Following a timeline of prehistorical discoveries, Conduct in a Neolithic Kingdom is the next 100 words story inspired by the (pre)historical past of Transylvania, this beloved and thought-after province of Romania, my home country.
Conduct in a Neolithic Kingdom
The wool she threaded in a pattern was as white as the swans floating overhead. The new quilt, verincă, will please their Queen. That was enough for her. They’ve known years of peace under Her rule.
A butterfly kissed her cheek and she caught it in her arms, merry. ‘May I deliver the quilt to the Queen, Mama? I’m as tall as the sapling today!’
Her lips agreed, her heart differed.
Then, she knew. By the ice settling in her chest.
She knew it. Before her butterfly failed to return.
Boys go to war; tall girls are sacrificed for peace.
During 2013 works on a national road unearthed a Neolithic fortress dating from the Turdaș culture, part of Vinča – Turdaș (5700–4500 BC).
The fortress discovered was built near Mureș river (being easy and fast to travel on) and covered no less that 100 hectares. The fortress from Turdaș was built nearly 1 600 years before the first pyramids of Egypt, raised around 2780 B.C. by King Djoser’s architect Imhotep.
When it comes to Transylvania, this spellbound geographical and historical province of Romania, its origin and etymology have always stirred debates. From the identity of the first settlers to the rights over the land and even the etymology of its name, the two schools of thought still engage in heated discussions. For me, as a Romanian, the explanation is crystal clear, and a long and interesting story it is. Do read it and let me know what your conclusions are.
Transylvania, what is its origin and the origin of its Romanian people?
Transylvania is a historical province located at the heart of Romania, bordered by the lush forests of the Carpathian Mountains at the west and south and the Apuseni Mountains on the west.
Transylvania has known civilization hiking through its forests and swimming in its rivers since the Paleolithic era, as the cave paintings of horses from Cuciulat, near Someș river, prove. The Neolithic Precriş culture left us the boulder head of the locals’ burial rituals.
Near Turdaș the remains of a giant Neolithic fortress were recently discovered, perhaps the first ever kingdom in the history of the world. And archeological findings dating from the Bronze Age tell stories of a settled population busy with farming, animal breeding (later, the fast Dacian horses being renowned), as well as apiculture, viticulture, hunting, fishing, crafting, tool making.
Over 600 archeological sites of which 26 fortifications from the First Iron Age, Hallstatt, were discovered across the territory of Transylvania, and, of course, incredible pottery. For millenniums, Transylvania was known as a land rich in gold, silver, iron and salt- read all about it here.
Words of Dacian origin related to viticulture are still in use today in Romanian language: butuc (stump), strugure (grape), curpen (tendril).
During the middle of the first century BC the Dacians living on current day Romanian territory, especially Transylvania, were led by Burebista.
Burebista, “the first and greatest of the kings of Thrace.”
The Dionysopolitan decree made in honor of Acornion.
Why only Romanians speak a Latin Language in southeast Europe?
The origin of Romanian people
In 117 AD, when the Roman Empire had reached its most august magnitude under the ruling of Emperor Trajan, the Romanian territories at that time were known as Dacia and had just been conquered by Romans (after two bloody wars: 101-102, and 105-106).
Like with many other nations conquered by the Roman Empire, the local Geto-Dacian population (which was Thracian by origin) had to adopt and adapt to the Roman culture, including the Latin language. They had 150 years to do so, till the Roman Empire’s withdrawal from Dacia. Different times were those, with an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years and maybe slightly longer for women. So what looks like two generations today, meant four or five generations during Classical Rome.
Today there are at least eighty words of Dacian origin still in use in the Romanian language, mostly names of plants, animals, forms of relief. For example, Romanian word for Danube: Dunăre, derving from Donawi, Dunawi.
How Latin language was assimilated by Dacians during Roman occupation
I was reading an article about how Latin was assimilated by Dacians and how the new, Latin words were used alongside the native vocabulary, still in use. Think of synonyms. For example white, alb in Romanian is still in use today. The Latin form, albus, denoted the color, generally speaking. But the synonym for white kept from Dacian language, bardzu (and still in use today in a few areas of Transylvania) is more specific, bălțată being used to describe animals whose fur is only speckled with white.
“The high number of Latin terms in agriculture, animal husbandry and the shepherds’ life prove that, besides the shepherds who drove their flocks throughout Romania’s territories, contributing by their movement to standardizing the language, there were also sedentary Romanians employed in farming and stock breeding”
Sextil Pușcariu, Limba română
After the Roman withdrawal from Dacia and until the 4th century AD many neighboring tribes came to Transylvania, stayed for a while, took what they could and then went their separate ways – as you can read in my previous blog post here. Then the Slavs also visited, stayed longer as they were peaceful tribes, mingled with the local Daco–Roman population. Till the 9th century when the Bulgarian Empire stretched over Transylvania, coming from the south of Danube river although the degree to which most of the territory in Transylvania was under Bulgarian control is disputed.
The period of late antiquity and early Middle Ages, especially in Eastern Europe, does not provide much information. Nor for local Daco-Romanian population, nor for invaders, be it Bulgarians or Hungarians. But what does remain is the language used by the local population, the Dacians, reflected in contemporary vocabulary as well as in the names of cities and the geographical forms of relief, especially rivers, and in the folklore and the local traditions.
As the Romans withdrew from Dacia (Transylvania included), I believe it is exactly the apparition of the new, various invaders who came in waves for almost 1 000 years that helped the native Daco-Romanian population outline and strengthen its national identity. A pattern of establishing new relationships between the inhabitants of Dacia, Latin speakers, and the invaders would have also developed, while the product would have emerged as Vlachs. And instead of one place we can pinpoint on a map, there would have been a multitude of such places of origin from where the newly formed nation and its spirit would have spread out to the larger areas, the ones we know of for certitude today.
During the last fifty years archeological discoveries have unearthed more than 2000 settlements and necropolises discovered over the entire territory of Romania and dating between the 9th and 11th centuries. They show a demographical concentration in the plains, hills, highlands, but also in the subcarpathian areas, revealing various degrees of political organization. For example at Biharea, where Menumorut’s fortress was located, and around it, were discovered by I. Crişan, the remains of 133 archeological sites of Romanian and Romanian-Slav villages, fairs, and citadels dating from the 8th – 11th century, proving the existence of a Romanian, indigenous civilization and culture.
To summarize, we can see that most of Romania was part of Roman Empire and remained so for five generations, as were all of today’s Latin speaking European countries. Geto-Dacians learned Latin, as the words of Latin origin still in use in Romanian language today prove. After Romans withdrew from Dacia, a solid Latin speaking population stayed behind, away from the main roads, inhabiting deserted Roman temples and the sacred mountains, where they found refuge and peace. The tribes that washed over Romanian territories in the following years influenced the language and the culture of the Romanian people, in turn borrowing from them into their own culture, co-habituating with the local Romanian population. Latin names of rivers, agricultural terms, animal husbandry and terms used in a shepherds’ life still in use today all prove the existance of a strong Latin civilasation living throughout the centuries in today’s Romania.
Nestor’s chronicle (Povest vremennykh let) on the history of Slavs in Romania and the presence of Romanians, Vlachs, in Transylvania
Chronicle of Nestor or Kiev Chronicle or The Russian Primary Chronicle is a medieval historical work offering detailed accounts of the early history of eastern Slavs to the beginning of the 12th century. The chronicle was compiled in Kiev around 1113, based on materials from Byzantine chronicles, Slavonic literary sources, official documents, and oral sagas. The earliest manuscript still existing is dated to 1377. While the authorship was traditionally attributed to monk Nestor, modern scholars considers the chronicle to be a composite work.
Nestor’s chronicle provides us with some of the oldest testimony of the Romanians by referring to relationships between the Wallachians, the white Ugrii, and the Slavs. The same chronicle refers to the Hungarian’s initial advance though the Verecke mountain pass towards the Tisa Plain, or Tizsa, and how the Hungarians fought the Wallachians and the Slavs living here (Tisa plains are located west of today’s north-west border of Romania).
For it was through the Verecke mountain pass that in 895 the Hungarian tribes entered the Carpathian Basin and during the next two centuries established the Kingdom of Hungary.
11th century Historian Gardizi and his Book, The Ornament ofHistories, on the Romanians living in Transylvania
Gardizi was an author and historian living in the mid-eleventh century. In his work The Ornament of Histories he mentions the people in the Roman Empire, placed between Russians, Bulgarians and Hungarians, on a territory north of Danube and a mountain that can be easily identified with the Carpathians. He describes them as people more numerous than the Hungarians, but politically weaker. Dare I say it out loud, Daco-Romans?
Țara, country, its etymology and what its use on Romania’s political map of the IX – XIII centuries means
Țara in Romanian means land or country. It has an archaic form țeară. It derives from the Latin terra, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ters- (“dry”). (Wikipedia)
What is the significance of Țara Bihorului, Țara Oașului, Țara Maramuresului, Țara Romanilor, Țara Iaşilor, Țara Severinului, Țara Hategului, Țara Zarandului, Țara Alba, Țara Fagarasului, Țara Oltului on the map of Romanian political counties during IX – XIII centuries above? It shows that those political entities had a judicial community and a leader, that small communities of Romanians were organised in counties, Țara. Thus were territories already inhabited – at the time of the Hungarian invasion of Transylvania’s west territories.
According to Romanian historian Gheorghe Bratianu:
“The equivalent of terra [Țara] from the medieval documents has the implication of a judicial community, of a region in which a certain local custom influences and determines the administration of justice… and which – as consensus – the leader of the country has to consider.”
Romanian historian Gheorghe Bratianu
The Latin etymological origin of the Transylvania noun
Transylvania, etymologically speaking, means beyond the forest.
Transylvania, etymologically speaking, means “beyond the forest.” In Latin, trans means “beyond” or “on the other side of”, deriving in turn from from Proto-Indo-European “trhnts,” from “terh-” meaning “through, throughout, over.” It is found in Celtic too, as “trānss”, keeping its meaning. And in Latin, silva means “wood, forest”.
It is easy to see why outlanders would refer to Transylvania as the land beyond the forest, surrounded as it was – and still is – by the Carpathian Mountains, rich in coniferous and secular, lofty oak trees.
Did you know? On the plains once found between the gentle slopes of the Apuseni Mountains (west on the map above) and the low plain of Tisa (the river along north-west and west on the map), once stood an impressive deciduous forest. It was during the 18th century, that it started to be cut down and to make space for agricultural fields.
Also… at the confluence of Tisa with quite a few rivers, among them Someş, Criş, Mureş, and Timiş on the map above, during antiquity and the Middle Age there was a rage of deltas and swamps.
In his book From Zalmoxix to Genghi Han, Romanian religious historian, philosopher and writer Mircea Eliade writes that when a nation’s ethnicity is the image of an animal, there is always a religious explanation behind it. We don’t know yet why, but we do know from Strabon that Dacians were the first to call themselves dáoi (wolves).
How interesting to discover this about Dacians, while the land where they lived, surrounded by forested mountains, was (later, in 10th century) known as “terra ultra silvam” -land beyond the forest. Then “Ultra Silvam” in a 1075 document, becoming Ultrasilvania in Medieval Latin, and eventually Transylvania.
A Mercurius Princeps Ultrasilvanus, a Transylvanian Voievode or ruler, was even mentioned in a document dated 1103.
The first Medieval Latin name for Transylvania, Ultrasylvania or terra Ultrasilvana dates from 10th – 11th century, at a time when Hungarian border still stretched to the west of the Apuseni Mountains (western Romanian Carpathians).
Codrul Frate cu Romanu’ – The Woodland, Romanian’s Brother – The forest in Romanian folklore and its symbology
From Dacian times, the woodland and the Romanians have been two inseparable entities. The forest has been, in turn, temple and refuge for the warrior, the citizen and, later, for the hajduk, haiduc (a Robin Hood-like figure from southeastern Europe during the 17th – 19th century). Even the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, during its two and a half centuries old warfare against the Romanians, had the thick forests of these lands on their three most difficult factors in fighting a war. The other two were the majestic Carpathian mountains and the cold winters.
the name of the Teleorman County (in south of Wallachia, Tara Romaneasca, by the Danube, comes from Turkish (Cumanic) Deli orman, crazy forest.
in Romanian folklore and mythology the trees (sanctuaries for Gods and Demons), especially the sycamore, fir tree, willow, and apple tree are seen as guides, accompanying a human’s soul along his last road.
in Romanian symbology the tree of life represents rebirth and forever life.
“Codru’ este mare Si lumina n-are; Codru este des Intri, nu mai iesi…”
“The woodland is wide And has no light; The woodland is thick You enter, never to leave…”
“Sufletul statea Si mi se ruga: Brade, brade! Sa-mi fii frate: Intinde-ti, intinde, Eu sa le pot prinde Varfurile tale, Sa trec peste ele”
“My soul stopped And it implored: Fir tree, fir tree! My brother thou be: Spread thou, spread Your tree tops shed, May I over ’em fled.”
Romanian ritualistic funeral song, translated from Romanian by Patricia Furstenberg
The Hungarian etymological origin of the Transylvania noun
The earliest Hungarian records of Gesta Hungarorum, Chronicleof Anonymous
One of the earliest Hungarian records is Gesta Hungarorum, The Deeds of the Hungarians, is a 12th century manuscript with a previous 11th century version. It tells the history of Hungarian tribes from the time they arrived on the Panonian Plains (west of today’s Romania) around 896 and until the times of King Andrei I (1046 – 1060).
In Gesta Hungarorum we find some of the earliest Hungarian records of the three Romanian duchies existing in Transylvania and to its west at the time of the first Hungarian invasion. Vlachs, Slavs and Bulgarians lived here, “Sclavi, Bulgarii et Blachii ac pastores Romanorum“(Blachii meaning Vlachs, the shepherds of Romans).
Transylvania lived up to its nickname being a pastoral land. Its wide valleys are fertile and its mountain slopes offer lush grazing for countless flocks of sheep.
Proof that Vlachs, Romnaians, lived here is the use of word duca, ducatus in Gesta Hungarorum. Duca derives from Latin dux, ducis, meaning leader. Only Romanians living here would have called their leader duca, although eventually it was replaced by the Slavonic Voievod.
The Hungarian etymological explanation for the noun Transylvania
During the X – XI centuries, pushed by tribes of Bulgars and Pechenegs, the Hungarian tribes left he north steppe and settled on the plains of Crișana, between Tisa river on the west, Apusei Mountains to the east, Someș river in the north and Mureș river in the south, where they would have found tribes of Slavs and Avars, with Romaniansalready setteled higher up on the slopes.
Slavs have lived on the plains of Crișana for a few centuries now, while the highland region to the east, over the forests and into Transylvania, has a predominant Romanian, Latin-speaking population.
So the plain-loving Magyars of Hungarians found themselves surrounded by waters from three sides, and only forests on the rim of mountainous Transylvania shutting them off on the east. For Magyars, the space they took over was on this side of the forest, while what lay over the forest, on the other side of the forest, (ultra, trans) was unknown – the Duchy of Gelou.
In Hungarian erdő and ardo means forest. The first Hungarian name for Transylvania was Erde-elw, then Erdély, meaning the country over the forest.
It was only after year 1000 when King Stephen I of Hungary mass-converted the Hungarians to Christianity that Latin became the official language of Hungarian chancellery, thus Erdély translated to Ultransilvana, then Transilvana and eventually Transilvania, Transylvania. Various combinations have also been encountered, such as princeps Ultrasilvanus (for a leader), Provincia Transilvana, Ultrasilvam Regnum (Kingdom).
The first written evidence is from 1075: “Ultra silvam ad castrum quod vocatur Turda,” translating to “Beyond the forest to the castle which is Turda.”
The socio-cultural and historical setting at the time when Hungarian tribes settled west of Transylvania
To summarize the ethnogenesis of the Romanian people, the largest nation in southeast Europe (except for the Turkish one), we must list the three main constitutive ethnic elements: the native population (Geto-Dacians), the conquerors (Romans), and the migrating people (the Slavs).
The Slavs, who preferred the plains, called the mountainous region inhabited by the Geto-Dacian speakers of Latin either Zagoria (Slavic Zagore means beyond the mountains) or Vlahia.
When Hungarians first settled on the plains west of Apuseni Mountains the Slavs lived there. Hungarians call a Vlach Olah, which suggests that they borrowed from the Slavs the first information about neighboring places and peoples.
What the modern DNA analysis saysabout the origin of Romanians
Throughout millennia, Romania found itself on the chessboards of many empires, and a major crossroad between Europe and Asia.
What can the study of Romanian DNA tell us that we don’t already know, or can it shine a light on a new concept regarding the continuity of Romanian people on these lands?
A recent study analyzed mtDNA (Mitochondrial DNA) sequences from Romanian Neolithic samples.
Mitochondrial DNA, unlike nuclear DNA, is inherited from the mother, while nuclear DNA is inherited from both parents. Thus mtDNA is important because testing mtDNA allows for investigation into one’s maternal line and can help identify living relatives whose mtDNA is similar to yours, as well as ancient migration routes your maternal ancestors may have taken.
For this study, mtDNA from ten sites from the current territory of Romania, spanning a time-period from the Early Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, were analyzed.
mtDNA data from Early Neolithic farmers of the Starčevo Criş culture in Romania (the sites of Cârcea in south, Gura Baciului in north, and Negrileşti to the east on the map below) confirm their genetic relationship with those of the LBK culture (Linienbandkeramik Kultur, Linear Pottery Culture) in Central Europe Neolithic, 5500–4500 BC, and they show little genetic continuity with modern European populations.
mtDNA data from Middle-Late Neolithic cultures of Boian (south east of Decea Muresului), Zau (east of Decea), and Gumelniţa (south east) had a much stronger effect on the genetic heritage of the European populations.
This study shows that Middle Neolithic populations, ‘M_NEO’,that lived in what is present-day Romania/Transylvania and modern populations from Romania are very close, in contrast with Middle Neolithic and modern populations from Central Europe.
Such genome analyses of living populations show that intra-European diversity is a continuum (with small exception). Romanians’ DNA is close to that of their Balkan and East European neighbors. Here, Romanian DNA is closest to that of Albanians, Greeks, and Bulgarians, then Macedonians, and further from the DNA of central and eastern Europeans like Hungarians, Czechs, Poles and Ukrainians.
On the other hand, the Balkans, because of the various migrations, are the most genetically diverse region in Europe.
But the Romans themselves, were a genetic pool already when their Empire reached its peak, think of the massive immigration into Rome and its vast army alone, spanning three continents, and tens of millions of people across Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.
The connection between central European mtDNA and mtDNA from the Romanina provinces, Transylvania, Wallachia, Dobrudja, and Moldavia
genetic affinities, illustrated by the mtDNA haplogroup frequencies, among the four Romanian provinces;
gene flow between Moldavia-Wallachia and Moldavia-Transylvania, suggesting gene flow between these provinces (mainly due to the substantial workforce movement from Moldavia towards these two provinces throughout the communist period);
genetic similarity of the Wallachia, Moldavia, and Dobrudja groups with the Balkans, especially the Slavic population;
Transylvania population closely related to the Central European groups, as influenced by the topology of the Romanian territory.
The Genetic pool of Roman Empire at the time of Dacian occupation
As we can see from the genetic map of Imperial Rome at the time they conquered Dacia, presented below, Rome and the Roman Empire was already a cosmopolitan place, people with different ancestry mingled and cohabited.
This is the genetic pool (eastern-Mediterranean, near-eastern, European, Mediteranean) that would have mingled with the Geto-Dacian own genetic pool – to later form the Romanian DNA.
You can follow the short explanation below, where Stanford researchers and their European colleagues drew on ancient DNA to construct the first genetic history of Rome. Their data reveal major shifts in the ancestry of people living in Rome, as well as several smaller shifts corresponding to important events in the history and politics of Rome. The original research is here.
I am still to find a more recent study looking at how present-day southeastern European populations was created, perhaps by aligning Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and Medieval groups mtDNA and comparing them to present-day mtDNA of various European populations – while considering that there is a higher population density in the eastern Mediterranean Europe than it is in the west. Also, I would like to read a study looking into genetic links between past populations inhabiting the Romanian territories.
Sources used in Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology
Aurel-Pup, I., Radacinile Medievale ale regiunii (provinciei) istorice Transilvania (secolele IX – XIII) Bogdan, Gh., Memory, Identity, Typology: An Interdisciplinary Reconstruction of Vlach Ethnohistory Chronicle of Nestor, The Russian Primary Chronicle, Britannica Cocoş, R., Schipor, S., Hervella, M. et al. Genetic affinities among the historical provinces of Romania and Central Europe as revealed by an mtDNA analysis. BMC Genet18, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12863-017-0487-5 Collins., N. Stanford researchers lay out first genetic history of Rome Djuvara, N., O Scurta Istorie a Romanilor Povestita celor Tineri Hervella M, Rotea M, Izagirre N, Constantinescu M, Ancient DNA from South-East Europe Reveals Different Events during Early and Middle Neolithic Influencing the European Genetic Heritage Sfrengeu, F., Dr. Aspects Regarding the Evolution of the Political Organization in North-Western Romania at the Beginning of the Middle Age Ziarul Renasterea, Transilvania sau Ardeal, Prof. I. Lupas, Cluj, Editia 18 Februarie 1940
Travel Through Doors and discover the best doors as seen in my 2020 Thursday Doors blog posts. Thursday Doors is a blog feature everyone can take part in, initiated by Norm who later presented the baton to Dan.
Dan has a Badge Idea contest for Thursday Doors running until 11:59 pm Thursday, December 31st (North American Eastern Time). Check his website for rules and maybe give it a try! The last image in this blog post is my entry.
Ans so it began, my journey around Europe (okay, mostly Romania) for Thursday Doors. We first traveled to Brasov, with The Church Door, a (very) short story:
My all time favorite must be this 500 years old door from Corvin Castle who even made it through the great fire of 13 April 1854:
We looked at Corvin Castle’s Coat of Arms too and at two rather grand doors embellished with jambs, tympanum and pinnacles, and at a short history of door knocking – find it all here. And we returned in a second visit here.
Small shrines can often be found in Romania, build so that weary travelers can have a moment of peace, for thought, for prayer, for palliation. This is a shrine from Brasov, before reaching the Black Church as you would stroll down a winding road from Șcheii Brașovului:
The second image above reads: ‘This cross was raised in 1761 by Gh. (Gheorghe) Anania and restored in 1992.’
Our next travel stop was at a monastery built for peace, Snagov Monastery, where we looked at medieval plots and at revenge:
Next we visited Brancoveanu Monastery at Sambata de Sus, a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Brașov County, in the Transylvania region of Romania, renowed for its white-washed walls. 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.
For a chilling stop we traveled next to Fagaras Castle to see its Iron Maiden, this symbol of medieval violence:
Bran Castle means many things to different people. To me, it is a door to heaven. Legend says that the Doors to Heaven are here, in Bucegi Mountains, near Bran Pass and Ialomița Cave. That is you climb that peak on a clear winter night, you will be welcomed by a meadow underneath a dome of stars. And the doors to Heaven will be revealed to you. You will know it by their starry pillars, and by the energy that will seep into your bones:
The first snow of December is winter’s first gift, coming from Saint Nicholas, yet not many know its significance. For that sneeze feeling you have in your nose before winter’s first coat falls, that’s just Saint Nicholas’ beard tickling your cheek.
At the beginning of December, the flakes spiral and dance to the ground the same way Saint Nicholas’ white beard floats behind him as he strides along the road. Each winter since that first one, almost two thousand years ago.
But don’t look out for his arrival for you won’t see him on the road. Cladded in a brown cassock, with white hair framing his silhouette like a cloud, and his silvery beard thrown over his shoulder – so he won’t tread on it – Saint Nicholas’ figure is more like that of a majestic tree than of a man. In his right hand, he holds a stick, a branch of an apple tree, and over his left shoulder, he balances a bundle. It isn’t a big sack like some would expect, rather a modest one, well used, and almost hidden by his snowy mane.
What got him going in the first place? What keeps him on the road still? Some say it is his love for God, for helping those in need. Some believe it is the joy he feels in his heart whenever he offers that much-needed contribution.
For the sum of all the joy that December’s first snow brings to all, is equal to the joy that swells Saint Nicholas’ heart when he strides forward one more year, and makes it snow, a sure tell-tell sign of his impending arrival.
The white stone arches of the maritime city of Patara, in Lycia, have long been reduced to ruins, and its once busy harbor is now but a white beach. But once, during the 3rd century, this town founded by none other but the son of Apollo, the god of archery, truth, and healing, was a known harbor at the Mediterranean Sea, and along the trading routes going through Asia Minor. It is said that even Paul and Luke changed ships here.
Saint Nicholas first walked this earth here, in Patara, before settling in the nearby city of Myra. He was fortunate to be born in a wealthy family so he could enjoy a formal education. During those times only upper-class males had such rights. Yet all young Nicholas wanted to do was to learn about God and aid those less fortunate. And helping them he did, for after the timeous death of his parents, he shared his wealth with the poor.
And he did so in a very peculiar way, for he was a rather shy young man who preferred to observe, rather than judge, and to act quietly, rather than boast.
Night after night Nicholas donned a brown cassock and tiptoed around his town, secretly delivering food and gold coins to those families he knew were in dire need.
One such family was that of a widower who had three hard-working daughters, yet they were too poor to even get married for their father had no money to pay for their dowry. Unable to do much work outside the home to provide for themselves as women were not even considered fit for labor, a harsh life, of poverty and uncertainty, was foreseen for his three girls.
It was the coldest winter they’ve ever known, and the wise men of Patra were whispering it was God’s wrath that had fallen over their village, for people had turned away from one another. Work was scarce, food had become a sweet dream, and even wood for fire was a dear sight.
They had never heard such howling, as if not one, but a clutter of lynxes found refuge outside the city gates.
They had never seen such a snow bridge extending the land far into a still sea now, and narrowing the strait to a choke, freezing all activity in the harbor.
They had never smelled so many different kinds of fire, for the people of Patra having run out of the usual amount of wood stacked for winter, had resourced to burning rags, leaves, even old trash to keep warm.
One such night, all that the widower’s family of four had left for dinner were four potatoes they cooked over the shadow of a fire. When dinner was ready the father asked the oldest daughter to take his cooked potato along with some sticks and deliver them to their neighbor, a lonely woman. Nobody saw the young girl rushing through the still village in that icy dark, nobody but a man dressed in a long cassock. He saw the girl’s good deed and the smile that grew on his face was the strength that kept him going forward that night.
For he too was a lone visitor in that arctic darkness, moving silently from one needy shelter to the next.
One year passed and it was time for the oldest daughter to marry, yet both she and her father knew it will not happen for they were, each day, poorer than the day before. And winter had come again.
Except that one morning when they woke up the father and his three daughters found a pouch with gold coins outside their front door. They were merry of the unexpected gift, they shared some of it with their needy neighbors, and it was still enough left for the eldest daughter to marry.
But where did the money came from? The father would have like to know.
But we know, don’t we?
One more year passed and the time came for the second daughter to marry. Yet money was scarce again. Until one early morning, when another pouch with gold coins was discovered outside their home. Merry were they, a happy wedding happened and two neighbors were aided this time.
But where did the money had come from, again? The girl’s father promised himself to find out.
Although we do know, don’t we?
So when one more year passed and winter gripped the village once more, the girl’s father hid outside his home, pulling his cloak tight around him, thin protection against winter’s sharp bite, his hood lowered against the gale, seeking shelter behind their only olive tree. Waiting, more eager to discover the identity of their benefactor than he was worried that chills will take shelter in his old bones. And just as Nicholas approached the poor man’s house the father stepped out of the shadow. Nicholas of Myra took a step backward and threw the pouch through the window, thus it landing in a shoe, then ran. He wished more than anything for his gesture to remain anonymous. The girl’s father only caught sight of a man dressed in a common cassock, departing in a hurry. So he followed him and thus he witnessed more good deeds.
And that winter night the old man felt less and less the bite of the arctic wind, the warm blanket of hope and gratitude settling on his skinny shoulders.
And he even caught sight of their benefactor’s face. A young man, whose eyes spread such wisdom and love, as only the city’s elders’ did. A man who shed a tear outside each needy household, yet smiled after leaving the gift behind. A man whose shoulders hunched more and more upon leaving each establishment, as if for each gift he left behind he chose to take away some of the troubles, the worries, the pain hanging over each family.
It was the night between the 5th and the 6th of December, a date the poor man’s family will always remember, a date that remained in folktales and is celebrated by Christians as the night of Saint Nicholas, Moș Nicolae.
I remember, as a child, cleaning my shoes and placing them by the window, hoping that Saint Nicholas will leave an orange and a few chocolates in them. The hope of being remembered. Small joys for a small child, apart for winter’s first snow.
Some say that if they’ve been naughty they found a small wand made from the wood of an apple tree. Maybe even torn from Saint Nicholas’ staff. It is said that if it blooms when placed in water is sure sign that Saint Nicholas forgave all their naughty deeds and that he smiles again.
How Does Snow Smells Like?
And not only the first snow, but the way the air smells around that first snow. Clean and fresh, soft, as if it’s just been washed, although it hasn’t. Isn’t it? I write from memories.
To me, snow smells of pine trees, woody, of open spaces, of holiday, of promises and of hopes. It smells as if anything ~ good ~ is possible, and as if dreams do come true. First snow smells like that.
I know that the frozen air has the opposite effect on the human olfactory system, and that we actually have less chances of smelling when it is cold outside because the mucus inside our nostrils dries up, so less particles reach the nerve receptors in our noses. Yet I do solemnly swear that I can smell the first snow and that I can smell the change in the air, before it first snows.
And I know that the air is supposed to be extra ionized when it snows, as it hold more moisture. Add it is a drop in temperature and a decrease in air pressure that makes it snows. Yet isn’t it more to that first snow than science?
For there is a change in the air before it snows. Some call it happiness or anticipation. For others it is the emotional charge of childhood.
Medieval Bran Castle, located at historical Bran Pass, is a fortress turned legend yet its door had been kept under key for centuries. Discover its story and doors, for Norm’s last Thursday Doors.
Legend says that the Doors to Heaven are here, in Bucegi Mountains, near Bran Pass and Ialomița Cave. That is you climb that peak on a clear winter night, you will be welcomed by a meadow underneath a dome of stars. And the doors to Heaven will be revealed to you. Do not fear missing them, for you will know it by their starry pillars, and by the energy that will seep into your bones.
Bran Pass, a Door to Heaven
Guarded by Bucegi Mountains on the east and Piatra Craiului Highlands, Prince’s Stone, on the west, it is through Bran Pass that, ahead of wintertime, the Dacian shepherds took their flock from the forested mountains of Transylvania down to the warmer and lush hills of Arges County in search of the same endless meadows their forefathers knew. Plains bordered by sweet, unhurried streams. And through the same pass they returned home before the heat of southern summers, bringing along a new generation of lambs, stories of people speaking a similar tongue, and the wisdom that’s the school of life.
At a time when names such as Transylvania and Arges were not even the thought of a whisper.
And in same sweet brooks Romans quenched their thirst too. When they took to the mountains of Dacia, the Bucegi, sneaking also through Bran Pass, marching uphill and building a fort at Cumidava (Râsnov today). How many sandals did they tear to shreds on these stones, I wonder? Later they chose to set a strong hand on Bran Pass, kept it under lock and key.
Bran, a wooden tower
And then, after Transylvania and its Vlach population fell under the stronghold of the Hungarian tribes and Hungary grew to the size of an empire under King Andrew II, Andrew of Jerusalem, it was here, at Brand Pass, that in 1212 Brother Dietrich of the Teutonic Order, with Pope’s explicit blessing, built a wooden sentry post. Bran Pass, known then as Dietrichstein or Toerzburg, became a buffer zone, the Teutonic knights holding the fort, protecting Transylvania’s Burzenland (today Brasov), thus Hungary, against the Cumans and their gruesome raids.
On the geopolitical chessboard, Bran Pass is the pawn holding a secret, that of being promoted. Bran Pass turns now from a bucolic trail into a military Avant-post.
Bran Castle, a state border made of stone
Following the 14th century expansion of the Hungarian Kingdom under Ludovic I of Anjou (the same Anjou family who built the initial Corvin Fortress on a former Roman camp), the privilege was granted to the inhabitants of Brasov to “freely and unforced but in good will, generously and unanimously promised to build a new stronghold in Bran, by themselves, by their own work, by their own money and clear the wood all around,” (The National Archives). It was a good deal for inhabitants of Brasov as their custom taxes have been considerably reduced. A castle rose in five years due to the increased threat the Ottoman Empire embodied.
Yet Bran stronghold was still Magyar Royal Crown’s property.
Bran Stronghold Ruled by Wallachia
We are at the end of the 14th century and the Ottoman wave rises like a tsunami over the Balkans. Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxembourg (architect of the Order of the Dragon) closes ties with Wallachian Voivode Mircea the Elder, Mircea cel Bătrân, grandfather to Vlad Tepes, against the Turkish threat. As a token of his appreciation (or a well-thought plan) he gifts Bran stronghold to Wallachia around 1412. To protect against Turkish invasions, the custom being moved back to Brasov.
Yet Sigismund took back Bran stronghold only fourteen years later, due to economic and military reasons ,and returned it to the citadel of Brasov who held it until the roaring twenties, 1920.
Bran Castle, A Royal Residence
At the end of World War I the Treaty of Trianon finally recognises Transylvania as a non-Hungarian region, reconciling it with Romania.
December 1st, 1920: “We, the members of the Town Council of Brasov – as it is mentioned in the deed of gift – … grant the ancient Bran castle, historically meaningful, to Her Majesty Queen Maria of the Unified Romania.” Queen Maria left Bran Castle to her beloved daughter, Princess Ileana.
Sadly, in 1948 Princess Ileana was forced to leave Bran, the castle seized by the communist regime and introduced in Romania’s national patrimony.
We were lucky to have visited Bran Castle a few times, yet I am looking forward to seeing it again. It is an intimate fortress, one feels welcomed inside it, a dreamer, a princess, a soldier – at home.