Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages

History Transylvania middle ages

Early Middle Ages, history tells us, found the rich lands of Transylvania and the Romanian territories south and east of the Carpathians, Muntenia, Oltenia, and Moldavia respectively, as a  lively congregation of various cultures and traditions, brought together by the need for trade, the hope for a better life, but mostly by the local’s love and respect for their ancestor’s land.

But what was happening in the western Europe right about now? For no land can ever be isolated from the rest of the world, nor can it be observed on its own. Just as no level of the emerging, yet highly hierarchic feudal system can be understood as an isolated occurrence.

The Early Middle Ages in Europe

The three years of civil war in western Europe conclude with the Treaty of Verdun in the 9th century as the fights between the three grandsons of Charlemagne shattered the flourishing Frankish Empire. Thus, nowadays France, Austria and Germany were born. As new kingdoms formed, the growth of their population pushed to expansion – soon migration – and, quite soon, the Church of the West seized this opportunity and increased its spiritual, economic and military powers. As a result, the Church controlled an emerging educational system as well as the ruling classes.

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages

Before the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes arrived in Transylvania…

The Magyar Tribes’ forced migration

Over in the east, in Asia, the Turk-Mongol tribes started expanding and moving westward, much like a tsunami wave, disturbing, overpowering , uprooting the local, smaller tribes often focused on their livelihood and not on their combat skills. These expanding new kingdoms soon advanced and conquered further western lands, setting a fur-lined boot with upturned toe in Europe’s far east, thus forcing the steppe’s nomad peoples and their light cavalry towards west, and south. These, last mentioned, were the Hungarians or Magyars (as they still refer to themselves), nomads originated east of the Ural Mountains and the Caucasus where they led a life of horsemen and livestock farmers. The Hungarian’s origin is doubtful as their language is Finno-Ugric (like Finnish, Estonian, and others), while their royal family holds Turkish blood. Their name, Hungarian, is thought to be derived from Oghur-Turkic On-Ogur (literally “Ten Arrows” or “Ten Tribes”).

The Magyars settle in Pannonian Basin

The Magyars from Ukraine (Kiev) in the Pannonian Fields are thus obliged by the Turk-Mongol tribes to flee south-west. They tried to cross the Danube in 880 but were stopped by the Bulgars so they adjusted their plans, turned 180 degrees, and invaded the south of the Carpathians, today Romanian plains but back then forested and inhabited by Vlachs, Dacians and Slavs too. And even further north the Hungarians pushed, crossing the Carpathians but mostly from the west, where the path was more accessible. Remember, the Hungarians were not mountain people, like the Vlachs and the Dacians were, but rather used to travel on horseback, over flat, dry steppe. As the Magyars pushed in, the local population, the Vlachs especially, retreated to the mountainous valleys.

Transylvania, its origin and ethymology. Pannonian Basin, Carpathian Mountais and Transylvania,
The Pannonian Basin (marked III.), enclosed by the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Plateau (IV.) to the east and north. Also shown: the Romanian Lowlands (II.) and the Outer Sub-Carpathian depressions (I.) beyond the Carpathians (also known as Transcarpathia)

I have a story for you, about the Hungarian conquest of Transylvania.

The Magyar tribes, the Hungarians, raid Latin Europe

By 890 the Hungarians had moved into the Pannonian Basin, ideal for their herds of horses, and from there they rallied the German and Franc villages located further west… But the Hungarians were soon stopped in their attempts to invade the West (the Latin Europe) by Emperor Otto I at the Battle of Lechfeld in 955. It was hot news by now, and broadcasted at each Royal Court of Western Europe, that the Asiatic danger to the Christian lands and forgotten for a century was back, in the shape of the Hungarian’s savage raids.

Hungarian conquest of Transylvania - Romanian territory IX - XIII centuries. We can see in the middle the Dutchy (Voievodatul) of Gelou / Gyula. Left is Dutchy of Menumorut and below it is Dutchy of Glad / Aftum.
Romanian territory IX – XIII centuries. We can see in the middle the Dutchy (Voievodatul) of Gelou / Gyula. Left is Dutchy of Menumorut and below it is Dutchy of Glad / Aftum. And complete left of Tisa River is Regatul Ungariei (Kingdom of Hungary). We can also see all the little dutchies that today form Romania: Timisului, Craiovei, Iasilor, Maramuresului, Banatul, Baragan, etc – all the way to Danube in the south, Prut in the east, close to Tisa in north west.

The Magyars, Hungarians, settle for Transylvania

The Vlachs in Transylvania, ruled by Gelou, holding their capital at Dăbâca (today Cluj County), lost the battle against the invading Magyars. But the Hungarians who settled in Transylvania were not numerous, and they needed reinforcements, and urgent, to keep the local Vlachs at bay. It took an entire European conjecture, the Crusades, the great ideal of Christendom and an increase in western population until the request of King Geza II of Hungary was fulfilled and priests, peasants and horsemen immigrated to Transylvania, Ţara Barsei and Bistrita – for the promise of free land (outside the one already owned by the Hungarian nobility), and no taxes.

The massive, Middle-Ages immigration to Transylvania

The first to arrive in Transylvania were the border-soldiers. They arrived in the Carpathian space soon after the Hungarians settled and were called Szâkely, secui in Romanian. Their role was to stand against the local tribes of Pechenegs and Cumans (the local, Black Cumans still living here for the past 200 years). It might have even been the Cumans who taught the Vallachians the war art of attacking on horse back – and how handy it came, half a century later, to Vlad Tepes during his famous night attack against the Ottomans led by Mehmed II, at Targoviste, June 17, 1462.

The actual process of colonization of Transylvania and Muntenia (later part of Wallachia) started at the end of the 12th century. First to arrive were the German settlers who left their home lands of north-western Germany, close to the Netherlands, as well as Flanders, Cologne, Aachen, Liège, Lorraine, and Luxembourg. As some arrived from the east, from old Saxony (near the North Sea coast of what is now Germany) the German populations of Transylvania was called the Saxons.

This German population was promised a better life in the hope that it will introduce an advanced agriculture, crafts and good business practices, and that it will to set up cities like the German ones, with reinforcements. Of the cities, burgs, established by the Saxons seven will be more significant, hence the name Siebenbürgen (seven citadels, seven burgs) given by the Germans to Transylvania. Between these seven two stand out for us, Brasov and Sibiu, or Kronstadt and Hermannstadt.

But let’s remember that Sibiu was initially a Daco-Roman urbs named Cedonia and in Brasov area were discovered traces of Dacian citadels.

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages, cioban frm Hunedoara, Transylvania, Dacian origin
Romanian words of Dacian origin: this is a shepherd (baci), wearing a mustache above his upper lip (buză), a hat (căciulă), a wide belt (brâu). here are trees (copaci) between him and his hamlet (cătun), a brook (pârâu) too. His sheep will give milk for good cheese (brânză), whey-cheese (urdă) too. His clever dog probably doesn’t ned a collar (zgardă) and it brings the man great joy (bucurie).

The story of Pied Piper of Hamelin or Pan Piper

‘Tis about the children of medieval Hamelin, in Lower Saxony, who were led underground by the (now) legendary Pied Piper only to reemerged thousands of miles to the southeast, in the Carpathian Mountains.

There are a few explanations for this fable, from death by natural causes to emigration.

Life in Transylvania during the Middle-Ages

The Transylvanian settlers led a pretty good life. They were held in high regard by the King of Hungary who considering them guests, even allowing them to exploit his forests and lakes, to hunt and fish for their families, a diversion normally reserved for the King.

The first settlers in Sibiu area were appointed “primi hospites regi”(the first royal guests) in the Royal seal of 1206.

On arrival, the Saxons received land and were allowed to held political gatherings, to choose and pay their own priests, thus keeping up with their culture and traditions, their national image (although this concept will only appear several hundred years later).

The settlers were exempted from paying taxes at local markets and the Transylvanian merchants were exempted from taxes when traveling within the borders of the Hungarian Kingdom too. They led a free life in free cities where there was no notable difference between nobles, bourgeois and artisans – at a time when the feudal tradition was well established in the rest of Europe, as was in other parts of Transylvania and Wallachia.

Worth mentioning s that the Saxon’s tax exemption will cause quite an uphill during the times when Vlad the Impaler ruled Wallachia.

A large number of settlers, considering distances and ways of transport, 3000 (around 500 families) arrived first, mostly lead by the hope of a better life, and Transylvania flourished as a good balance between duties and freedom was in place. For example, the agricultural system practiced was called clacă, meaning voluntary collective work performed by peasants to help each other. Also, when a young couple got married the entire village helped to build their new house.

Only if Transylvania joined the Hungarian Kingdom in war were the Saxons ordered to supply 500 soldiers, and in case of an external war 100 armed men, but if the King was not personally participating in the campaign only 50 men. And only 500 silver marks per year were paid to the King of Hungary by all the Transylvanian lands occupied by Saxons.

The first mention of a Voivode of Transylvania is that of Mercurius, a most distinguished Hungarian nobleman who reigned rather shortly, between 1111 and 1113.

During the Second and the Third Crusade more settlers arrived in Transylvania, in search of safety.

In 1190 the Hungarian King Ladislaus build a church in Hermannstadt, Sibiu, thus the city was mentioned for the first time in an official document, and signed by Pope Celestine III. Soon after, a prior and 12 monks arrived from Pontigny, France, at the request of the wife of King Béla III, Agnes of Antioch, and founded Igriş monastery (Egresch – today Arad) near the river Mureş.

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages, Sibiu
Sibiu today

When Emperor Heinrich VI called for yet another crusade in 1195, he raised the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem to the rank of knighthood: Teutonic Order. These Teutonic Knights settled in Transylvania in 1211 and built five fortresses such as Feldioara and Cisnădioara.

Finally, when the Roman Empire fell during the Fourth Crusade in April 1204, together with Constantinople, and the “Latini” settled in Constantinople, a nasty drift appeared between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Great Schism. Over in the Romanian medieval lands Transylvania embraces the Gothic civilization and Catholicism, while Wallachia and Moldavia maintained their Byzantine tradition.

It is during the Third, Fourth and Fifth Crusades that a movement of people and goods to overseas territories, East, is created, either by sea, but also via land, on Transylvanian routes. This way, more traders and crusaders chose to remain on site, in Transylvania, as well as to keep trading with their land of origin as the previous settlers were already doing.

In 1222, the Bulla Aurea of King Andrew II guaranteed the privileges of the Hungarian nobility. Those of the Saxons were secured in 1224 by the Diploma Andreanum. The success of the Flandrenses encouraged the arrival of new settlers and in 1292, the first hospital in a church-asylum (Franciscan) at Hermannstadt, Sibiu, was opened.

In 1241 we find the name Transylvania mentioned again, and identified with “Septem urbicum” after the seven fortified towns of the region. For sure, the trading routes of the Balkans were strongly linked to those of the Faith, and each time a crusade took place, more peasants and tradesmen traveled through and chose to settle in Transylvania and Wallachia, where life flourished and there was – still – peace.

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages, Medieval-Europe-deforestation
Medieval Europe – deforestation

At the end of the 13th century four nations were part of the General Assembly of Transylvania: the Hungarian nobility, the Saxons, the Szecklers (Secui) and the Vlachs although the Secui and the Vlachs had only minor privileges.

The threat of the Mongol Empire

About the same time the threat of the Mongol Empire under Genghis-Han was on the rise from Asia, conquering China and heading East until it reached the eastern parts of Russia. So much so that in 1241 the Mongols advanced in the north of Transylvania and engaged in a fight with the Saxons settled near the Rodna mines. The Mongols even defeated the Hungarian King’s army (King Bela), but retreated suddenly in 1242 when the Great Han died.

However, the Mongols will not withdraw completely from Europe, but establish a state in southeastern Russia on the Lower Volga River, known as the Golden Horde, keeping the Russian principalities as vassals for over 200 years. After assimilating the Cuman population settled here, on the northern shore of the Black Sea, they will be known as Tatar Mongols and will represent a permanent danger especially to Transylvania, Oltenia and Muntenia (the last two will unite in 1330 to form Wallachia). Even from the first decades of the 14th century, we find that the Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian political formations were in relation of vassality towards these Tartar Mongols.

Banat Severin, Great Wallachia, Kingdom Hungary, Byzantine Empire, Mongol Empire 13th century
Banat Severin, Great Wallachia, Kingdom Hungary, Byzantine Empire, Mongol Empire 13th century

About the same time, in 1247, King Bela IV of Hungary and Duke of Transylvania planed an active expansion over the Carpathians, towards the south-west. His plan was to increase the fortifications and setup a defense alliance against the Bulgarian Empire in the event of a second Tatar-Mongol invasion and to rebuild his devastated country. For this reason he allowed the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, the Knights Hospitaller, to settle on the newly formed border province, on Banat of Severin, or “Land of Severin” – in the mountainous regions between the Danube and the Jiu Rivers. At the same time the Principalities (Knezdoms, Cnezat, from the Slavonic Knyaz or knez meaning prince, duke or count) of  Ioan (on the lower course of Olt River) and of Farcaş  (higher, in the Sub-Carpathian area of Oltenia), the Voivodeships of Litovoi (on the middle and lower course of Jiu River) and of Seneslau (on the left-hand side of Olt River), extending in the mountainous and hilly regions of western Wallachia, also developed (let’s keep in mind that these have been established around the 9th century).

Note that the Lands of Litovoi, Farcas and Seneslau held territories north on Carpathians (in Transylvania), and south.

Romanian provinces XIII century, Cnezatul lui Ioan, Cnezatul lui Farcas, Voievodatul lui Litovoi, Voievodatul lui  Seneslau, Banatul Severinului
Part of the Romanian provinces south of Transylvania during the XIII century,

Only a century later, Clara, the daughter of Ion (lanoş in Hungarian), ban of Severin, marries Alexandru-Nicolae, Voievode of Wallachia (and son of Voievod Basarab I and of Lady Margareta). This was another way for Hungarian rulers to set a foot in Wallachia, and for Pope to spread Catholicism in an Orthodox country. And it didn’t stop here, Lady Clara made it her life’s purpose to convince her step-son, Vladislav Voiedod, if she couldn’t influence her husband, to bring a Catholic episcope in Wallachia, to convert the orthodox Vlach population, Vladislav Voievod included. But Vladislav held his ground, and he even built at Severin, on the border with Transylvania so with the Hungarian Kingdom, an Orthodox church.

Let’s not forget that the Knights of St.John were dressed in an armor weighing as much as themselves, riding the heaviest horses in Europe, who were also covered in armor, each knight being accompanied by ten squires. They arrived preceded by a reputation of skilled builders- and this was the reason why they were invited to settle here. On one condition, to not allow any Vlachs migrating from Transylvania to settle in Banat.

Around the middle of the 14th century, 1366, back in Transylvania the Vlachs’ lifestyle deteriorated as they were excluded from the congregations of the Diet for religious reasons related to the Schism. The Hungarians Kings, vassals of the Pope and therefore Catholics, made it their personal crusade to eliminate the Orthodox Vlachs from their kingdom, although they lived on Romanian land. In less than a century the Romanian Vlach nobility living in Transylvania was reduced to the status of a peasant. Without being under the protection of the King of Hungary they were often hunted and expropriated unless they became Hungarians and converted to Catholicism. The vast majority of Orthodox Vlach peasants soon became serfs, iobagi, tied to the feudal land without the right to self-governance as the other three nations living in Transylvania could.

The way to keep your land and status was by converting to Catholicism and adopting the Hungarian lifestyle and even build family ties with the Magyar nobility. For example, the family of Iancu de Hunedoara, Hunyadi, and even 1387-1456 Voivode of Transylvania, chose to become Hungarian. His son, Matthias Corvinus, Matei Corvin, was able to become King of Hungary.

Stories and History of Transylvania, the Middle Ages

The Land of Severin, placed between the Lower Danube and the Olt River (around the city of Turnu-Severin on the map above, between the territories in mustard and green), was previously populated but countless battles between the Hungarian and Bulgarian kingdoms have forced part of the local population to flee, probably eastward, towards the (then) rich valleys and forested planes of Oltenia and Muntenia, as well as drawn towards the trade at Danube and the Black Sea.

Under the Knights Hospitallers the Land of Severin received a bishop and became a kenezatus (almost a state of its own) ruled by two rulers, cneji, Ioan and Farcaş (a Hungarian translation of Romanian Lupu, wolf), both brought from the north, from Banat (a Romanian territory west of Transylvania and under Hungarian sovereignty). But these administrative structures had their own Romanian organization, and the vassalage relations to the Hungarian Crown did not influence the full right of the Romanian states to their own domestic organization.

The first ruler of Oltenia (later part of Wallachia) held territory in Transylvania too

It is of outermost importance that I mention now the very first ruler of Oltenia, a Romanian Land and territory between the Olt river and the Danube, Litovoi Voievode.

The Diploma of the Joannites even mentions the land of the kenazate of Voivode Litovoi, which the king left to the Vlachs “as they had held it”, and not granted to the Knights Hospitaller. The small print, though, stated that he had to pay tribute to the Hungarian Crown during 25 years, 1247-1272.

At the same time in neighboring Muntenia (Ţara Românească, Terra Blacorum) ruled Voievode Seneslau.

Both Litovoi and Seneslau looked at the promises made by the Hungarian King, that of protection against the Tatar invasions IF only they convert to Catholicism. But they also noticed how weak the Hungarian defense was. So they thought, and thought, and decided that united – and keeping their Christian beliefs -they stood a better chance against the Tatar invasion.

Between 1277 – 1280 Litovoi ruled over land on each side of the Carpathians, namely Retezat Mountains, (including Hațeg Country in Transylvania and the area that is today Oltenia) but was at war with the Hungarians over land that the Crown wanted for itself. Voievode Litovoi fell in a trap and perished in battle.

He was succeeded by his brother, named Bărbat, meaning man in Romanian. Bărbat‘s son in law was Tihomir who held both territories, left and right of Olr River, until 1310, while in 1301 the Arpad dinasty perished with the death of Andrew III. It was a marriage union between Tihomir’s son, Basarab, and countess Margareta (Marghita) that brings to the Romanian territories two lands from Transilvania, Făgăraş amd Almaş.

In 1310 all the Vlach boyars as well as those from Ardeal, chose Basarab I as their ruler, thus founding Wallachia, and sealed through the Battle of Posada in November 1330. Although legend says that it was Radu the Black in 1290… Around 1290 legendary Negru Vodă, Radu the Black, arrived from Făgăraş County and settled in Câmpulung, while his successors moved over to Argeş, from where they extended their authority all the way to Danube. The dynasty thus established had a highland origin, from the mountain (munte). It is from this “Muntenian” origin of the dynasty that the name of Muntenia probably derived, traditionally given to the whole country – a country dominated by plains.

Transylvania under the Mongol and Turkish threat of the Middle Ages

In Transylvania, the city of Sibiu (Hermannsdorf, Hermannstadt) increased its fortifications especially after the 13th century Mongol invasion of Europe. This was possible as the trade of local artisans, mainly Saxons trading in clothing and tools, flourished but all the 19 guilds thrived and this afforded the city to increase its defense system. Soon Sibiu became the most important ethnic German city among the seven cities of Transylvania.

Wallachia, 1390
Wallachia, 1390

But the flourishing period of Sibiu will soon be overshadowed by the Mongol and the Turkish threats, especially the Turks in 1394, 1432, 1437, 1438, 1442. As a result Sibiu became a defendant outpost of Christendom. In 1438 Sultan Murad II, the predecessor and father of Mehmed II the Conqueror, led an unsuccessful siege on Sibiu and again in 1442 when Sibiu was aided in his defense by the army of Iancu de Hunedoara.

Transylvania and Wallachia under the threat of the Ottoman Empire

The Hungarian King between 1387-1437, King Sigismund of Luxembourg, spent a great amount of time in Transylvania, especially in Hermannstadt, Sibiu, and Kronstadt, Braşov, where he improved the cities’ defenses against this new threat, the Turks.

Sadly, the East–West Schism between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches proved once again what strength the ecclesiastics held during the Middle Ages, for it influenced and sabotaged the communication between the Lords of the West and the old Byzantine Voyevodes – such as Vlad the Impaler.

After the defeat of the Western armies by the Ottomans led by Bayezid I (father of Mehmed I) in the Battle of Nicopolis (25 September 1396), the Crusaders (comprising of Hungarian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Wallachian, French, German, Burgundian, Italian, Portuguese, and Polish troops) were pretty much left on their own, the West powers giving up to the idea of yet another Crusade. This decision left the Wallachian and Moldavian princes to resist on their own against future Ottoman invasions.

It was now that King Sigismund of Luxembourg created the Order of the Dragon, in 1408, and one of its eminent members, Wallachian prince Vlad Dracul (father of Vlad Tepeș, Dracula), got caught in the conflict between Hungary, Poland and the onset of Ottomans in Europe that isolated Transylvania – sealing the lives of many.

Saving not only his own people, his beloved Vlachs, but also the Hungarian and the Polish Kingdoms, and further westwards the other European lands, in 1462 Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, defeated the invading Ottoman troops under Sultan Mehmed II, sending them fleeing southward during the famous Night Attack at Targoviste.

Dracula, as he was nicknames, meaning Son of the Dragon, is still regarded in his homeland as a champion of Christianity.

War threats or not, trade flourished between the three principalities, especially Transylvania and Moldova, although Wallachia, in the south, held the trade monopoly at Danube and the Black Sea. A flourishing trade meant strong defenses built around the cities as well as moats and towers, and fortified churches with rooms for provisions (the harvest was stored there immediately, for sage-keeping), livestock and refuge. In case of a Turkish attack, even if the wooden and thatched farms were burned down all that was kept within these stone walls was safe.

Such is the St. Mihail fortified Church of Cisnădioara / Michelsberg built as a Roman basilica at the end of the 12th century, and fortified a century later.

Fortified 12 century church „Sf. Mihail" Cisnădioara, Sibiu
Fortified 12 century church „Sf. Mihail” Cisnădioara, Sibiu

And where fortifications were not enough, tunnels and underground chambers for food storage or as escape routes were built, such as the ones still present underneath Brasov.

Before its fall in 1453 the great Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was already paying tribute to the Turks. After it fell and Orthodox Greece fell into Ottoman hands Islam moved in front of Christendom and began advancing towards the south-east Europe, towards the great Catholic powers in the west.

The threat lasted until the late-14th and early-15th centuries when new crusades were finally organized by the kingdoms of Hungary (Transylvania included), Poland, Wallachia, and Serbia. These were defensive campaigns intended to prevent further expansion to the west of the Ottoman Empire rather than the traditional expeditions aimed at the recovery of Jerusalem.

One more idea need be explained here, that unlike the west of Europe in the Balkans an ethnic group’s consciousness and main loyalty was to their immediate habitat, be it the clan, the village, the principality, their side of mountain or valley. And, yes, a national concept was found here during the Middle Ages, although such an ideology was only expanded on in Western Europe during the early nineteenth century.

Have you read…

Stories and History of Transylvania, Prehistory to Roman Dacia ?

Transylvania during the Roman Dacia and until 4th century AD ?

Transylvania, Romania, Its Origin and Etymology ?

As part of my ongoing research for my next novel, the culture in medieval Transylvania will have to be a blog post on its own, coming soon.

Books by Patricia Furstenberg on Amazon

Travel Through Doors, Best of 2020

thursday doors, travel to Romania

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:

Beth Israel Synagogue in Brasov and the story of a door...
Beth Israel Synagogue in Brasov

The Village Museum of Bucharest was next, with its carved wooden doors. We looked at a few and also at what their carved symbols mean:

Village Museum Bucharest, wood carvings, symbols and meaning
Village Museum Bucharest: a wood structure brought here all the way from the north of Romania, from Breaza, from a hamlet situated at a height of 1 200m together with an entire household that belonged to a family of huțulii (huțanii, hutsuls), an ethnic group living in the very NW of Romania with Dacians origins…

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:

Corvin Castle, Romania, 500 years old door original
Corvin Castle, Romania, a 500 years old door

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 knockingfind it all here. And we returned in a second visit here.

And on we went to travel through doors with a guessing game! Bucharest or Paris?

guessing game, Bucharest or Paris?
guessing game, Bucharest or Paris?

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:

Paraclisul Manastirii Snagov and its full story
Paraclisul Manastirii Snagov and its full story

Snagov Monastery has seen a long an troubled past. Monks settled on Snagov Island, this snake shaped lake, during the times of Mircea the Elder, Mircea cel Batran, Vlad Dracula’s paternal grandfather and ruler of Wallachia during the 14th century.

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:

Brancoveanu Monastery in Transylvania, built by a Wallachian Prince
Brancoveanu Monastery in Transylvania, built by a Wallachian Prince

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:

Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, symbol of medieval violence
Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle, 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:

carnations on a balcony, Bran Castle history, Thursday Doors
A romantic corner at Bran Castle- a secondary entrance from the Inner Bailey, a stone column and red carnations.

It was only fit to travel to a snowy place around the day of Saint Nicholas, December 6th, and we did so through a short story about Saint Nick and the meaning of the first snow in Sighisoara:

Sighisoara, the church on the hill and the meaning of the first snow and Saint Nicholas
Sighisoara, the church on the hill and the meaning of the first snow on Saint Nicholas

We said good bye and so long to 2020 with A Winter Story for Thursday Doors:

Sighisoara, face in door, Thursday doors
Sighisoara, a face in z door, for Thursday doors

Lastly, my suggestion for a Thursday Doors badge:

Thursday Doors - Around the World
Thursday Doors – Around the World

First Snow and Saint Nicholas for Thursday Doors

First Snow and Saint Nicholas for Thursday Doors, a short story

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.

A medieval door to the Church on the Hill in Sighisoara
A medieval door to the Church on the Hill in Sighisoara

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.

A medieval Thursday Door – The Church from Hill Cemetery, Sighisoara

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.

Medieval Sighisoara in winter - Imagine 164 houses and thirteen public buildings up on a hill, within the protective walls of a fortress. Tall or short, stone or wood, depending on the wealth of their owners, the houses have one floor, some two. But not more.
Medieval Sighisoara in winter – Imagine nearly 200 houses within the protective walls of a fortress. Tall or short, stone or wood, the houses have one floor, some two. But not more.

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.

Thursday Doors - Sighisoara in winter
Sighisoara in winter

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.

Thursday Doors - Sighisoara in winter

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.

Copyright © Patricia Furstenberg. All Rights Reserved.

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.

***

🙂 For Dan’s Thursday Doors blog feature over at No Facilities– do visit and participate by creating your own blog post celebrating a world of doors. 🙂

I’ll leave you with a face in a door:

Sighisoara, Faces in Doors, Thursday Doors

Why You Must Have Transylvania on Your Holiday Destinations List

why you must have Transylvania on your holiday list

Watching over Romania, coming from eternity and traveling into history, echoing of a famous past, Transylvania belongs on any holiday destination list, be it that of a family, of a solitary traveler, or of an adventurous historian buff. National Geographic said it, and here’s exactly why you must visit Transylvania.

Why You Must Have Transylvania on Your Holiday Destinations List

Where should one start when visiting Transylvania? With its medieval cities? Its spectacular fortresses and enchanting castles? Its white or black churches? In search of Dracula, or better Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler? Admiring local art and folklore, perhaps? Or better getting lost in its secular forests? Find it the stories here, on my blog.

Cities of Transylvania for your Holiday List

Put Brașov on your holiday list

One would say, begin with the charming Brașov, an 800 years old city that will bewitch you with the charm of its eclectic architecture, its narrow, winding streets, and the picturesque surroundings that spiral all the way to the top of Tâmpa Mountain.

If you’re not feeling sporty, just let your feet wonder around its maze of streets and admire centuries old doors or slowly climb up to Șcheii Brașovului and learn its history, which began during the 14th century when the Black Church of Brașov started.

Why You Must Have Transylvania on Your Holiday Destinations List, Brasov, Scheii

There is so much to take in while in Brașov. Do remember to look up.

Why You Must Have Transylvania on Your Holiday Destinations List, Brasov, Strada Sforii, Rope Street
Looking up in Brasov, on the very narrow and ancient Rope Street, Strada Sforii

Medieval Sighișoara, a city from Transylvania that you must visit each season

If you journey through Transylvania, ‘the land across the forest’, (searching for Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula) and head towards Brasov along the banks of the Big Tarnava River, you will surely spot from quite afar the pointy towers of medieval Sighisoara City, with its centuries old fortress and churches. We traveled there by train one winter.

Once in Sighișoara you simply cannot miss it, the Clock Tower will be the first to welcome you on your journey.

Yes, visiting the house where Vlad the Impaler was born (and discovering its secret entrance) will be next on your list. But there is so much more to medieval Sighișoara, such as the medieval horns adorning one of Sighisoara’s oldest houses, or climbing a medieval staircase to Sighisoara’s hill for more amazing winter scenes and photos.

The significance of Sighisoara City? Discover it beyond its gray rampant walls shadowed by a tumultuous history, by remembering its Saxon merchants and shepherds, as well as its prominent, Draculesti leaders (Vlad the Impaler and his father before him. A journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara is sure to unravel the fortress’ high status. To it contributed its ideal location, at crossroad between Moldavia and Wallachia, and East and Western Europe.

Castles, Fortresses, and Churches of Transylvania that You simply Must See

Făgăraş Castle, Transylvania

In the vicinity of Brașov lies the rocky walls of Făgăraş Castle. The initial fortification was raised with the secular fir trees from its adjacent forests, going back to 12th century. Within its walls, rocking the modern perceptions of the Middle Ages, is the Iron Maiden of Făgăraş Castle.

Engraving of the Făgăraș Citadel by Ludwig Rohbock (~1883)

Did you know that traditionally, the duchies of Almaș and Făgăraş were fiefs of Wallachian prince. Yet John Hunyadi, appointed the 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 Almaș to the citizens of Sibiu and kept Făgăraş for himself. And he knew exactly why.

Brâncoveanu Monastery at Sâmbăta de Sus, a must see in Transylvania

Allow your mind be transported in a time of peace and tranquility within the pure walls of Brâncoveanu Monastery at Sâmbăta de Sus.

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.

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).

Corvin Castle, Hunyadi Castle or Hunedoara Castle, Transylvania

If you ever wondered how a 15th century wooden door that survived four massive fires that engulfed almost everything else looks like, then you must set a day aside to visit Corvin Castle.

If you like jambs, recesses, and coat of arms, then you will love Corvin Castle and as soon as you will leave you will find yourself planning a return visit. Built over a few hundred years, with so many ups and downs stairs that it is a 3D giant maze, one will surely admire here Gothic stone door frames of the original fortress.

Watching over Romania, coming from eternity, echoing of a famous past, Transylvania belongs on any holiday destination list. Here is why.

To visit Corvin Castle we traveled by train from Bucharest to Brasov for a night over and allowed an entire day only to visit Corvin Castle. We couldn’t have done it without the amazing support and advise of Mr Cornel and Mrs Cristina, the owners of Guesthouse Casa Cristina in Brasov, always welcoming, offering the same top accommodation and a hearty breakfast for the past ten years that we’ve been visiting them (this endorsement is not backed by any financial gain).

Did you know that Corvin Castle was featured in numerous movies?

Folktales and Art of Transylvania to take in during your holiday

It is said in local folktales ~ whispered on moonlit nights ~ that if you glance straight into its shimmering rivers, and long enough that their brightness still flashing behind your closed eyelids, then the fairies, or charmstresses, ielele, as they are known in the sweet Romanian language, have put a spell on you. Watch out, for they might lure you into Transylvania’s millennial and magical forests.

‘Blessed, alluring IELELE,
Mistresses of breeze,
Ladies of the earth and mist,
Through the air you rise,
On the grass you slide,
And on waves you glide.’

Translated from Romanian folklore by Patricia Furstenberg

Wood carving in Transylvania, as everywhere in Romania, often tells a story before becoming art. Worth mentioning is the Folk-Art ~ Romanian Symbols: when carving in wood, the Romanian folk artists puts a lot of thought. Each carving tells a story, some symbols are for protection, others to remember them of the families left behind:

A cross is for protection.
A cross in a circle symbolizes God.
A circle is for eternity, a dot for perfection.
A diamond represents the woman.

Visit Transylvania online, from the safety of your armchair, right now

You can travel to Romania and Transylvania right now via amazing photos because Romania is a country that deserves to be seen. Not many know, but its brave people have watched over the central and western Europe for centuries, acting like a breathing barrier against the Ottoman and Russian powers. Come on over.

Time stands still in Romania. Embrace it, for Transylvania has been known from Prehistory and all the way to Roman Dacia ~ do take kindly to it.

See the kneeling of the twilight,
Hear the hesitation of a footstep at dawn,
Admire old landscapes,
Growing young with the joy they give.
A light that calls
Through history,
Stories that perpetuate,
For each one of us
Is a facet of their reflection.

© Patricia Furstenberg

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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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