A cave on Mount Tiscali

“We are before Christ. The Romans occupied all the province. Oh wait… not all of it. A small indomitable village still holds out against the invaders. And they have no intention of facilitating the life of the legionaries stationed in the surrounding garrisons.”

You know which village it is, don’t you? No, no. Don’t hurry with the answer. This is not Asterix’s village in Brittany. But rather the one where the real Asterixes lived: Tiscali in Sardinia.

Ever since the Roman legions in 238 BC conquered Sardinia during the Punic Wars, the inhabitants of the villages saw in them the hateful invaders, and this has not essentially changed until today, just as the Romans have seen the barbarian in the Sards, from Cato to the present day.

Coro di Bitti:
Cantu a tenore
The inhabitants of the Sardinian villages desperately defended themselves against the invaders, and for a century they again and again ignited the flame of uprisings, which were again and again stamped down by the Romans, who penetrated deeper and deeper into the interior of the island. But the heart of Sardinia, the villages hidden in the trackless valleys and among the rocks of the interior mountainous region, remained inaccessible to them. The Sards resisting the conquerors regularly raided from here the garrisons built at the entrances of the valleys, whose soldiers in their helpless rage called the region outside their control Barbaria, the land of the barbarians. This name has stuck to this day.

The steep, barren mountain range of the Supramonte rises above the valleys of the Barbagia. Inside as if we were reading a romantic novel, a fertile and spacious valley opens up, the valley of Lanaittu. The stream Sa Oche runs its length down from the fifteen hundred meter-high Pruna peak, between olive groves and flocks of sheep. The only entrance to the valley is where the stream flows into the river Cedrino, and where the river prevents any intrusion into the valley. An ideal terrain for defense. The remains of about thirty ancient Sardinian villages have been excavated in the valley, which resisted the legions for at least a hundred years after the Roman conquest. And when the lower part of the valley no longer provided enough security against the intruders, they moved up into the head of the valley, on Mount Tiscali, where they seem to have undisturbedly survived the fall of Rome.

Today a bridge leads over the Cedrino river, I cross it unmolested. Dawn. The rocks of the Supramonte are still covered with clouds, but underneath are already visible the vineyards, whose first vines were domesticated by the Jesuits in the neighboring Oliena from the ancient grape variety growing wild in the island for three thousand years. The road rises slowly upward, you can already see from above the cliffs of the Cedrino canyon, and, looking back, the valley of Oliena. Then it turns sharply into the valley of Sa Oche. I continue my way among olive groves. In the limestone rocks here and there caves open up: the Grotta Rifugio, the seven-thousand-year-old burial place of the Bonu Ighinu people, the Grotta del Guano, where the six-thousand-year-old goddess statues of the Ozieri people were found, the double cave of Sa Oche e Su Ventu with the traces of a twenty-thousand-year-old human settlement, and the Grotta Corbeddu, where the famous bandit leader Giovanni Corbeddu Salis hid in the late 19th century. And after a while there appears, above the crowns of the olive trees, the jagged peak of Mount Tiscali.

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After crossing the stream, the road begins to rise sharply. The sun is already shining, the pervasive  junipers perfume the air. I repeatedly look back, watching the valley through which I have come emerging from behind the trees. I arrive at a wide limestone plateau, from which a great panorama opens to as far as the entrance of the valley. From somewhere deep you can hear bleating and dogs barking. Here must be the hut of the shepherd whom I will soon meet. I look at the map. There are five hundred meters to go, but it notes that the remaining time as one hour. As I go ahead, I increasingly understand why.

A steep path turns up from the plateau to the rock towering above me. On its edge, the wind-torn, barkless pines of Chinese ink drawings cling to the mountain cracks. I have to cross the forty meter-high, two meter-wide rift of the rock, the trunks of fallen trees are the stairs. A long horizontal indentation stretches along the rock wall: only a few million years ago, the sea was eroding the coastal cliffs here. Then came the ice, which, in retreat, scraped lunar formations onto the surface of the rock.

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The holes carved by the ice offer ideal protection for the vegetation on the windswept plateau. Each hole and dent houses a small garden, which holds on with enormous force to life in the grip of the barren rock, just like the Sardinians. On the earth slowly amassing at the bottom of the holes, a multitude of seeds are waiting patiently for their turn.

Bach: 5th Cello Suite, BWV 1011, Courante. Isang Enders, 2014

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Arriving on the plateau, a hundred meter-wide crater opens up in front of me. The roof of a giant cave was torn millions of years ago, and the cave became a hidden valley. Here the Sards coming up from the valley built their new village, which was never found by the Romans. In the middle of the crater, a piece of the former roof stands vertically, like a huge megalith, and on the side of the cave, just in the right place, a large natural window opens, from where they could constantly keep an eye on the valley. The remains of about fifty houses were excavated at the bottom of the crater. A few hundred people lived here, living on shepherding and looting, just like the whole population of the Barbagia in the following two millennia.

We do not know how life stopped here. It seems not as a result of a cataclysm, but rather the inhabitants gradually moved down to the valley after the fall of Roman rule. Then, the village was forgotten for two thousand years. However, in 1863 the regulation of the Piedmontese government gave a green light to the deforestation of Sardinia, which was done for about a hundred years by entrepreneurs from Turin. They devastated whole hillsides in order to provide the developing Italian industry with wood for building. The collapsed cave with the remains of Tiscali village was found by lumberjacks. A race between the archaeologists and treasure-seekers started. The first researchers still saw and described as relatively intact the stone walls of the houses, which have been quite destroyed by a hundred years of treasure hunting.

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Like Petrarca, when reaching the top of Mons Ventosus, I also take out a book on the summit of the windy mountain, the monograph Tiscali by Elio Aste. The erudite summary guides you calmly and meticulously, with a broad overview and ornamented Italian rhetoric through the geological structure and development of the region, describes the historical sources, confronts the archaeological hypotheses, reconstructs the wall remains. Only the final sentence of the book reads as unusual in a scientific work:

“During our extraordinary journey, we have been enriched with a unique experience, which prompts reflexion, the reception and understanding of the far away message left to us by our forefathers in the dolina of Tiscali: that human freedom and dignity are priceless, even if we have to preserve them at the cost of a difficult life full of indigence and heavy dangers.”

And the historical arguments are enlarged by a three-page appendix, an ode peppered with Sardinian dialectal words and densely annotated, a sublime poem, by none other than the learned author himself: Ode to the heroes of Lanaittu.

“…For thousands of years, in the deep
womb of the rock a nest is hidden,
a nest of armed men, who, like bold eagles
are always ready for battle and looting.
In a secret shelter of the rock they waited
for the female wolf, the ferocious beast,
hungry for glory and conquest, who was
brought by the centuries to the entrance
of the valley to rob flocks and ravage hearths
until, satisfied, set up her haunt there.
And in a night without moonshine
the horn snapped, the valley was shaken!
They pounced on the wolf, the great beast,
hungry for glory and conquest, and on her
invading and devastating army, who
did not yet know the power of the Sards.
Thus they took revenge for the hearths ravaged
the fathers murdered, the women raped.
On that night, the river ran with blood,
alien blood sprinkled the land of Lanaittu!”

The Sard, who does not forget after two thousand years, came out of the erudite author. The chronicle of the people of Tiscali is not yet over.