The top of Cefalu Rock was already inhabited in ancient times as the remains of the temple of Diana with megalithic stonework attests.  This is similar to the stonework remaining at Erice, built into the later castle, the oldest city walls at Palermo, the temple at Segesta and the walls of Eurialus.  To the Greeks the city was Kejaloidion which Diodorus Siculus, the oldest Greek author, mentioned as a fortress allied to the Carthaginians.  The Greek name of Cefalu is said to etymologically refer to Kejalhhhz, a noun of 3 parts: head, in the Latin sense of caput and therefore also man or life; extremity or tip and river source.  These obviously refer to the site, a promontory with its fortress protruding into the sea, with a rich source of drinking water that still flows almost at sea level.

In 307 BC Cefalu was conquered by Syracuse and in turn in 254 BC Cephaloedium fell to the Romans, becoming a part of the province of Sicily.  Cicero, visiting Sicily seeking evidence against Governor Verre, found the climate sweet.  Strabo (d.24 AD) mentioned Cephaloedium as a small town.  At the fall of the Roman Empire the inhabitants moved to the Rocca leaving the settlement on the west side of the mountain to decay.  However, this was never abandoned altogether, as evidenced by the mosaics of the sixth century found under the portico of the duomo
/cathedral.  In the years 837-838 Cefalu withstood it's first recorded Muslim attack, but the castle was relieved by Caesar Alexios Mousele in Spring 838, before his recall the next year.  In 859 Emir Abbas (d.861) captured the rock after he took Enna that January.  He then expelled the residents of Cefalu mountain and razed the fortress, leaving the area dependent on Palermo.  The Byzantines attempted to retake the site the same year, but were heavily defeated and forced to retire on Syracuse.

The area was conquered by the Normans in 1063 and largely devastated, although it is claimed that they built Cefalu castle soon afterwards.  Like other places in the district Cefalu was made part of the new diocese of Troina in 1081.   In February 1131 the newly crowned King Roger(d.1154) is said to have landed here after a 2 day storm and founded a duomo in recompense to God for having survived.  By this means Cefalu, on 14 September, became a major episcopal centre on the island with a rich and magnificent church.  As this is near the beach and surrounded by a wall, by logical conclusion, the fortifications on the rock above it must be older.  Archbishop Romuald of Salerno (d.1182) thought that Roger had had the entire city of Cefalu built, in which he built his beautiful and splendid church of the Holy Saviour and made the city subject to it.

Before 1154 Edrisi, in the Book of Roger, while praising Cefalu's amenities and waters called it a ‘city-like fortress', with merchants, baths, mills and a castle overlooking the town' from its perch on the top of a steep mountain which was very difficult to climb.  In 1168 the castle was again put to the test.  In April Messina rebelled and seized the castles of Rometta and Toarmina.  Consequently Chancellor Stephen Perche sent the royal usher Andrew to guard the castle against the probable disloyalty of Bishop Boso of Cefalu (d.1172+). 

In 1184 Ibn-Alì-Hasan described the city as defended by a castle on the cliff, while another Arab in passing commented that ‘set over the town is a mountain, on whose large circular summit is a fortress, of which I have never seen one more formidable'.

Cefalu's city walls were mentioned in a diploma from 1164.  Presumably these were the walls around the duomo.  According to the 1170 petition of the chapter of Cephaludese cathedral to King William II (d.1189), King Roger (d.1154) had rebuilt the city from its foundations and founded the cathedral church there.  In the late twelfth century the Andalusian traveller Ibn Jubayr (d.1217) saw ‘a fortress that never saw another more formidable ... fitted optimally against any naval army, when suddenly attacked'. 

During the early part of the thirteenth century the bishop of Cefalu and the Emperor Frederick II (d.1250) argued over possession of city and castle, the dispute eventually being settled in 1223 by the bishop keeping the city and Frederick the castle.  In 1254 the place rebelled against Peter Ruffo of Messina (d.1256+). 

In 1266 the castle passed to Charles Anjou (d.1285) when he became king, although Henry Ventimiglia of Geraci (d.1308) may have held the fortress against the Crown for a while in 1269-70.  In the Angevin registers of 1272 there is reference to the supply of millet to Castrum Cephaludi.  Presumably this was the castle on the Rocca, rather than the city walls or the complex made up of both.  Certainly on 3 May 1272 the fortress had the surprisingly large Angevin garrison of 1 squire and 30 sergeants.

Archeological evidence shows that the castle was probably destroyed by fire at the end of the thirteenth century, possibly during the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, although the fortress was used into the fifteenth century.  In August 1284, after the young Charles Anjou (d.1309), later king of Naples, had been captured, Queen Constance (d.1302) had him moved to the castle for his safety from the mob.  Obviously the castle was operational then.  Once again, in late 1300, the castle served as the prison for Prince Philip of Taranto for 2 years after he was captured in single combat by King Frederick III (d.1337) at the battle of Falconaria on the mainland.  Later, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the castle underwent extensive rearrangements.  The castle was finally abandoned with the rest of the mountain top after the abolition of feudalism in 1812.

The top of Cefalu Rock, crowned by the castle, now serves as an archeological city park.  The castle is reached via a winding footpath up the 885' high hill and through two lines of outer defences, the outermost one of which has ogival arches inserted within a wall with large megalithic blocks similar to those in the temple of Diana above and as are found at the ancient works at Erice
, Eurialus castle, Palermo old walls and the amphitheatre at Segesta. 

There is no portcullis at Cefalu in any of the gates.  The city defences consist of the entire vast upper terrace of the hill which is surrounded by a low curtain wall.  The major remains lie to the N, NW&SE.  Access is gained from the town to the west up through a fortified approach to the main line of fortification around the cliff top.  The defences consist of a low wall, some 8-10' externally, but only 2-3' high internally with battlements that look modern.  In places there is a narrow 2' wide wallwalk.  In other places there are sensible 4' wide wallwalks and merlons up to 6' above that.  The walls vary between 3' and 6' thick dependent on the amount of threat to the wall due to the landscape.  At the SE side are 2 rectangular towers commanding the cliff to the east.  Within the lower ward to the west lie the church of St Anne and the temple of Diana.

Encompassed within the lower curtain and occupying the summit of the hill are the remains of another large irregular ward, 340' E-W and 240' N-S.  Again modern tradition states that this is an Arab fortress.  However, the history of the site suggests it is more likely Byzantine and that Arab fortresses within Sicily were more the product of historical guesswork, than documentation or archaeological deduction, viz. Calatabiano, Caltabellotta, Delia and Enna.  This large irregular castle is entered by an inturned gateway at the north end of the west wall.  Such a design is more prehistoric than medieval, but it also appears at Nicosia.  The wall on the cliff side to the S&E is irregular and thin, following the line of the cliff, rather like that of the lower ward below.  On the interior side of the summit the wall is thicker reaching some 6'.  Within the enclosure are traces of many buildings, a rectangular chamber or hall being aligned on the north wall.  In the SW corner of the enclosure is a rectangular inner ward occupying the highest portion of the enclosure.  This odd structure is sub-rectangular with thick walls and an entrance to the west protected by a still battlemented low barbican which joins the curtain wall of the outer enclosure.  Within the ‘ward' are many internal buildings including a vaulted cistern in the NE corner.  The castle bears comparison with Calatafimi at Segesta where there is a similar, but generally better preserved rectangular ward.

Below, the city has 3 gates remaining, the land door, halfway between the sea and the fortress, the Ossuna gate close to the first bastion by the sea and now a restaurant, and the Pescara or Marina gate, which still retains its Gothic arch overlooking the small fishing port.  To the NE was the Giudecca Gate which has now gone.  The cathedral is accepted as Roger's work between 1131 and 1148, except for the west front which was thirteenth century, while the city walls were described as new in 1190.

Why not join me at here and at other Sicilian castles?  Information on this and other tours can be found at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2019 Paul Martin Remfry