Flying over Sicily on ancient mythological wings
Santa Elisabetta is a small village in the Sicani Mountains, nestled in a suggestive hilly area rich in history, myths and legends. Although Santa Elisabetta was founded in the 17th century, the archaeological evidence found in the surrounding rocky promontories, especially on Keli and Guastanella, confirms that the area was already inhabited in ancient times. In fact, on Mount Keli, which delimits the northern part of the country, more than thirty Roman-Byzantine era arcosolium tombs have been discovered. These small caves have been obtained from a pre-existing Sican necropolis dating back to the 1st millennium BC of which some oven tombs are still visible in the least accessible part of the hill. Among the numerous arcosolia adorning the northern wall of the rock cliff, there is a large and captivating cave measuring approximately 14 square meters with two loculi carved into the floor and three more at the back. The size of the cave suggests that it was possibly used as a chapel in the early Christian era. An exceptional find was made in the 1980s: a sarcophagus lid in a triangular shape with two sloping sides, now kept in the Municipal Library.
Amidst this rare beauty, where an ancient olive tree overlooks some tombs almost protectively, one can also witness one of nature’s most fascinating and rare spectacles: giant gypsum crystals that emerge from the rocks, attracting experts and scholars from around the world to Mount Keli. Approximately 6 million years ago, the evaporation of water from the ancient Mediterranean Sea gave birth to glistening sedimentary gypsum crystals in this corner of Sicily, which reach an exceptional height of 2.60 meters: the longest in the Mediterranean basin and among the longest in the world.
Considering the height, purity, and exceptional size of the crystals, Monte Keli certainly attracted the attention of the Romans from the Imperial Age onwards. Due to their transparency and brightness, the Romans called this type of gypsum lapis specularis (mirror stone), considering it a precious and sought-after material throughout the Empire. It was used as an excellent substitute for glass in windows of homes and baths or as a decoration and scenic effect in public games, thanks to its unique shimmer. Even today, when touched by sunlight, these crystalline blocks offer a truly magical sight. All these remarkable features make Mount Keli a site of great geological, naturalistic, and archaeological value, making it an essential stop for every traveler.
The Mother Church, gracefully occupying the southern slope of Mount Keli, was erected in the second half of the 18th century. However, due to some collapses, it was renovated, expanded, and rebuilt in subsequent periods. The beautiful neoclassical portal on the stone facade bears the inscription: “D. STEPH. O PPD. MDCCXCVI”, attesting to the church’s reconstruction in 1796 and its dedication to Saint Stephen the Martyr. Following the recent consolidation and restoration works, the Church houses today some sacred objects and valuable paintings, including those depicting Saint Anthony and Saint Rosalia, as well as a wooden pulpit with the noble Montaperto coat of arms.
The village of Santa Elisabetta was founded in 1620 by Nicolò Giuseppe Montaperto, before Marquis and later Prince of Raffadali. The Montaperto family is among the oldest noble families in Agrigento and received privileges and honors from various royal houses, starting from the D’Altavilla dynasty to the House of Savoy. Legend has it that the Montaperto family arrived in Sicily in the 11th century, following the Great Count Roger, offering strategic and military support during the Norman conquest of Sicily, which was then under Arab rule. In recognition of their services, the Montaperto family received Guastanella and the fief of “Raffadali“, that is, the “Raffo d’Alì” which included all the possessions of the Saracen chief of the area. The Montaperto coat of arms, featuring nine roses divided by four diagonal bands, still adorns the wooden pulpit inside the Church.
The Mother Church dominates the village atop a distinctive staircase: the Staircase of Poggio, also known as the Staircase of the Saints or of Weddings. Among the staircases that connected the top of the village to the lower part, this was the widest and most significant. It linked the Mother Church and Monte Keli’s Poggio to the base of the village. From here, both the main religious processions and newlyweds descended after the wedding ceremony. Until the 1960s, newlyweds often descended and posed for photos along this staircase. Today, thanks to an urban regeneration and historical memory recovery project, this staircase has been embellished with the presence of pots, plants, artistic decorations, and vintage photos that rekindle its past importance. Its small houses, courtyards, and small shops that overlooked it created a unique and welcoming atmosphere for people to linger, meet, and converse.
At the mid of Via Umberto lies Piazza San Carlo, representing the urban center of Santa Elisabetta. Recently renovated and modernized, the square is adorned with five picturesque ceramic panels depicting the cycle of wheat, paying homage to the village’s agricultural tradition. But Santa Elisabetta also boasts an important pastoral tradition, and on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, Piazza San Carlo becomes the main stage for the “Pastorale di Nardu”: a celebration blending faith and folklore centered around the amusing character of Nardu, a shepherd’s assistant. Nardu’s comical and irreverent actions are at the heart of a colorful performance that culminates in the preparation and sharing of the traditional ricotta pasta with all the participants. Beautiful murals along Via Belgio portray the various stages of the “Pastorale di Nardu,” thus allowing visitors to admire this lively event throughout the year.
Two kilometers to the west of the village, another site of great historical and archaeological interest await you on Mount Guastanella: a ruggedly beautiful rock cliff dominating a vast area. Here, an ancient necropolis and the remains of a fortress partly carved into the rock: the Castle of Guastanella, can be found. The rock fortress was originally an Arab stronghold, likely built on top of an earlier Byzantine fortification, which in turn may have been constructed on a pre-existing Greek-Punic outpost and perhaps, even earlier, a Protohistoric watchtower. One of a kind, this millennia-old fortress has witnessed various civilizations throughout the centuries, ultimately falling to the Normans in the 11th century, marking the end of Arab hegemony in Sicily. The Castle of Guastanella was once again used as a stronghold and prison by the Muslims when they rebelled against Frederick II of Swabia.
In fact, it was where Bishop Ursone of Agrigento was imprisoned and released after many months, ransomed with a generous sum. Between 1221 and 1232, Frederick II, upon returning to Sicily after winning the war in Germany against Otto IV of Brunswick, defeated the rebellious Arabs and destroyed the fortress of Guastanella. Today, the best-preserved structures are two underground chambers, a barrel-vaulted cistern, and a silo carved into the rock.
Perhaps on this sharp and almost inaccessible rock of Mount Guastanella stood the mythical and never-found Kamikos: the impregnable fortress erected by the legendary Greek architect Daedalus for the Sicanian king Kokalos as a token of gratitude for saving him from the wrath of the great Cretan king Minos. Beyond the myth of Daedalus, Minos, and Kokalos, the influences of Minoan-Mycenaean culture in the area were highlighted around 1930 by the distinguished archaeologist Paolo Orsi. Recently, archaeologist Rosamaria Rita Lombardo, drawing inspiration from an age-old local oral tradition, some topographic evidence, and reflections recorded in Paolo Orsi’s notebooks, has hypothesized that Guastanella could indeed be the mythical citadel of Kamikos and the site of the legendary Mausoleum of Minos. Minos was deceitfully murdered while taking a restorative bath in the palace of Kokalos after landing on the traces of Daedalus on the coast of the Sicani, near the shores of the mouth of the Platani river.
Santa Elisabetta: distance from Agrigento approx. 23 Km
Contacts of organizations and associations which offer tourist information and other useful services:
Municipality of Santa Elisabetta: telephone reception
GSSE – Gruppo Speleologico Santa Elisabetta: booking and information about excursions on Monte Guastanella
+39 470065 / +39 3384931858
Santa Elisabetta: the coordinates indicate Guastanella’Castle.
The icons on the map indicate the points of interest and useful tourist services: open the map in full screen and click on the icons to visualize the information.
N 37° 25' 44.33''
E 13° 31' 33.32''
37.42898 , 13.52592
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