12 Fortified Churches of Transylvania: The castles of the peasants

The Carpathian Mountains enclosing Transylvania used to be a frontier land. This historical region located in the heart of Romania, has been always a mosaic of cultures and people. It was not only inhabited by Romanian but also Hungarian-Székelys, Jews, Gypsies, Vampires (joking:)... and a group of skilled artisans, descendents of Germanic tribes called the Saxons. These privileged immigrants were invited by the King of Hungary in the 12th century to help defending and developing this conflictive territory.

Constantly threatened by Ottomans, Mongols, Tatars, Cossacks and also Romanian invaders, unlike Hungarians, Transylvanian Saxons were too far from homeland to run away. Apparently, their only option was to stay and resist. Thus what made their legacy unique is the fact that instead of gathering around a lord in his castle, these people transformed their most representative communal building into a stronghold.

Nowadays only 150 of these fortified churches are still standing, out of approximately 300. After a memorable journey to the area, we have selected some of the most interesting remaining ensembles from this magnificent architectural legacy:

Fortified Churches
The fortified church of Cincșor is one of the best preserved. The strategy of the villagers was to represent a too hard effort for a too small reward for the attackers. Some invaders could spare the town in exchange of food supplies, so locals had the hope to transfer the raid to better defended positions. Image by Atlas of Wonders

Biserici Fortificate din Transilvania
Pictured, the compact church of Axente Sever. The inhabitants of these little towns had no resources to protect the entire settlement, and the temple used to be the only stone building where to take refuge. Image by Bogdan Croitoru

Saxon Village
From all the Transylvanian fortified churches, Biertan is one of the most spectacular and representative. Also it belongs to the group of the only 7 included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Image by Otto Schemmel

Transylvanian Saxons
The Șeica Mică fortress is a massive building defended by two belts of walls and a few towers. The external apse has a row of openings (technically called machicolations) to throw stones and boiling water over the enemies, just like a castle.
Image by Zsolt Deak and Stefan Bichler

Kirchenburgen in Siebenbürgen
To get to most of the places in this list, like Dealu Frumos, you have to take roads less traveled. A bicycle is ideal to cross the beautiful villages and landscapes of Transylvania.

The church of Cristian (near Brașov) looks better from an aerial perspective. The circular wall enclosure is reinforced by 8 towers, a bastion and a moat. Image by Neighbor's goat

Fortified Churches of Romania
Prejmer is considered the most powerful medieval fortified church in Eastern Europe. It counts with thick walls of 4 meters, 12 meters high bastions, and even a special weapon called the "death organ", which was able to shot several harquebuses at one time. Inside the round courtyard there are almost 300 cells, one for each family in the village, very handy in case of siege (or zombie apocalypse). Image by Andreidan

Churches of Transylvania
It is possible to camp inside the first enclosure of the church of Moșna for a small donation, if you ask nicely. This village is very close from the beautiful city of Mediaș, not too be missed.
Image by Zsolt Deak and Atlas of Wonders

Fortress Church
Viscri is a visually harmonic and picturesque monument located in a remote rural area, also selected by the UNESCO. On the other hand, the capital and the bigger city of the Saxon community was Hermannstadt, better known as Sibiu.
Image by Zsolt Deak and Valentina Datcu

Siebenbürger Sachsen
As a curiosity, the fortified Gothic church of Valea Viilor has a well right inside the center of the building, to provide water in case of siege. Image by Zsolt Deak and Atlas of Wonders

The castles of God
In Hărman you can find rooms embedded in the external walls of the church, where families could stay in troubled times. In many of these ensembles open to the public, some of the spaces have been transformed in small museums displaying old surviving artifacts.

Saschiz church
Saschiz has one of the most tall and impressive towers. The Saxons played a key role in the history of Transylvania until they decided to move to Germany en masse, from the second half of the 20th century. The diaspora left many of these fascinating monuments unguarded from the ravages of time. Image by Mihai Raducanu

Finally here is a short and interesting video about the last member of the Saxon community in the village of Richiș.

For more information there is available a book from year 2000 in black and white called Fortresses of Faith, taking you to a wonderful photographic tour through the churches of the Saxons. To explore a bit further the world of the fortified religious buildings, the book Castles of God is a bit outdated but contains lots of historical references. Finally, if you are planning to visit this country full of surprises, we recommend the Transylvania Bradt Travel Guide, and the more recent Rough Guide to Romania:


Fortified Churches Map
Click here to see in detail the map of the fortified churches featured in this post (opening in a new tab)

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