From the 13th century onwards the (at that time Hungarian) rulers of Transylvania encouraged German-speaking settlers to colonise the Transylvania area. Hard working, pious people, they built thriving communities but soon had to deal with the aggressions of the advancing troops of the Ottoman Empire. Lacking the financial resources to fortify whole villages or towns, they built defensive walls around their churches. Inside the walled area there were storehouses and living quarters, schools and workshops that allowed the community to withstand even longer sieges. We went to visit some of these fortified churches of Transylvania.
The priest is holding a chubby toddler on his lap, while another man with a bald patch clad in a crimson-red cloak is kneeling in front of them. If you look closely you can see him holding the knifelike instrument with which he is going to perform the circumcision. From one side the Virgin Mary is gazing affectionately down onto her son Jesus, and on the other side a servant is holding a golden plate in order to collect the Holy Foreskin.
The church of Biertan
It’s quite something, but this detailed and vivid depiction of the circumcision of Jesus is actually not even what the church of Biertan is famous for. Its main tourist asset is the massive defensive works that enclose the church on the hill.
The church of Biertan was built by Transylvanian Saxons at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century.
Seven of such fortified churches gained UNESCO world heritage status in 1993 (extended 1999).
The church of Prejmer
Besides Biertan we have visited Prejmer, perhaps the most impressive and famous one of them. The gothic church itself was built at the beginning of the 13th century, but the oval-shaped four-story high fortification was added in the 15th century by German-speaking Saxons. The walls are 5 m thick and 12 m high, with the upper level being used solely for defensive purposes. All in all there are 270 rooms of different sizes, and Prejmer could give shelter to up to 1600 villagers in times of danger.
You can still see the rooms, all accessible from balconies surrounding the church courtyard, each through its own door which was also the only source of light for a whole family living in that cabin. Quite idyllic today, but just imagine how they felt under siege from the “heathen” for months at a time …
Reasons to visit the fortified churches of Transylvania
The churches have a very unusual architecture, and they give a rather vivid impression of the border situation in those times. Transylvania was then the farthest reach of Christian civilisation, which was good for trade when there was peace (also visible in the rich interior of the churches), but quite insecure otherwise. We did not visit the other five fortified churches in Calnic, Viscri, Darjiu, Saschiz and Valea Viilor,
How to get to the fortified churches of Prejmer and Biertan by public transport
Most of the fortified churches are quite difficult to reach on public transport.
Prejmer near the city of Brasov is reached by a fairly regular bus that leaves from a small parking lot near the church of St- Bartholomae in Brasov and drops you directly in front of the church.
To get to Biertan by public transport you have to take one of the rare buses from Medias. On Sunday and public holidays the bus does not go at all. Another more convenient option is a private minibus transfer from Sighisoara. We went there by a combination of both (one-way private minibus, and then we went on to Sibiu via Medias by public bus (for which we had to wait for two hours in Biertan).