Fortified churches of Transylvania

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.

Through murder-holes the defenders were pouring boiling water, tar or oil, shooting arrows or throwing boulders at the invaders.

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.

Biertan fortified church overlooking the village
Biertan fortified church and the 3 defensive walls
The access way to the fortified church

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.

Inside the Axente Sever church you can actually rent a room and spend the night in the medieval fortress

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 view from the tower of the church

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.

Medieval weapons displayed in the courtyard

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.

Medias Fortified Church

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.

The Trumpeters Tower, former prison of Vlad the Impaler

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.

Harman fortified church – Entrance
Harman fortified church main tower

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.

The access inside the defense walls was through these narrow passages with wooden steps
The access way inside the defense walls connected all the towers of the fortress

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.

Prejmer is one of the largest fortified churches in Europe
The passage way inside the walls of Prejmer fortress

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.

The gate at the entrance of the Prejmer fortified church is missing a “tooth”. The legend says that during a battle a soldier hit the gate with his head. And because he was so “hard headed” he broke it.

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.

Panoramic view of the interior walls of Prejmer fortress

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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Jaunting Tips

  • 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.

39 Replies to “Fortified churches of Transylvania”

  1. Interesting read! looks fun to explore here though 🙂

    1. Transylvania is much more than just “Dracula”. It’s an amazing place to visit! You should definitely add it to you travel list 😉

  2. It is just amazing! That’s my kind of tourism! And your pictures are adding to the value of the article!! It’s great!

    1. Thank you so much!Hope it puts Transylvania on your travel list! 😀 If this is the kind of tourism you enjoy, than you should really visit!

  3. yay! Two of my favourite places in Romania! I loved visiting Sibiu and Brasov. You included some really interesting history in this post and info I had completely forgotten about. Thanks!

    1. Yey! I am happy you enjoyed Romania! <3. We do have a beautiful country with a lot of great places to visit.

  4. These are beautiful! Historic churches are one of my favorite things to see when I travel!

    1. Thank you! You should put Romania on your travel list! We have a lot of places filled with history, also included in UNESCO World Heritage.

  5. What a neat post. I had no idea the Ottomans were a threat and that so many fortified chirchs were built. They are so stunning. And I too am not overly religious but love their beauty and their cultural significance.

    1. Like I said… Just enjoy visiting religious buildings… and as you saw from the post.. I kept my promise 🙂 there were no regilious related stories :))

  6. We so wished we had time to explore Transylvania when we visited Bucharest but run out of time. After seeing these stunning churches we’ve even more reason to return to beautiful Romania. It would be amazing to spend a night, who knew you could do such a thing!!

    1. You need to dedicate a trip just for Transylvania. So many places to see and so many interesting areas… you can go cultural route, hiking and wilderness, historical route… foodie route 😀 It’s just amazing. I plan this year to write more about Romania. It doesn’t get that much in the spotlight for what an actual amazing country it is.

  7. We have explored Transylvania last year and its beauty blew us away, Ana. These churches are outstanding and definitely worth exploring!

    1. I am so happy when I hear reactions just like yours. People discover Romania to be something completely different than what they imagined. And I want to try my best to discover it myself and bring it out on my blog.

  8. Nice article!
    I will gave a look when I go l there!

    1. Thank you! I look forward to see your discoveries 🙂 I’m sure you will enjoy it!

  9. Your pictures of these gorgeous churches are incredible! I loved reading about the history of them and also the fact about the divorces… Wow! That sounds so crazy now haha, but I guess it worked back then (mostly). I feel the same way, I love religious things like churches, art, architecture… but I’m not religious, I just really appreciate the devotion and attention to detail and it’s impossible not to admire these beautiful churches!

    1. Thank you. Well sometimes, applying some old rules might come in handy. If you look at it… problems do come from miscommunication or lack of it. And in a fast paced world, I’d say even more so. Maybe locking people up for two weeks and forcing them to communicate was not such a bad idea :)) But maybe more as a private vacation, away from everything and from everybody somewhere on a beach, than in a prison tower in a church :))

  10. I know so little about Transylvania so found this in-depth look at the church history and architecture really interesting. Fab detailed post!

    1. Thank you! Well everybody knows more or less the Transylvania-Dracula story. It’s good to have people discover more about this amazing area 🙂

  11. This is such a great post! I love churches for the same reason, so much history and amazing architecture. I love the stories behind churches too! Just another reason to add Transylvania to my bucket list

    1. You really should! Amazing places, history and views!

  12. I totally agree with you on the idea that buildings and in this case churches can tell us so much about the conditions of a place at a certain time. I hadn’t realized that things like this existed, but it makes sense that they would. Especially in times of turmoil.

    1. I love the fact that back then the churches were really in the service of their people, not just as place of worship (hence spiritual protection) but also physical protection.

  13. I REALLY enjoyed this article! I think it depicted a very unexplored aspect of Transylvania and I loved it! Now I really want to go and explore the churches bby myself! I particularly loved the way Biertan church dealt with divorce XD It makes a lot of sense even now! Thanks for sharing this amazing facts!

    1. Thank you so much! Yes. I loved the stories behind the churches. Not something you’d expect visiting.. churches 🙂

  14. I LOVE the looks of this place. It’s creepy yet beautiful at the same time, and it has so many nooks and crannies. So fun!

    1. And the pictures don’t register the creeks of the wood 😀

  15. This is so cool. I can’t believe they had a murder window and a room where they locked up people with marriage issues. I haven’t been to Romania, but I love historical architecture and visiting World Heritage sites. Thanks for sharing all this great historical information.

    1. It’s really fascinating. And I hope this year to visit the rest of them. I still have a few on the UNESCO list I haven’t seen.

  16. This is so interesting. I think everyone should visit places like this, forgetting religion or beliefs, it’s about the history. I visit churches when I travel.

    1. They are always fascinating! It’s for sure one of my favorite activities when traveling also 🙂

  17. Wow, this is actually such a great and informative read. Had no idea about the fortified churches in Transylvania, but will definitely visit few of them when I travel to Romania. 😉 Did you get the chance to see them from the inside as well?

    1. Yes. The entrance is up to 1-2 euros, depending on the size and importance. The money is used to help preserve the sites. The inside is usually very simple with the altar being the center piece. You should definitely visit them when you come to Romania. The history is oozing from every stone.

  18. […] Continue reading about some of Transylvania’s fortified church on Ana’s post, Fortified churches of Transylvania. […]

  19. Interesting post I enjoyed reading it. I love the history behind these churches and how they were simoultaniously a place of worship and a place of war. I have happily pinned to The Travel Blogs Europe map. Love the photos too, those wooden steps look amazing, so much history in them.

    1. Thank you Matt for the kind word and the pin on the blog! I really enjoy your project and I think it’s an awesome thing that you do. I appreciate the fact that you actually read every entry.

  20. […] (langoshi) is a traditional food in Transylvania, with Hungarian roots. Due to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this delicious street food […]

  21. […] Transylvania and the village areas. I did a trip a couple of years back to visit some of the Fortified Churches of Transylvania, and those areas are divine (pun intended). Green fields, winding roads and no traffic. So I […]

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