History of Butera


See Butera guide for highlights and historic monuments

At the beginning of the 20th century G. Battaglia wrote about Butera:

"There is nothing remarkable in Butera: we only see an ancient castle of Norman architecture in good condition on a rock" [1].

Today, the “anonymous” Butera of the early years of last century is one of the most important archaeological sites in Sicily.

It is true that at the time the book by G. Battaglia was published, in 1904, there was no awareness of the value of some Sicilian sites. Then the “Accademia dei Lincei” in 1906 published a volume dedicated to Gela and its territory, which laid the foundation for future studies on Butera and its possible identification with ancient sites, relating to the Sicanians, the Sicules and Greek colonization.

Ancient Butera

You can see further down how Butera is now associated with the ancient town of Omphake...but what happened in Gela and in all its territory, including 'Omphake', 'Maktorion' and 'Karyco'n in the Hellenistic and Roman times?

Almost nothing, according to P. Orsi [but see below about the new discoveries]. P. Orsi painted a dismail picture of this area in Roman times. Gela was literally destroyed by Finzia, the tyrant of Agrigento: "The disaster was so complete and terrible that for centuries no one spoke about Gela." [7].

Only Cicero [106-43 BC] (Verrinae, III, 43) still mentioned the “Gelenses” [inhabitants of Gela] and Gela, which was described as a decuman city which “paid an agrarian tithe to Rome” and it was also mentioned by Pliny (23-79 AD), but, as pointed out by P. Orsi, "the catalog of Pliny quoted cities that no longer exist."

After saying that he spent “many months in the two cities [Gela and Camarina], covering the soil in every direction," P. Orsi concluded:

“[…]I don’t find Roman or Greek tombs, or epigraphic fragments (...) For me, the political supremacy of Gela finished in 280 BC […]” [7].

If this was the fate of one the most important cities of Sicily in Roman times, even less could remain of the small towns such as “Omphake”, that is the current Butera. The former location of it is now established, but it had a very confusing history.

According to Paolo Orsi, no valid documents identified Butera from Greek and Roman times. However, recent excavations in the area of Butera in the “Contrada Priorato” have found remains of a farm and also an epigraphic evidence of the Christian era, which means that after a long neglect of Butera, populations returned to the site, feeling safer in the period of the barbaric invasions.

Byzantine, Aran and Norman Butera

After centuries of almost total silence, Butera returned to the light of history, especially during the Byzantine, Arab and Norman times.

The lonely ancient castle to which G. Battaglia alluded is what remains of a Norman fortress, probably built on a Byzantine fort built to counter the Arab incursions. The Arabs called Butera, as Al Idrisi tells us, "Butirah":

"From this city [Ragusa] to Butirah about 45 miles. Butera is an important and famous town (...) well built and decorated with elegance and splendid palaces" [14].

The town at first resisted the Arabs, but then it was conquered and they always considered it a fortress of great strategic importance in the control of the territory:

"Leontini was taken in 844-845 after its defenders had been exterminated during an unhappy fate. During the various campaigns launched against the eastern region in the emirate of al-Fadl ibn Abba-s in the years 236-247 H (851-861 AD) the country was looted on several occasions, and the territory of Syracuse and Catania suffered the worst damage. During the campaign of 238 H., the Butera siege ended with an agreement that saved the city in exchange for five hundred slaves: these were probably deported to Palermo, or perhaps sent to Ifri-qiya [that is Lybya, Tunisia and Algeria] " [15].

At the southern end of Butera is the "Castrum Butere" [Castle of Butera], mentioned in medieval documents as an impregnable fortress. Thanks to it, the Arabs resisted the Normans for a long time:

"It was not a military fortress on the flat, (...) but a castle that stood on a rock surrounded by natural spurs and surrounded by a river. It was a strategical and vital point for the island domain; a point on which, in little more than two centuries, were decided  the Byzantine and Arab fates. We know the existence of the "Castrum Butere" by two diplomas of Roger I (1031-1101), dating back to 1091 and 1093, and by a Bull of Urban II (1035-1099), presumably of 1091” [16].

It is not possible to follow in detail the history of this fortress, from the Byzantine and Arab times until the advent of the Normans, because of the lack of documents both about Butera and its castle.

A document of April 2, 1134 mentions a church of "Sancte Marie de Buturio" given by Richard de Bublii and his nephew Henry, with other property, to the Bishop of Lipari and Patti. The document also quoted a delegate of Henry, or “William ‘stratigotus of Butera’”, who occupied himself with the administration of this land. According to  Garufi, we can reconstruct the history of the town by the words of Al Idrisi [1099-1166], who added wrote:

"[Butera] has most splendid palaces, well disposed and spacious  markets, with many mosques for public prayers, a bathroom and some 'Hàn' (staples). A river flowing around it among the largest of the 'island, which is flanked by gardens everywhere. The territory offers delicious and abundant fruits. From Butera to the sea there  are about 7 miles. "

Garufi commented this passage by Al Idrisi like this:

"[…] Taking Edrisi’s word for it it would seem that between 1140 and 1154 the population of Butera was all Muslim, because he remembers only the mosques, while in those places there were at least four Christian churches, which implies a strong core of Latin and Byzantine population. But Edrisi was an Arab, a follower of Muhammad and his Qur'an, and then he considered the Christians as infidels [...]".

Garufi's observation is correct, because, as it is clear from recent studies:

"in the early the twelfth century extensive concessions were made by the Sovereign and the “Aleramici” in favour of some religious orders of chivalry (…) to promote the production of wheat (…) In the first half of the 12th century, Butera, a strongly Islamized town, was already latinized and its territory related to major religious institutions of the island such as the church of ‘Santa Maria dell'Alto’ and that of ‘Santa Croce’ " [17].

Garufi also stressed that:

“although his description revealed a significant partiality in highlighting the Arab element to the prejudice of the Latin and Byzantine elements, it also allows us to infer that Butera, in the early Norman days, though maintaining the quality of a strategic and impregnable fortress, become a pleasant resort both for the fertility of its surrounding countryside, and for the most splendid palaces that decorated it.” [18].

As Garufi mentioned above, under the Norman rule, Butera was one of the most important and largest estates of the “Aleramici”, generically called the "Lombards," that had come to Sicily with Adelaide del Vasto [called Adelasia] (1074-1118), on the occasion of her marriage to Roger I. The marriage of Roger I and Adelaisa:

"was an opportunity for Henry, brother of Adelaide, in his turn to marry Flandina, daughter of the “Great Count”, then getting by his sister, after the death of Roger I, the County of Paternò."

In a document dating back to 1148 we find that the son of Henry, Simon, vested the title of "Comes Butere" [Earl of Butera]; however, as noted by E. Mazzarese Fardella, we can not give a full confidence to this document, because "the original parchment" was lost [19].

Around 1195 there is another “Comes Butere” documented, that is Pagano de Parisio, Count of Avellino, and it is obvious that the vast domains of the Aleramici were divided between two powerful lords at the head of two counties, that of Paternò and the other of Butera [20].

Thus Butera was home to one of the greatest baronies of Sicily from the beginning of the Norman conquest. It belonged to Galvano Lanza, a relative of Bianca Lanza (died 1246), wife of Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), and then to Alaimo di Lentini (1245-1287), involved in the War of the Vespers; then to  Artale [died 1389] and Manfredi of Alagona (died 1392), two of the greatest exponents of the Sicilian aristocracy in the late 14th century.

With Martin I (1376-1409), Butera was taken to Alagona, and purchased in 1390 by a Spanish knight, Ugone Santapau. Ambrose, son of Isabella Branciforte, daughter of the Earl of Mazarino, in 1563 was created Prince of Butera. The feud of Butera then belonged to the family of the Branciforti until the end of the 18th century, finally passing to the Lanza di Trabia-Branciforti.

Today Butera is a town with a strong vocation for tourism and it offers an area with many points of interest, from religious buildings to the Necropolis; from the Castle of Falconara to “Marina di Butera”, the coast overlooking the Gulf of Gela , among the hills that descend to the sea  and eucalyptus trees, which surround the coasts prepared for beach tourism.

Associating ancient Omphake with Butera

Paolo Orsi (1859-1935) was the author of the ancient and weighty volume of the “Accademia dei Lincei”, and in which he discussed the question of the place "where were the Siculian towns of ‘Omphake’, ‘Maktorion’ and ‘Kakyron’", suggesting the idea that the site of Butera could be identified with the ancient "Omphake" or "Maktorion". We quote here because it helps set the scene for the earliest settlement of Butera:

"[...] The stubborn and bloody struggles, which are the inevitable consequence of any colonial enterprise, troubled the life of Gela in the 7th century BC with the conquest of the plains and hills. If any memory of them is lost in the traditions, I recognize an episode [of these struggles] in the conquest of ‘Omphake’ [a small town of the Sicanians] by the 'oikistes' [founder Antiphemus (690 BC)], who sacked a sacred image (...) The occupation of  ‘Omphake’, the site of which is  still uncertain, but not far from Gela, indicates that there was an expansion of territory to the detriment of the Sicules, in part rendered tributaries and partly driven into the mountains...

... This fact is clarified by archaeological researchs on the hills of Caltagirone, where at the source of the river Gela, ‘Monte San Mario’ and ‘Monte Bubbonia’ some materials were found native to Gela [3], so to make us believe that especially in the first place the inhabitants of Gela were installed by the end of the 7th century or early 6th century BC at a military station...

... Also 'Maktorion' (Butera?) was near Gela, and in the 7th century BC it received a losing party of the population because of struggles (Herodotus [(fifth century BC] VII, 153 and Stephanus of Byzantium [6th century AD]) (...) These episodes attest to the overwhelming aristocratic element, degenerating into tyranny, with princes of whom only a few names have survived (Cleandro, killed in 505; Arisi, Polii in 231 [...]" [2].

The interest in Butera was revived in the 1950s thanks to the studies of Dinu Adamesteanu (1913-2004), who, through a series of surveys conducted between 1951 and 1954, discovered not only unexpected relationships with places which  apparently seemed  far away (Crete), but he concluded that "Omphake" was the ancient site of Butera.

With first-rate historical insight, Adamesteanu successfully developed a literary source, that of Philistos of Syracuse (430-356 BC), whose work was found in fragments in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri at that time. In a fragment [No 19] entitled “Perì Sikelìas” ('About Sicily') Philistos spoke of some towns in Sicily, among which he quoted “Omphake” and “Kakyron”, both located near Gela. G. De Sanctis wrote:

“Omphake is remembered in the history of 'ktisis' (foundation) of Gela (Pausanias, VIII, 46.2) and therefore we must seek it in the immediate vicinity of that city (...) With regard to ‘Kakiron’, this city is mentioned only by Ptolemy (Geography, III, 4.7) (...) and its position is quite uncertain, but [Philistos] states that, like ‘Omphake’, it was near Gela" [4].

The conclusion of these long archaeological researchs in the first half of the '50s is that, in essence, the insights of Orsi and  Adamesteanu have been confirmed by contemporary studies:

"[...] The site of Butera, which is identified with ‘Omphake’ (if, as it seems, the assumption made by Adamesteanu is correct) turns out, according to archaeological material, as the first town conquered by the “Geloi” [inhabitants of Gela] in this effort to settle to the north of the plains they had occupied...

... During the 7th century BC 'Maktorion', identified by Orlandini as the town of Monte Bubbonia and 'Kakyron', identified as the fortified town of Monte Saraceno, were colonized, while the town of Monte Desusino was occupied in the mid-sixth century BC by the inhabitants of Akragas (“Agrigento”), from when they replaced Gela in the domain of the valley of Salso River. [...]" [5].

As we said above, Adamesteanu also established special relations with rituals that were practiced in far away lands. Consolo Langher writes:

"[...] A confirmation of the location of Omphake with Butera is found in the funeral rites of its necropolis with Cretans funeral rites (the necropolis of Prinias) indicating at Butera the presence of a large people of Cretan origin [...] The Cretans rites are related to the so-called "Akephalia", that is the “burial of the head separated from the body (...) Similar grave rituals are documented in Gela and in Prinias (Crete) and so Adamesteanu interprets the 7th-century settlement phase at Butera as Greek. He regards it as a Cretan settlement founded contemporarily with Gela and probably the city of Omphake soon taken by Gela ” [6].

Origins of the name Butera

With regard to the etymology of Butera, the situation was and still remains uncertain. Without going into an intricate discussion, we can say that contemporary critics tend to reject the assumption of an etymology of Arab origin, to move towards a Greek word. In fact, G.B. Pellegrini writes:

"The Arabic form for Butera, always with the interdental, should be an indication of a Greek etymon with / d / (the etymological assumptions from Arabic do not satisfy)" [8].

In this sense it is believed that the name derives from the Greek term "botèr-botèros" ('shepherd') [9], or "Boutherès" ([country] that provides a summer pasture] [10].

Some scholars suggested a derivation from "bouteron" (butter) or "boutyros" (Merchant of butter) [11]; others, however, have not abandoned the idea of an Arabic derivation, that "the name, through the medieval Sicilian 'Buhutu' or 'Buchutu' dates back to the Arabic term 'Bahut' = 'pure' (used for Liquid)”, hence meaning 'pure water'" [12].

As we can see, even today the situation is quite fluid. However, B. Pace narrowed it to two possible etymologies, for which Butera could come either from the Greek-Byzantine term "Patela" (with the meaning of "plain", with reference to the site on which the town is located); or from "Boutherès" (country that provides summer pasture) [13].

See the Butera travel guide if planning a visit.

References

1. See G. Battaglia, “Guida descrittiva della Sicilia”,  G. Pedone Lauriel, 1904, p. 8

2. See P. Orsi, “Monumenti Antichi” [“Ancient Monuments”], published by the “Reale Accademia dei Lincei”, Rome, Ulrico Hoepli, 1906, Vol XVII, p. 15

3. ‘Notizie Scavi’, 1903, p. 483, 1904, p. 140, 1904, p. 373, 1905, pp. 441, 447

4. See G. De Sanctis, “Scritti Minori”, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1983, p. 118

5. See S.N. Consolo Langher, “Eknomos e la valle dell'Himera nelle vicende storiche tra VII e IV secolo BC fino ad Agatocle”, in “Archivio storico messinese”, 1992, n. 60, p. 9

6. Vedi T. Heine Nielsen,  “Even more studies in the ancient Greek Polis”, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2002,  p. 135

7. P. Orsi, pp. 20-21

8. See G.B. Pellegrini, “Saggi di linguistica italiana: storia, struttura, società”, Milano, Boringhieri,  1975, p. 456

9. See, “Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani”, “Bollettino”, n. 1-2, 1953, n. 1-2, p. 96

10. See "Siculorum gymnasium ...", 1986, p. 140

11. See "Bollettino", p. 96

12. See“Archeologia medievale”, 1980, Vol 7-8, p. 348

13. see B. Pace, “Toponimi Bizantini”, pp. 414-415) in F. Maurici, “Castelli medievali in Sicilia...” , Sellerio, 1992, p. 213 note 141

14. See Al Idrisi, “L’Italia descritta nel ‘Libro di Ruggero’”, edited by M. Amari, Roma, Salviucci, 1883,  p. 35

15. See F. Cresti, “Città, territorio, popolazione nella Sicilia Musulmana”, in “Mediterranea”, 2007, p. 22

16. See C. A. Garufi [1868-1948], “Per la storia dei secoli XI e XII. Il 'Castrum Butere' e il suo territorio dai Bizantini ai Normanni. Note ed appunti di storia e di Toponomastica”, in “Archivio storico per la Sicilia Orientale” , Catania, 1914, p. 151

17. See S. Fiorilla, “Gela: le ceramiche medievali dai pozzi di Piazza S. Giacomo”, Società Messinese di Storia Patria, 1996, p. 28)

18. See C.A. Garufi,  (p. 156 ff.

19. See E. Mazzarese Fardella, “I feudi Comitali di Sicilia dai Normanni agli Aragonesi”, Milan, Giuffrè, 1974, pp.13 ff.

20. See E. Mazzarese Fardella, pp. 20-21