I am fascinated by churches and religious structures in general. Not because I’m a religious person (I would probably lean more towards being an atheist), but because of their design, art and what they represented at the time they were built. There are currently about 150 well preserved fortified churches spread throughout Transylvania, out of approximately 300 initially built, and seven of them are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Transylvania is actually the region with the highest number of existing fortified churches dating back to the 13th-16th centuries.
A little bit of history
In the 12th century, the Saxons began settling down in Transylvania, especially around Sibiu area, that became the central point of this growing community. Until the 15th century, churches played their intended role as places of worship. But the Ottoman invasions change everything and churches in Transylvania became symbols for resistance against foreign oppressors. The most important villages became fully fortified, whereas in smaller towns, the fortification was built around the churches. They became real strongholds with defensive walls, observation towers, murder-holes (for archers and boiling tar), defensive passageways, supply rooms and residential quarters where villagers could retreat.
Biertan Fortified Church, Sibiu County
Biertan was built in the late 15th – early 16th century and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999. Because of the Ottoman threat in the area it was fortified from the beginning, unlike the other churches in the area. It has three concentric walls, 6 defense towers, two bastions and three buildings. Basically it was designed to be impenetrable to the Ottoman invasions. Biertan church also holds a door locking mechanism that is considered to be an engineering masterpiece. Keep in mind that this was built back in 1515, and has 19 locks activated simultaneously by a single key.
But the most fascinating story behind Biertan is actually related to the way it dealt with divorce. The couples in trouble were locked in the Prison Tower for two weeks and forced to find a solution to their problems. It was a small room with only one bed, one table, one plate and one set of cutlery (I’m guessing no knives though). This technique apparently worked wonders, because in more than 400 years, only one couple decided to go through with the divorce.
Axente Sever Fortified Church, Sibiu County
Axente Sever is located north of Sibiu and it’s a really small community (about 3500 inhabitants), but it has its own fortified church! This church has been here for over 700 years and you can see the wear and tear on the walls and the tower. The building went under refurbishment in 2009 and now holds a museum with traditional Saxon objects and also has a few rooms that you can rent.
The sad truth though is that neither the villagers, nor the Romanian government had anything to do with the restoration, the museum or the gathering of the traditional objects. This was the work of the passionate dutch Antoine van Rijen. Out of respect for history and because of the similarities between the Saxon and the Flemish cultures he gathered the necessary resources and started the restoration process.
The courtyard is very nicely arranged, with a few medieval weapons on display like battling rams and catapults. The museum holds a lot of traditional objects and you can actually spend a few nights here in the rustic rooms. In the summer you can also rent a bike and explore the area. The price for this? About 10€/night.
Medias Fortified Church, Sibiu County
The small town of Medias has a history of just over 750 years! That’s more than many countries! The fortified church is the centerpiece of the town and was built mid 15th century. The fortification around the building is made out of a double defense wall and four defense towers.
The main tower that stands out with its colorful roof tiles has a height of approximately 70m. At the end of the 15 century the builders guild wanted to make the tower taller than even St. Stephen church in Vienna. But according to the legend, their pride was punished by God who wanted to teach them a lesson and so the tower started leaning. This main tower is called “The Trumpeters Tower” (or the Trumpet Tower). Due to its height it was an ideal observation point and in case of any danger, the trumpeter would sound the alarm. This job was a really stressful one, because if he made a mistake, he would be thrown out the window.
The Trumpeters Tower has also served as a prison for none other than Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula) back in 1476, when he was in conflict with the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus.
Harman Fortified Church, Brasov County
Harman is located at about 10 km from Brasov and the name literally means Honey Mountain. In the 13th century, his area was known for honey production, a valuable trade at the time. The fortifications came later, in the 15th century, and they where impenetrable. Harman Fortified Church was attached by Turks, Saxons, Moldavian and Wallahs, but it was never conquered. Is stood through 5 plagues, 4 floods and 2 fires so in a way it must have really been blessed. The fortifications included 3 defense walls (tallest one of 12 m), 7 towers, numerous murder-holes and a moat.
Another particularity of this church is that the storage areas built inside the fortifications were placed high up, and the only way to access them was on retractable wooden ladders.
Similar as the bigger church in Prejmer, inside the walls of the fortress were rooms where the people could take cover during the sieges. The capacity was only for 800 people though.
Prejmer Fortified Church, Brasov County
Located 15 km from Brasov, Prejmer is the largest fortified church in South-Eastern Europe and it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. It was built in the early 13th century by the Teuton Knights and was eventually taken over by the Saxons. In the 15th century, when the Ottoman invasions began, fortifications were added to the church, and even though the village was destroyed over 50 times, the church was only captured once.
The fortifications were ordered by Sigismund of Luxembourg and they included circular walls of 12 m in height and up to 5 m in width, a water filled moat, drawbridges, 5 defensive towers, a battlement, murder-holes and a secret underground tunnel that linked the church with the outside. However, what took this defensive structure over the edge, was the “Organ of death”, a war machine made out of several weapons that could shoot simultaneously.
Just like Harman church, inside the fortress walls there were built 272 rooms, used for storage in times of peace and for shelter in times of war. Each room has a number marked on the door, that corresponds to the number of the house in the village. Each family had therefore a room assigned, and it was passed down from one generation to another. It had a total capacity of 1,600 people.
These are just a few of the marvelous fortified churches in Transylvania, and I plan to revisit the area and bring you more interesting facts about the others, because as you can see… the stories behind are quite fascinating.
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- The access fees to these fortified churches are under 3€. They hold so much history, so give them a visit. It’s really worth it.
- The best way to visit the fortified churches is to rent a car from either Sibiu, Sighisoara or Brasov. Usually the parking is free near the monuments.
- The best time to visit is during spring until late autumn. This way you will also enjoy a beautiful scenery.
- If you arrive at one of these destinations and find it closed, there is usually a number at the door you can call so the keeper will come and open it for you. You get to have your own private tour.