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Built on sandstone, Gerace was an area of ancient people, as evidenced by the discovery of several prehistoric burial sites, from Neolithic times.
The current city was founded during the Middle Ages by some refugees who deserted Locri because of the raids by the Saracens between the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 8th centuries AD, choosing the site for its natural characteristics related to good defence capabilities.
Early history of Gerace
Gerace was a very important administrative and religious center for the Byzantine Empire, which was repeatedly attacked and plundered by the Arabs, who conquered the city in the late 10th century. It was also one of the most important and oldest diocese of Calabria.
The Byzantine, fearing attacks by the Saracens, garrisoned their places with well-armed fortresses and it is from that time the establishment of the Gerace Castle is presumed to date. The castle was then restored, according to the chronicler Geofrroi Malaterra in the 11th century by Count Ruggero (1031-1101). At the same time the Byzantines created a Magistrature with full powers, called the "Catapan", who settled in Bari.
In 1059 Robert Guiscard (1015-1085) took possession not only of the City of Cariati but also of Rossano, Cosenza and Gerace in Calabria, which passed from the dominion of the Byzantines to the Normans. Gerace had a period of remarkable growth under the dominion of the Normans.
Later the city was dominated by the Swabians with Frederick II of Swabia (1194-1250), by the Angevin and by Count Caracciolo, a powerful feudal lord; then conquered by the Anjou in 1266. Gerace was raised to the role of county in the next century.
In 1480 the cult of the Greek ritual, the ancient Byzantine heritage in Gerace, was abolished in favour of the Latin cult.
Next passing to the Aragonese Gerace became a marquisate. In the 17th century the city also suffered severe damage due to major seismic events that heavily damaged some of the ancient Byzantine and Norman buildings.
The last lords of Gerace were the “Grimaldi”, who obtained the feud in 1609 and held it until the early 19th century. After a brief pause under French domination from 1806 to 1815 Gerace was conquered by the Bourbons of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, who ruled it until the unification of Italy in 1861.
Origins of the name Gerace
We should note immediately that the etymology of Gerace poses significant problems of interpretation for scholars, because some think that the name derives from the Greek-Byzantine "Aghia Kyriaki" ("Santa Ciriaca") or "Jerà Akis” (Sacred Crest), while others think it derives from "Jerax", "Ieràkos" ("vulture", "hawk"). G.B. Pellegrini discusses the problem:
"[...] 'Gerace' was founded in the 9th century by refugees from Locri. In the 9th-10th centuries it was documented as 'Aghia Kuriaké” ("Santa Ciriaca"), but in 1179 we find in the documents ‘episcopos Ieràkos’, and in 1140 'astu Gherkìon', derived from the Greek ‘ieràki’ (hawk) as 'Gerac-i' in Sicily (Palermo Province) [...]" .
In fact the two etymologies “Aghia Kuriaké” and “ieràki” have both a strong chance of being right, as we shall see.
The Gerace - hawk connection
The old coat of arms depicted a hawk because, according to legend, after the Arab raid in 915, the survivors of Locri founded the new town of Gerace by following the flight of a hawk on a rocky hill. The falcon has always been considered a "sacred animal" to ancient peoples:
"[...] The sparrow hawk, a sacred bird ('Ierax', 'ieròs'), fast, powerful, represented in the monuments of the Assyrians as a being that placed in the tree of the world, the falcon, which is active, ready, strong ('Kuhn'), a Vedic symbol, at the Gauls sacred [...]" .
We should not forget that the Greek root "ier-" not only gives "ier-ax" (sparrow hawk ") but also" ier-eion" (animal for sacrifice),"ier-eus" (priest), "ier-euo" (action of the priest), "ier-e" (priestess); so it is reasonable to assume that the etymology of "Gerace" is connected with the concept of "sacred" and "priestly." For this reason, "Gerace" with great probability would mean "sacred place". More precisely, a sacred place dedicated to some "patron saint".
In this sense, history is a great support to the etymology. Gerace, then called "Aghia Kuriaké", was born after the devastating Saracen raids, and the Byzantines, who then ruled the Calabrian territory, reorganised the new settlements for defensive purposes, thus raising them higher. It was stressed in this regard that:
"[…] written sources clearly indicate a new State intervention at various levels, that is realized with the founding of settlements with Greek names referring to the Saints, such as “Hagia Severiné" and "Hagia Kuriaké" (...) these places were walled, which solved the problem of insecurity and became a symbol of the [protecting] presence of the Byzantine Holy on the territory" .
J.M. Martin writes that the Byzantines activated in the 8th century a number city foundations, which started the country's economic recovery after the raids. The size of the new fortified villages are small and the place names, like "Hagia Kyriaki" (Gerace) indicates the willingness of the Byzantines to Graecize the country. The new cities are located on easily defensible hills at an average altitude of 300-350 meters .
This established, the interpretation of "Hagia Kyriaki" (or "Aghios Kyriakés Kastro" [“fortified town of Santa Ciriaca”]) with "Santa Ciriaca" certainly has a basis, because the place-name dedicated to this saint has strong relations with the city from which the founders of Gerace escaped - Locri, where St. Ciriaco was revered. E. Barillaro notes that:
"'Hagia Kyriaki' (Santa Domenica, Santa Ciriaca) recalls ‘San Ciriaco’, the martyr of Locri" .
We also observe that "Kyriaké" could perhaps not refer to Santa Ciriaca but to the Madonna, as an expression of the highest will of the people, given the difficult times, to also have a "high" protection, that is the Madonna. In fact, T. Dalfi, in his "Voyage to the East"  observed that some Eastern churches were dedicated to ‘Hagia Kyriaki’, that is, to our Blessed Lady."
If we take account of this historical fact related to the founding of the city, it is therefore possible that the name "Gerace" has its roots in "Kyriaki" as "a place dedicated to Our Lady." If we bear in mind the importance that a cult of the Virgin has always had in the Cathedral of the city, this hypothesis is strengthened.
However, in the "next step" towards the modern name of the city, "Gerace", is much easier if it came from "Ieràkion" rather than "Hagia Kyriaki”. "Ieràkion" is the diminutive for "Ierax", which does not just mean "hawk," but also "sacred", "inviolable". In this sense, Gerace could simply mean "sacred and inviolable place."
Corrado Bozzoni, a great connoisseur of the history of Gerace, believes that the modern name derives from "Ieràkion" rather than "Hagia Kyriaki":
[...] The study of the name 'Santa Ciriaca' has our attention because, with little knowledge of the subject, much has been said in relation to the etymology of Gerace. This etymology is connected, almost certainly in error, with '[Aghia] Kyriaki', rather than the more realistic term 'ieràkion'. An anagogical approach to the architecture of the cathedral will offer us unsuspected inductive tools and will help us choose more wisely" .
As for the modern term "Gerace", it appears for the first time with the arrival of the Normans in Calabria. According to Corrado Bozzoni:
"[…] the name 'Gerace' appears in history with the advent of the Normans. So William of Apulia tells, in his poem 'The Escalation', about Robert Guiscard. He (...) says that 'even the rich and industrious ‘Geratia’ (Gerace) surrended itself to him' […] " .
Lastly, the same Bozzoni, about the relationship “Ieràkion-Geratia-Gerace, said that the inhabitants of the city always treated with great respect the "sacred name’ of “Geratia- Ieràkion”, preferring to use other terms that recalled the ancient Locri:
‘Geratia-Ièrakos’, a name which the inhabitants put aside for the name of the ancient glorious motherland Locri".
Thus the local Bishop called, for example, "Locrensis episcopus" ("Bishop of Locri"), "episcopus Locrensis Sanctae Ecclesiae seu Sanctae Ciriacae" (Bishop of the Holy Church of Locri or Santa Ciriaca).
In conclusion, according to this authoritative opinion, the "step" towards the modern name would be: "Ieràkion" - "Geratia"- “Gerace", the “sacred place”, the “hawk. "
See the Gerace travel guide for more information.
1. See G.B. Pellegrini, "Italian Toponymy", Hoepli, 1990: 82
2. See Tommaso Folia, " Delle principali idee sul mondo ", in" Rivista Contemporanea ", Torino, 1862, Vol. 29: 451
3. see "Archeologia Medievale ", Clusf, 2005: 487
4. See J.M. Martin, "Zones côtières littorales méditerréen dans le monde au Moyen Âge", Casa de Velasquez, 2001: 489
5. See Emilio Barillaro, “Calabria. Guida artistica e archeologica”, Pellegrini, 1972: 281
6. See T. Dalfi, "Voyage to the East", 1875: 583
7. See Corrado Bozzoni," The Cathedral of Gerace, "Cassa di Risparmio di Calabria and Lucania, 1986: 21
8. See Corrado Bozzoni: 33, footnote 10