HRH The Prince of Wales
James Cellan Jones
Lord Dacre †
Timothy Garton Ash
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Yehudi Menuhin †
Professor Sir Dimitri Obolensky †
Sir Steven Runciman †
Jessica Douglas-Home (Chairman)
During Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the Mihai Eminescu Trust gave dissidents a lifeline to civilisation. And by alerting the West to his plan to bulldoze Romania’s rural architecture it helped save hundreds of towns and villages from destruction. Since then, the Trust has played a prominent role in the country’s academic and cultural revival.
In the post-Communist era, much of Romania’s countryside has come under new threat from agricultural collapse, the abandonment of houses and a lack of awareness of the value of this endangered heritage.
The Trust concentrates on the Saxon villages of Transylvania, a special case because of the age and richness of their culture and the emergency caused by the mass emigration of the Saxon inhabitants to Germany in 1990. These villages – farmers’ houses and barns built around fortified churches, substantially unchanged since the Middle Ages – lie in spectacularly beautiful surroundings. The hills and valleys are rich in wild flowers. Wolves, bears and wild boar roam the mountains and the forests of beech and oak.
The Trust also works on a smaller scale in another colourful and threatened part of Romania – the Maramures, where the buildings are made of wood and decorated with elaborate carvings.
Romania’s Saxon farming and housing settlements have survived for almost a millennium.
The following is an extract from an article written in 2002 for Open Democracy by; Jessica Douglas-Home, founder of the Mihai Eminescu Trust.
I first heard of the Siebenburgen (seven towns) district of Romania from a Bucharest dissident, editor of a German-language newspaper. He spoke sadly of the fate of the Saxon farmers who had settled in the twelfth century around Brasov, Sibiu and Sighisoara, intermarrying and keeping their culture, language and religion alive against every form of brigandage and persecution, and whose beautiful houses and fortified Lutheran churches were now threatened with destruction.
Nikolai Ceausescu, Romania’s vainglorious Conducator, had not only decided to bulldoze the villages, along with thirteen thousand others, as part of his plans for systematisation; he was also getting rid of the Saxons themselves, selling those with exportable skills at a few thousand Deutschmarks a piece to the West German Government. When, after the fall of communism, the German Foreign Minister invited anyone of German origin to return to the fatherland, some two hundred thousand Saxons stampeded out of Transylvania, leaving a scattered and predominantly elderly population to look after this most precious of European landscapes.
Because of the difficulties of travelling in communist Romania it was some time before I was finally able to visit the Siebenburgen. I had expected to find an enclave of German culture: in fact I discovered an image of Europe as it must once have been everywhere – a landscape still disputed between wildlife and people, villages still fortified against marauders, a deep intimacy between farmers and domestic animals, and a religious tranquillity radiating from churches adorned by centuries of pious workmanship.
In the forests of oak and beech roamed wolf, bear and wild boar; in the skies were eagles, owls and storks. The meadows were decked with wild flowers, alive with butterflies and crickets, and encircled by lark-song. Streams ran fresh from the hillsides and gathered into swift, clear rivers in the valleys.
The houses melded with the landscape as though they had grown from it. Built to a format, they stand end-on to the street, and are painted like wildflowers in ochres, greens and blues, with stucco-patterned facades and hipped roofs. Each possesses a cobbled courtyard, a winter and summer kitchen, a vegetable patch and a colossal timber-framed barn enclosing the rear end of the courtyard.
Behind the barns lie larger vegetable plots and orchards, with a row of walnuts at the far end to act as a wind- and fire-break and to provide insect-free shade in summer time. Further off the pasture rises towards the woodland, which in most places still crowns the high ground, the haunt of animals who have disputed this territory with the farmers since Roman times. As in much of medieval Europe, the egalitarian Saxon communities divided their arable land into strips.
The endurance of faith and beauty
Animals are as integral to the household as people: cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, ducks and goats are stabled a few feet from the back door, and when the huge gates are opened in the morning the cows and horses amble on to the central track through the village, there to join other cattle and their herdsman, who take them into the meadows to graze with the sheep.
An atmosphere of settlement hangs over the landscape, and yet everywhere are the little signs that the work of settlement can at any moment be undone. The wild forest above seems to be waiting to reclaim the valleys, and in the heart of each village, next to the Tanzplatz or dancing circle, stands the fortified church, vivid reminder of the Turkish and Tartar invasions that spread havoc through these lands.
Within the church walls, sometimes two or even three deep, are the sleeping areas allotted to each village family. Here they would come, bringing livestock and food, to protect themselves until the storm had passed, thereafter to return to their burned and pillaged homesteads and begin again the daily work of settlement.
These reminders of terror and hardship contrast with the gaiety and naturalness of the church decorations. The pews are painted in delicate flowered patterns; pulpits are capped with crowns and encircled by two-dimensional painted angels. In the sacristy or at the back of the church stands a magnificent organ, and the doors which lead to the priest’s quarters are inlaid in many-coloured woods, with finely wrought locks, keys and hinges.
The beauty of the Saxon villages is not simply a matter of their evocative architecture and magnificent churches; nor is it reducible to the unique harmony between man and nature, or the quaint old ways of farming, or the extraordinary eco-system which still survives here – although all of those are important.
The beauty of this – as perhaps of all landscapes – is that it is the outcome of successful settlement. The Siebenburgen is the visible record of a routine maintained over centuries, in which men and women have found happiness and sorrow in equal measure, but have gone on reproducing nevertheless, and shaped the earth to themselves and themselves to the earth in mutual harmony.
Now that those who made this landscape have fled, what is to become of it, and what attitude should we take towards its future? Should it be placed in an ecological museum, to become the property of some equivalent of the National Trust. Should it be allowed to decay into wilderness? Or should it be rationalised by global agribusiness (little better, to many people’s way of thinking, than being systematised by Ceausescu)?
These questions troubled me greatly, and for two reasons. First, because I had discovered, for the first and perhaps the last time in my life, an intact visual record of the agricultural way of life – by which I mean the way of life which produces food as a culture rather than a business. Encapsulated in these villages and their real but fragile economy is a memory that is precious to all of us, since it is the folk memory of Europe. I did not want that memory to vanish.
Secondly, I recognised that what I felt about the Saxon villages of Romania was merely a heightened and dramatic form of what so many of us feel about the man-made landscapes that provide our visions of rural peace. We all of us remain attached, in some part of ourselves, to a real or imaginary Eden; and, as Hugh Brody points out in his book, The Other Side of Eden, Edens are not merely man-made but made by farming. In other words, they belong to an endangered way of life, and the troubling question arises: what happens to the landscape, when the way of life that made it comes to an end? This is the question that confronted me in the Saxon villages.
Through the Mihai Eminescu Trust, I and a few friends began a campaign to save the Saxon villages. We hoped to revive as best we could the local economy. Working at first to save houses and churches from the accelerating dilapidation that had overtaken them since the flight of so many inhabitants, we soon turned our attention to the revival of agriculture. The State farms and the village cooperatives were bankrupt; the government promised restitution of the land but constantly delayed its implementation; vast tracts lay fallow, and the farm buildings were rapidly decaying.
At first that might have seemed like the end for a farming community. For us, however, it was the beginning. For it was the best possible starting point for organic farming. The farmers could not afford artificial fertiliser or pesticide, and besides the best hope for marketing their product was to take advantage of the new desire for organic products.
While introducing the techniques required by the farmers, we began a scheme to train villagers – most of them now Romanians or gypsies – in the use of traditional building materials, and in the art of conservation. We began to restore the old drinking wells, the cobbled streets, and the wattling that shores up the banks of the streams through the villages. We have encouraged inns and guest houses that might cater for discerning tourists and have built stables for horse-trekking.
All this might seem like so much lacquer on the face of a corpse. But, to our delight, it is encouraging people to stay in the villages, to re-work the land, and to take the same kind of interest in their surroundings as we take, seeing them as the precious imprint of a valid way of life, and a unique interface between man and animal.
The rhythm established by the Saxon villagers has revived, with the daily ritual of milking the cows, followed by their morning drink at the well, their exodus up into the hills and the evening return. Hay-making, crop gathering and storage for the winter once again mark out the seasons. And young people are staying, either to take part in the revived economy, or to add some new enterprise of their own.