Bare Bones, Exploring the Rare and Old Densuş Church

I love to discover the bare bones of an old church and the rare and ancient Densuş Church is a treat!

The enigmatic Densuş Church is located at a short distance from Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, once the heartbeat of the sprawling Roman Empire in Dacia. Its eons-old presence calls like a closely kept secret, attracting the interest of historians worldwide… Because within its revered walls is a tapestry made from the threads of history, shrouded in skepticism, and rich with the echoes of ages past.

The tiniest slivers of knowledge imply that Densuş Church, with its worn-out stones, dates back to the 13th century, the period generally accepted as documentary attestation of the church.

However, a cloud of ambiguity appears beneath this seeming layer of certainty. Some boldly assert that its foundation was built over the remains of the Roman general Longinus Maximus’ mausoleum. Others depict a different picture, in which the very grounds on which the cathedral now sits were previously ornamented with a pagan temple, honoring the fiery deity Mars.

As a result of gradual transformation and rebirth as a Christian sanctuary, this holy place bears witness to the changing religious landscape of Dacia.

A bolder story begins to develop amid these roiling swells of conjecture. A Dacian temple with an altar dedicated to the enigmatic god Zalmoxe may have stood magnificently on this holy place before the Roman occupation, according to rumors carried on the wind.

Thus, they contend, Densuş Church emerges as the first paleo-Christian structure to beautify this ancient land’s lush soil.

Densus Church old postcard
Densus Church old postcard

Let’s step inside.

The Roman inscription still visible on a marble slab in the yard of Densus Church reads:

“To the Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus, conqueror of Arabia, Adiabene, and Parthia, high priest, father of the country, son of the divine Marcus Antoninus Pius Germanicus Sarmaticus, grandson of the divine Antoninus Pius, great-grandson of the divine Hadrian, great-great-grandson of the divine Trajan Parthicus and great-great-great-grandson of the divine Nerva: [this inscription was dedicated by] Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, in the Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusa colony”.

Roman inscription Densus Church, photo by Tudor Tulok public domain CC BY-SA 3.0
A Roman inscription still visible at Densus Church, photo by Tudor Tulok public domain CC BY-SA 3.0

If all suppositions were true, worship’s echoes would reverberate across history, casting a captivating spell that spans over two millennia—worship in its varied forms and beliefs, binding generation upon generation.

Sunset at Densus Church photo by Tetcu Mircea Rares wiki CC BY-SA 2.5
Sunset at Densus Church – the altar faces South (not East like is tradition in Christian churches). License CC BY-SA 2.5

This monolithic marvel with the altar facing South (not East like is tradition in Christian churches) standing on columns and tombstone with Roman inscriptions emerges from the earth, contrasting with the vastness of its neighborhood, the Haţeg Depression.

Densus_Church_Roman Columns TudorTulok-wiki-CC BY-SA 3.0 v2
Densus_Church_Roman Columns and tombstones. Photo TudorTulok license CC BY-SA 3.0 v2

Today, we can still witness this enigmatic church and its blend of ancient stones from Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa and late Romanesque influences. Its square plan defies convention, while a rare stone roof crowns it.

Densus Church floor plan
Densus Church floor plan

Step into its tight embrace, where time’s secrets whisper through the ancient stones, revealing a forgotten realm.

The Church of Densuş has a captivating charm that defies understanding; it is a site where you will feel immediately enchanted. Could it be the broken building that appears to have been taken from far-off worlds, other than our own? Or maybe it’s the enigmatic past, which is still shrouded in secrecy now, which teases us with tidbits of long-forgotten stories and plays with our sense of curiosity.

This holy place has an ethereal allure perhaps due to the ever-watchful gaze of the surrounding Retezat Mountains, concealed in their veils of mystery and unsurpassed splendor.

Densus Church and Retezat Mountains, photo by Tetcu Mircea Rares wiki license CC BY-SA 2.5
Densus Church and Retezat Mountains, photo by Tetcu Mircea Rares license CC BY-SA 2.5

Whatever the source of its magnetism, Densuş Church remains a testament to the enigmatic wonders that lie scattered across the tapestry of history. It calls to the wanderer’s soul, whispering of echoes from long ago and hidden truths, waiting for the daring explorer to reveal the secrets sleeping within its holy embrace.

Densus Church roman columns medieval building door
Densus Church, roman columns framig the door of a medieval building

Imagine stepping into the embrace of the Church in Densuş, feeling its very essence course through your veins, like an electric current of energy and serenity. In the vast expanse of the Haţeg Depression, this towering sanctuary stands like a magnificent sculpture, appearing to be carved from a colossal block of stone. Its sheer massiveness leaves you awestruck, while its uniqueness captivates your senses.

However, it is not just the grandeur of its structure that sets it apart; within its sacred walls lies a trove of unconventional treasures, such as the stone lions (or lambs?) guarding the altar’s roof:

Densus Church lions guarding altar roof
Densus Church “lions / lambs” guarding altar’s roof

Unlike its Orthodox counterparts, the Church of Densuş defies convention by positioning its altar to the south, defying the eastern orientation. Historians speculate that this peculiar arrangement was a deliberate strategy to safeguard the church from the relentless onslaught of the Ottomans.

And within its weathered walls, an artistic testament to its past comes to life. The paintings, dating back to the 14th century, bear the unmistakable signature of Ștefan Zugravul, a craftsman whose origins trace back to the Wallachia region. Traditional Byzantine influences permeate the artwork, with a charming touch of familiarity in seeing Jesus adorned in the traditional “ia” shirt from Haţeg Region:

Densus Biserica_Sf.Nicolae- Holy Trinity Father Son Holy Spirit as a dove-photo Tetcu Mircea Rares license CC BY-SA 4.0
Densus Church, The Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a dove-photo Tetcu Mircea Rares license CC BY-SA 4.0

However, history tells a tale of adversity and resilience. The Turks, in their tumultuous wake, desecrated the sacred images that adorned the church walls, gouging out the eyes of the painted saints. Even today, the haunting sight of these empty gazes serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrilege committed. Yet, amidst the turmoil, a parish priest uttered words that resonated with unwavering faith – “the saints from Densuş still see.” Though physically blinded, their spiritual vision transcended the scars inflicted upon them.

Ironically, the very guardians of this hallowed sanctuary, the locals of Densus, almost became unwitting destroyers. In 1864 they found themselves in dire need, seeking financial support from the Greek-Catholic Episcopate to erect a new and more spacious church. The Church of Densuş teetered on the precipice of oblivion, threatened by the very hands meant to preserve it. Yet, through a twist of fate, it survived, safeguarding its ancient secrets and enduring as a beacon of faith.

Densus church, roman columns in a Christian church raised in place of a Dacian temple dedicated to Zalmoxis
Densus church, roman columns in a Christian church raised in place of a Dacian temple dedicated to Zalmoxis

The Church in Densuş weaves a captivating tale, where shadows of the past dance with the resilience of the present. It invites all who venture within its walls to bear witness to its timeless allure, to listen to the whispers of its weathered stones, and to behold the spirit that continues to thrive despite the ravages of time.

Bathed in scarce illumination welcomed through mystical windows, it unveils its intricate allure, casting a bewitching spell upon all who dare enter:

Densus BisericaSfNicolae_lancet window-TetcuMirceaRares-wiki CC BY-SA 4.0
Densus Church, lancet widow, photo Tetcu Mircea Rares-wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

At its core, a slender spire reaches skyward, supported by pillars, each with its own tale. Among them, a mesmerizing stone pillar carries a whispered secret, a Roman star adorned with intricate carvings, bearing the name of Longinus. This luminous statue of marble exudes captivating elegance, inviting the curious to unravel its hidden significance.

The following inscriptions appear on the columns supporting the tower:

“To the divine spirits. For C. Octavius Xepotus, who lived 70 years. Julia Valentina Herescona, his most devoted wife, had this monument made. He lies here.” – D. M. / C. Octavio Xepoti / vixit annos LXX. Julia / Valentina Heresconi / iugi pientissimo / faciendum procu/ravit. H(ic) s(itus) e(st).

“Valeria Cara / lived 29 years. / T. Flavius Aper, / a scribe of the colony of Sarmatians, / to his most rare wife.” – Valeria Cara / vixit annos XXIX. / T. Flavius Aper / scriba coloniae / Sarmatarum coniugi / rarissimae.

“”To the spirits of the departed / for Gaius Longinus / Maxima / lived 58 years / Iulia Afro / dedicated this (tomb) to her well-deserving husband.” – D(is) M(anibus) / G(aio) Longin(o) / Maximo / vixit ann(is) LVIII. / Iulia Afro / disia coni(ugi) / b(ene) m(erenti) p(osuit).

This extraordinary church becomes a realm of enigmatic sanctuary, whispering forgotten tales and celestial treasures. It beckons the curious to step into its shadowed embrace, unlocking hidden secrets within its walls, surrendering to its timeless enchantment.

A secret cave in the bowels of Densuş Church

Aron Densușianu, Romanian literary historian, folklorist and poet, born near Densuş Church, writes this in his notes:

“At the base of the tower, behind the wall, there is an obscure gallery. This, as well as in the tower, can be accessed by climbing on the church. But it i accessible only through one side. The path will lead you between two large stone lions, lying on their chest, with their backs turned to one another. Before entering this obscure gallery, you will drop in a cave-like hole, which communicates with the tower. From here you will enter the gallery which, at the beginning, is very narrow. You will have to crouch, and only further you can walk. Owls and bats live here. On the outside, if you climb the mulberry tree you can climb and surround the tower. Moss and green grass grows on and around the tower. The obscure gallery is called, in a popular tradition, Zamfira’s Cave.

Aron Densușianu, Densuș Church

Dreamland’s Enigmatic Tale: Zamfira’s Legend, the Romanian Juliet entwined with Densuş Church, awaits you in my thrilling book!

In the dark recesses of folklore lies the legend of “Zamfira’s Cave,” a tale of beauty, greed, and forbidden love.

It is easy to see how within the ancient walls of Densuş Church an ethereal presence lingers, veiled in enigmatic shadows and illuminated only by slender rays of sunlight, as if celestial strands of illumination are cast by mischievous genies during nocturnal hours.

Such is the realm of this extraordinary church, an enigmatic sanctuary that whispers of forgotten tales and stolen celestial treasures. It invites those with a thirst for the mysterious to step into its shadowed embrace, to unlock the secrets that lie hidden within its walls, and to become ensnared in its timeless history and enchantment.

Next time we will return to the series of blog posts about Sibiu and Paris. You can subscribe to my newsletter and never miss a story.

I will leave you with a melancholic 19th century painting of Densuş Church by Austrian artist and traveler

Franz Jaschke: 19th century painting of Demsus, Dacian Roman monument in Hateg valley Transylvania
Franz Jaschke: 19th century painting of Demsus, Dacian Roman monument in Hateg valley Transylvania, 1807-1810

12 Replies to “Bare Bones, Exploring the Rare and Old Densuş Church”

  1. What an amazing place! Kind of like Stonehenge, but not as famous… maybe now, thanks to you, people will visit it.

  2. Ah, sweetie, yes! So cleverly put. I like that. Kind of like Stonehenge. I’m sure there’s more to the bones of Densuş Church than the eye can comprehend.

    I hope you are keeping cool.

  3. What an extraordinary place with so many treasures I especially admired the intricate manner in which that window was built.

  4. Hi Patricia, what a beautiful building. Thanks for this interesting post.

  5. How fascinating. My maternal grandfather’s family came from this amazing region. And he was an amazing person. My paternal grandmother was Polish. I never knew until I researched her maiden name.

  6. Thank you for sharing your personal connection to the region, Cindy.
    It’s incredible how our family histories can hold hidden gems waiting to be discovered through research. My mother was born some 170 km, in Turda. The people from Ardeal (Transylvania) are made from a special cloth.
    Exploring our roots can lead to amazing revelations and a deeper understanding of our heritage. Wishing you all the best in your journey of discovery!

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