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Romania’s defenceless fortified churches

The highest concentration of “fortified churches”, castle-like houses of worship, is to be found in Transylvania, Romania. Yet for some years these special cultural heritage sites have been falling victim to the ravages of time.

fortified church
The fortified church in Hosman (Foto: Schoko Chantallle /flickr) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Hosman (German: Holzmengen) lies just half an hour’s drive from Sibiu (formerly Hermannstadt) in the heart of Romania. A mighty fortified church looms over the Transylvanian village of just under 800 inhabitants. The church was built by the Transylvanian Saxons in the thirteenth century and dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. But external threats, especially Ottoman invasions, forced the local population to protect it with a high circular wall complete with arrowslits and turrets, thus providing themselves with a defensive site to which they could retreat if in danger. Around 160 of these structures remain in Romania today, forming a tight network of fortified churches that is unique in Europe and shaping the character of many settlements. Seven of them have been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but the majority of these stone monuments are at risk of falling into ruin. 

A Red List for derelict churches

“The Evangelical Church A.B. (Augsburg Confession, ed.) in Romania and the few remaining Saxons can barely manage the upkeep of said sites,” explains the Austrian Georg Fritsch in an interview with the Siebenbürger Zeitung. Together with his association “Kulturerbe Kirchenburgen” (Cultural Heritage Fortified Churches) he is promoting the preservation of the fortified church buildings and their use as places of worship. The association’s work focuses mainly on endangered projects that will not be able to rely on any assistance in the foreseeable future.

Tower in Rotbav
The Tower in Rotbav, bevor its collapse (Foto: flickr / vutu) (CC BY 2.0)

A “Red List” provides an inventory of particularly threatened fortified churches and medieval village churches requiring urgent repair. In August 2015, for example, the project “Fortified Church Dobârca” (Dobring) saw the association undertake emergency repairs to the rotten church roof. It had previously collaborated with architects in Bucharest to fit the building with a cast iron door to prevent unauthorised entry to a structure at risk of collapse. “The ‘Red List’ is still in the development phase. It presently comprises only a small part of the highly endangered fortified and medieval village churches,” says a concerned chairman Alexander Kloos. 

Bishop Reinhart Guib of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Romania (EKR) stresses that the Church cannot support the maintenance of all 160 fortified churches all by itself. Particularly in smaller villages that no longer have Evangelical parishes the situation is very difficult indeed. Often the financial means for maintaining the rotting monumental structures are lacking, even for necessary safety work. The consequences can be fatal. In February 2016 parts of two medieval fortified churches collapsed within a few days of each other. In Rotbav (Rotbach) it was even the entire church tower and parts of the nave that collapsed.

Johannes Honterus and the Lutheran Reformation in Transylvania

And yet these church buildings withstood over 700 years of war, wind and weather and were maintained by members of their parishes into the 1990s. To this day the fortified churches provide a reminder of a mercurial history between boom times and the threat of destruction that stretches back to the High Middle Ages. 

Statue of Honterus in Brasov
Statue of Honterus in Brasov (Foto: Sören Herbst)

In order to guard the borders and cultivate the land, from the twelfth century on the Hungarian kings called German settlers to the Carpathian arc, where there they founded villages, built towns and organised the defence of the country. At the same time, they increasingly developed their churches into the fortresses that are so characteristic of the landscape between the Danube and the Carpathians today.

The writings and pamphlets of Martin Luther arrived in Transylvania very early, via merchants and students. Between 1542 and 1550 the Lutheran Reformation took place in Transylvania, where it was unanimously embraced by the Saxons. In Braşov the humanist Johannes Honterus, (1498–1549), a native of the town and a graduate of the University of Vienna with many contacts in the intellectual centres of Europe, came to be the reformer of Transylvania. He supported the spread of Reformatory thought throughout the region through his printing works. His “Reformation Booklet” of 1543 was seen by the Wittenberg reformers, who were full of praise. Philipp Melanchthon even had a reprint published in Wittenberg and wrote the foreword himself. 

The Lutheran Church was officially recognised in Romania as early as 1550. Since then the language of worship has been German or dialect. Yet as in Western Europe, here too there were controversies concerning the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As a result, the reformed groups split in two. In 1560 there were three Protestant confessions in Transylvania alone, Catholicism had not completely vanished, while the majority of Romanians were and remained Orthodox. Since the Reformation the Transylvanians have thus not only been divided by language, but also by faith. Each church developed into a kind of “national church” and took on an identity-shaping role. Hence “Evangelical-Lutheran” is more or less synonymous with Saxon or German.

ortified church in Cristian
The fortified church in Cristian (Foto: Roamata / Wikimedia)

Dependent on international support

Today the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania numbers around 12,700 members – most of them Transylvanian. In 1980 it had around 100,000 members. After the fall of the Iron Curtain two thirds of the Protestant parishioners migrated to Germany in 1990 alone. This process continued over subsequent years; now fewer than 15 % remain members of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania. While many of the Transylvanian Saxons living abroad continue to cultivate close ties with their homeland, which is also expressed in ties with the EKR, the maintenance of the fortified churches and their treasures costs a lot of money. To this day former inhabitants of the villages and their descendants donate large sums for the restoration of the churches.

But the list of the village churches at risk of dereliction is long and the ravages of time continue to erode this aspect of cultural heritage. Along with the issue of money there is also the matter of human resources. Rotbav, where the church tower collapsed, has only twelve parishioners. Following the collapse, Reinhart Guib declared that the EKR remained committed to rescuing, preserving and sustainably using the cultural heritage; the establishment of the “Fortified Churches Foundation” and the successful project “Discover the Soul of Transylvania” are important steps in the right direction. However, he stresses that today they are more dependent than ever on the support of the Transylvanian Saxons living abroad and international partners.


Source:Siebenbürgische Zeitung/EKR/ Verein Kulturerbe Kirchenburgen Date:08-04-16

Annual Topic 2016

The Reformation spread from Wittenberg to the rest of the world. More than 400 million Protestants worldwide have spiritual links in their religious life with the events of the Reformation. On the eve of the Reformation’s anniversary our attention will be on the global power of its influence.