Without the great courage and patriotism of Mircea the Elder, grandfather to Vlad the Impaler, ‘Vlad Dracul‘, Vlad Draculea in Romanian or Dracula the nickname may not have existed.
Sometimes history whispers, and the tales it tells are worth listening to and passing on.
It was in 1395 on this day, March 7, when Mircea the Elder, or Mircea I of Walachia, (Mircea cel Batran in Romanian) signed a coalition treaty with Holy Roman Emperor Sigmund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary and Croatia, king of Germany from 1411, king of Bohemia from 1419 and king of Italy from 1431. The treaty was signed in the beautiful city of Brasov (then Kronstadt) and initiated a military coalition against the Ottoman Empire.
Historical conjunctures during the 14th century Europe
Try to conjure your knowledge of Medieval Europe. Around the 14th century, when The Black Death claimed million of lives, when the Kingdoms of England and France were tormented by the Hundred Years’ War, but also when chivalry was reaching its peak and knights rode in shinning armors, ready to die for an ideal.
At the very same time, Eastern Europe was facing the Ottoman Empire’s increase in power. And the one land that stood in the way of the Turkish countless invasions, fighting them off and acting as a buffer for the Western Europe was Romania, back then still split into Walachia (Tara Romaneasca), Moldavia and Transylvania (incorporated in Hungary, later Holy Roman Empire).
It was imperative for King Sigismund to strike a military alliance with the rulers of Wallachia, Mircea I at that time, if he wanted to keep his empire intact. Don’t you think so? Good planning…
Sigismund of Luxembourg and the Order of the Dragon
Inspired by the military orders of the Crusades , the Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum, Society of the Dragonists) was a monarchical chivalry founded in 1408 by King Sigismund of Luxembourg. Its members were expected to defend Christianity against all enemies, especially the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the order was awarded only to few selected members of the nobility.
One such exemplary warrior was Vlad II, the second son of Mircea the Elder. King Sigismund of Luxembourg held Vlad II in highest regard and awarded him the Order of the Dragon on the 8th of February 1431 in Nuremberg for ultimate services in the gruesome fight against the Ottoman Empire.
Vlad II was later known as Vlad Dracul II, Prince of Wallachia, as in Romanian language dragon had close connotations and resonance with dracul, the Romanian word for devil.
Mircea the Elder was Prince of Wallachia from 1386 until his death in 1418.
Vlad II, his son, was Prince of Wallachia from 1436 to 1442 and again from 1443 to 1447.
Vlad III Dracula, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, born in 1431 in Sighisoara (some sources state 1429), was the middle son of Vlad Dracul II and grandson of Mircea the Elder (from the Basarab Dynasty).
History whispers to us today. Mircea the Elder, through his military campaigns and political ties with King Sigismund of Luxembourg, paved the road for Vlad II to join the military coalition against the Ottoman Empire (did he even had a say?) and be awarded the Order of the Dragon later inherited by Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, and the nickname the Dragon, Dracul, was passed on.
Perhaps without Mircea the Elder we would not have Dracula, Vlad Dracul, after all…
Welcome to our journey through medieval Sighisoara as we discovered it not so long ago. So far we climbed the Clock Tower and visited the house where Vlad the Impaler was born. Let’s explore some more and see what are these medieval horns adorning one of Sighisoara’s oldest houses, as well as climb a medieval staircase to Sighisoara’s hill for more amazing winter scenes and photos.
The City Square, once the center of medieval life
The City Square, within easy reach, is a must-see. All around there are the houses that once belonged to the noblest families of Sighisoara.
During medieval times, City Square was the place in Sighisoara. Food markets as well as public trials took place here.
Also, the pillar of infamy rose here as well, where public hangings took place. And if you were part of the city’s nobility you could witness the executions seated at your dining table, not mingling with the peasants in the square.
The Stag House
The Stag House showcases an authentic late renaissance – early baroque architecture as well as authentic stag antlers.
The Staircase Way, Strada Scarii, is the way towards the medieval staircase of Sighisoara, for great views and amazing photos
Turn left at the Stag House and you will see a stone-paved street winding towards what looks like a covered entrance. Dare you go in?
The Scholar’s Stairs
The Scholar’s Stairs are 175 covered steps leading to the School on the Hill and the Church Hill. Built during the 17th century, the stairs protected the school-going children during long winters.
“Scara acoperita construita in anul 1642” = the covered stairs, built in 1642:
Finalized in 1619, the first and smallest building of the School on the Hill went by the name of New School, Naye Schull. It was only in 1793 when the main school building finally rose.
This medieval staircase of Sighisoara was one of my favorite places to visit and take photos of. I imagine it holds a multitude of stories, spanning centuries.
The Church on the Hill
The Church on the Hill, devoted to Saint Nicholas, is a symbol for Sighisoara’s history, being the most iconic landmark of the town and one of its most valuable architectural building. It ranks third in size between all the Gothic churches in Transylvania, the biggest Gothic church in Transylvania and the whole of Romania being the Black Church in Brasov.
Historians have discovered that the church, built in 1345, was raised on top of a Roman chapel dating back to 1200. Here, on this hill, was the safe place where the people who lived in this area before the Saxons’ arrival would have gathered in case of invasions.
The church’s bell tower would have been the tallest building, most probably used as a sighting spot.
The Church on the Hill as we know it today was first mentioned in 1345 in a letter stating that the people of Sighisoara were loyal to King Ludovic 1st and have built a church dedicated to Saint Nicholas.
Yet the church that first used to stand here was later turned into a crypt.
Behind the Church on the Hill is the Evangelic Cemetery on the Hill.
Here, trees as old as the fortress itself guard the tombstones of some of the first Saxons settlers. Their headstones carry the inscription of their name as well as that of their occupation.
In a secluded area, lined up as for parade, are the graves of a handful of local soldiers.
In their youth, they probably attempted climbing the fortress’ walls or its towers and chased up the School’s stairs in the last minutes before the bell rang. Until the Great War started and they went to fight, to defend their country, not knowing that the last time they will see their native Sighisoara will be from the top of the hill, during their endless sleep.
“Den toten Gelded. Jedes Heldengrab ist heilige Erde. Alle storben dass uns Friededn werden” ~ “To the dead soldier. Each hero’s grave is holy ground. They died so that we have peace.”
The Monastery Church
Across the Clock Tower is the 15th-century monastery church with its tombstones, a Gothic-style holly place renowned for its sculpted altar. During the 14th century here was a monastery for Dominican monks and near it a convent for Franciscan nuns.
Inside the Monastery Church 35 old oriental carpets were discovered – proof that Sighisoara had economic ties with Persia.
The monastery was first mentioned in 1298 in a document signed by Pope Boniface the 8th. In the place where once the convents stood, now rises a Roman-Catholic church.
Lower City: Romano-Catholic Church Saint Iosif
This beautiful church was raised at the end of the 19th century in the place of a medieval convent for the Franciscan nuns.
For a true journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara try to attend the Medieval Festival of arts and theater – during August.
More spectacular views of our journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara
Today, over 200 people still live in the medieval citadel of Sighisoara.
I am sure that, in the midst of winter, this street makes a perfect sleigh slide:
The significance of Sighisoara City
Searching beyond its gray rampant walls shadowed by a tumultuous history, and 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 this contributed its perfect location, at important crossroads between the roads connecting Moldavia with Wallachia, and Transylvania with Western Europe.
Although they did not leave their mark on the fortress’ walls, during the Late Middle Ages 95 students from Sighisoara went to study abroad, in Viena and Cracovia, spreading the fame of this fortress. The two evangelic churches, the Monastery Church and the Church on the Hill, also showcase proof of the rich cultural center that Sighisoara became during and after the 16th century. Painters, sculptors, woodworkers, masons, and organ builders arrived here from Salzburg or Tirol to work alongside the local baroque sculptor Elias Nicolai, as local architecture and even gravestones still stand proof. General Melas of the Austrian army, who defended Napoleon Bonaparte at Marengo was born near Sighisoara.
The Orthodox Cathedral
Located across Tarnava Mare River, in the ew, Lower City, is the Orthodox Cathedral I must include. Look at its perfection, unlike a snowy castle reflected by icy waters, it is a place of emotional warmth and rich traditions.
I hope you enjoyed our journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara, looking at strange horns on buildings, at a dark staircase and snapping some great photos in between. Its history spills into the present in an enchanting way, and this is a place to visit more than once, a town that reveals more secrets with each trip.
They blamed it on the March wind, curious and playful, throwing off the girls’ scarfs so tightly wrapped all winter long, deceitful in its scented games, innocent in appearance, a trickster of a djinn. The red mark left on the maidens’ cheeks by the spring wind was a sure tell-tale. Some older women got it too. And there was not cure, known or unknown.
What was there to do? No one liked a blotchy face when the birds sang again of life and love and the flowers bloomed and your heart went mad with joy once more. Someone must have gotten the idea from an old tale or a word lost in a whisper, over the fire.
Some legends say that the red-white thread was first spun by Old Dokia,Baba Dochia, as she took her sheep grazing up the mountain.
But who really cares where a cure originated when it works? It started in the valley, I believe, and it spread like gossip to the forest and up the mountains and even to the land over the forest and even further away…
And girls and older women together began to tie a red silky string around their neck. Thin enough to go unnoticed, yet strong to do the trick. To protect their smooth, white skin freshly sprung from a long winter against the March breeze, called the martisor. And it worked.
And soon boys used it too. Girls and boys were gifted with this special thread on the 1st of March, before the sun showed its face up on the sky. Soon they started to wear where it showed . For it had a red thread too, to protect their milky skin and sparkly eyes against the evil-eye.
The two threads twisted together, red and white or red and black, symbolized the unity of opposing forces: summer-winter, heat-cold, fertility-barrenness, light-dark.
Or so the story of the 1st of March, Martisor, says.
They were wearing it, maiden and wives, lasses and ladies, boys too, pinned to their chest, above the heart or around their wrists. A thread of white and red twisted together and tied in a bow. They would wear it from the 1st of March till the day they knew that Spring had won its battle against Winter: when the cuckoo sang again and the cherries bloomed, when the storks returned to their old nests and the swallows showed their fine tails in spirited flight again. When the snowdrops peaked from underneath the snow.
Then… they would tie the Martisor thread to a white rose or a blossomed tree, bearer of fruit, for good luck. The brave one would even throw it towards the directions where the migrating birds arrived from, whispering: “take my dark days and bring me bright ones.”
Later, some attached a silver coin to the silky white-red thread as a gift. Those who could afford such. The coin symbolized the sun and the Martisor became a symbol of light and of fire. With the silver coin they would buy red wine, bread and fresh, soft, white cheese so that the girls who wore the silky thread would keep their ivory skin and have beautiful cheeks as red as wine.
Why the 1st of March? 1 Martie?
You see, the Geto-Dacian tribes who inhabited during the 4th century BC the territory we now today as Romania, celebrated the New Year on the 1st of March. Their calendar had only two seasons, winter and summer. The Martisor was therefore offered for good luck on the first day of the New Year, together with heartfelt wishes for health, happiness and love.
As are my wishes to you… La Multi Ani de Martisor!
PS. Here is my childhood collection of “Martisoare”. In Romania, we would offer them to friends on the 1st of March. Not all were made of glass. They can be fashioned out of anything.
Rafik is the youngest character of Silent Heroes, a brave boy of about eight years of age with a big heart. He is an Afghan boy who takes a physical journey, but one of self-discovery and growth as well. Rafik is like any other civilian caught in a war zone. He is uprooted from his home village and what he does, traveling on a mission, is out of an instinct of self-preservation and desire to help.
Have you followed his journey so far? After arriving as an emergency at the medical facility of Camp Bastion Rafik ends up in the desert…
Away from his friends and their worry-free childhood.
At his mother’s desperate request, Rafik leaves the false safety of his village behind yet his plans spin out of control and he ends up at Camp Bastion, later named Camp Shorabak, an international military camp in Afghanistan with a state the art medical facility.
Rafik should have only went from his home village of Nauzad to the hamlet nearby. Yet he is now further south, near Lashkar Gah city and fortress. The fortress is on the banks on the Helmand River, hidden from direct view by a hill. Lashkar Gah has a rich history behind it, once was even the winter capital of the Ghaznavidi Empire. It belonged to the same Turkish dynasty that conquered Afghanistan a thousand years back, bringing Islam along.
Along these brown, rocky hills live farmers who breed sheep and camels, but Rafik meets none.
And he runs again… a little boy on a mission. I cannot hold his hand, he has to do it all on his own.
“A sense of foreboding took over him and his eyes shot open with a will of their own. A pair of grubby feet in dusty, old sandals and the edge of a filthy shalwar kameez appeared in his eye field as a menacing hand grabbed hold of his shirt collar, throwing him aside.”
Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg
Run, Rafik! Run!
“The boy stopped dead after rushing through the last row of doors, blinded and dazed by the bright daylight. His eyes hurt, his body overwhelmed by the outside temperature as if he had hit a solid, arid wall of heat and sand. ‘Where am I, where had they gone?’
Behind him, the vacuum noise of the hospital doors sealed the insides in an encased gigantic hangar.
Ahead, past the perimeter fence, the deadly desert. Five flags, barely soaring in the wind, rose to one side. One of them, bright red like his mother’s best dress, displayed a white cross with a snake. Past the five flags, two dark silhouettes were marching in a cloud of dust, heading towards an unkempt gathering of mud-walled compounds that sprouted along a field of opium poppy. Above their heads and heading north, two Harrier jets roar, having just taken off from Camp Bastion’s airfield, their wingtips luminous against the clear sky.”
Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg
And Rafik is gone again. Is he one of the Silent Heroes, soon to get lost in the Afghan desert? Not the right time, as it is the beginning of the long, scorching, and arid Afghan summer. Here, over the course of the year the temperature typically varies from 35°F to 108°F.
“Behind everything and everyone, dragging his feet under the midday sun and with only a gush of wind for a company came Rafik. Now crawling, now running, now letting himself fall to the ground in an attempt to conceal himself, looking more like a desert dog than a human being. For each stride the men took trough the sand, the boy’s wobbly legs took two, yet he pushed on, his eyes on the twin menacing shapes, his attention wrestling an army of questions, his legs moving forward with a mind of their own.
Silent Heroes by Patricia Furstenberg
Where will help come from? What shape will it take?
“As he stood above him, the dog seemed twice as big as the child due to his shaggy mane, thicker around the neck, and his reassured posture. His shoulder blades moved accentuating his strong physique, yet for all that muscle he was as gentle as the moon. In seconds, the boy’s face was covered in slobber, the dog’s sandpaper tongue sliding all over the pale skin, doing a perfect job at cleaning all the dried-out blood.”
Because of their isolation, deserts often symbolize clarity and revelation. Purity too, as they are unspoiled landscapes. Yet the desert is a difficult terrain, threatening, challenging. It is a symbol for challenges, both physical and spiritual. It is a struggle calling onto the traveler’s deepest reserves.
Yet there is no adversity between the spiritual and the physical. Although deserts have been seen as the ultimate purging landscape by hermits, prophets, seers, the ultimate holy ground, it is the spiritual strength they enhance in humans that eventually augments the individual.
Thus deserts, through the personal conflicts they call upon, bring humankind the closest to heavens.
Rafik’s journey through Silent Heroes does not end here, in the Afghan desert, with the mere warm support of a friendly military dog. There is more for this young boy to encounter and survive to before he can call his home a home again. Before he can close his eyes and fall asleep feeling secure in his own bed.
Romanian folklore is a rich source of fairy-tales and traditions filled with wisdom and symbolism and bearing witness to a millennial culture, such as Dragobete, the Romanian version of Valentine’s Day, Ziua Indragostitilor and celebrated not on 14 February, but on 24 February.
Dragobete, origin and signification
A few theories explain the origin of this celebration and the etymology of its name. Some say it derives from “dragubete”=”dragu” (meaning dear, beloved in Romanian) + “-bete” (a Slavonic suffix meaning gathering). Some say it coincides with the Christian celebration of The First Finding of the Honorable Head of Prophet John the Baptist, named in Slavonic Glavo-Obretenia and adopted during the Middle Ages by Romanians under various names, such as Bragobete, later Dragobete. Some see in Dragobete an old Dacian tradition taking place during this specific time of the year, beginning of spring, by using the connection with two Dacian words: ‘trago” (tap, goat) and “pede” (picioare, feet). And the Dacians inherited their legends from the Thracians, Indo-European tribes mentioned as far back as the legends of Iliad and Odyssey, 600 -800 years before the times of Saint Valentine.
Perhaps the best connection with Valentine’s Day is by associating Dragobete with a character from Romanian mythology, patron of love and good cheer. He was the son of Baba Dochia, a figure that marks the return of spring, described as a demigod with special powers, young and good looking, and kind hearted. And with spring comes the renewal of nature and love. This explains why Dragobete is celebrated on this day, as 24 February was considered the beginning of the new agricultural season.
Based on the popular tradition surrounding this specific date in Romania, 24 February, birds and animals all find their mates and build nests, as it is a celebration of fertility and nature’s rebirth. I is said that if girls and boys enjoy a day of jokes and fun together then they will enjoy of a year full of love, for sure. For Dragobete protects love and those who share it on this day.
Dragobete is also a symbol for spring and new beginning, for changing of seasons from winter that we leave behind, to spring, ahead of us, a change from long night to shorter ones and longer days, filled with sunshine.
Romanian folklore presents Dragobete as a handsome young man with hair as black as ebony and eyes as green as the spring leaves, who would play his whistle and make the girls fall for him. He is the one responsible for teaching humankind how to love. As a reward, Virgin Mary turned him into a plant, Navalnic, Impetuous or hart’s-tongue fern. Other folk tales speak of Dragobete as teasing Virgin Mary and making her lose her path in the forest, thus she changed him into the same plant.
Up to today, this plant is said to bring young maidens good luck in love if they wear it tucked in their bosom in a silk bag. Although modern times swapped the plant for a banknote.
Popular tradition speaks of young girls and boys meeting outside the village church and heading for the woods to gather spring flowers. If raspberry flowers were in sight, it was a good sign. They were soon picked while the girls would sing:
“Flower of raspberry, Born in February, Make the whole world like me And take away all that’s beastly”
Romanian country song for Dragobete
Afterwards, the boys and girls light up fires and sit around and talk. At noon, the girls sprint for the village, each followed by a boy the boy who liked her the most. If the boy catches the girl and if she also likes him, they kiss in front of everybody, thus becoming engaged for one year, on Dragobete, by showing their attachment for each other in front of everybody.
I don’t know what happens if two boys chase a girl. But all young adults were urged to take part in this ceremony for, as tradition also says, participating in Dragobete will protect you from any illness during the coming year. I would say enough for any elderly villager…
Want to have luck in love? Here’s what you should do on Dragobete, on 24 February
Wash your hair with snow. Gather fresh, unspoiled snow, melt it and wash your hair and your face to stay beautiful all year round and for the boys to notice you first. The Dragobete snow is said to be perfect for love charms.
Kiss your loved one on Dragobete or at least make sure you get to see the one you fancy and you two will be together forever or at least you will increase your chances of ending up together.
Be merry and joyful on Dragobete day and you will stay like this the entire year.
In some parts of Romania the common belief says that stepping on your partner’s foot on Dragobete will establish your dominance in the relationship. At least during the year ahead.
You can pick or buy crocuses, violets or snowdrops to hang them above the icons in your home – it will keep you young as well as chase away any bad thoughts or envy held against you. These flowers, once dry, can be thrown on a moving water on 24 June, on Sanziene Day (or Dragaica, a night when all magic is possible), to attract all bad luck down the river with them.
Clean your house on Dragobete day for a fruitful year and to guarantee your husband’s love. But, if you are a boy don’t dig or work the ground or Dragobete might punish you because you don’t have fun.
Boys and all men should not tease the girls or be nasty towards them on Dragobete, or they will set themselves for an unlucky spring.
Plant basil so it will grow until Saint George, the day after Easter, when it’s the perfect time to replant it in the garden. The basil planted on Dragobete is perfect for spells, charms, and cures, for it is said it hold special powers. Besides, the Dragobete basil is the one girls can use in various rituals throughput the year to help them foresee their chosen one.
Try to spot a hoopoe on Dragobete and you will have good luck all year. But if you spot a pair of birds, you will have good luck in love.
If you drink cherry tea on Dragobete you will know love all year round.
A Dragobete spell from Ardeal region of Romania:
Old women would go in the forest to pick hart’s-tongue fern. Before they pull it from the ground they whisper the name of the girl they collect for and drop honey, flour and some sugar at the plant’s root. Picked only this way can the fern be used for magic spells that are supposed to make a certain boy love the girl it was picked for.
What you should NOT do on Dragobete, on 24February, to avoid any bad luck
Because it is a celebration of love and rebirth, don’t buy or sacrifice any animals on this day.
Don’t sew, wash or iron, but you can clean your home.
What makes Dragobete or Valentine’s day so special ,lasting the test of time?
Is it the nostalgic feeling all tradition carries, the romance that puts a spring in our step, no matter how much we deny its importance during the rest of the year?
Or is it simpler then that. It is the need for hope and the feeling of belonging, to know that our existence carries some sort of meaning for someone else? Someone we care for too.
How many Saint Valentine are there?
The Saint Valentine we all know so well was a 3rd century Roman saint venerated by Catholic Church, Anglican Communion, and Lutheran Church on the 14th of February.
Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Valentin, Bishop of Umbria, on the 30th of July. Saint Valentine of Umbria was born in 175 AD in Interamna (today Terni, in Umbria Italy), and performed numerous miracles, healing the sick. When he was almost one hundred years old he was arrested in the middle of the night (to avoid protests from people of Terni), tortured and decapitated in Rome during the ruling of Marc Aureliu.