The fortified church in Sebes

This fortified church looked quite different when it was first built using the Romanesque style in the beginning of the 12th century AD. It was soon destroyed by the Tartar Invasion of 1241-1242. Afterward, the work progressed more slowly and in the Cistercian Gothic style which we see today. Parts of the older structure were used and integrated into the new architecture, resulting in a larger, unified whole where you can still see that some things don’t quite belong. For example, at one of the main entrances you get to glimpse part of the older, lower entrance to the left of the Gothic arches.

The chorus balcony dates back to 1370, is 23 meters tall and the columns which support it are 11 meters tall. The main structural work ended around the year 1420, the Saxons having made a lot of progress in the late 14th century due to a period of prosperity. The church itself was fortified and an impressive defense wall was built around the edifice. A separate chapel was built on the side of the church where religious objects and clothing are stored.

In the 15th century, Sebes entered a period of Ottoman occupation that lasted 40 years. Somehow the guilds prospered in this period and that meant the church was further developed and decorated. The Renaissance altar is 13 meters tall and 6 meters wide and dates to 1520. The Gothic ceiling supports are decorated with sculpted Green Men, mythological and biblical creatures. The church has a beautiful and functional organ built in 1791 by the brothers Reiger and a black grand piano built in the second half of the 19th century. When we skip forward to WWI, we find out that the church bells were confiscated and used for cannonballs, but they were replaced in 1925. A restoration effort in the mid-1960s brought the church somewhat modern amenities such as electric lighting and it took care of various structural and decorative issues.

Services are still held in the church (see the schedule posted in the photo gallery) but very few Saxon parishioners are left (about 20 of them attend regularly).

Enjoy the photographs!

The fortified church in Moardas

There is a fortified church in the small village of Moardăș in Transilvania, also known as “Mardisch” in German and “Mardos” in Hungarian. A strange-sounding name in Romanian, Moardăș it seems has cuman origins and comes from the precursors of the Hungarians of today. The older name seems to have been Ardesch (as the Saxons pronounced it), first mentioned in written documents in 1373 along with a priest named Michael of Ardesch. The village later became known as Mardesch, with the other variations being Muardesch and Muerdesch in the Saxon dialect.

In the village of Moardas, Transilvania, Romania

Just to show you how small it was, a census taken in 1516 counted 40 households, three widows, a shepherd, a miller and a schoolteacher. By 1532, when Johannes Honterus visited the region to draw a map of Transilvania, the count shrunk to 32 households. In spite of the village’s small size, it had a schoolhouse even in the early 1400s, a fact known because one of its bright young people, a Michael Eckhard of Ardisch, enrolled at the University of Vienna in 1434 to become a lawyer.

We jump to 1850 or so, when the village school gets rebuilt (1848) and a new census reveals the place has gotten bigger. It now has 545 inhabitants. In 1930, 628 inhabitants live in the village. That number shrinks in 1945, when the Communist regime ships quite a few of the Saxons in the village to the Soviet Union, into forced labor camps. Another census taken in 1946 reveals that 44 Saxons had been sent to the USSR, 45 emigrated to Germany and 262 were still in the village. After the Romanian “revolution” (read coup d’etat) of 1989, almost all of the Saxons emigrated to Germany.

I took the photographs you’ll see in this gallery in 2009, 20 years after the Saxons had left the village, leaving only a few of their elderly around. You’ll see them in these photographs below. We stopped to talk with them a bit.

Gypsies had moved into the empty Saxon houses and had systematically destroyed them: sold whatever they could (furniture, goods, etc.), burned the rest for firewood and when one house would fall down, they’d move onto the next one and suck it dry until it fell. By the way, in the States there’s a term for this: it’s called house-squatting and it’s illegal. It’s also illegal in Romania. It’s easier to evict illegal squatters in Romania than it is in the States. All that needs to happen is for the families of the Saxons who own the homes to reclaim the property. Even if it’s been decades, the heirs can successfully reclaim a house. It takes a few months to work that through the legal system but then the problem’s solved for good. I say these things because my heart aches when I see solid, beautiful Saxon homes, built by hard-working, honest farming folk, defaced and brought to the point of ruin by irresponsible social scum. I could show you stuff that’s much worse, in this village and in many others in Southern Transilvania, but I don’t want to go near those places because I’ll get too angry when I see the horrible damage.

Enough crap! Let’s get to the good stuff! Here are images of the fortified church. When we visited, the surrounding fortified wall had mostly fallen down but the church itself was in surprisingly good shape, and so was the parish house next door. That’s because they had the good luck to be renovated in 1913 and again in 1959. By 2009, the altar had been robbed of its valuable center painting and the various religious symbols and objects. The organ had been sold off. The church walls were still standing though. The floor could do with repairs and there were some leaks coming through the roof.

Good news though! Only a year later, in 2010, a work of restoration was spearheaded by a local Saxon, Fritz Roth. Specialists from Germany (Hans Seger and Hans Gröbmayr from München) came to help, a workforce of 30 volunteers was brought in and funds were obtained in part from the US Ambassadors’ Fund for Cultural Preservation. Mark Gitenstein was the US Ambassador to Romania at the time. The restored church was re-consecrated in October of 2011. My photos don’t tell this last part of the story, because they were taken in 2009. Perhaps I’ll get a chance to revisit the place and see how it looks now.

The fortified church in Bahnea

This historic church is a bit harder to find. Bahnea (“Bachnen” in German, “Bonyha” in Hungarian) is a small village off the main roads, which you can only reach by driving on narrower county roads. The church itself is also hard to spot even when you’re in the village, because it’s hidden away behind the houses and backyard gardens, on a small hill. Here is a link to its location on Google Maps. It is a beautiful structure though, with lots of history, and the priest is an easygoing Hungarian fellow who is glad to talk with you and show you around.

The village is first mentioned in written documents in 1291. The church dates to the beginning of the 14th century, sometime between 1300-1350. The owners of the church (and the village) were the Bánffy family, an old Hungarian aristocratic family with lots of history and properties (castles and palaces) in Transilvania.

Just like the Saxons, the Hungarians who came to live in Transilvania were initially Catholic and later became Reformed. The Saxons became Evangelical around 1500 and the Hungarians became Reformed around 1600. So it was with the Church. Built Catholic, its walls were adorned with frescoes and its columns with various sculptures and Green Men. Come the Reformation, the frescoes were whitewashed and some of the sculptures defaced, and they stayed that way until the 20th century, when a restoration effort uncovered some of them.

Enjoy the photographs!

The fortified church in Copsa Mare

The construction of the Saxon church in the village of Copsa Mare (“Gross-Kopisch” in German and “Nagykapus” in Hungarian) started in the 14th century and underwent transformations in order to further fortify it in 1510, 1519 and 1797. In 1800, the organ was installed. In 1854, the Gothic altar was replaced with a Baroque one. The fortified wall was added in the 16th century, in 1519 to be more exact.

The village was once renowned for its vineyards. The Saxons who lived there owned the largest and best-known vineyards of Southern Transilvania. The village is first mentioned in written documents in 1283 and from those documents it can be deduced that an earlier church structure existed where the current one resides.


Enjoy the photographs!

The fortified church in Richis

This church in the village of Richis (“Reichesdorf” in German and “Riomfalva” in Hungarian) was built sometime between 1350-1400 and it initially functioned as a Cistercian abbey. The abbey did not have a bell tower to begin with because the Cistercian order was not allowed to have them. In 1400, it became a Catholic church and a bell tower was built as a separate structure from the church. In 1500, the fortified wall was built around the church, to defend it from invading tartars and turks.

Sometime between 1540 and 1550, the Saxons became Evangelicals and converted the decorations of the church to what they deemed as a more austere place to worship. They tore some of the medieval ornamentation, particularly the sculptures, and they whitewashed the walls, inside and out. It was only in 1957, when the newly arrived priest led an effort to scrape away the lime whitewash and restore the church that the early gothic motifs were rediscovered.

The church interior is abundant in unique animal, vegetal and human motifs. The most captivating is the “green man”, a symbol of nature’s fertility. Another symbol of the natural wealth in the region is the very name of the place, Reichesdorf, which means “wealthy village”. Should you visit, you’ll want to see the 1775 baroque altar made of sculpted wood, illustrating the Crucifixion.

The local guide of the church is Mr. Schaas, one of the few Saxons left in the village, whom you’ll see in the gallery I’ve published here. He always welcomes visitors and is glad to tell the story of the church to you.

Enjoy the photos!


The fortified church in Saschiz

This kind of architectural structure which combines a regularly-used church with fortified walls is typical of the region of Transilvania, where Saxons built them as places of refuge against invading tartars and turks. While larger settlements (such as Medias) could afford to build fortified walls around the entire town, villages such as Saschiz built fortified churches. There were originally 300 of these churches in Transilvania. About 150 of them remain standing.

Known as Keisd in German and Szászkézd in Hungarian, Saschiz (“Sas” = Saxon, “chiz” = Keisd) is unique because it also has a separate fortress built on one of the hilltops above the village. It (along with six other villages) is named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fortress, being relatively far from the village, didn’t see much use during times of invasion and the fortified church itself became the place where people would take refuge and do their best to withstand sieges. The fortified church was built in 1493-1496 and the fortress was begun in 1496.

The photos you’ll see here were taken in and around the fortified church. We haven’t visited the fotress yet, but we intend to do it.

I hope you enjoyed the photos! I took them with my Canon EOS 5D and the EF 24-105mm f/4L lens.

Canon EOS 5D (front)
Canon EOS 5D
Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens
Canon EF 24-105mm f4L IS USM Lens

A hike through the hills of Atel (Hetzeldorf)

Atel (Hetzeldorf) is a larger village in Southern Transilvania with a beautiful fortified church. The church is undergoing renovations and is closed to the public but the hills surrounding the village were certainly open and welcoming today, as we took a short hike to enjoy nature. In case you’d like to visit the place yourself, here’s a link to the spots we saw.

We’d come to get a bit of fresh air and as we were walking around with Sophie, exploring the flowers and the bugs and the birds and listening to the various sounds the latter two made, we spotted a building up on the hill, looking somewhat deserted. We decided to pay a visit and see what it was. It turned out to be the somewhat deserted church of the Saxon cemetery which overlooks the village.

If you don’t know the story of the Saxons of Transilvania, you need to read this. It tells only part of the story and obviously none of the heartache of the departure from their places of birth, but the deserted graves, tilting and knocked over by time, including the cobwebs on the church door, tell the story of a people that are no more, with only remnants here and there. These people built these magnificent structures and sturdy homes that have stood the test of time and now they are here no longer. Atel is only one of the many, many Saxon villages spread throughout Transilvania but for some reason, seeing all those graves in disarray made me realize how few Saxons there are left and what good work they’ve done over the many hundreds of years they were here.

I hope you’ll enjoy the photos and as usual, if you’re interested in using any of them, please see my licensing terms.