I am telling you, time stands still in Romania – or in any other place in the world, if one was born there. So let’s all take kindly to it.
We have snapshots saved in our mind, of trees in autumn or summer sunsets peeking between traffic, of old buildings and tramway rides, snapshots accompanied by scents and sounds. Lindens in bloom, snow crunching underfoot, hot summer dancing over asphalt, the first tram echoing in rhythm each morning. Easy to remember, yet forgotten until we spot the same place again, hear the same chime, or a scent washes over us, two decades later. Time stands still in the spot where one was born.
A Romanian saying goes like this: eternity was born in a hamlet. And how much truth lies in it…
A hamlet, the simplest form of rural settlement whose population measures its life between sowing and plowing, its spirit still tightly woven in its ancestor’s web of traditions and beliefs. Here, life is an oasis of peace and eternity.
Sure, 21st century arrived in the form of a train station – soon abandoned for no one got off and nobody ever left. And the modern lifestyle came in the form of a cellphone tower too. For whose benefit is still a mystery, since locals don’t use such modern technology and no tourists set foot along their main road either. Only the cows stir its dirt in the morning, and again in the evening when each one knows exactly through which gate to push to arrive home.
With kerchiefs over their heads, a habit they picked it up as children, and blouses with hand stitched flowers motifs, spirals and crosses too, women here smile a lot, speak little, cook finger licking, simple meals, and worry and pray. And their men look after them, and after their crops and their herds, are quick in temper, yet soft in the look they give you, guarded by thick eyebrows.
And, with their cows coming and going, with the sun rising at the rooster’s call and setting in the hushing of the leaves and the singing of the crickets, these people live for today.
For today is eternal, as much as the clouds are overhead and the land underfoot. Yesterday is gone like the storm, taking its thunder with it. Tomorrow might never come, although it is a promise from God. And He always keeps His word. But today, today is eternal, and because of this time stands still in a hamlet in Romania.
I snapped the picture above while we drove from Sinaia to Bran. Very near this spot was the medieval border of Bran Castle, close to the Bran Pass, that was the 14th century toll gate between Transylvania and Wallachia.
It was through here that caravans loaded with merchants’ goods passed between the two principalities. The mountainous and rugged terrain, the relatively narrow pass and the vast coniferous forests, made the route quite risky for caravans.
But Bran Castle was also a point of defense – especially against Turk invasions – and therefore the establishment of a border point here was necessary and soon became profitable for the entire area.
Prince Mircea the Elder, Voivode of Wallachia, was the one who, through a privilege granted to Brasov merchants, established the customs of Wallachia in 1413 atTurciu (today Bran). The medieval Bran customs point was defended against robbers by guards that were backed-up by guards from Bran Castle. Due to their importance, the customs buildings will be rebuilt and consolidated over centuries. It was at the end of the 15th century that Bran border point became the responsibility of merchants from Brasov, Transylvania.
Just imagine, it was through these woods that Vlad Tepes and his brave men, his Viteji, rode back and forth.
But more about this in my next book 🙂
Time Stands Still in Romania and Taking Kindly to It is my contribution to Becky’s incredible October Squares #KindaSquare blog feature. Do have a look 🙂
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Rocking the modern perceptions of the Middle Ages, the Iron Maiden found at Fagaras Castle, Romania, is a medieval torture device that is real, and yet not.
The stone castle of Făgăraş was first mentioned (that we know of) in 1455, but the initial fortification, built with sturdy fir trees from the nearby forests, goes back to 12th – beginning of the 13th century.
We also know that, traditionally, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras were fiefs of Wallachian prince. Yet John Hunyadi, appointed Voievode of Transylvania at that time (as Transylvania, although a Romanian county today, was part of the Kingdom of Hungary during he Middle Ages to say the least) seized them. Hunyadi gave Almas to the citizens of Sibiu and kept Faragras for himself.
But before being seized, the duchies of Almas and Fagaras belonged to the Voievode of Wallachia, and he would have been Vlad Dracul, Vlad II (Vlad Țepeș‘ father) and Mircea cel Batran, Mircea the Elder before him (Vlad Țepeș‘ grandfather).
We know further that Vlad Dracula, Vlad Țepeș, was finally able to title himself “Lord and ruler over all of Wallachia, and the duchies of Amlaș and Făgăraș” on 20 September 1459, thus showing that he had regained possession of both these traditional Transylvanian fiefs of the Wallachian rulers.
Now, back to the Iron Maiden of Fagaras Castle.
Documents mentioning Fagaras Castle dated more than a century ago do mention the existence of a mechanism of death, known as the “Iron Virgin” or “Iron Maiden”.
It seems that the device was brought into the fortress during the 18th century and used as an instrument of torture. The person sentenced to death was told on the day of his execution that he would be allowed one last kiss, that of the Mother of God, whose image hanged inside this coffin-like device. But the devices was thus created that when the convict stepped to kiss the image, the coffin would close with lightning speed and the knives and spikes that protruded on the inside would pierce his body. The spikes were short and positioned so that the victim wouldn’t die immediately.
Also, thanks to another device, a hole would opened at the feet of the Iron Maiden so the body of the convict would free fall from a height of 8-10 meters in a dungeon where horizontal swords with very sharp edges would chop the falling cadaver into several pieces.
Through another device water from the fortress’ moat was channeled through this dungeon, thus washing away any traces of blood or flesh, taking them out through the northwestern part and directing them to Olt river, flowing only 800 meters away.
The Iron Maiden as an image for Medieval violence
Truth is that the Iron Maidens were a myth brought to life during the 18th century because they fitted so well with the idea of Medieval violence, especially the physical maltreatment of another being, with the weapons being so readily available during those times, and with the fact that violence was seen as an understandable response to most acts.
Let’s face it, during the Middle Ages violence was a common response. If one wanted to share an idea, to share a meaning – symbolic vengeance was expected.
But crime and violence did bothered the commoners during the Middle Ages. It frightened them too. Life had a value, certainly was valued less than we value it today.
The true history of the Iron Maiden
Johann Philipp Siebenkees was an 18th century German Professor of philosophy. He was a keen archeologist too. He was the first to describe the execution of a 1515 coin-forger by the use of an iron maiden in the city of Nuremberg. But the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg, and one of the the most famous such devices, was only built in the early 1800s and destroyed in an Allied bombing in 1944.
Siebenkees might have read about a 5th century A.D. Latin book of Christian philosophy that describes the torture of the Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus, who was locked in a nail-studded box. Or he might have read the works of the Greek historian Polybius (100 B.C.) who told the story of the Spartan tyrant Nabis who constructed a mechanical likeness of his wife Apega. When a citizen refused to pay his taxes, Nabis would have the mechanical wife wheeled out and made to hug the wrong doer – only that the nails were on the outside of her body.
We all know stories about torture during the Middle Ages, and some of the devices used by the Ottoman Empire or those used to obtain false declarations during the Witch Hunts come to mind… but torture is very much present during our times too.
Perhaps it just makes us feel safer to look only at those times long gone.
Almost 600 years old, these wooden doors of a medieval chapel, long sunken they say, built around 1453 near Snagov Monastery, 40 km northward from Bucharest, can still be admired in the Art Museum of Bucharest.
For the weary traveler, approaching the chapel as a meditation, its wooden doors with their visual and scripting messages would have been the first welcoming sign: arms folded in prayer, ready to open, to receive, and to fold around, in absolution.
Vlad Țepeș (Vlad III or Vlad Dracula) too improved the monastery and he would have come here to pray, for his people, for Wallachia, for good fortune in fighting the Turks.
And perhaps Vlad Țepeș came here to pray for enlightenment and forgiveness too.
Will he forgive the double crime?
It is said that a storm pulled the chapel from the ground and threw it in the lake nearby, where it sank. Its doors floated on the waters to the nearby hamlet of Turbați (today Siliștea Snagovului). The nuns from the convent here rescued, dried and kept the carved, kingly doors safe. The hamlet was aptly named Turbați, Rabies, for the nuns were skilled in curing rabies.
On a Monastery Built for Peace and on Medieval Plots and Revenge
You see, in 1447, while Sultan Murad II had young Vlad III and his brother Radu in captivity, their father Vlad II (Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon), ruler of Wallachia, had to balance his crusader oath and his his pledge of neutrality to the sultan. To honor and protect Christianity. Or to keep his two younger sons alive.
John Hunyadi, leading Hungarian military figure, wishing his puppet, Vladislav II, on the throne of Wallachia, invades it. So the local boyars (noblemen) revolt against Vlad II. Caught between the three forces Vlad II is captured and killed by Vladislav while his oldest son Mircea is tortured by boyars and burried alive.
So Vladislav II now rules Wallachia. And in 1453 he build the chapel of Snagov Monastery with these wooden sculpted doors.
Come 1456, Vlad Țepeș defeats Vladislav II in a hand-to-hand combat. Fair and square.
Thus Vlad Țepeș second reign of Wallachia had begun.
Finally, the Chapel Door and its Three Panels Carved in Wood
The carved wooden doors are meant to depict the Feast of the Annunciation, Bunavestire.
The top panel: Angel Gabriel (on the left side) and Virgin Mary (on the right side, praying).
Do you see the vase with flowers? One of them should be a white lily, believed to be the first flower cultivated by humans, associated with purity and, Christianity, the Blessed Virgin.
The median panel depicts saints: Saint Basil the Great (Vasile cel Mare), Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (Grigorie din Nazianz), Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (Ioan Gură de Aur) and Saint Nicholas (SfântulNicolae).
The lower panel: we see Saint George, Sfantul Mare Mucenic Gheorghe, on his horse, slaying the dragon with his spear, a symbol of Christian faith, at any cost.
The inscription is a prayer in Slavonic, for hospitality that each weary traveler shall find in this place of worship.
Since we are at Snagov, you might like to know tat in 1475, the year before he was killed, Vlad Țepeș ordered that a defense wall be raised around Snagov Monastery, a bridge, a prison for robbers as well as a secret underwater passage that will confer a secondary exit from the island.
The importance of Târgoviște royal palace (curtea domnească) in history emerges, first of all, from the significant role it played in the life of Vlad Țepeș and during the medieval period. Among other royal residences of Wallachia, the royal court of Târgoviște was the third oldest and the second most used, without significant interruptions, over a period of 300 years.
The geographical location of Târgoviște was also favorable, hills on one side, planes on the other, Ialomita river passing through, as well as Dambovita river nearby.
Around 1400 Mihail I, son of Mircea the Elder (Mircea cel Bătrân) and co-ruler with his father was the first to settle his royal court here, where there was already a rural settlement as well as a more recent one, 14th century, belonging to Transylvania Saxon settlers. Later, as one of the important border villages of Wallachia, Târgoviște receives special privileges for commerce.
The royal palace of Târgovişte was designed as a group of buildings with various purposes: to host the administration of the country, as well as to offer protection and lodgings for the ruler, his family and their various courtiers and servants. Here were special rooms for the high government’s ministry and for the court to meet and for the prince (ruler) to sign his decrees and receive foreign guests and emissaries.
Târgoviște – etimology
Târgoviște = Târg + -iște. Târg means market, but Târgoviște means an older market, one well-established. As a name for a town, Târgoviște is also found in Croatian, trgovištse, Serbian, trgovište, Ukraine, torhovytśa, Slovakian, trhovište, and Polish, targowisko.
The Royal court was at Târgoviște because from there were easy connections with other parts of the Wallachian state, the city of Târgoviște being better positioned from an administrative and commercial point of view.
On 23rd August 1437 Vlad Dracul (Vlad II, the father of Vlad Tepes) signed a document in Târgoviște to declare that Vlădești will belong to the boyar Bodin, and exempts him and his sons Mircea and Vlad of services and tributes for as long as they live. The bequest starts with:
“In the name of the God Almighty, the all faithful and all honorable and Christ Loving, I Vlad and lord by the mercy of God and through the Benevolence of God ruler of all Hungarian-Wallachian Country, and duke of Amlaş and Făgăraş. My lordship has deign to offer this hereby true gift of property to my servant boyar Bodin and his sons, so that Vlădești village may be his land… ” and ends with “I Vlad Lord, with the mercy of God, ruler.”
Vlad Dracul and the people of Târgovişte
The influential boyards, the patricians of a town (such as Târgovişte was), were called good men, “om bun“. We encounter one of the first mentions of such good men in a letter of Vlad Dracul addressed to the people of Brasov perhaps during his first reign (1436–1442). The letter concerns Zanvel, a good man, but also a wealthy one, from Târgovişte, who had been killed and mugged while traveling for business in Transylvania. Vlad Dracul requests that all of Zanvel’s valuables be returned: 250 Florins, 500 Perperi (=250 Ducats), a money bag with 300 Aspri (silver coins) and a gold ring valued at 10 Florins. The man’s clothes are also mentioned, clothes of Ypress (one of the largest commercial communities of Medieval Belgium, when it served as the main market and warehouse for the Flemish city’s prosperous cloth industry), a hat and also a sword. Vlad Dracul allows for one week only, during which Zanvel’s killer had to be found and punished, and the wealth be returned to his family.
Smuggling weapons through Târgovişte
During the 14th century, the weapon craftsmanship of Braşov’s inhabitants (Transylvania) was greatly trusted by the rulers of Wallachia, such as Stephen the Great (Stefan cel Mare) and Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, Vlad III – son of VladDracul, Vlad II). Thus, weapons trade beyond the borders of Transylvania was common, especially with Wallachia.
For example, at the end of 1445 the Wallachian Voivod Vlad Dracul requested the delivery of “bows, arrows, firearms and saltpeter” for his conquests in southern Wallachia. The Voivod was dependent on this delivery to strengthen the defenses of the seized town.
Not much later, the new Wallachian Voivod Vladislav II (who fought over the ruling of Wallacia with Vlad Tepes), requested in a document from 1453 that a delivery of weapons to Kilia (Chilia) to take place via the towns of Târgovişte and Brăila, so that the delivery could proceed in secret and without danger. A year later a similar request was made by John Hunyadi himself.
Vlad Țepeș’ main political objective was reinforcing his central authority. He expressed this in a letter written in Târgoviște, on September 10th 1456 (during his 2nd reign) and addressed to the people of Braşov:
“Think about how when a man or a ruler is powerful and strong he can make peace in any way he wants to; but when he is powerless, another one will come and rule him as he pleases.” (“Considerandum est vobis: quando homo vel dominus est potens et fortis, tunc pacem potest facere sicut vult; cum autem impotens erit, forcior super eum veniet et faciet secum sicut vult”).
The massacre of 1457: Vlad Ţepeş and the Boyards
We cannot go further without mentioning the relations between the townspeople of Târgoviște and Vlad Ţepeş and the existence of some conflicts between them. The only incident recorded by chroniclers mentions that Vlad Ţepeş considered the townspeople guilty of the death of his older brother, Mircea, whom they buried alive in 1447, and of that of their father, Vlad Dracul.
Vlad Ţepeş and his ruling policy
Having lived through his father’s political struggles, at the Ottoman and Moldavia court, as well as through his own first reign of almost three months, in 1448, Vlad would have learned that only a strong ruler can keep a country united, and that only a strong, united country can withstand a foreign attack.
As it was obvious during the Medieval times, the boyards held much power and through their intrigues they could control a country, often opposing the rule and power of a ruler. Vlad knew too well that one of biggest issues that opposed a strong head of state were the boyards and made it clear during a meeting he had with them. When asked under how many rulers they served during their life time, most acknowledged at least seven, which came and went, yet they remained in position.
But the Lord, Vlad Ţepeş, punished the townspeople differently: the big boyards and the old ones were impaled, while the young ones were taken together with their families on Easter day (a day of rest and Christian joy) to work on the Poenari fortress. It was Vlad Ţepeş’ desire for revenge, along with his need to consolidate his power, that drove him to commit one of the most notorious acts of his career. After this, Vlad gave positions in his council to persons of obscure origins, who would be loyal to him alone, and even to some foreigners and free peasants.
The punishment of the townspeople was placed by historians in 1457, when Vlad Ţepeş was in Târgovişte. The conflict should be understood through the context of power struggles between the two branches of the royal family (Dănești and Drăculești), in which both the great boyar groups and the influential members of the townspeople took part, whose political involvement is now revealed. The fact that the punished were put to work at the fortress is a rare situation; the obligation to work appears formally mentioned in several acts, but the event described above is the only attestation of a forced implementation of this duty. Among the internal chronicles, the History of Wallachia relates only the sending of young people to work, while in the Histories of Gentlemen it is written about the sending of women and children. Exceptional is the sending of people to work on Easter day, proving that the punishment applied to the citizens was a serious form of the duşegubina (a medieval payment for killing someone, or for theft, incest, adultery or kidnapping of girls).
Only in 1458 does Vlad Ţepeş begins building his Bucharest fortress to supervise and defend the road leading from Giurgiu, a Romanian city found under the ruling of the Turks.
It is documented by Chalcocondil (a Byzantine chronicler contemporary with Vlad Ţepeş), that in 1462, when the Ottoman troops came searching for Vlad (to remove him from the throne of Wallachia) they found him at Târgovişte…
The Night Attack at Târgoviște
It was Vlad Ţepeş‘ outstanding victories against the Turk army under the command of grand vizier Mahmud Pasha that caught the eye of Sultan Mehmed II. Vlad was celebrated by Saxon cities of Transylvania, as well as by the Pope Pius II. So the Sultan decided to deal with Vlad himself, thus preparing an army equal to what he had behind him when he conquered Constantinople. 150 000 Turks including fierce Janissary troops, archers, cavalry, saiales (slaves, medieval Turkish Kamikaze), pikemen, beshlish who handled firearms, 120 cannons and an entire fleet… and Radu the Handsome, Vlad’s half brother who commanded 4 000 horsemen…as well as engineers who would build bridges and roads if necessary, priests, astrologers… And Vlad? With no support from Hungarians ruled by Matthias Corvinus he relied on his people: all men of military age, but also women and children over the age of twelve ; and included Gypsy slaves, about 30 000 people all together, armed with lances, swords, and daggers, and most probably prong forks too. Vlad was able to stop part of the Turkish attacks by scorching the earth, poisoning the water, creating marshes and pits, even adopting guerrilla tactics.
Still, on June 17 the Turks set camp outside Târgovişte… There was one last thing Vlad could do to protect his town.
That evening, Vlad disguised himself as a Turk and entered the Turkish camp (Vlad was fluent in Romanian, church Slavic, German, Latin, Turkish). Here, he wandered around to find the location of the Sultan’s tent and learn about his plans of attack. A contemporary historian, Chalkokondyles, mentions that Mehmed had interdicted his soldiers to wander about the camp during the night, as to not cause panic in case of an attack. So Vlad decided to attack the Turkish camp during that night. Vlad’s men infiltrated the camp, then made noise from their buglers and illuminated the battle with their torches launching a series of attacks from “three hours after sunset until four the next morning”. Vlad Țepeș himself aimed for the tent of the sultan, but mistakenly went for the tent of his two grand viziers, Ishak Pasha and Mahmud Pasha (the same one that Vlad had already defeated in a previous battle). The sultan Mehmed II abandoned camp and fled for his life.
The Chindia Tower, Turnul Chindiei
It was Vlad Tepes who started building the lovely Chindia Tower for military purposes and to store the treasury. The tower rose on the place of an old manor house, although its final stone was put in place during the 19th century. It is believed that Hungarian commander Stephen V Báthory saw Chindia Tower and later refereed to it as the castle, in his letter from November 11, 1476.
A big feast or festival where people dance is known in Romanian as chindia, and this could be one explanation for the tower’s name, here being the place for such happy gatherings. But chindie, of Turkish origin, ikindi, also means sunset, the time of day when the guard gave the curfew signal, before closing the city’s gates. And this time was rather important as afterwards it was prohibited to enter or leave the city, and the residents were required not to pass through its streets and not to maintain outdoor fires that would have made the town visible from a distance and thus render it unsafe.
Today the Chindia tower rises at a height of 27 meters and measures 9 meters in diameter. When Prince Bibescu restored it, his builders also rose the tower by 5 meters.
For this reason, out of pro-Christian or pro-Ottoman beliefs, the Wallachian rulers of 16thcentury will shift the location of their princely court from Târgovişte to Bucharest and back again. Also, Târgovişte was often used as a summer residence, while Bucharest as a winter one.
Dealu Monastery was built by Radu IV the Great at the very beginning of the 16th century, on a previous monastic settlement. This is rather important, as previously in Târgovişte we only had a Franciscan and a Dominican monastery, but not a Christian Orthodox one.
The grand Metropolitan Church was raised under the ruling of Neagoe Basarab, early 16th century. During the same time the seal of Târgovişte town depicting Virgin and Infant is created.
Târgovişte sees another rebirth at the end of the 16th century, under the ruling of Petru II of the Earring, who brings Italian and French cultural influences. Franco Sivori, Petru’s private secretary, mentions gardens designed after the Italian fashion as well as the Prince’s menagerie found at Târgovişte.
Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul) rules from here for a short time briefly bringing the three principalities under his personal union at 1600.
Although fortified, Târgovişte falls during the Turk-Tatar invasion of 1658 and is destroyed, its ruins being brought back to life 30 years later under the ruling of Constantin Brâncoveanu – till his tragic death.
18th century Târgovişte was on the world map
The most usual route on the way to Istanbul from western Europe, crossing Transylvania and Wallachia, passed through the towns of Cluj – Alba-Iulia – Sibiu, where it divided into two roads to Bucharest. One crossed the Carpathians through the gorge of Turnu Roşu, going down to the capital by Râmnicu Vâlcea and Piteşti, and the other passed through Braşov – Rucăr pass – Câineni – Câmpulung – Târgovişte, or along Valea Prahovei through Ploieşti, both routes passing through Bucharest.
Read the observations of an 18th century traveler returning from Istanbul and passing into Wallachia, a province still under the domination of the Porte (Ottoman Empire). Daniel Clarke traveled by carriage and this is his account on the different types of mentality he witnessed: “On April 16”, – writes Daniel Clarke – “we crossed the Danube [moving north, towards Wallachia]. On the other bank, the carriages of Wallachia’s ruler. […] Some of the Turks had never before sat in a wheeled vehicle and when the carriages set in motion they stuck their bearded heads out the windows throwing the most pitiful looks one can imagine. […] For us the change wasn’t less memorable either, as one year and a half had passed since we had left Russia and we had spent the entire time traveling without once having at our disposal a wheeled carriage”
As he crossed the Danube river, the British traveler on his way from Istanbul to England entered Wallachia. But for the travelers there was no militarized border with the Ottoman Empire as Wallachia had been for a few centuries under the domination of the Ottoman Porte (Sublime Porte), and in the 18th century the Ottoman Empire had increased its presence in the Romanian space.
There is an incredible 19th century story about the local villagers who fought for the conservation of the princely court with the Wallachian ruler of the time who had been named in position by the Ottoman court: Ioan Caradja (of Greek-Turkish origin). Caradja wanted the court demolished, but the villagers not only opposed, but they also preserved and rebuilt it.
The royal court of Târgovişte has next witnessed the Russo-Turk war, an earthquake and a fire, before a final rebirth during the late 19th century under the exemplary ruling of Alexandru Ioan Cuza and King Carol I.
Half a century after Dealu Monastery was built, a Military Highschool rose in Târgovişte in 1912, while King Carol I lead the Romanians. In 1930 Mihai I (the last King of Romania) and great-grandson of King Carol I (from his brother’s blood lineage) studied here. And Mihai was thus named after Romanian King Michael the Brave (Mihai Viteazul), the first to rule over an united Romania in 1600.
Sources: *Markus Peter Beham, Braşov (Kronstadt) in the Defence against the Turks *Laurentiu Radvan, Orasele din Tarile Romane in Evul Mediu *Sorin ŞIPOŞ – FOREIGN TRAVELLERS IN THE ROMANIAN SPACE AND BORDER SYMBOLISM (1797-1810) *Camelia TEODORESCU, Laurentiu Stefan SZEMKOVICS, Roxana RADU, FROM VLAD ŢEPEŞ – WALLACHIAN RULER – TO DRACULA. CONCLUSIVE DOCUMENTS REGARDING HIS NAME AND “FAME” *DOCUMENTE DE ARHITECTURĂ DIN ROMÂNIA
My next work of fiction is a contemporary story glancing over the shoulder at some incredible events dating from Medieval Romania. Subscribe to my newsletter ad be among the first to know when it will come out 🙂
It is fascinating to consider the butterfly effect, how one small change can have a big impact on the future, especially with regards to the outcome of the Battle of Kosovo and the life choices of Vlad the Impaler, Vlad III, or Vlad Dracula.
I often ask myself, if history would have taken another turn, would Vlad III have made different life choices? Which ones?
One such turning point was the Battle of Kosovo that took place on 15 June 1389.
The Battle of Kosovo
The Battle of Kosovo took place on the Kosovo field, polje, (Field of the Blackbirds), in the territory ruled by Vuk Branković, between the defending Serbian army led by Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović (actually a coalition of Serbs, Albanians, Croatians, Bosnians, and Romanians – soldiers sent by Voievode Mircea the Elder who ruled Walachia at that time) and the invading army of the Ottoman Empire under the command of Sultan Murad I the Sovereign (also a coalition, as a small contingent of the Serbian army was already supporting the Turks, who in turn, were supporting the Serbian ruler in power).
Both leaders were killed in action (and so was Vuk Branković) and the bulk of both armies were wiped out in this battle. As with any great battle, there are numerous accounts describing the forces, the attacks, as well as who exactly and how killed Murad I.
Who emerged victorious from this battle? The new Ottoman sultan…
It is said that Murad I’s son Bayezid strangled his younger brother Yakub Çelebi when he got news of their father’s death during the battle, thus securing himself the throne of the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps Bayezid’s name sounds familiar to you; he built one of the largest armies in the world at that time and unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople.
The outcome of the battle?
the Serbs were left with too few men to effectively defend their lands who became Ottoman vassals in the following years, although in the aftermath of the battle Serbian rulers might not have seen the outcome as a defeat, but as a victory;
Prince Lazar’s daughter, Olivera Despina, marries the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I right after this battle (she was not the only Serbian princess to marry a Sultan);
the Ottoman Empire straightened its position in the South-East Europe;
a crumbling Byzantine Empire was now completely encircled by the Ottoman Empire;
the Bulgarian kingdom fell in the year 1393, greatly endangering the safety of the Romanian Principalities at the North;
the stronger Ottoman Empire seized the Danube ports, now greatly endangering the independence of Wallachia (Walachia). Bayezid was also angry that the Romanians have supported the Serbs during the Kosovo Battle…);
a new epoch of Ottoman menace and threat begins for the whole of South-East Europe and the political landscape of this region is forever altered.
Following the butterfly effect, let’s move further to:
Vlad the Impaler and the Romanian Principalities during the 15th century
the Romanian Principalities at this time were: Moldavia (in NE), Walachia (in south, above the Danube River), and Transylvania (in NW, although at this stage it was still part of the Hungarian Kingdom);
with Murad I dead during the Battle of Kosovo, Beyazıd the Thunderbolt took over the ruling of the Ottoman Empire;
Two things happen next: Mircea the Elder supported the Bulgarian Kingdom in their fight against the Ottomans (Bulgarians were Mircea’s neighbors in the south), a decision that brought him in conflict with the Ottoman Empire (famous Battle of Rovine, 10 October 1394, comes to mind), AND Mircea the Elder sent his son Vlad II to the court of the Hungarian King, as it was custom;
1395: the first confirmed invasion of Ottoman Empire into Țara Bârsei, Burzenland (SE Transylvania) via the Bran Pass, with the Turks coming so close to the Hungarian Kingdom;
with the Ottoman Empire on the rise, Sigismund of Luxembourg founded the Order of the Dragon in 1408. Fashioned after the military orders of the Crusades, its purpose was to defend Christianity particularly against the Ottoman Empire;
Vlad II, showing great battle skills and courage, was invited by Sigismund of Luxembourg to join the Order of the Dragon in 1431 and later recognized by the Hungarian King as the lawful Voivode of Wallachia;
Sigismund of Luxembourg died in 1437 and Vlad II was left without the Hungarian support against the Ottoman Empire. Thus, Vlad II had to to pay homage to Murad II (grandson of Bayezid, now ruling the Ottoman Empire) and, to prove his loyalty he was ‘asked’ to send his two sons, Vlad III (~ age 11) and Radu (~ age 5) as hostages to the Ottoman court of Edirne. Vlad III and Radu were schooled and lived following the Islam laws for over five years.
It was here and now that Vlad III met Mehmed II the Conqueror (the one sultan who finally takes Constantinople on May 29, 1453). Vlad III and Mehmed II crossed swords many times afterwards. What Vlad III had to put up with as a young boy held captive at the Ottoman court is a story for another time…
Back to the Battle of Kosovo, 15 June 1389
This specific date, 15 June on the Julian calendar or 28 June on the Gregorian calendar is a Serbian national and religious holiday, St. Vitus’ day.
Might be hard to believe, but notable events happened on that day throughout the history of Serbia, one of them being the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914.
Yes, the Battle of Kosovo took place about 40 years before Vlad III was born and 1 000 km away, but its outcome affected not only the entire dynamics of the South-Eastern Europe, including the lives of millions of Serbs, Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Bulgarians, Turks, Greeks, Albanians, but the dynamics inside the immediate family of Vlad III.
The Legend of Miloš Obilić
Is not sure if Miloš Obilić, the Serbian knight who walked straight into the tent of Sultan Murad I and kill him, really existed or not. But the force released in the aftermath of the Battle Kosovo gave birth to many legends, like the real one about Vlad the Impaler.
It is said that Obilić had super powers, he was the son of a fairy or of dragon and his unnatural powers came from drinking the milk of a mare. His nickname was Kobilic or Kobilovic, and in Serbian kobila means mare. His horse was named Zdral and his fiance was none other but the daughter of the Serbian ruler Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović.
Modern historian bring forward contradictory opinions on Vlad the Impaler. Some see him as a hero who fought his entire life to defend the independence of his country, Walachia, and the Christendom. Others see him as a psychopath who killed and tortured out of sadistic pleasure.
What is certain is that this Romanian prince entered the pages of literature through numerous writings that were published during his life, but especially the chronicles that appeared after his death, as well as the works of Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu and Bram Stoker. Perhaps all due to his unique personality features, nevertheless carved by his rich family roots, unusual and unfortunate upbringing as well as the historical circumstances that mapped his entire life.
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Let’s further our historical journey and marvel at the medieval towers and walls of Upper City Sighisoara, the fortress, Vlad the Impaler‘s birth place. If we walk clockwise around the citadel’s defense wall or rampant, still 14 meters in height in some places, we’ll admire, in this order:
The Tanners’ Tower is one of the oldest, original towers dating back to the 13th – 14th centuries as it suggest its position too, retracted behind the wall. Its roof, slanted towards the inside of the fortress, suggests the same. It was built to guard and protect the courtyard of the Clock Tower nearby.
The Tinsmiths’ Tower & bastion. At 25 m of height it has a specific shape: square at the base (the original foundation), then becomes pentagonal (probably late 15th century), and it ends octagonal at the top, while the roof has a hexagonal plan. It had one of the strongest defense systems of the Sighisoara fortress. One can still see the traces that Hungarian bullets left during the last siege, that of 1704.
Do you see the Rifle-men’s Gallery, adjacent to the Tinsmiths’ Tower – left side? It has a unique architecture in the Sighisoara fortress.
The Rope-makers Tower is high up on the hill and today houses the cemetery guard. But 200 years ago, the first family allowed to make a home here had to sound the church bells three times a day, at 7 am, at noon and 7 pm, and look after the cemetery.
The original fortress’ wall between the Rope-makers Tower and the Butchers’ Tower still stands. The Butchers’ Tower has a bastion as well and it dates from the 15th century. Initially, it was an octagonal prism, but during the 16th century, it was rebuilt on a hexagonal floor plan and raised to make it easier to defend the west side of the Citadel. For this reason alone, the Butcher’s Tower was armed with five arquebuses (a lighter type of musket and one of the first hand-guns with a trigger), and at least one cannon (as the cannonballs and gunpowder discovered here attest).
Did you know that it was the Romans who discovered that towers made it easier to defend a walled fortress? Towers made it easy to give covering fire for the walls during an attack.
The Butchers’ Tower and the Furriers’ Tower saw many sheep a-counting while guarding the Törle gate in between. It was through here that each evening the shepherds returned with their flock from the pastures and proceed to count and separate the sheep. Of course, they would have had at least one dog to help them round the flock, to head them off or hold them up just by standing in the road, blocking the sheep’s way, and barking, to remind the woolly beasts who’s the boss.
The plain, square floor plan of the Furriers’ Tower dates its construction back to the 14th century, although it was rebuilt various times, latest at the end of the 17th century. Worth noticing are the narrow window-slits on the top, fourth level for dousing invaders with hot liquids. Over the centuries, fighters armed with spears, halebards, arquebuses, and even a small cannon manned this tower.
The Weavers’ Tower was located between the Furriers’ Tower and the Tailors’ Tower. The Weavers’ Tower was demolished in the mid-19th century together with the fortress wall stretching between the Furriers’ Tower all the way to the Shoemakers’ Tower.
The Tailors’ Tower is a massive baroque-style construction, first mentioned in 1521. Located opposite the Clock Tower it marks the second entrance in Sighisoara fortress. Nowadays is the only access way for cars. It was rebuilt after the big fire of 1676 and today it looks like this:
Look at the two passageways. They do suggest a 12th – 14th century construction and so are the two ancient porticullis, the metal latticed gates, that lock by sliding vertically to fortify the access way into the fortress.
As mentioned, this tower went up in flames taking with it the adjacent corridor where there was a storage area for projectiles and gunpowder apart from grains and halbards.
The Shoemakers’ Tower, standing since 1522, is quite a spectacular view, proving once again that the strength of a guild lies in its demand. Reconstructed after the fire of 1676 (when it exploded due to the large amount of gunpowder stored inside), it picked up the baroque architectonic influences of the late 17th century.
This was my favorite tower! Do notice the small observation tower (lookout turret if you wish) on the roof visible in the picture below (there are two such towers), and the large windows, so not in the style of the Middle Ages.
These windows are post World War Two when, for a spell, the tower was turned into a depository of archival documents. The outside wooden staircase is very recent, since 2001. Today it houses a local radio station.
And if you climb the stairs you’re treated to a colorful view:
One last look up the Shoemakers’ Tower before we move on, certainly a sight to marvel at as not every day we get to see such medieval towers and Sighisoara fortress is a place far away for many tourists.
The Locksmiths’ Tower and bastion nearby were part of the main defensive system. This area has seen an explosive history: blown up during a siege in 1706, hit by lightning and burned down in 1809, demolished at the end of the 19th century, making way for the construction of the present Church.
The Ironsmiths’ Tower is a massive tower built in 1631 to protect the fortress and the nearby Monastery Church.
The tower we see today dates from 1631, raised on top of the Barber’s Tower and rebuilt after the big fire of 1676. At the end of the 19th century it was repurposed as a fire-station. Medieval elements worth noticing are the consoles at the top, protecting the windows, and the machicolations (the floor openings between the corbels, the stones jutting from the wall at the top), and the slits and holes.
And looking up at Ironsmiths’ Tower from the pathway surrounding the fortress:
Looking back – and suddenly it doesn’t look that massive, does it? Perhaps that’s why many attackers thought that they might take it on.
And with one last look over our shoulder, thinking of its medieval atmosphere, with medieval horns, dark staircases and eerie views, we marvel one last time and bid farewell to the medieval towers of Sighisoara fortress and a snowy winter.
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…