Sant' Elia, Province of Palermo, Sicily


Sant' Elia "u' ficuzza" June 2001

Along the north coast of Sicily, some 10 miles east of Palermo, one of the island’s more impressive promontories juts out over the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is Cape Zafferano, formed by MONGERBINO, a mountain spur extending northward from the larger mountain bearing the hybrid Arabic/Greco name of CATALFANO. East of the cape, and at the base of Catalfano, facing the sea, lies a small nondescript village, SANT’ ELIA, named for Elijah, that terrible prophet of the Old Testament.

The village is perhaps no more than a mile long, and less than that in depth. Most of the houses are ancient, built of solid TUFO stone blocks called BALATUNE in dialect. Much like mini-fortresses these houses (at least through the 1970’s) are generally windowless on the first level. The single entrances are protected by heavy metal clad wooden doors, and openings which in days gone by served as vents for FOCOLARE - charcoal fired cooking devises - are latticed with metal bars mortised into the stone. What few windows there may be, are usually found in the upper stories. During the day, fresh air and sunlight enter through the open doors, the entrance of free ranging chickens and other animals being barred by a sort of Dutch door.

Some houses are painted in varieties of pastel colors, but the majority bear the weathered drab stone color of the blocks from which they are built. The streets follow no particular pattern. There is no village square, no main street, no business street; just old narrow streets, some of which until only recently were impassable for donkey carts, much less automobiles. There is an elementary school house and a small church not much larger than a chapel. Only a smattering of descendants of original Sant’ Elia families remain. FICHI D’INDIA - cactus trees - are characteristic of the region. The region is quite arid, fresh water always a scarce commodity, agriculture is marginal at best and yet, there are lemon groves, some almond and peach orchards and olive orchards. To the American born descendants of Sant’ Elioti it holds a nostalgic fascination and some rustic charm.

Some say it was primarily a fishing village, the abundance of fish in the Tyrrhenian having attracted settlers. But, except for the seasonal importance of the tuna harvest, fishing, though the principal occupation of preceding generations, could hardly have justified settlement. On the contrary, it was the halcyon day’s of Sant’ Elia’s fishing industry that the abject poverty and deprivation drove its young men to migrate to other lands.

But for a rather brief period of importance in harvesting tuna (*), Sant’ Elia owes its existence more to its strategic military and navigational check point location than to any material resource, and the reason for its existence begins in antiquity with the ancient Phoenicians.

It was here in the northwest corner of Sicily that the Phoenicians took their stance against the Greek armies advancing from the south and east of the island. Panormus (Palermo) was their major stronghold, and to better defend it, two military outposts were established. One was to the south, another in the east high above the site of what is present day Sant’ Elia. From these heights on the slopes of Catalfano, those ancient day soldiers could scan the plains below. It was the fourth century B.C., and great bloody battles were to take place in Himeria where some twenty three centuries later the American General, George S. Patton in one of his "de ja vous" experiences, recalled his having fought there side by side with Hamilkar and his Phoenician troops.

One of the two landing sites selected for a go-between for military traffic was that on which Sant’ Elia stands today. The other was the site of present day Solanto. The people of both villages had much in common, respected each other and frequently intermarried. One can imagine that as Solanto was being built and later maintained, there must have been much activity in the site later to be called Sant’ Elia. The site must have flourished as a prosperous community for as long as there was Solous (Solanto). The natives of Sant’ Elia to this day still refer to the ruins of Solous (later latinized to Soluntum and still later Italianized to Solunto) as ‘A CITTA or SUPRA. ("A citta - the city).

The Cape Zafferano lighthouse most certainly now performs the same beacon function as A TUREE - a stone tower - in Sant’ Elia as it did centuries ago. These towers - all around the western Mediterranean area were not watch towers as some would speculate, but rather beacon towers on the tops on which fires were maintained to assist night navigators.

The shrine just preceding the lighthouse is to the L’ALMUZZI SANTI , the poor souls buried there who were victims of one of the horrible cholera epidemic (1837) of the last century. People died so quickly in such large numbers that there was no time for decent burials. Some were carted off and dumped unceremoniously into a large, deep abandoned well or sinkhole, and covered with PALE DI FICH D’INDIA - leaves of the ubiquitous prickly pear cactus plant. Later, after the epidemic subsided, a shrine was build on the site in memorial to the poor souls - L’ALMUZZI SANTI. 

L'Almuzzi Santi 

photo by P. M. Bellanti 2002

The steep mountain face of the mountain of Aspra is that which "SANT’ ELIOTI" of our fathers generation and beyond referred to as "A RATALORA" - grater (like in cheese grater) - GRATTALORA in Italian. Its local dialect name derives from the erosion formed "pock marks" all over the surface. It actually looks like the surface of a grater.. This was used as a diving board by those of our fathers generation.

                                       --- Contributed by Salvatore A. Pizzo, 3rd cousin, once removed                         


(*) (The tuna annually come in May and June to lay their eggs in the warm waters off the northern coast of Sicily, and catching them is supposed to be, for the strong stomached, one of the fascinating spectacles that Sicily has to offer. Repeating with unfaltering fidelity the rites and rules that were brought here by the Arabs more than 1000 years ago. The head fisherman is still addressed by the Arabic title of "RAIS". The tuna are trapped in weirs (traps). When the weir (trap) is full the "Rais" orders the fishermen to pull in the nets. They do this singing as a chant and each verse begins and ends with "AIMOLA" which some say derives from "Allah Che Mudia" - "Allah may it die".)

Sant' Elia is the Commune that my Paternal Grandparents came from.  In the research of our surname, Bellanti,  record was made of all the names that  intermarried with our family over the centuries.  Consequently,  my database contains virtually all of  the family names that originated from this Commune.

Most boy's of the village, of necessity, were pressed into working with their father's as "Pescatore" thus foregoing a formal education..  Some others were more fortunate and received an education.  Some were tutored by the village Priest. 

For some selected family anecdotes click here


Click here to go to the Bellanti family page