The Spiral Staircase, from Symbol to Mystery

spiral staircase symbol mystery

Carved out of stone or wood, to defeat or hide a secret passage, the spiral staircase still stands the test of time like a question mark between symbol and mystery.

In the perfect twilight of the room the girl was waiting, her hand on the banister of a spiral staircase, her mind a tornado of thoughts. Should she go up, towards the unknown? Was the spiral she was confronted with a symbol of a destiny written in her DNA, unavoidable, or a chance encounter mystery?

Usually narrow, often tucked away in the corner of a room, carved in stone or build out of luscious wood, a spiral staircase is like a mysterious creature watching you from the shadows. Alluring. Daring. Playful. Dare you take the challenge?

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, Bran castle, staircase
Above and below, staircases of Bran Castle, Romania

A spiral staircase is a confined space that obscures from sight what lays ahead, be it above or underneath you, and offering only two options: up or down. Or an open cavity that tricks you by deceitfully offering physical support while playing with your inner sense of equilibrium, spinning you out of balance as you descent into the unknown.

Either way, be it the glimpse of a promise, of something fascinating once reaching its top, or the 50 / 50 gamble that a sinister outcome might be lurking at its bottom, proves irresistible. And you take the first step.

The spiral staircase, stairs with a purpose. Which one?

Built to reach bird-level heights while conserving space, to solve a comfort or a safety issue, the movement one follows along a spiral stairway is influenced by the location of the stair, the amount of natural light, the material (medieval stone, classic wood, or modern steel), the stair’s geometry, and the presence of handrails (if any).

The spiral staircase appeared as a key element intent to fluidity the circulation in any multi-story building, and perhaps its first intent was for private use.

Would you run up a spiral staircase? Would you tiptoe up? Would you use a candle to light your way or trust the moonlight sliding through the top?

Just don’t run up a staircase with a sword in your right hand as you will find it difficult to maneuver upwards, especially on clock-wise winding stairs. Perhaps this is why spiral staircases were used as a defense mechanism in medieval castles. Just imagine how the attackers of a tower could not storm up in a group, but had to go up one by one along a narrow path. Less defenders stood a far better chance to protect and survive.

Below: the stone spiral staircase of the Catacombs of Paris, France (exit):

The spiral, a symbol

I can’t resist a spiral staircase. The sight of it, so similar to the DNA’s double helix, reminds me of the human (sub)conscious desire to achieve higher. Its spiral, like a maze of self-discovery through movement and sight, is both a riddle and a promise. It could be a secret passage way between two levels, or the chance to evolve, to self-discover, to take a risk.

Be it an iconic structure or an architectural inner whisper, take this trip with me along spiral staircases and let’s travel the world.

A Timeline of Spiral Staircases

First ever spiral staircases were mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as existing some 3000 years ago. These two spiral staircases were part of Solomon’s Temple and used to access a sacrificial altar.

Searching for actual archaeological remains, the earliest example of a spiral staircase is in the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily, (built c. 490–460 BC). A really skillfully engineered spirals of the ancient Greco-Roman empire.

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily - the earliest example of a spiral staircase
the Greek Temple A in Selinunte, Sicily – the earliest example of a spiral staircase

Still standing in Rome today is marble-built Trajan’s Column (built 113 AD) and this seems to be the oldest ‘preserved’ spiral staircase in the world.

Did you know that the outside of the column is covered with reliefs depicting the victories of Trajan’s army in the Dacian wars? Dacians were the forefathers of the Romanian people.

There are over 2000 marble carvings that spiral upward depicting the Roman – Dacian Wars (there were two of them) along Trajan’s Column, but its one overlooked characteristic is definitely the winding staircase hidden inside. Windows strategically placed allow enough light for the visitors walking up the stairs, but it is well worth it as at the top there is a viewing platform overlooking the Markets of Trajan, Trajan’s Forum, Capitol Hill, and the Campus Martius. Marcus Aurelius Column (176–192 A.D.) also has a spiral staircase inside. But Romans did not commonly use spiral staircases in buildings until after the third century.

Below: stone spiral staircase at Fagaras Castle, Romania:

Other impressive spiral staircases are located at the Baths of Caracalla (212–16 A.D.), the Baths of Diocletian (298–305 A.D.) and the Mausoleum of Constantia (c. 350 A.D.) among many others.

In Spain, the oldest spiral staircase is located at the archaeological area of the Roman villa of Las Gabias (6 century A.D.), south Granada.

More great spiral staircases are found at the Abbey Church at Cluny and Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris (France); the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Köln and the Cathedral of St. Peter in Worms (Germany); and the Cathedral in Durham and in Canterbury (England).

Perhaps it is the years of history trapped in a staircase, the symbol it stood for, as well as the excitement to climb it and the anticipation of the mystery, of the view at the top what make any spiral staircase well worth a climb. Like this spiral staircase below, located in the Clock Tower of medieval fortress of Sighisoara, Romania:

Spiral staircase design had to wait for the development of the craft guilds that took place during the Middle Ages – so that extra technical skills required in their extended construction develop. Now they were mostly used to prevent the invaders from gaining access in castles. It is of importance to know here that the Gothic stone-masonry masters ensured the stability of a stone structure by determining the right dimensions for all its different parts.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery, marble spiral staircase, Romanian Atheneum, Bucharest
Marble spiral staircase at the Romanian Atheneum in Bucharest

The Helical Stair – a Timeline

With regard to the helical stair, the oldest examples can be found in the well-preserved towers at Aghios Petros on Andros Island and Pyrgos Chimarrou on Naxos Island, both dating to the Hellenistic period (4 – 3 century BC). Then it went dormant.

The helical staircase was not fully developed until later, during the 16th century, when it gradually developed in proportion and decorations, mainly composed of moldings on the wall handrail. Over time, its enclosing walls dissolved, improving the use of natural light.

Below, the stunning wooden carved helical staircase inside Peles Castle, Romania:

Around the 15th – 16th century the helical or openeyed staircase appears in Spain as an element of late Gothic architecture. This was also known as the mallorca staircase and the first, built between 1435 and 1446, is located in the turrets of La Lonja of Palma. Other helical stairs can be found in the Vélez Chapel in Murcia Cathedral, Colegio de Arzobispo Fonseca in Salamanca, and the Concepción Chapel in Segovia Cathedral.

During Renaissance times the helical staircase becomes a significant sculptural and elemental part of design. Like the one designed by Donato Bramante for Pope Julius II at the Belvedere Palace (and known as the Bramante staircase): a double helical staircase which was intended to separate the movement of people and animals.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery. the Bramante staircase, Vatican
the Bramante staircase

Helical staircases now become spacious and elegant and even a centerpieces of a building, like the one located at the exit of the Vatican Museum in Rome designed by Giuseppe Momo (1932), or the free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris below (built 1989) or the glass one towering at the new Exhibition Hall at the Deutches Historisches Museum in Berlin (2003), both designed by Ieoh Ming Pei.

The Spiral Staircase from Symbol to Mystery, the free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris
The free-standing helical staircase under the Glass Pyramid at the Louvre Museum in Paris (with an elevator inside its well)

Helical staircases inside Louvre Museum, Paris:

Andrea Palladio, 16th century Italian Renaissance architect, wrote in his book of The Four Books of Architecture, referring to spiral staircases :

“They succeed very well that are void in the middle, because they can have the light from above, and those that are at the top of the stairs, see all those that come up or begin to ascend, and are likewise seen by them.”

So, what is the difference between a Spiral and a Helical Staircase?

The common design of many ancient spiral staircase structures includes a center newel, crafted out of stone, with the stone stair slabs constructed around it.

The helical staircase follows the same basic rule, the rotation of a single-slab-step around a central axis BUT the newel is replaced by a small well. Nevertheless, the newel is kept but it is not located in the geometric center of the staircase but around it.

Spiral Staircase Symbol Mystery, Spiral staircases in Carturesti Bookshop, Bucharest
Spiral staircases in Carturesti Bookshop, Bucharest – above and below

In case you wondered or perhaps you saw one, there are outside spiral staircases too, like this stunning one below that we happened to stumble upon while visiting the Da VinciThe Genius exhibition back in 2014, near the Maronite Catholic Church in Johannesburg, South Africa:

I hope you enjoyed our excursion along the spiral staircase, from symbol to mystery.

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Love For Books

love for books

It must be running in your bloodstream, the love for books.

I don’t believe that it is something you acquire over time. It must be in your DNA code, something you’ve born with, like the color of your eyes or that moll on your cheek. You’re born with, blessed with, then it runs through your blood, like a virus.

When I say love for books I do not mean enjoying books and reading, that’s love of books, fondness, liking the way you like something you glance at. By love for books I mean needing books. Needing to read them, to hold them, to own them, to surround oneself with them. Like an addict.

I hear people saying, ‘I like to read, but I don’t have enough time so I read just a bit.’

Those with the virus, with love for books, don’t have to make time. And you see them every day, nights too. Mornings are the best, surprising them with a book in hand. They don’t need an ideal reading spot, or silence or background music. They can read everywhere, in the subway, the bus, the train, in a crowded room, and sometimes even during in class.

And you do know how their homes look like too. I don’t mean bookshelves, but stacked with books.

People with a love for books always carry a book with them the way others hold their cellphone or fashionable ladies carry their emergency cosmetic bag. But those with a love for books are fearless. They do not worry that they will miss a call, or a message, or a Tweet, or that their beauty will smudge during the day. They do fear, though, that the thin paper layer protecting their souls will get damaged throughout the day, exposing them to noise, to wickedness, to mental pollution.

You see, people with a love for books, those who carry that book virus in their bloodstream, need a periodic shot, call it chronic medication, of reading. Of living elsewhere for a short while so that they can survive in the present. Of accumulating life experience so that they can share it with the rest. Of laughing or crying elsewhere, so that they can compare it to the laughing and the crying from the real world and clarifying, once and for all, how original life can be.

For only when life is conveyed into a book will that book be cradled and read by someone with a love for books, and afterwards explained to others.

You see now why writers need readers with a love for books just as much as those with a love for books need books.

‘Literature is the most pleasant way of ignoring life.’

Fernando Pessoa

You might also enjoy reading:

A Love Letter to Coffee and What Coffee Is Best Paired With
Secrets Hidden in a Book Cover
My Life in Books Read during 2019
A Resultant Force, Women Writing about War
Read the opening pages of Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg
Symbolism in Silent Heroes, the Story behind it

hope readers books Furstenberg
Find all my books on Amazon.

Theory of Mind: Each Animal Has a Story to Tell

theory of mind

I believe that, just as each one of us has a story to tell, each animal has one, too. It all comes down to the POV (point of view).

As humans, our cultural background and experiences influence the way we understand and interact with the world. We see and perceive animals from a rather self-centered, oblivious point of view, based on personal (humanoid) knowledge (as a human), EQ (emotional intelligence) and, of course, inhibitions and phobias. But there are millions of animal species known to man, out of which over 5 000 species are mammals. Chances are we will only meet and interact with a fraction of them.

Theory of Mind Each Animal Has a Story to Tell

About dogs (world’s most popular pets), we known that they respond to human praise, but also choose human praise over a food treat. We know that they miss their (human) owners and often suffer when they are away from them. In Kenya, elephant families have been observed to pull together while struggling to survive drought and poaching. In other parts of the world wolf packs have been observed to adopt the cubs left without parents. A calve will stay with its dolphin mother as long as eight years; because they are so social, dolphins live in pods of up to 1000 members. That’s a small town!

Now let’s change the point of view.

How do animals perceive us? As friends or as enemies? What do animals feel? They do look angry at times, they seem to grief, to show empathy, to feel joy. But what goes through their minds? What goes through a dog’s mind (and heart) when one of his puppies is removed from the litter? What is a mother elephant actually saying when she rumbles and trumpets to protect her calf? I love listening to the morning birds, their chirp is peaceful and soothing, but what are they actually saying to each other?

Do animals have beliefs of their own? Do they act on intend? Do they use their knowledge and plan ahead? And if they do so, are we, humans, really “getting it” or do we miss the point all together?

Theory of Mind Each Animal Has a Story to Tell

Perhaps our children are the ones closest to finding an answer. Children are naturally open to this concept of “theory of mind” (the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and to others), as well as to learning about it. Attributing an animal desires and intents similar to their own is a characteristic behavior for a child. Children are tuned in and they do “get” the animals’ language.

The fact that children attempt eye contact more often than grown-ups might also facilitate a kid’s closer understanding of animal language. Eye contact between humans and dogs is paramount for a successful social interaction between the two as dogs rely on eye contact when establishing if the communication is relevant and directed at them. Dogs, especially, establish eye contact when they cannot solve a problem on their own.

Watching animals interact and understanding them is a learning curve for any human. It is an exercise on acknowledging that human race is not as superior as we like to believe. Animals do experience the same love and empathy as we do, but they certainly lack the hatred and the grudge that tends to overshadow and hinder us. Perhaps that one of the ways to reduce poaching and animal trafficking is through raising the bar in our knowledge of the animal world around us.

You be the judge, is the theory of mind and the idea that each animal has a story to tell valid?

Theory of Mind Each Animal Has a Story to Tell
Theory of Mind, Each Animal Has a Story to Tell
This little dog is always smiling so i had to capture it and share it with the world.

I’ll end Theory of Mind, Each Animal Has a Story to Tell with this quote from one of my books:

“There was still a cloud of brown dust hovering around the Marines’ khaki shorts, tinting the scene in shades of sepia; a herd of stallions panting, their ears attend, nostrils quivering in expectation.

One of the Marines had picked up the ball, popping it between his arm and hip. Tara’s tail wagged, recognizing her partner and human handler, Seb.

Another Marine slapped Seb’s shoulder in a friendly manner and it was Xena’s turn to snort, recognizing Conde.

Dancing on the spot, Tara blew air through her nose and yapped at Honda in the next cage. Rambo spun around, pacing along the fence. Will Kent get a turn at holding the ball? Will he?

Only Honda cracked a sleepy eye, her tail sweeping the ground once before rolling over onto her back, snorting. Honda enjoyed action as much any dog, but she also knew that the humans did a lot of talking before any action would begin. Until she would sniff Dunn approaching her cage, Honda couldn’t be bothered.”

Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg

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Top 5 Romanian Folk Tales

top 5 Romanian folktales

Choosing Top 5 Romanian Folk Tales was not an easy task when the amazing people from Folklore Thursday invited me to contribute with an article drawing from the vast Romanian folklore.

Come read about Top 5 Romanian Folk Tales over on the Folklore Thursday blog. Allow yourself to be charmed.

Go on quest for ‘Youth without Age and Life without Death’.
Engage with Half-man-riding-on-the-worse-half-of-a-lame-rabbit.
Witness sorcery in the story of the ‘Enchanted Pig’.
Discover that love is ‘Like Salt in a Meal’ and that you better be kind or the ‘Old Man’s Clever Daughter’ will teach you a lesson to remember.

top Romanian folk tales

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

Rocking the modern perceptions of the Middle Ages, the Iron Maiden found at Fagaras Castle, Romania, is a medieval torture device that is real, and yet not.

The stone castle of Făgăraş was first mentioned (that we know of) in 1455, but the initial fortification, built with sturdy fir trees from the nearby forests, goes back to 12th – beginning of the 13th century.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (1883)
Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (~1883)

We also know that, traditionally, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras were fiefs of Wallachian prince. Yet John Hunyadi, appointed Voievode of Transylvania at that time (as Transylvania, although a Romanian county today, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary during he Middle Ages to say the least) seized them. Hunyadi gave Almas to the citizens of Sibiu and kept Faragras for himself.

But before being seized, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras belonged to the Voievode of Wallachia, and he would have been Vlad Dracul, Vlad II (Vlad Țepeș‘ father) and Mircea cel Batran, Mircea the Elder before him (Vlad Țepeș‘ grandfather).

We know further that Vlad Dracula, Vlad Țepeș, was finally able to title himself “Lord and ruler over all of Wallachia, and the duchies of Amlaș and Făgăraș” on 20 September 1459, thus showing that he had regained possession of both these traditional Transylvanian fiefs of the Wallachian rulers.

Făgăraş Castle, also know as Mihai Viteazul Fortress, in an inter-war postcard
Făgăraş Castle, also know as Mihai Viteazul Fortress, in an inter-war postcard

Now, back to the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle.

Documents mentioning Fagaras Castle dated more than a century ago do mention the existence of a mechanism of death, known as the “Iron Virgin” or “Iron Maiden”.

It seems that the device was brought into the fortress during the 18th century and used as an instrument of torture. The person sentenced to death was told on the day of his execution that he would be allowed one last kiss, that of the Mother of God, whose image hanged inside this coffin-like device. But the devices was thus created that when the convict stepped to kiss the image, the coffin would close with lightning speed and the knives and spikes that protruded on the inside would pierce his body. The spikes were short and positioned so that the victim wouldn’t die immediately.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle
The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

Also, thanks to another device, a hole would opened at the feet of the Iron Maiden so the body of the convict would free fall from a height of 8-10 meters in a dungeon where horizontal swords with very sharp edges would chop the falling cadaver into several pieces.

Through another device water from the fortress’ moat was channeled through this dungeon, thus washing away any traces of blood or flesh, taking them out through the northwestern part and directing them to Olt river, flowing only 800 meters away.

Sounds far-fetched?

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

The Iron Maiden as an image for Medieval violence

Truth is that the Iron Maidens were a myth brought to life during the 18th century because they fitted so well with the idea of Medieval violence, especially the physical maltreatment of another being, with the weapons being so readily available during those times, and with the fact that violence was seen as an understandable response to most acts.

Let’s face it, during the Middle Ages violence was a common response. If one wanted to share an idea, to share a meaning – symbolic vengeance was expected.

But crime and violence did bothered the commoners during the Middle Ages. It frightened them too. Life had a value, certainly was valued less than we value it today.

The Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

The true history of the Iron Maiden

Johann Philipp Siebenkees was an 18th century German Professor of philosophy. He was a keen archeologist too. He was the first to describe the execution of a 1515 coin-forger by the use of an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. But the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, and one of the the most famous such devices, was only built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.

Siebenkees might have read about a 5th century A.D. Latin book of Christian philosophy that describes the torture of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was locked in a nail-studded box. Or he might have read the works of the Greek historian Polybius (100 B.C.) who told the story of the Spartan tyrant Nabis who constructed a mechanical likeness of his wife Apega. When a citizen refused to pay his taxes, Nabis would have the mechanical wife wheeled out and made to hug the wrong doer – only that the nails were on the outside of her body.

We all know stories about torture during the Middle Ages, and some of the devices used by the Ottoman Empire or those used to obtain false declarations during the Witch Hunts come to mind… but torture is very much present during our times too.

Perhaps it just makes us feel safer to look only at those times long gone.

doors towards the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle

This, the Iron Maiden, is one door I do not wish to open – for Norm’s Thursday Doors blog weekly meme.

As always, find my books on Amazon.

C’est le printemps. Este primăvară. Dit is lente. It is spring.

printemps, primavara, spring, herfs, apricot blossoms

The fruit trees start blossoming and the sparrows begin chirping at the break of dawn. The sunlight grows warmer and glows with care. Its fingers graze the small, pink flowers that are abuzz with bees.

C’est le printemps. Este primăvară. Dit is lente. It is spring.

The rebirth of nature, after the long icy months, is enough to open your mind to the beauty that nature seems to paint so effortlessly.

The warmer air is filled with the sweet scents of flowers and the promise of renewal.

Our hearts open hopefully to new sentiments and romance.

The seasons are not usually linked to the months of the year, but rather by the appearance of flowers on trees, or astronomy. ‘Equinox’ comes from the Latin words aequi (meaning equal) and noct (meaning night). Natural time is unstable and the lengths of day and night are usually not equal, yet on the spring equinox and autumn equinox-the angle of the Earth’s axis is positioned in such a way that daytime and night-time are equal. Spring is mostly thought of as the time between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. During the spring equinox; the sun is directly over the Earth’s equator at midday. The equal lengths of day and night (well, nearly equal) are due to the fact that the sun’s rays refract (bend) when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

printemps primăvară herfs spring, sun-earth relationship

This refracting causes the sun to appear that it is still above the horizon, when it has actually already set. Hence, the daytime is lengthened by roughly seven and a half minutes at the equator (countries like Brazil, Gabon, Kenya, Somalia, Maldives and Indonesia), eight minutes at 30 degrees latitude (places such as South Africa, southern Australia, Argentina and southern Brazil) and sixteen minutes at 60 degrees latitude (like in Sweden and Russia).

The summer solstice is the longest day of the year-this year (2020), it is on the 20th of December in the Southern hemisphere and on the 20th of June in the Northern hemisphere. So, if you don’t live on electronic time (like I do)-those are the perfect days to spend outside in the sun. Well, 20th of June was the perfect day. If you know how to build a time machine, then you know where to go!

I have always been fascinated by Egyptian history and have read up on as much as I could find on the subject since I was first introduced to it ten years ago. In those ancient times, seasons (and most things that are now explained with Science) were often explained with mythical tales. Spring often symbolised rebirth and resurrection-something which the Egyptians held at the core of their belief system. Osiris (the Egyptian god of fertility, agriculture, the afterlife, the dead, resurrection, life, and vegetation) was brutally murdered by his brother, Seth (the god of war, chaos and storms). Osiris was the first-born son to Geb (god of the earth) and Nut (goddess of the sky). As first born, he was considered the ruler of Egypt. He taught the Egyptians the proper ways to worship the gods, provided them with laws and taught them agriculture. He later took Isis (his sister) as his wife and she gifted the Egyptians equality and compassion. The paradise ensured equality among all and abundance of food. Set was jealous of his brother’s power and success. When his wife (Nephthys) became pregnant by Osiris-after disguising herself as Isis-Set’s resentment turned bitter.

printemps primăvară herfs spring, Egyptian mythology

He decided to eliminate his brother and had a beautiful casket made, tailored to Osiris’ exact measurements. A huge party was thrown and Set invited his brother-but with sinister motives. Set revealed the magnificent casket to the guests and told them that whoever’s body fit most perfectly inside could take the treasure home. As you can guess-Osiris’ fit perfectly. Set immediately slammed the lid shut and threw the casket-and his brother-into the Nile. Of course, this is only one version of how Set murdered his brother. Now you’re probably wondering where Spring comes in. Well, Osiris’ wife-Isis-found his body and buried him-which re-birthed Osiris as the judge of the underworld. Hence-rebirth, resurrection and the arrival of spring (with Osiris’ role as the fertility god-giving life to plants) was created in Egypt. Of course, this story also explains the annual flooding of the river Nile, as when Osiris’ casket was thrown into the river-it flooded, as it does every year since then in the spring.

Spring symbolises new beginnings: baby birds begin chirping in nests and the trees start making  new leaves and beautiful blossoms.

printemps primăvară lente spring, apricot blossoms

The world is renewed and the air filled with hope. Maybe change is not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The flooding of the Nile in Egypt still provides farmers with water for their crops-and therefore food. The changing seasons all over the world provide us with new perspectives and opportunities.

It is up to you to jump in the flood and let yourself be renewed to a more powerful version of yourself.

© Lysandra Furstenberg, 2020

You have seen photographs taken by my daughter, the writer of this post, in Dualism, a Square in Travel Photography and Black and White, Square Moon Trees. Lysandra’s poetry was featured by lovely Florence of Miscellany Pages in Poetry, Comedy & The Modern World and you can discover her poetry book, Right to Life, on Amazon.

Sources:

Rebirth and Resurrection: Spring Myths of the Ancient World
Symbols of Spring
Spring: Season of New Beginnings
Earth’s Orbit
The Seasons, the Equinox, and the Solstices

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus, Brasov

Brancoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus, is a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Brașov County, in the Transylvania region of Romania. At the end of the 17th century Constantin Brâncoveanu, Prince of Wallachia, built a stone church (1688-1714) in place of an older wooden one.

If you wonder how a Wallachian Voievode built a monastery in a different principality, know that the hamlet and the land on which the monastery was built belonged to Preda Brâncoveanu, his grandfather. Who even built a small wooden church on it in 1654.

The custom was for a Voievod, a christian ruler of a historical Romanian principality, be it Wallachia or Moldavia, to buy land and build a monastery on it, thus the land being donated to the holy abbey. The Voievode was the founder, his portrait painted on the church wall, and his name mentioned, for eternity, during the church service.

But building a church was more than just a spiritual act, it was a political manifesto too, showing the ruler’s strength in the principality.

We were lucky to visit Brâncoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus in 2008 and, as you will see from the pictures below, its doors stand open.

Part of Brâncoveanu’s motivation behind rising this monastery was to strengthen the Orthodox presence in the region at a time when Catholicism rose together with the Habsburg domination over Transylvania (who had just escaped Calvinism). Brâncoveanu wanted to leave a legacy to the Christian religion of Romanians on both sides of the Carpathian mountains (Transylvania and Wallachia).

It was a time (right after 1683), when Romanians of Transylvania knew religious persecutions at the had of the Austro-Hungariam Empire. Losing their forefathers religious belief would have meant them losing their national identity. Many Transylvanian churches and monasteries supported the orthodox Romanians. Many, 150, were destroyed by Viennese General Bukow.

So the catholic administration of Vienna waited. And waited. They waited for the killing of Brâncoveanu in 1714. They waited for the death of his wife Marica (and heiress) in 1729. And they waited for the death of Brâncoveanu‘s grandchild. And in 1785 they sent General Preiss to destroy Brâncoveanu Monastery until no stone was left standing. Thus, the last bastion of Orthodoxy in Fagaras Contry (today Brasov and Sibiu) was no more.

It was in 1926 when the monastery was rebuilt the way we see it in these pictures. Someof the old paintings survived in the church the the architectural style, the Brâncoveanu style, was kept.

At about the same time the Romanian Greek-Catholic Church was founded, drawing numerous Transylvanian Orthodox under Papal authority.

But establishing a church was more then that, it was an act of spiritual responsibility.

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus

Today, a monastery holds no great boundaries to the outside world and during the entire Medieval era of Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania, no matter how well fortified churches and monasteries could hardly protect themselves against mean acts or thoughts of non-believers. And I think now of Albu the Great, boyar during the times of Vlad Ţepeş, who burned down Govora Monastery (built by Vlad Dracul, the father of Vlad Ţepeş), as well as stealing land from it. Land gifted by the voievode – all in an attempt to prove himself stronger than the previous ruler of Walachia, thus able to rule the country on its turn. Of course this would have been one of the reasons Vlad Ţepeş held against Albu, when he ordered that Albu (any other boyars involved in the killing of Vlad Ţepeş’ father and older brother ) be executed on Easter Sunday, 1459.

It was wrong of Albu to burn down the monastery, but it was also wrong of him to steal its land – for the land of a monastery, gifted by a voievode through an official paper, are considered holy land. I wonder if Albu thought of the spiritual consequences, not only material, of his actions.

And this was the privilege we had, as tourists, when visiting Brâncoveanu Monastery in 2008.

Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus
Brancoveanu Monastery, Sambata de Sus

On the site of the Brâncoveanu Monastery also functioned a school for secretaries, a workshop for fresco paintings and a small printing press.

Place of worship and inner introspection, a monastery is, today, open to public, yet its arches and murals invite the visitor to quiet meditation. To measuring one’s step to that of the silent flora around, to the lowered gaze of the monks. To the hushed voice of the wind.

Throughout his life as a ruler, over 20 years, Constantin Brâncoveanu built or restored over 24 churches. Like many rulers before him, Vlad Tepes included, Brâncoveanu fought to protect Wallachia against the Ottoman Invasion. But the greedy Sultan Ahmed III kidnapped Brâncoveanu, his four sons (Constantin, Stefan, Radu and Matei) and son in law Ianache – and had them all decapitated on 15 August 1714 because they did not wish to convert to Islam. But, as with any page of history, there are hidden, political truth behind this killing.

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