Matera has gained international fame for its "Sassi". The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are thought to be the second oldest city in the world.
The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself locally called "tufo". Many of these "houses" are caves, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi are located on the rooftops of other houses. The ancient town grew in height on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as "La Gravina".
In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Riddled with malaria the unsanitary conditions were considered a shame for Italy. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor's guide:
Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.Until the late 1980s this was considered an area of poverty, since these houses were, and in most areas still are, mostly unlivable. Current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented, and has promoted the re-generation of the Sassi with the aid of the European Union, the government, UNESCO, and Hollywood: one of the benefits of the ancient city, is that there is a great similarity in the look of the Sassi with that of ancient sites in and around Jerusalem. This has caught the eye of film directors and movie studios.
Principally due to this reason the Sassi were the set of many films, as for example "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (Pasolini, 1964), "King David" (Bruce Beresford, 1985), "The Passion of the Christ" (Mel Gibson, 2004) and "The Nativity Story" (Hardwicke, 2006).