History of Cefalu

See Cefalu guide for highlights and historic monuments

Cefalù is situated on rocky ground with a strong slope under an overhanging rock. Its origins go back to the pre-Greek civilisation and it was a fortified city of considerable commercial and strategic importance.

Ancient history of Cefalù

Both ancient and contemporary historians agree about the antiquity of Cefalù . Moreover, beyond the recent archaeological finds there is also some important literary evidence. For example, Cefalù was mentioned for the first time as existing in 396 BC by Diodorus Siculus (90-27 BC), who called it "Kephalodion", literally "little head". In fact, T. Fazello, the great historian of Sicily, wrote:

"[...] The ancient city of Cefalù, according to Cicero [106-43 BC], Ptolemy [100-175 AD], Strabo [58-21 BC], Pomponius Mela[First century AD], and Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD] (...) comes from "Cefale", a Greek name, which in Latin means "head", since it was built on top or on the "head"of a steep cliff, which is shaped like a cape. Even today here stands a sturdy Rock, and also we can still see the remains of a city, which had to be about a mile away from an ancient temple of Doric style...

... Cefalù was a very noble city at the time of Cicero, as we read in the fifth book of the ‘Verrine’. But since in time it became a small and weak castle (...) it was made more noble and adorned with a beautiful temple by King Roger, who built it in a corner of the cliff, and made it a bishopric [...]" [1].

In fact the city was a prosperous center of the “Sicanians” at the end of the 5h century BC thanks to contacts with the people who ran businesses in Sicily at this time, as attested by archaeological findings. Traces of the Greek-Roman road system are scattered over almost all the city, surrounded by megalithic walls from the end of the 5th century BC. Of the same period as the walls is the so-called “Temple of Diana” on the Rock.

With regard to the antiquity of Cefalù, the discovery of two sarcophagi was very important, presumably belonging:

“to members of certain Roman families who moved to Cefalù after the Roman conquest. On the one hand they were forced to settle outside the village itself and on the other hand they wanted to distinguish themselves from the other subject populations. We recall that Cefalù was conquered by force in 254 BC after a long siege, and was included by the Romans among the ‘decumanae’ cities. The antiquity of the site is documented in tombs dating from the mid-4th century BC” [2].

With regard to earlier periods:

“some fragments of pottery dating back to the Bronze Age were found in the so-called Temple of Diana” [3].

The excavations also revealed findings that even date from the 14th century BC, one of which is truly exceptional and seems to veil a sort of 'ritual of resurrection' of Egyptian origin, which was illustrated by Professor Sfamemi, who notes that there was found:

[...] a Sacred Scarab in green diorite, of the type known as ‘the heart scarab’, with a hieroglyphic inscription on the base, translated by E. Bacchi like this: "A figure of the God ‘Anûp’, lying face down: 'He who is in ‘Wet’'. 'O my heart, my heart from my mother, my heart in my (outside) form, went off (implied ‘from her belly’). Be done her to raise from the grave, (…) are given to her her mouth and her eyes, while her heart is still (as before) in place [...]" [4].

How these rituals of Egyptian origin had come to Cefalù was well explained by Professor Sfamemi, who stresses that we can say that trade relations were probably taught by:

“Rhodians or Greek merchants, without exclude the possibility of a parallel activity of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians”.

Arabs and Normans in Cefalù

In 858, Cefalù was conquered by the Arabs and annexed to the emirate of Palermo then it was conquered by the Normans under Count Roger in 1063. In 1059 Robert Guiscard (1015-1085), after an oath of allegiance to Pope Nicholas II (died in 1061), became the Duke of Apulia and Calabria.

The conquest of Sicily was carried by his brother, Roger I (1031-1101) and completed by Roger II (1095-1154) in 1130 - it was a memorable event not only politically but also culturally. Cefalù itself was rebuilt by Roger II in 1131. Norman forms of architecture were introduced, accompanied by Byzantine and Arab cultural references - this is evidence of the diversity of the Normans’ culture and their sensitivity to diverse art forms

In art, the openness to Nordic, Byzantines and Arabs styles is particularly noticeable in the taste for large mosaics that found their natural home in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the cathedrals of Cefalù and Monreale. It is to this period that we can date the most famous monuments of Cefalù, which are the Cathedral, and the Church of Saint George, the Cloisters, and the 'Great Osterio", the presumed residence of the Norman kings.

The last few hundred years

After the Normans, Cefalù was ruled by various families such as as the Swabians, Aragonese, Spanish, Savoy, Austrians and Bourbons, then in the 14th century the city was ruled by the Chiaramonte and Ventimiglia. Under the Chiaramonte and Ventimiglia major renovations of the former "Domus Regia"("Osterio") of Roger II were achieved, and also in this period the city had a great urban expansion.

In the 16th century it was governed largely by local bishops, then after the revolts of the Risorgimento Cefalù entered the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

See the Cefalù travel guide for more information.


1. See T. Fazello , "History of Sicily”, Palermo, 1830, Vol. II: 289 ff.

2. See Amedeo Tullio, “Due sarcofagi tardo-ellenistici da Cefalù, in “AA.VV., “Alessandria e il mondo ellenistico Romano” Rome, 1992: 606

3. See C.A. Di Stefano, “Mura Pregne. Ricerche su un insediamento nel territorio di Himera”, in “Secondo Quaderno Imerese”, Rome, 1982: 175

4. See Giulia Sfamemi Gasparro, “I culti orientali in Sicilia”, Brill, 1973: 231-232