History of Roccamena and Calatrasi

See Roccamena guide for highlights and historic monuments

In the 12th century Roccamena (previous name Calatrasi) was included in the ecclesiastic jurisdiction of the Bishop of Mazara, who in 1176 renounced his rights in favour of the new Diocese of Monreale, with this 'privilege' confirmed in March 1182.

It was also in August 1176 that William II, known as William the Good" (1155-1189),  founded the monastery of Santa Maria Nuova of Monreale, and endowed the church with numerous properties. This donation made by the Norman sovereign included the castles of Iato, Corleone and Calatrasi:

“We grant it also the castles of Iato, Corleone and Calatrasi with all the lands and their appurtenances (...) according to their 'divise', contained in another privilege" [1].

In 1178, Santa Maria Nova received a long "garìda" [= register of men] that listed the inhabitants of the districts of Iato, Corleone and Calatrasi. G. Spata  described the old document like this:

“It is a diploma of King William II in which are mentioned the villeins of the estates of Calatrasi and Corleone. It quoted the year 6686, the year of the Hegira 573 ( 1178 AD), May, indiction XI  (the indiction was a 15-year cycle used to date medieval documents). The text is in Arabic and the register with rare exceptions leads the translation into Greek. Under the top margin we read (translated): 'The register of men of the district of Corleone and Caletraze [Calatrasi]'" [2].

Today the ancient village of Calatrasi no longer exists, but there are still the ruins of the glorious castle, which rises near the "New Town" of Roccamena, which was founded as San Giuseppe Iato by Prince Giuseppe Beccadelli (1697-1781).

Roccamena refers by its name to a "locus amoenus" [ideal landscape], from “Rocca” and “amena” [Pleasant fortress], precisely because it was built in a place of exceptional  nature landscape. However, its tourism resources are based not only on the beauty of the landscape but also on the importance of the historical and archaeological site of Calatrasi, which was destroyed by Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250).

Frederick II continued the religious-political intent of the Normans, although with processes that were much more bloody, such as the destruction of entire villages and the displacement of populations, which led to a strict control, also through the monasteries of the area, of the area of Mount Iato ( which also involved Calatrasi).

This need for violent control was undoubtedly due to the fact that Mount Iato was a very tough problem, as the Latin-Christian element was virtually absent and the area was inhabited by people of Arab origin.

The massive donations of the Norman kings to some churches and monasteries, and the ecclesiastical division of the territory into districts [in the language of medieval Sicilian documents they were called "divise"] were used to do a thorough check of the local  population.

Controls and checks of the population

The subject in question is explained very well by Alex Metcalfe, who writes:

“[...] In 1061, an initially small group of knights under the leadership of Robert Guiscard (d. 1085) and Roger de Hauteville (d. 1101) began the piecemeal conquest of the island of Sicily with support from both Christian and Muslim factions. By the 1090s, the conquest process was effectively complete and the new ‘Norman’ rulers of the island began to grant privileges to supporting landlords. Concessions were recorded in registers known in Arabic as jaraid al-rijal (literally ‘registers of men’).

By the 1130s a transition was made towards the use of boundary definitions called jaraid al-udud (‘registers of boundaries’) to accompany the villein registers. A key reason for this change was to facilitate the administration of a population displaced by war and rebellion ... Of all the Sicilian registers, undoubtedly the most significant were those that recorded the enormous donation of lands and men to the church of 'Santa Maria Nuova in Monreale', six kilometres to the south-west of Palermo [...]” [3]

Calatrasi was an important city in Arab times, but the site on which it rose, that is Mount Maranfusa, is one of the most important archaeological sites of Sicily, which in recent years has been investigated by scholars. A few miles northwest of Roccamena:

"Recent excavations (...) have established the existence on Maranfusa Mount of a large indigenous village of Elymian culture, active almost certainly since the 8th century BC and Hellenized during the sixth century BC, which seems certainly not to have survived beyond the fourth century BC" [4].

The more interesting news in recent years concerns specifically the native village, where archaeologists have found some rooms presumed to relate to fertility cults and vessels for libations. According to Jeremy Johns, one of the country’s top experts, about:

"the mid-third century BC, it is possible to identify a period of decline and neglect (...) The cities of Mount Maranfusa (...) were abandoned during the Republican period and also the High Roman Empire, and they did not share even the urban renaissance that interested Mount Iato in the second century BC ...

... Then, Mount Maranfusa became an important urban centre in the tenth and eleventh centuries AD (...) and it continued to be an important agricultural centre during  the twelfth century (...) However, in the late twelfth century, the settlement system underwent a dramatic change (...) and the area was virtually abandoned."

With regard to Arab times, some cemeteries with Muslim funeral rites have been found, overlapping the ancient Elymian village. Thanks to the studies of Professor Francesca Spatafora this has been definitely identified as the Arab-Norman town of Calatrasi.

The castle of Calatrasi, already described by the time of Idrisi, remained active from Arab-Norman times until the age of Frederick II, when it was destroyed because it was one of the last strongholds (with Iato, Corleone and Guastanella) of the Muslim revolt against the Swabian Emperor [5]. With regard to the identification of the site, J. Iohns wrote that:

“Calatrasi is modern Monte Maranfusa (...) The site of Calatrasi has been located and intensively surveyed by both ‘The Monreale Survey’ and Francesca Spatafora and other archaeologists from the 'Palermo Soprintendenza Archeologica': the surface spread of 12th century material attests to a very large settlement indeed, beneath a small castle” [6].

In his studies about Calatrasi, Johns often stressed the importance of the city, which, before being transferred to the Monastery of Santa Maria Nuova, was enfeoffed to Giovanni Malconvenant. However, it was returned in 1162 to William I because Giovanni Malconvenant could not give the sovereign the service of eleven "milites" (soldiers).

Malconvenant family

The Malconvenant was one of the oldest Norman baronial families in Siciliy. Their family seat lay in Coutances (France), some five kilometers from Hateville-Guichard, and it is probable that at least one Malconvenant accompanied the young Roger d'Hauteville when he set out for Italy in 1057.

William's grandfather seems to have taken part in the conquest of Sicily and in the division of the spoils, ca.1095, and to have been granted the barony of Calatrasi. The Malconvenant remained lords of Calatrasi until 1162, when the King summoved John, William's eldest brother, to Messina ... The king therefote took Calatrasi back into the royal demesne” [7].

“In 1159 Jean Malcovenant, Lord of Calatrasi, in the Upper Belice River  Valley, gave certain lands, which are place names from Arab origin, to a certain Henry, defined ' my faithful man'; a man who, for the form of his name, was certainly a Transalpine knight as his Lord" [8].

Calatrasi then passed to the Church of Monreale and to the Monastery of Santa Maria Nova. In the early 13th century, according to studies by F. Spatafora, the Castle of Calatrasi was involved in a revolt of some monks, who occupied it:

"In a letter of Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) in 1202 we read about a revolt of the monks of Monreale, who, through brutal means, conquered the church and the territory of the castle. Moreover, at first in connivance with Walter of Pagliara, the Bishop and Chancellor of the Kingdom of Sicily, then with Marcovaldo Anweiler, Marquis of Ancona and Lord of Romagna, they tried to take prisoner the Archbishop of Monreale (…)

In 1203 Innocent III sent a letter to the monks of Monreale, accusing them of their many crimes because they have rebelled against their Archbishop ... seizing the castles of Iato and Calatrasi, committing every kind of iniquities, and living in licentiousness" [9].

We have various medieval documents that refer not only to Calatrasi, but also to the vast territory of which Calatrasi was the administrative centre. In fact, according to Johns:

“Calatrasi was the fief of G. Malconvenant, and after the foundation of Monreale it is quoted as being the centre of the 'iqlim', that is the administrative district. In the register of Monreale of 1176 it is said that Calatrasi had a population of 424 families, that is about 2000 individuals.” But this number refers to the territory more than the city as Calatrasi “was a centre of royal and feudal power and not of a real urban settlement (...)" [10].

About the middle of the 12th century, Al Idrisi (1099-1166) wrote:

"From Iato to Tiraz (Calatrasi) nine miles. Calatrasi is an imposing castle and an ancient and very solid fortress, which owns arable lands; its territory bordered to the north with Iato and to the south with the castle of Corleone" [11].

While Calatrasi was essentially an administrative centre its territory was very tilled, and the names of some of the owners have been handed down to us, such as Simon of Calatafimi, who in 1269 had "the hamlet called ‘Rahaltamrum’ in the territory of Calatrasi for the census of 3 Augustals every year"; or in 1280 “Salvo Palmerio of Florence, living in Palermo, owner of Rahalsaphy in the district of Calatrasi" [16].

We also know from a letter to F. Valguanera that in 1351 he was given the punishment tasks for some ‘latrones' (robbers) who were in the ‘fortilicio de Calatrasi' [Castle of Calatrasi] [17].

In 1348 Calatrasi was called "Pheudum". V. D'Alessandro wrote: "'Pheudum' (fief) is also the land of the hamlet of Calatatrasi, property of the Archbishop of Monreale, that the 'Nobilis' (Noble) Goffridono de Alamanni leased and exploited for livestock." [18].

By the mid-16th century, at the time of T. Fazello, Calatrasi Castle was in ruins - in fact, it was called 'The Rocchi' (the rocks), and it was reduced to a simple "Camperia" [The “Camperia” was an ecclesiatic jurisdiction to which the Archbishops assigned some surveillants who exercised the supervision of the territory [19]n which brings us at last to the current village of Roccamena...

Roccamena village

After the passing of Calatrasi, a new village called Roccamena arose a few kilometers to the west.

In the second half of the 18th century the Prince Beccadelli founded several villages, among which the village of Roccamena, whose economy was based essentially on agriculture, which is remarkable for the production of cereals, grapes, vegetables and especially melon, around which the current village bases its festival.

Origins of the name Calatrasi

For many years the etymology proposed by M. Amari was accepted, according to which Calatrasi derives from the term 'Qal'at tiraz' (...) that is connected with the term 'tiraz', indicating a place of manufacture, or "the factory of the Royal ‘tirazi’, or of silks [12]. In reality "the name of Calatrasi in the Arab sources is ‘Tarzi’ or ‘Hisn Tarzi’, or 'Fortress of Tarzi’, or ‘Qal'at Tarzi’ and not ‘Qarat-at tiraz’, as written by M. Amari; therefore there is no relationship with 'tiraz' (factory) ... because the name derives from a proper name, Tarzi" [13].

Carlo Tagliavini also explained that the term "Cala" derives from the Arabic root ‘Qal'a’ = castle, fortress" [14]. In conclusion, since Tarzi is an anthroponym, that is a name referring to a proper name, Calatrasi means the "Castle of Tarzi", or "castle belonging to Tarzi".

For completeness, we note that Calatrasi was also known as "Calataczaruth" and "Calataurath" [15]. Among other things, we notice that G. A. Massa had already in 1709 moved much closer to the truth, although he failed to correctly interpret the term "Qal'a” = castle, fortress." Instead, he observed that Calatrasi means "properties of Tarzi" (belonging to Tarzi).

See Roccamena for travel guide and details.


1. See “Documenti per servire alla storia di Sicilia”, 1899, p. 177

2. See G. Spata, “Sul cimelio diplomatico del duomo di Monreale” , Palermo, 1865 , p. 16

3. Vedi A. Metcalfe, “De Saracenico in Latinum tranferri”: Causes and Effects of Translation in the Fiscal Administration of Norman Sicily”, in “Al-Masaq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean”, 2001, 13, pp. 43-44

4. See F. Spatafora G. Calabiscetta, “A.M.G., Monte Maranfusa, un insediamento nella media Valle del Belice”, in “Sicilia Archeologica”, 1986, 62, p. 13

5. See F. Spatafora, “Calatrasi. L'età medievale a Monte Maranfusa”, in  “Federico e la Sicilia. Dalla terra alla corona, Archeologia e architettura”, a cura di C.A. Di Stefano, A. Cadei, Palermo, 1995, pp. 127-140

6. See J. Johns, “Arabic Administration in Norman Sicily: the Royal Diwan”, Cambridge University Press, 2002 , p. 163 and footnote 56

7. See G. Necipoglu, D. Behrens-Abouseif, A. Contadini, “Muqarnas. Essays In Honor Of J.M. Rogers: An Annual On The Visual Culture Of The Islamic World”, Brill, 2006, p. 189

8. See A. Varvaro, “Identità linguistiche e letterarie nell'Europa romanza”, 2004, p. 150

9. See F. Spatafora, “Calatrasi. L’età medievale a Monte Maranfusa”, in “Federico e la Sicilia, dalla terra alla corona”, 1995,  p. 163

10. See J. Johns, “Nota sugli insediamenti rupestri musulmani nel territorio di Santa Maria di Monreale nel XII secolo”, in “La Sicilia rupestre nel contesto delle civiltà mediterranee”, Gelatina, 1986, p. 232

11. See Al Idrisi, “Il Libro di Ruggero” [" The Book of Roger "], edited by M. Amari, 1883, p. 42

12. See M. Amari, “Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia”[ "History of the Muslims of Sicily"], 1858, Vol II, p. 29 note 2

13. See M. Bettelli Bergamaschi, “Seta e colori nell'alto medioevo: il siricum del Monastero bresciano di S. Salvatore”, Cisalpino, 1994, p. 154

14. See C. Tagliavini, “Le origini delle lingue neolatine”, Pàtron, 1964, p. 266

15. See G.A. Massa, "La Sicilia in prospettiva”, 1709, Vol II, p. 26

16. See“Centro di studi filologici e linguistici siciliani”, “Bollettino”, 1973, p. 338

17. ACP, Proceedings of the Senate, Vol. 17, fol. 15) ["Bollettino", p. 339]

18. “Terra, nobili e borghesi nella Sicilia medievale”, Palermo 1994, p. 166 note 58

19. See G. Nania, “Toponomastica e topografia storica nelle valli del Belice e dello Jato”, Palermo, 1995,  p. 210