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An Archeological Mystery: Santo Stefano Rock Altar

Elena Pala

One of the best kept secrets in Sardinia, Santo Stefano rock altar, is tucked away from tourist routes, up on the hills less than a mile north of Oschiri. Simply follow via Monte Acuto out of town, and Santo Stefano will soon materialize on your right. As someone who has travelled across the island countless times since age 2, I could not believe this gem had eluded me for twenty-odd years. As a matter of fact I could not believe the site was barely signaled, not ticketed, and completely open-access.

Phoenician Goddess AstarteThe small Santo Stefano church dates back to the Spanish domination (XVI century), but it was built on the foundations of an earlier Byzantine site (VII-IX century). The head of Phoenician goddess Astarte is mounted on the doorpost, which also features a stone slab with mysterious, undeciphered characters. The entire area is loaded with symbols of the different civilizations that inhabited it, contributing to its deeply spiritual atmosphere. The domos de janas scattered for about half a mile around the church testify that these hills were the site of religious rituals well before the Christian era: domos de janas is Sardinian for "Fairies' Houses", the Bronze Age chamber tombs whose structure resembles that of a miniature house.

domos de janas

Domus e Janas (aka Fairies' Houses)

But it is the rock altar that takes pride of place. This 10m long solid granite rock carved with geometrical figures of squares, circles and triangles is apparently entirely unique - nothing similar can be found in the Mediterranean, and it has been baffling archeologists for decades. Behind the altar, a smaller stone is also carved with a sequence of three squares, while another one lying flat on the ground displays a large circle surrounded by smaller, shallower circles. Some of the figures on the altar itself are also surrounded by smaller circles, and two are marked with a Greek cross.

Santo Stefano Rock Altar

Santo Stefano Rock Altar

The presence of the Greek cross is, according to one hypothesis, proof that the altar was built for Christian rituals during the Byzantine domination, with the geometrical figures serving as alcoves where worshippers would deposit offers. However, others point out how Christianity often "recycled" pagan monuments in an effort to neutralize old religions. According to this hypothesis, the Greek crosses were later additions to the altar, and the S.Stefano church itself was built right in front of it precisely to "counteract" its pagan influence. The geometrical figures then acquire new connotations: the squares are linked to the symbolism of "fake doors", a gateway to the world of the dead, which are common on the domos de janas and the tumbas de sos gigantes ("Giant's Graves", Bronze Age megalithic gallery graves). The large circle surrounded by smaller circles is said to represent the solar system. For those interested in archeology, G. Calvia's "Oschiri: Guida all'Altare Rupestre di S.Stefano" provides a full overview of all competing theories and also puts forth some new interesting ones.

A Bronze Age necropolis, Phoenician goddesses, mysterious inscriptions, a Byzantine church and a unique monument that has not yet been attributed to any of these ancient civilizations. Even the most cynical, dispassionate visitor cannot help but feel a little unsettled, if not humbled, by a place that resonates with millennium-old spirituality.

Go see it now before local authorities realize they have been sitting on a goldmine and start putting up fences and glass cages. Go see it while you can still wander alone and stick your hands in the alcoves and suck in all the magic without a tour guide urging you to move on to the next "attraction."


www.sardegnaturismo.it: Official website of Sardinia

Sardinian Vacation Rental Reviews

Charming Sardinia: hotels and villas in Sardinia

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Elena lives and studies in Cambridge, where she landed four years ago after meandering across Europe from Bologna to Paris via Dublin. When she is not rescuing endangered languages, she writes for charmingitaly.com about the many wonders of her native Italy. She is passionate about Costa Smeralda and Sardinia in general, which she has been exploring since she was a child.

© Elena Pala 2012

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