Between the 13th and 15th centuries, groups of Saxon colonists populated the territory of what is currently Transylvania in Romania. In order to resist the invasions of Mongols and Ottomans these colonists embarked on the strategy of building fortified churches to protect communities in danger of immediate attack. Today, there are still more than two hundred fortified villages, seven of which were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993. The constructive and typological characteristics of fortified churches are striking, but no less important is the rural housing fabric which continues to follow the rhythm and distribution of the historic layout. This still includes annexes, stores, cellars, stables and yards with their historic distribution.
The project has insisted on documenting the details of traditional dwellings, analysing the evolution of uses and functions of these agricultural spaces, as well as the strategies which made it possible to maintain and conserve them until the present.
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The Saxon colonization of Transylvania is generally believed to have started with King Geza II of Hungary (1141-1162), with settlers coming from the nearby regions of the Rhine and Moselle rivers. Although most of the colonists came from the Holy Roman Empire and generally spoke Franconian dialects (German), they became known as Saxons in the Hungarian chancellery. For many decades the main task of German settlers was to defend the southeast border of the kingdom of Hungary. This colonization continued until the late 13th century. Respected for their skill, they gained administrative autonomy, a fact almost unrivalled throughout feudal Europe with its absolute monarchies. At present, hundreds of towns and fortified churches built by Saxons between the 13th and 15th centuries can be found in Transylvania highlighting a heritage which is still part of Romanian cultural DNA.
The name Transylvania is a reference to the perspective as seen from Hungary: Terra Ultra Silvam (The land beyond the forest), looking east from the Pannonian plain. However, its history began long before the Hungarian takeover. In fact, its culture can only really be understood taking into consideration a rich melting pot of religions, settlers, and ethnic groups which have intermingled over the centuries. In this pluralism, Romania's major German (Saxon) heritage is basically present in southern Transylvania, where many Saxon towns and villages can still be found.
The Saxon population numbers in Transylvania are much diminished, having fallen sharply since the Second World War, partly due to emigrations in large numbers, mostly to Germany. However, they still account for a considerable minority in the country, coexisting with a second small gypsy minority. The Saxons populated the edges of what is currently Transylvania, hoping to resist invasions from the Mongols and later from the Ottomans. The strategy of the fortifying village churches provided protection to the entire community when at risk of imminent attack. To this day, some of these churches appear isolated, with no protection, while others barely have an outer wall to protect them or are veritable mediaeval fortresses with impressive outer walls and defensive towers.
During the study and analysis of the fortified churches the researchers were taken aback by certain discoveries. As well as displaying an excellent state of preservation, the seven villages listed by UNESCO stand out for their exceptional residential and domestic fabric, which covers the urban and territorial scale as well as architecture and detail. A series of urban nuclei with a strong cultural identity and rich constructive features have gradually formed around the seven major fortified churches and the 3D Past project aims to publicize this as a whole.
The villages developed by the Saxons tend to consist of a central nucleus (fortified church) and its defence systems. Despite their central hubs, urban nuclei grow linearly, not radially, and are composed of main streets whose point of reference is the church and/or other nearby public buildings, such as the Council Hall or school. Streams and rivers can also condition the orientation of streets, which follow straight plots to varying degrees. This is the case of villages like Viscri and Biertan, structured on either side of the water line.
Perhaps one of the most distinctive characteristics of these inhabited nuclei is their fully regular and rhythmic residential plots, with adjoining housing with similar typology and spatial interpretation and barely distinguishable by rendering and finish in historic terms.
In the outskirts of Sibiu, the centre of the Saxon Community, seven of the over two hundred fortified churches found in Transylvania were declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO in 1993: Biertan, Calnic, Darjiu, Prejmer, Saschiz, Valea, and Viilor Viscri. As was to be expected, these religious building complexes are of great constructive, architectural, and documentary value. However, these are not their only merits. They also provide a global overview of the villages, prompting reflections on domestic and residential architecture, in relation to the many centuries which have resulted in a unique blend of culture and ethnicity.
Three main categories can be established when categorizing Transylvanian fortified churches by type of fortification: fortified churches, churches with fortified enclosure walls, and churches with mixed defensive features (“church-fortress”). The first category, that of fortified churches, can be identified by the belfry towers which were converted into donjons (keeps), or by the thick walls which had wide paths with holes in the floor for guards, and mortars below the cornice. The second category sees the church buildings with no defensive elements, but surrounded by walls, relatively small in some cases, without crenels, and few defensive towers, or on the contrary, tall and thick with guard paths, several towers, and crenels. Other types have multiple enclosure walls. Finally, the last category presents the fortifications which combine the first two types. This can be seen as a double protection system. In addition to the use of the church building as a defensive structure, surrounding walls with multiple defensive elements are also found.
There are however some differences between the morphology of the villages. The residential buildings of the Saxon villages of Transylvania are decidedly rural, and the distribution of domestic space is closely tied to the relationship with agricultural production and crop cycles. Typically, dwellings were situated at the end of each plot, overlooking the street with an entrance delimiting and closing off the property. The elongated internal courtyards, separated by the main door, show a clear “introverted” sequence of spaces, usually divided into five major areas. The first strip of the plot is occupied by the family home or the residential nucleus strictly speaking.
The next space encountered was a threshing floor with an oven, summer kitchen, and other service areas. Yards, incorporating a small stable and/or chicken coop, and a lavatory were usually found beyond these spaces. The fourth space housed storage buildings and stores for the family’s seasonal crops (grain, hay….), while the fifth and final section, with an orchard and garden, was located at the back.
The residential building located in the first part of the plot is accessed from the courtyard and is the only part of the volume “open” to or in direct contact with the village (on its decorated façade). The building incorporates a partly underground vaulted cellar, with strong brick or masonry load-bearing walls. The living room, kitchen, and bedrooms are found on the upper level, slightly raised from the ground, and protected by an oak roof.
UNESCO first recognized these villages with fortified churches in 1993. However, a gradual transition took place before they were officially awarded protected status through a Management Plan drawn up by the Ministry of Culture of Romania in 2013, and revised in 2014 (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/596/documents/).
This period saw major alterations to the constructive and typological features of the villages, and especially to privately owned residential buildings. While floors, roofs, beams or joinery were replaced in many of these buildings, many other unsuitable interventions were also carried out, with alterations to the historic sector, the demolition of agricultural annexes or the addition of new volumes to courtyards.
The 2013 management plan incorporated some graphic, historical and legislative sections, as well as maps to a scale of 1:5000 of the relevant locations. Following a painstaking inventory of the buildings, a “protected” area and buffer zone were outlined to prevent tourism and real estate speculation from causing an uncontrolled expansion or urbanistic changes.
The plan follows four basic lines of action. Some are more spread out in time, and as seen in the 3D Past data collection processes, which are still in place, while other more occasional ones have a shorter duration.
The first of these actions is the programme for “Buildings in need of urgent intervention”, supported by periodic reports from specialist inspectors in charge of updating and revising the inventory of the classified buildings, examining different factors when considering potential subsidies. Attempts have been made to limit the gradual obsolescence of these villages through the “Buildings for reuse” programme, which draws up periodic reports, as well as carrying out inspections in collaboration with local authorities and under the supervision of the Transylvania Trust. Another programme worth noting is “Protect know how from oblivion”, carried out in collaboration with Rumania Nostra and several local and supraterritorial institutions. The final action is the “Education for understanding and protection” programme which covers different collectives (specialists, local administration, citizens, students, owners…). All the above contribute to the promotion of resources, clearly identifying respectful or inappropriate actions, and in turn generating potential driving forces for local development that take into consideration possible ethnic or social differences.
For centuries, the fortified churches have been the religious and cultural centre of rural communities —built, used, and maintained largely by Transylvanian Saxons and Transylvanian settlers. From their construction in the late Middle Ages until the end of the 16th century, most churches have undergone numerous alterations and additions. For over five centuries their role was both religious and military. However, over the last three centuries, especially the 19th and 20th centuries, the defensive elements of the enclosures (towers, walls) were partially or totally demolished as they no longer fulfilled their role. The departure in recent decades of most of the Transylvanian Saxon population in the region has brought about uncertainty for the future of these fortified churches, universal heritage part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage. The number of these buildings - now much lower - makes up one of the densest and best-maintained mediaeval fortification systems on the European continent. Many have been conserved until today and play an important part within a unique landscape. This importance is heightened by the density and variety of monuments, which have become the hallmark of many villages, as well as the region as a whole.
In this framework it is worth noting the role of The Fortified Churches Foundation (founded by the Evangelic Church of Augustan Confession in Romania) in creating an expert institution focusing mostly on preserving religious heritage. The existence of a legally constituted foundation enables the necessary long-term perspective and improves the possibilities of fundraising for this endeavour.