý on a knoll of Monte Sant'Angelo.  Gibilmanna is one of Sicily's most important pilgrimages.