Fortified Churches of Transylvania
The fortified churches of Transylvania are specific to Saxon and Siculum villages, located in southeastern Transylvania . Once about 300 fortified churches in Transylvania for more than five centuries played both religious and military roles. With approximately 150 buildings in the early twenty-first century Transylvanian fortified churches in the center of one of the most dense medieval fortification systems are well preserved on the European continent.
The Sicilian frontiersmen settled in southeastern Transylvania during the 11th -th century . The Saxon villages of Transylvania emerged from the mid-twelfth century when King Geza II settled German settlers in the region to protect the eastern borders of the Kingdom of Hungary invasions coumanes. After the arrival of the Teutonic Knights in the region in the early 13th century, and in accordance with agreements with the kings of Hungary, the Germans obtained a special status among the inhabitants of the province and their civilization managed to survive, forming a strong community of farmers, craftsmen and traders. Located in a region constantly threatened by Ottoman and Tartar invasions, they built fortifications of various sizes. The most important towns were completely fortified, while smaller communities built fortifications around their church to which they added defensive towers. The shelter of these fortified enclosures provided shelter for the townspeople, as well as warehouses to store their valuables and help them withstand long sieges.
Southern Transylvania is a plateau crossed by the valleys of many small rivers that flow into the larger ones, namely the Olt , Mures, Tyrnava Mica and Tyrnava Mare . Villages follow the topography as closely as possible to get the best; also villages located in the valley developed around a central street and sometimes a few alleys, while villages located on flatter land have a more loose and radial pattern. Because of safety concerns and Saxon tradition, the villages are compact.
The rooms/stores of the villagers within the walls of the Preimer fortification. On the left side we see the buttresses of the church.
The main building of the villages of Saxon and Siculum is the church, which is still located in the center of the village. Some of the churches built by the Germans in the XIII century, such as those built later Szekler, were strongly influenced by the style of buildings built by Cistercians in Liberty and Igriş. The churches were fortified from the XIII century, and they played a defensive role until 1788, when the last raid Ottoman Transylvania.
One can observe different types of fortifications: there are churches whose tower has been converted into a dungeon (as in the case of Rothbaw Church ), or churches planned with real passageways (that is, on all sides of the church, as in Cloașterf , or only on the choir side, as in Șura Mare ); there are fortified churches surrounded by a fence, as in Dargiu ; there are few (or no) fortified churches, but they are surrounded by a small wall and a few towers (as in Cinchore ), a real wall (as in Codlea or Dealu Frumos ); at the end, real fortresses with several rows of walls around the perimeter (as in Biertana ).
Some of the churches designed with perimeter walls could withstand long sieges while accommodating the entire population of the village. Thus, as in the case of Prejmer or Sânpetru , fortifications were planned with rooms that served as storehouses in peacetime and welcomed the local community in times of war.
The churches were adapted to fulfil their defensive function; all were either Romanesque basilicas or single-nave churches of late Gothic architecture. Some of them, such as the churches of Ghelinta or Malancrav, contain Gothic frescoes of great importance in the XIVth century.
Churches have many additions compared to the historical period in the late Middle Ages, which have not seen their building until the XVI century. Many churches also have elements of the Baroque period, as this style was very popular in the region.
In most cases, the church is in a defensible position, usually at the top of a hill. Elements of fortifications found in the main cities of the region were adapted to the villages, and we see there evidence of the building methods used over the years by the Transylvanian Saxon community. Some of the fortifications have observation towers, some have church towers adapted to the needs of the fortress. Stone and red bricks are traditionally used as materials, and red clay is used to clad the tiles, which is specific to the region.
Next to the church is the main village square, or Place de Danse, around which social life revolves. Next to the fortifications there are only the usual buildings: a school or the town hall. Around the square are the presbytery as well as the houses of the wealthiest villagers. In addition, most of the plots have barns for storing grain close to the center of the village.
Currently, the village of Székely and the six ancient villages of Saxon are registered on the World Heritage List of UNESCO :
In Transylvania, as I have already written, since the 13th century the Germans, usually referred to as Transylvanian Saxons (although a very small part of them were related to Saxony), were settled. In the 13th century these places were quite turbulent – for example, the Tatars were constantly raiding, and in the middle of the century a couple of times Mongols passed nearby, at the end of the European campaign managed to sufficiently harm Hungary. To make their villages as safe as possible from such incidents, the Germans built fortified churches in them. During peacetime, the church was used for its intended purpose, but in the event of an attack, the entire village population was quickly assembled inside the church. Such churches were walled on the outside with towers (that was their fortification) and could withstand an assault and siege for days, and sometimes they had underground passages that led far beyond the wall.
The church at Birtan.
In Transylvania there are about one hundred and fifty fortified churches, of varying degrees of preservation. Eight of them are grouped into a special World Heritage Site – Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania. We had planned to see two of them – in the town of Birtan and the village of Valea Viilor – but found a couple more on the way. These churches are fairly evenly scattered throughout Transylvania, and “ours” are northeast of Sibiu, on the road to Sighisoara. We didn’t get to Sighisoara itself (separately marked by UNESCO), and we weren’t going to, but on the way we passed through Medias, where a large fortified complex can be seen from the road. Our first destination was Valea Viilor. We drove 30 kilometers to it from Sibiu, and then we drove more, I think, eight kilometers on a side road. It rained all day, sometimes harder, sometimes stopping for a short time, which, of course, affected the quality of photographs.
The church in Valya-Vilor (in German Wurmloh) is dedicated to St. Peter and was built (in place of the old one) quite late, in the 14th century, when no Mongols were here long ago, but the Turks were already quite present, who would soon conquer both Wallachia and Hungary, but would not insist on the destruction of the churches. The village itself is small and, although listed as a World Heritage Site, I did not find it particularly interesting – it appears to have historic buildings other than the church, but it is quite difficult to distinguish them from the new ones. Solid plastered houses with tiled roofs, sandwiched in a river valley between two hills.
And the church looks pretty good, just as we expected.
The fortified church at Valea Viilor.
The church keeper, a man in his sixties, turned out to be a real German. He did not know English, and we spoke to him in German. The first thing we did was to go through the gate inside the wall. It was built around 1500, I don’t know if it was built on nothing, or if it was an old wall. The wall is six to seven meters high, there are three bastions.
The wall of the church in Valea Viilor.
The church itself is Gothic (its predecessor, of which part of the foundation remains, was Romanesque). After the Reformation it was converted to Lutheran and, accordingly, nothing of the interior decoration has been preserved, the altar from 1779). It gives the same feeling as in the large northern cathedrals (in Northern Germany and Denmark) – a huge space with almost no people. But you can climb the tower of the church, which has great views in all directions.
View from the tower.
Here is the church from the other (south) side.
The fortified church at Valea Viilor.
To get to Birtan (in German Birthelm), you have to take the same road to Sighisoara to Mediasz, another twenty kilometers beyond Mediasz, and about fifteen more to the right on a side road. Birtan is already a small town, and in it the old buildings are clearly visible, and around the church a whole complex of medieval buildings is erected, starting with a covered staircase, in the middle of which in a separate building there is a ticket office.
Birtan, Strada Aurel Vlaicu.
The main square of Birtan.
The church in Birtan is the newest of the Transylvanian fortified churches. It is also Gothic, and its construction did not begin until 1486. Birtan itself was founded in the 13th century, it is unknown exactly when, and a Romanesque predecessor apparently stood on the site of the church. At one time it housed the bishop’s pulpit of all the Lutheran churches of Transylvania. The number of tourists here is also larger. If in Valea Viilar there were only two people besides us, then here we were together with several groups, and the tourist infrastructure is clearly more advanced.
General view of the complex.
Here the church stands on a hill, there are pointed towers on the same hill and the wall is built into the hillside (with two belts), so if you climb the covered stairs, you find yourself above the wall. Here is the entrance to the complex through one of the towers, I do not remember exactly which one.
The view from the wall to the northeast.
The entrance to the church.
The church is huge too, inside of interesting things is an altar with 28 planks made around 1500. There are several towers of different ages around the church. Here, for example, is the Mausoleu Tower (Turnul Mausoleu), apparently 14th century, so called because the priest under whom the church was built is buried there. The towers and wooden bell tower are interesting, but it is quite difficult to take pictures of them from inside the fence.
The view from the wall to the north.
On the way back we purposely did not look for anything and even missed a couple of churches – it was already late, we returned to Sibiu in the dark, and we had no time to systematically explore the area. But two churches found themselves, right by the road. One is in Brateiu (German: Pretai), late Gothic 14th century. The church itself is fine, with a fence and tower around it, but apparently it’s still waiting to be restored.
Church in Bratej.
The second one is in the village of Kopsha-Mike, just where the side road to Valea Viilor leaves from the main road to the side. In it, among other things, there is a fortified church of the 13th century, built, however, not by the Germans, but by the Hungarians. Little is known about it reliably, it was first mentioned in 1402, and for some reason it has a wooden tower.
Hungarian Lutheran church in Kopsha Mikhe.
One could easily spend another couple of weeks in Transylvania exploring fortified churches. We, however, had to leave Bucharest in two days. We drove to our hotel in Sibiu and didn’t even try to find a place to eat, limiting ourselves to grocery shopping. The next day we had to go to Bucharest, but first thing in the morning we were going to see the ASTRA Folk Art Museum, which we will talk about in the next episode.