History of San Giuseppe Jato

See San Giuseppe Jato guide for highlights and historic monuments

Near the town of San Giuseppe Jato are the ruins of Jato, destroyed by Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), because it was considered one of the most important strongholds of the Arab resistance in Sicily.

Today it is recognized without doubt that this was the old "Ietae" or "Ietas" although in the late 1950s there was not this certainty.

Was ancient Ietas at the current location of San Giuseppe?

Apart from B. Pace, who placed Ietae near San Giuseppe Iato and between Salemi and the sources of the Iati river, some scholars such as A. Holm were still very doubtful. [1].

Among other 'modern' historians, T. Fazello had no doubts, placing it "in editissimo et undique paerupto monte" (trans: on a very high and precipitous mountain). In the 18th century among the German historians, Johann Christoph Rasche wrote: “Iatae' or 'Iaetia', another name for 'Iatus' and known in dialect as 'Iato', is a fortified town in Sicily located in an inaccessible place on the summit of the mountain, which is now commonly called ‘Iatus' and 'San Cosmano'. It is in the valley of Mazara, between Corleone and Calatafimi" [2].

This intuition of Fazello and Rasche has been largely confirmed by studies of one of the greatest scholars of Ietae, Hans Peter Isler, who over the years activated a series of excavations on Mount Jato. Thanks to his studies we now know that "the city was called 'Ietas' in Latin and 'Iaitas' in Greek. The medieval form of the name was handed down by sources as 'Giato'. [3].

The first mention of Iato was in Philistus, which was passed down by Stephen of Byzantium: “Ieta, the fortified city of Sicily, whose inhabitants are called 'Ietini', about which it is said that they drove out the garrison of the Carthaginians, giving themselves to the Romans. They are called 'Ietenses' by Pliny. Fazello said that the inhabitants were called 'Ietenses' and Silius spoke of it as a 'lofty city' (...) Today it is known in dialect as Iato" [4].

As Isler explained, Ietas was a city of the Elimi, but which deeply suffered from the Greek culture, which "obscured" almost completely the primitive native culture. The archaic period is attested in the city only with great difficulty and by archaeological excavations.

Isler’s studies show that the Elimi lived in huts of which few remains were found; they worked hand-made ceramics, without a turning-wheel, with painted decoration. Around 550 BC the Elimi came into contact with the Greek culture. The contact with a superior civilization manifested itselves primarily in the importation of Greek ceramic artefacts.

The indigenous world rapidly absorbed the Greek culture, as demonstrated by the acquisition of Greek forms in architecture (such as the temple to the goddess Aphrodite). Therefore, the Greek culture almost completely erased the traces of ancient Elimi. However, some very detailed and focused investigation shows that they drew their ancient civilization from obscurity, thanks to ...  kitchen implements.

The Elimi and the identification of ancient cooking utensils

In fact the Elimi, allowed themselves to be "Graecized" in almost everything, except in the typical objects used in their kitchens (bowls and trays). We could almost say that the Elimi gave in to the weapons and the culture of the Greeks, but in the kitchen they offered a "heroic" resistance, armed only with ladles and pans.

An excellent study about this was by C. Russenberger, who wrote:

"[...] The hypothesis that in the fourth century BC material traces of a local indigenous culture can not be documented can be verified through the example of the Sikan-Elymian settlement in the province of Mount Jato, Palermo, considered as a prime example of a process of "Hellenization", concluded in the 4th century BC...

In fact, in the years around 300 BC Iaitas offers the image of a fully Hellenized city (…) Later, during the 3rd century, luxurious residential neighborhoods were built characterized by large peristyle houses (...) But we can argue that in the preparation and consumption of food the Hellenization was accomplished much more slowly than in the sphere of consumption of drinks...

This trend is clearly outlined in the ceramic repertoire of the late-archaic period; in fact, in the 6th century BC in the indigenous settlements Greek forms were used primarily for the consumption of beverages, while for the preparation and consumption of food almost exclusively forms of indigenous tradition wre used. Also found were several fragments of  baking sheets and especially large and hand-shaped ceramic mixing bowls used for cooking  (… )

The presence of this vascular type reinforces the theory that around 300 BC the Hellenization in the food preparation was not yet fully completed. The shape, typically native, is well documented in archaic contexts of western Sicily. We believe that this type belongs to a tradition of forms dating back to the Bronze Age. The large bowls (...) are only documented in indigenous contexts, (...) probably used for a special preparation, perhaps for dairy products, evidently common among the  indigenous [...]" [5].

Another interesting find going back to the Elimi was found by Isler in the excavations of 1995-1997, that is a cup with the inscription 'Aloi Emi', that is , 'I belong to Alo'” [6].

Ancient San Giuseppe Jato: Ietas

Ietas first appears as an independent city in the time of Pyrrhus, and was attacked by that monarch on account of its strong position and the advantages it offered for operations against Panormus; but the inhabitants readily capitulated [7]. In the First Punic War it was occupied by a Carthaginian garrison, but after the fall of Panormus it drove out these troops and opened its gates to the Romans [8].

Under the Roman government it appears as a municipal town, but not one of much importance. The Ietini are only noticed in passing by Cicero among the towns whose lands had been utterly ruined by the exacting demands of Verres, and the Ietenses are enumerated by Pliny among the "populi stipendiarii" of the interior of Sicily [9].

Many manuscripts of Cicero read 'Letini', and it is probable that the 'Leton' of Ptolemy (iii. 4, 15) is a corruption of the same name.

Location of Ietas

The position of Ieta is only intimated very obscurely, but it appears from Diodorus that it was not very far from Panormus, and that its site was one of great natural strength. Silius Italicus also alludes to its elevated situation [10].

Fazello assures us that there was a mediaeval fortress called 'Iato' on the summit of a lofty mountain, about 15 miles from Palermo and 12 miles north of Entella, which was destroyed by Frederic II at the same time with the latter city; and this he supposes, probably enough, to be the site of Iaeta. He says the mountain was called 'Monte di Iato', though more commonly known as 'Monte di S. Cosmano', from a church on its summit [11].

With regard to the late-antiquity, the sources are scarce, in fact, as Isler wrote, from antiquity the city was marginal, and even in Arab and Norman times things do not change :

"The sources for the medieval history are rare. In the eleventh century, at the time of the Norman conquest under Count Roger (1031-1101), the site was inhabited mainly by immigrant Arab populations from the Maghreb. The  Norman domain, however, is well attested by the pottery and coins. The Kufic characters of their legends indicate that among vernacular languages in the Norman Sicily was still the Arabic" [12].

After antiquity - medieval times and later inSan Giuseppe Jato

According to Godfrey Malaterra  writing in the 11th century, during Arab times Iato was inhabited by 13,000 families, but according to F.  Maurici, "the figure seems exaggerated, and the fact that in Norman times the settlement was frequently referred as a 'hamlet' would indicate the presence of only 2000 inhabitants.” [13]

Today the town, thanks to new archaeological discoveries, opens itself to tourism with an archaeological heritage which is enriched more and more over the years. Saint Joseph is also known for its agricultural production, such as oil obtained from high-quality olives that are grown, or the wine produced from vineyards that have good weather here.

Etymology of San Giuseppe Jato and Ietas

With regard to the etymology, the modern and ancient authors observed that the city took its name from the river "Jatius" ["Jatius fluvius"], which long ago was called "Bathis", and which runs through the valley of Mazara into the Gulf of Castellammare [14]. Previously, in 1671, F. Ferrari spoke about "Bathis fluvius Siciliae" [15].

V. M. Amico, writing about the etymology, noted that "Bathis" derived from the Greek "Bathys", which in Latin means "profundum" [deep], "as it runs between hig and deep  banks. Cluverius nevertheless testified that its real name was 'Jatis' or 'Jathisi' flowing from the mountain where 'Jato' was located" [16].

"San Giuseppe Jato" was founded recently. In 1779 Prince Beccadelli founded “San Giuseppe dei Mortilli”, after the Jesuits were expelled from the kingdom by King Ferdinand in 1767.

According to G. Nania [17] Prince Joseph Beccadelli "imposed" the new name; in fact, the first name was "Saint Joseph of Mortilli", so named for the devotion of the Prince to the saint whose name he bore. In 1862 Saint Joseph of Mortilli changed its name to San Giuseppe Jato, to remember the old Ietas on the Mount.

See also our travel guide for San Giuseppe Jato.


1. See, "Kokalos", 1958, p. 156

2. See Johann Christoph Rasche, “Lexicon universae rei numariae veterum, et praecipue Graecorum ac Romanorum ...”, 1785, Tomi Secundi-Pars Posterior,  p. 502.

3. See p. Isler

4. See“ Stephanus Byzantinus” cum annotationibus L. Holstenii, A. Berkelii et Th. De Pinedo, Lipsiae, 1825, Vol. IV, p. 563

5. See C. Russenberger, “Monte Iato (PA): ultime testimonianze di una cultura indigena attorno al 300 BC”, in “Bollettino di archeologia”, 2008, pp. 13 sgg.

6. See H.P. Isler, “Monte Iato. Scavi 1995-1997”, In “Terze giornate internazionali di studio sull’area elima”, 2000, II,  p. 722

7. Diod, XXII. 10, p. 498

8. Id. XXIII. 18, p. 505.

9. Cic Verr. III. 43; Plin. III. 8. s. 14.

10. "celsus Ietas" XIV. 271

11. Fazell. X. p. 471; Amico Lex. Top. Sic. vol. II. p. 291. and see See Sir William Smith, “Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography”, Boston, 1865, Vol. II, p. 2

12. See H.P. Isler, “Guida archeologica”, Sellerio, 1991, p. 16 and 25

13. F. Maurici, “L’insediamento medievale nel territorio della Provincia di Palermo. Inventario preliminare degli abitati attestati dalle fonti d’archivio (secoli XI-XVI)”, Palermo, 1998, p. 85

14. See Charles Maty,Michel-Antoine Baudrand, “Dictionnaire geographique universel ...”, 1701, p. 539

15. See F. Ferrari, "“Lexicon geographicum”, 1671, p. 415

16. See V. M. Amico, “Dizionario Topografico della Sicilia”, 1855, p. 554

17. “Toponomastica e topografia storica nelle valli del Belice e dello Jato”, Palermo, 1995,  p. 14