Since prehistory, man took shelter in natural caves, competing for them against animals, or at least underneath rocky spurs, to protect themselves against the severity of the weather. The Palaeolithic man left important documentation of his parietal art in Spain and France.
During the Neolithic era, when he knew how to build huts, he wished more solid shelters for his gods, as in Al Haflieni (Malta) or for his defuncts, as the Domus de Janas (Sardegna). So he excavated them in the rock with a stone pickaxe.
Since the Bronze Age, he excavated artificial caves in rocky fronts or underground by means of a metal pickaxe. Great civilizations used this technique in more recent times: the Etruscans in Chiusi (painted tombs); the Romans (the hypogeal villas of Bulla Regia, with magnificent mosaic floors); the Buddhist civilization in India (the incredible temples of Ajanta); the Christians in Cappadocia (hundreds of churches with frescoes); the Byzantines, Lombards, Normans, Suebi in many villages and churches in Italy; local Tunisian tribes (as the hypogeal village of Matmata); Turkish people (the incredible multilevel underground cities).
Somebody has written (and still writes) about the rupestrian civilization. There is no rupestrian civilization: it is more a dwelling culture which has been shared by different civilizations, although they could also build incredible structures. It is only one among the different dwelling cultures, as other civilizations had the tepee (in North America) or the yurta (in Asia).
Where geology allowed for excavation, rupestrian and hypogeal sites were realized. Different rocks, as Calcarenite (Puglia), Sandstone (Calabria), Tuff (in Tuscia and Cappadocia), Trachyte (in Sardegna) offered different results in time and in relation with the different historical conditions of the places. So we have monuments in Cappadocia because Turkey was the core of the powerful and rich Byzantine Empire for a thousand years, while southern Italy was only a far province. It was a poor land because of the continuous wars for their domination; different political organization succeeded to each other: the Byzantine Empire, the Lombard Duchy, the Byzantine Empire again, the Norman state, the Suebi state, the Angevin state, and the Aragonese state, not to mention the frequent incursion of Arab pirates. This is why rupestrian architecture is diffused in this area, but it never reached the monumental levels as in Cappadocia.
Rupestrian architecture was considered the creation of patient stonemason monks until recent times. Today we know that, even if the presence of monks is certain, specialized stonemasons (as skilled as the masons of the great sub divo Cathedrals) were the creators of great rupestrian architectures. As the price of their work was related to their ability, their corporations developed in the most economically advanced territories.
Once, all of the rupestrian villages were considered as a choice to hide from invasions. Today we know that this is not true, since all of the villages were founded nearby important roads. For example, in Puglia they are close to the via Appia, the Via Appia Traiana, and the so called Itinerario di Guidone, the road that substituted the Via Appia after the plain of Taranto turned into a swap in the Early Middle Ages.
We know that, due to its geographical position, Cappadocia was an important commercial crossroads for centuries, and this determined the richness of the rupestrian villages.
This also means that these villages could be easily invaded, as in Puglia. So, the inhabitants of this area created a new hypogeal settlement, subterranean shelters (as the towns of Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu) which allowed the community to survive for many months without the need of risky external missions. The construction of such subterranean town is articulated on many levels; for instance, the town of Kaymaklı has nine levels. They were equipped with ventilation holes, stables, water wells, and all the necessities of thousands people. During the Byzantine Christian era, some rooms of these underground towns were turned into temples, and their walls were painted with frescoes. We think that these towns were realized after the battle of Manzikiert in 1071. In this battle, the Seldjuks defeated the Byzantine Army and they began to invade the Anatolia. 1071 was the horribilis annus of the Byzantine Empire: in this year the Normans conquered Bari and the provinces in Southern Italy.
Few centuries before, the rupestrian villages in Puglia were already equipped with fortified houses against the invasions of Goths, Arabs, and Lombards. These houses had narrow and low corridors, so that invaders would have to walk bended: this would have offered more defensive opportunities to the inhabitants of the villages.
This is an exceptional solution, which was suggested by serious danger. In Cappadocia, for instance, Churches and Monasteries had very monumental facades, so that they could easily been in sight.
Many souterraines amenagès were found in France. These are subterranean rooms equipped for long permanence. Their chronology is uncertain, as some of them could have been realized at the time of the Barbarian invasions, some others during the religious wars in the 16th century. The outstanding rupestrian settlements along the Valley of river Loire are still under examination, and this is opening new perspectives for the research. Other French regions wait for deep study: in the small village of Fontvieille (Provence) there is a rupestrian Baroque church in the Orangery of a modern hotel.
The current studies in Spain are focused on the Andalusian cuevas. The artificial caves at North, along the valley of the river Ebro, between La Rioja and Cantabria, are considered eremitorios rupestres, because of the persistence of the pan-monastic hypothesis until 1989. The confrontation with similar rupestrian sites (in Lazio, for instance) shows that these are civil settlements instead. The ‘Cuevas de los Portugueses’ in Tartalés de Cilla, in the Province of Burgos, are a small rupestrian village, with a dozen houses on double rows on the stream banks: the fact that they have been recently used by Portuguese immigrants is irrelevant.
Some small churches may have been realized by monks or hermits (even though they could have been private chapels), but this is not the case of San Pelayo, of the church of Saints Justo e Pastor (with two naves and two apses), in the region of the river Pisuerga, of the church San Pedro in Argés, of the superior funerary church of Las Gobas in territory of Laño, with its rich inscriptions and graffiti.
Recently, Italian Archaeologists are researching in Libya, and particularly in the region of Gebel Nefusa, for a better understanding of the circum Mediterranean rupestrian settlements. Some interesting villages, churches, mosques and productive plants, such as oil mills, are being examined.