Rothe, Annemarie, The fortified churches of Transylvania – endangered treasures in the heart of Romania

More than 850 years ago settlers from Western Europe – Flanders and the middle Rhine area – followed the invitation of the Hungarian king to come and settle in the heart of the Carpathian bow. The king needed loyal subjects to secure the eastern boundary of his kingdom against aggressors from further east. He guaranteed the new settlers wide privileges like freehold properties, freedom of movement and local autonomy. Over 700 years the German speaking community – since the middle ages known as Saxons – could built up and preserve its internal administration and lifestyle habits under different reigns and within the multi-ethnic population. Only with the Hungarian and Romanian nationalisation politics of the late 19th and early 20th century the Saxons lost their autonomy. Since World War II, when communist conversions changed completely the traditional ways of rural life, the Saxons left the country in several waves of emigration. But only after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime 1989/90 the mass exodus of more than 90% of the Saxon population within a few years left the remaining community in a rather desperate state.

The fortified churches

The first basilican churches in the villages were built in the 12th and 13th century without fortifications. Many of them were later modified and enlarged in gothic style. Due to the constant threat of invasions from the east – the Mongol invasion 1241, the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century and marauders in their wake – the Saxons started from the 14th c. onwards over a period of several centuries to develop the churches – being the only stone buildings in the villages – to fortified ensembles. Some of them became impressive complexes with several ring walls and moats, battlements and defence towers. Even the churches were adapted to defensive functions, their bell towers topped with battle platforms and one or two stories for defence purposes added on top of the chancels. Within the walls, often under the battlements, small rooms for storage were integrated. Wells were installed and sometimes chambers for living included. Thus in case of danger the whole village could take refuge in their fortified church, taking the cattle and supplies with them to survive the siege. Even when times changed and the immediate dangers decreased the fortified churches were thoroughly maintained, ringwalls and fortifications repaired. They had become a sign of identification in a hostile environment and an expression of the strength of the Saxon community. It is no wonder that the most popular hymn among the Saxons is “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our god). Only in the late 18th and the 19th century with more peaceful and prosperous times to come the Saxons started to alter the buildings. Bell towers were topped with “modern” spires and the interiors changed in baroque style. Ring walls were dismantled and schools, community halls and parsonages built with the obtained material.

Many of the churches show masterpieces of sculpting inside and outside. The interiors appear rather scarcely decorated today because after the reformation the original frescoes were painted over. But a great number of pre-reformation altar pieces have been preserved and show beautiful paintings. Colourful frescoes can be seen in some of the churches and presumably there are a lot more under the layers of paint. But they are not well accepted by the strictly Lutheran parishes. So, many a gem is still to discover.

The present situation

Almost every village between the cities of Sibiu/Hermannstadt, Medias, Sigișoara/Schässburg and Brașov/Kronstadt has a fortified church thus forming a unique cultural landscape. But the maintenance of the churches, traditionally the common work of all Saxon villagers, can hardly be undertaken today since many villages are deserted by the Saxons or only a few elderly people are left. From 171 000 in 1986 over 102 000 in 1990 the Saxon population shrunk to around 12500 today. More than 50% live in the cities, the other half is scattered over almost 250 villages. The buildings are by far too big for the congregation if there is one at all. The Romanian, Hungarian and Roma population, although neighbours since centuries, have not and could not develop an identification with the Saxon churches. Hence they cannot yet feel responsible for this heritage even though they live around it. After the exodus of the Saxons 1990 new settlers came to the villages, most of them no farmers and many unemployed. The demographic and social situation and the general rural exodus because of the difficult economy of Romania increase the problem.

The value of this unique heritage was acknowledged through the inscription of seven objects in the World Heritage list. Until today the strength of the churches prevented major losses. But every year the problems become more visible and the deterioration increases. In particular the small and less known churches and those in remote villages suffer from lack of repair. The Evangelical Church A. C. of Romania, owner of the churches, makes every endeavour to save its heritage or at least secure it for better times to come. A special office (Leitstelle Kirchenburgen) was set up to manage this work, coordinate all activities around the fortified churches and develop long term strategies. Some national projects, an EU-funded project for the restoration of 18 churches and several private initiatives for particular churches show the interest and commitment of many people. But a lot of help is still needed to save this outstanding religious heritage.

Annemarie Rothe

Architect, M.A. European Cultural Heritage and associated with the coordination office of the Evangelical Church. mail to: rothe.a@berlin.de

For further information:
Leitstelle Kirchenburgen: www.fortified-churches.org (Englisch, soon online) and www.kirchenburgen.org (German, Romanian)
contact: office@kirchenburgen.org (German, English, Romanian)
Evangelische Kirche A.B. in Romania: www.evang.ro  (German)
The App “Kirchenburgenlandschaft Siebenbuergen” (Cultural landscape of the fortified churches in Transsylvania) gives historical and touristic information about 100 fortified churches in German, Romanian and English. Link to the free download for iOS / Android at the website www.kirchenburgen.org.