Cultural Treasures: The Fortified Churches in Transylvania

Cetatea Câlnic, județul Alba

The fortified churches in Transylvania were the trademark of the Saxon population brought here by King Geza II of Hungary, in the 12th century. The church has always played an important role in the community’s life, being an influential power and a ‘trend’ setter.

The frequent enemy invasions in Transylvania, starting with the Tartars in 1241, determined people to consider more efficient solutions to protect themselves, their families and most precious belongings.

What Exactly Are the Fortified Churches in Transylvania?

People in Transylvania were in desperate need of a fort that would allow them to fight back, join their forces and be less vulnerable; the church had always given man the feeling of security, closeness to God and protection from Evil.

Moreover, a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas II stated that people who were being chased by authorities, murderers and tax dodgers could be offered shelter in churches, whereas anyone using force to enter a church would be excommunicated.

In the Saxon villages, the church was located in the center of the establishment; it was also the highest building and therefore easily spotted by anyone in case of an enemy attack.

The churches thus started to be fortified: 2-3 rows of walls were built around them, towers, ditches, zwingers, shooting holes, holes from which they poured boiled water or oil- they were nicknamed the ‘holes of death’-bastions etc.

Life within the Walls of the Fortified Churches

Throughout the year people stored goods, weapons, animals, as well as important documents within the fortress’ walls. They build food warehouses, rooms for each family with windy wooden access stairs, balconies and wooden galleries facing the interior courtyard.

In the church itself, women usually sat on the pews in the center and men on the sides, close to the exits, always prepared to fight back in case of an attack and- since chivalry was not yet dead- to protect the women.

Conflicts between peers were strictly forbidden. The punishments were harsh and made people think twice before threatening someone with a sword- their hand would be cut off- or even mildly hurting a peer- they would be sentenced to death.

The Architecture of the Fortified Churches

Originally Catholic churches, they became Evangelic after the Reformation reached Transylvania in the 16th century. The architecture of the fortified churches is generally a mixture between the Romanesque and Gothic styles, according to the additions and necessary changes which occurred in time.

The bell towers are imposing; the tolling of the bells was the bearer of bad news: either an approaching attack, or later on- when the fortified churches lost their defensive role- fires.

Round and pointed arches, rib-vault ceilings, beautifully ornate altars, pews decorated with Saxon flower motifs and precious collections of Oriental rugs are just a few of the elements that make these Evangelic churches wonderful architectural masterpieces and unique cultural heritage.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There is no other place in the world with such an impressive number of fortified churches, all located in relative proximity. Out of the 300 fortified churches in Transylvania, 150 still remain.

Each bears its distinctive mark, but only 7 have made it on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Saschiz (Keisd, Mures County), Viscri (Deutschweißkirch, Brasov County), Biertan (Birthälm, Sibiu County), Prejmer (Tartlau, Brasov County), Calnic (Kellig, Alba County), Darjiu (Harghita County) and Valea Viilor (Wurmloch, Sibiu County).

Walking through the courtyard of a fortified church resembles walking at the feet of a giant; the height and thickness of the walls, the imposing towers and bastions make one fell very small.

Both a place of worship and a refuge in times of invasion, the fortified churches stand as proof of the ingenuity and solidarity of people in the middle Ages.