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 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.

Planul_fortificatiei_din_Copsa_Mare

Enjoy the photographs!

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 walk through town before daybreak

To celebrate the acquisition of a new camera (well, the acquisition is new, the camera isn’t), I took a pre-dawn walk through town. It was cold and somewhat rainy. Water got on my lens a couple of times and I’d forgotten to bring a lens cloth, so you’ll see some weird light artifacts on some of the photos. That’s from the partially wiped lens… I was hoping dawn would come soon and I’d get some nice photos of the “blue hour”. As it turned out, my battery ran out of juice and I got pretty cold before that happened. But it was really nice to walk through town with few to no people around me. I am after all an introvert, so the more time I spend alone, the better I feel.

I am quite pleased with my acquisition. It’s a camera I used and reviewed in the past (eight years ago, actually): the Olympus PEN E-P2. I loved that little camera and I should have bought it back then. After quietly pining for it all this time, I found it online a few days ago at an unbeatable price, second-hand, in great condition: about 100 euros for the body, plus another 100 euros for the viewfinder (yes, I got the VF-2!) and about 200 euros for a wonderful little lens for it, the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 EZ (it’s a 2x crop factor so a 24-100mm 35mm equivalent).

Now I have the E-P2 and the E-PL1, which I bought several years ago with the two kit lenses offered at the time, the 14-42mm and the 40-150mm. Yay!

I took the photos without a tripod, relying on the camera’s optical image stabilization technology, which shifts the sensor on a 3-way axis in order to keep the shot steady. I shot at 1/10, 1/15 and 1/20, keeping the ISO at 1600 and the aperture wide open. Given that the lens goes from f/3.5 to f/6.3 when it’s at its longest focal length, that means some of the photos are darker. I squeezed every bit of light out of them in post processing, but having shot both RAW and JPG simultaneously, I can tell you the camera’s built-in noise reduction and image processing is so good (for its time), I could have just shot directly in JPG and uploaded them SOOC (straight out of the camera). Enjoy the photos!