North of the Sicilian Apennine Mountains, at over 1000 meters above sea level, on the southern slope of an isolated mountain, stands the village of Prizzi, the highest of the Sicani Mountains.
The most reliable historical sources tell us that the inhabited center was built by the Byzantines around the fundamental nucleus of the castle after 745, responding to the need to build military garrisons to defend themselves from Muslim danger and religious wars. From the castle, therefore, it was possible to control the wide valleys below, to send and receive signals of fire and smoke. In the late Greek language “pyrizein” meant, in fact, lighting fires to send messages: hence the name of the inhabited center “Prizzi”. However, these defense systems did not prevent the Byzantine castle – less than a hundred years after its construction – from being conquered by the Muslims, who imposed their dominion until the next Norman conquest, 24 years later.
The urban agglomeration of Prizzi was born all around the castle and developed in a semicircle below it. Fabio Oliveri writes: “The true work of art of Prizzi is the town itself, with its historic center revealing itself as an admirable example of mountain architecture, and offering an evocative and unrepeatable image of harmony between man and the environment”. In fact, the houses clinging to the rock and the verdant Sosio valley below are breathtaking: a truly original open-air museum. The scenic effect of the town is also exceptional, which looks like an eagles’ nest in the daytime and a nativity scene at night.
In the mountain south of Prizzi, called the Mountain of the Horses, the remains of the ancient city of Hippana were found (VII century – III century BC). This is a particularly significant territory from a strategic point of view. In fact, the first Roman road documented by historical sources, from Palermo to Agrigento, was built nearby and opened under the consul Aurelio Cotta in 251 BC. The ancient town occupies the easternmost and highest part of the mountain, where there was a rich and vast necropolis.
It was Giuseppe Crispi who first reported the site calling it “Pana” (perhaps derived from Ippana). Only in 1962, however, Vincenzo Tusa carried out the first excavations.
The oldest occupation dates back to the period from the end of the VII to the beginning of the V century BC, when a group of indigenous Sican people lived on the mountain, attracted by the favorable environmental conditions. The inhabited area must have enjoyed a fair degree of well-being until the first decades of the V century BC, since no traces of the following period have been found yet.
Around the middle of the IV century BC the new centre (the Ippana mentioned by the sources) was rebuilt in the places of the archaic settlement. New buildings were created, built on the remains of the previous structures and new fortifications were erected for its defense. Probably there was also the minting of coins with the inscription IPA (Ippana). This phase continued until the middle of the III century BC and the excavations also brought to light signs of a violent destruction that occurred later. The conquest of Ippana dates back to 258 BC during the first Punic war. At the end of the First Punic War, in 241 BC, the Mountain of the Horses was quickly abandoned.
The most significant building is certainly the theater, which occupies a very important position, close to the top of the mountain. Excavations in 2007 brought to light the surviving part of the orchestra and the lower rows of the cavea. Its location is spectacular, with the cavea facing north, offering a splendid view towards the elevations of the valleys of the San Leonardo and Torto rivers, up to the Tyrrhenian coast. The theater certainly hosted performances and also city assemblies.
Among the historical attractions, the Ancient Tower built around 745 as an instrument of defense and resistance to long sieges, thanks to its strategic position within the territory. It is the only tower left after the Saracen attacks, out of the three towers which inspired the origin of the coat of arms of the Municipality of Prizzi depicting the three towers and a Saracen soldier on guard.