Sant’Efisio: the history of Cagliari’s festival
Cagliari has been celebrating the feast of Sant’Efisio every 1st of May for over three hundred years, in honour of the saint who saved the city from the plague.
Alongside its paradisiacal beaches embraced by a sea of a thousand shades of blue, Sardinia is an island rich in stories and traditions such as that of Saint Efisio, the martyr warrior to whom is dedicated the religious celebrations taking place from 1st to 4th of May each year.
The feast of Saint Efisio is a majestic and evocative procession that involves about 3500 people dressed in traditional folk clothes and an audience of over 30 thousand people that invades the streets of Cagliari.
The cult of the Saint dates back to the second half of 1600 when the city of Casteddu, the Sardinian name of the capital, endured a terrible plague. The plague killed about ten thousand inhabitants, and the first victim was one of the most important religious men of those years, Archbishop Don Bernardo De La Cabra.
According to the reconstruction by Giovanni Spano, one of the greatest and most important researchers of Sardinian history, when the city was reduced to exhaustion, Saint Efisio appeared to the viceroy count of Lemos and asked for a vote for the procession on May the 1st, to free the city from the plague.
It was 1656, and the City Council made a perpetual vow to the holy martyr promising him that if he defeated the black death, a procession would be organized in his honour that would start from Stampace, one of the historic districts of Cagliari, and end in Nora, the city where the saint had known martyrdom.
Saint Efisio listened to the prayers of the people of Cagliari and rewarded their faith with abundant rains that put an end to the plague. Therefore, since the 1st of May 1657, the Saint has been celebrated every year with one of the longest and oldest processions on foot in Europe, consisting of 65 km crossed in four days with songs, traccas, traditional costumes, goccius and launeddas.
Sant’Efisio: the route of the longest Italian religious procession
The preparations for the procession in honour of Saint Efisio begin around the 25th of April and are managed by the Arciconfraternita del Gonfalone.
The journey of the Simulacrum of Saint Efisio begins in the churchyard of the Stampace church. The procession that takes him to Nora is opened by traccas and decorated floats pulled by oxen, followed by folk groups and more than three thousand people dressed in traditional costumes, engaged in reciting the rosary or singing the goccius (sung prayers).
Behind the chariot carrying the simulacrum there are more than two hundred horseback riders joined by the militia, the members of the guardian of which the third guardian in the first row holds the banner of brotherhood, and Alter Nos, formerly the viceroy’s representative and now the mayor’s delegate.
The carriage, accompanied by the players of luneddas, a traditional Sardinian musical instrument, arrives at via Roma along roads covered with a carpet of red, yellow and pink rose petals, meanwhile, the sirens of the ships greet them from the port of Cagliari.
After leaving Cagliari, the journey continues to the hamlet of Giorgino and crosses Maddalena Spiaggia, Su Loi, Villa d’Orri, Sarroch, Villa San Pietro, Pula and finally Nora. After the commemoration, they leave for Cagliari. At Sant’Efisio’s return to the church of Stampace, the festival in his honour ends with a reading attesting to the dissolution of the vote.
Saint Efisio: the story of a pagan soldier who converted to Christianity
Sant’Efisio, or Efis in Sardinian, was born in 250 A.D., outside Antioch, a city in Turkey near the Oronte River. His mother was pagan, and his father a Christian who he lost at a young age. His mother educated him in paganism, and when he became an adult, he decided to fight the Christians by enlisting in the army of the Roman emperor Diocletian.
The story tells that Efisio’s life changed when he moved to Italy. One night a Cross appeared to him in a dream, it shone in the clouds, and while the soldier was contemplating the extraordinary phenomenon, a voice said to him: “I am the Christ, the one you are persecuting”. After this vision, the young soldier left the army and converted.
Eager to proclaim the Gospel to the pagans, Efisio arrived in Sardinia where idolatry was still widespread and began to preach the word of God publicly. He also wrote a letter to the emperor inviting him to abandon the false gods to convert to the Christian faith. Summoned to Cagliari by the governor Iulio, who told him to abandon the Christian faith, Efisio refused to renounce and was arrested.
He was imprisoned in the place where today stands the church that bears his name, in Stampace, and here he was scourged, beaten and burned with burning embers but never gave in to the idea of denying his faith.
Efisio was beheaded on the beach of Nora, about 40 km from Cagliari, in January 303 and before dying recited the prayer in which he invoked divine protection on the Sardinian people: “Please, Lord, protect the city of Cagliari from the invasion of enemies. Let the people abandon the worship of the Gods, reject the deceptions of the Devil and recognize you, Jesus Christ our Lord, as the one true God. May the sick who pray at the place of my burial recover their health, and may anyone who is in danger in the sea or threatened by invaders, tormented by hunger or pestilence, after calling on me, your servant, be brought to safety”.
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