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Dr. Igor Gyalakuthy

As a boy, I dreamt of the covered bazaars and spice markets, the crescent daggers, crescent slippers, and crescent moons that hung over the desert dunes. I would pour over the Adrien Zograffi books, savoring each phrase of Istrati’s exquisite prose, to imagine poor Dragomir riding his horse through the streets of Istanbul, searching the palace harems for his stolen sister. I would turn over in my mouth those words of Romanian whose roots are Turkish: duşman (enemy), tutun (tobacco), zarzavagiu (greengrocer), during those few moments when my mouth wasn’t stuffed with sarmale or baklava. These inflections of the East on the country of my birth come from the days when the southern regions of Romania, along with its Balkan neighbors, were known collectively as Rumelia, the western hemisphere of the Ottoman brain at the height of the Empire’s power.

After World War I, the sick man of Europe finally perished, and what took its place was a secular Turkish Republic that had little interest in celebrating its Ottoman ancestry or, more specifically, its Balkan past. But there is, or rather was, one relic that embodied the spirit of the East in this region better than any other: the isle of Ada Kaleh.

Ada Kaleh was an island located on a stretch of the Danube River known as the gorge of the Iron Gates, which was the site of Trajan’s Bridge and other, more dubious relics. [Note: see Part IV] No more than “a tongue of land,” Ada Kaleh was coveted for its favorable military and mercantile positioning on the river, and its Edenic landscape. In the 18th century alone, the island changed hands four times, conquered alternately by the Ottomans and the Hapsburg Austrians, who built a fortress on the Eastern tip that gave the island its name. [Note: Ada Kaleh means “Fortress Island” in Turkish.]

The Ottoman Empire lost its foothold in the region after the Russo-Turkish War in 1878, but ownership of Ada Kaleh was never discussed during the Treaty of Berlin, its existence seemingly forgotten, which left the island as a sort of vague sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Despite technically belonging to Romania, Ada Kaleh remained fundamentally Ottoman even after 1923, the last remnant of the Empire, and maintained a mostly Turkish population composed of soldiers, builders, merchants and their families.

When Romanian King Carol II set foot on his newest domain in 1931, he was so charmed by the island that he promised to reinstate the tax exemptions the villagers had enjoyed under Ottoman rule. The island created a limited import company called Musulmana that sold duty free cigarettes, alcohol, sugar, textiles, and other local specialties, the profits of which went entirely to maintaining the island’s patrimony and supporting its families. Occasionally, the island was home to fleeing refugees from Serbia or Romania, and had the reputation of being a smuggler’s den, which I confess is part of what made Ada Kaleh one of those remote Eastern delights that so captured my imagination as a boy. And I’m not alone. The English explorer Patrick Leigh Fermor visited the island in 1934 on his way across Europe. “The first thing I saw after landing was a rustic coffee-shop under a vine-trellis where old men sat cross-legged in a circle with sickles and adzes and pruning knives scattered about them. I was elated when bidden to join them as if I had suddenly been seated on a magic carpet.”

During the first half of the twentieth century, the island saw tens of thousands of visitors each year, most of them engaging in the same kind of dreamy historical tourism that had so enamored Fermor and other writers and artists. In fact, so much has been written about the island of Ada Kaleh that I will spare the casual reader of its full history. [Note: few writings on the subject are quite as good as this:]

When the Iron Gates hydroelectric dam was completed in 1970, the ensuing rising waters swallowed the island of Ada Kaleh whole. The island’s residents either returned to Turkey or settled along the Romanian and Serbian coasts. Before the village was evacuated, plans were set in motion to move the island’s architecture brick by brick to the nearby, uninhabited isle of Şimian, whose size, shape and climate closely resembled those of Ada Kaleh. But the project was abandoned soon after the Turkish residents of Ada Kaleh were offered refuge from the increasingly hostile Romanians by the Turkish government, which most of them took. Unfinished, the island of Şimian is itself a ruin, a facsimile little more inhabitable than the sunken island after which it was modeled.

Ada Kaleh was not the only victim of the rising Red tides. The Communist regime used the modernization of the country’s waterways as a tool to cleanse the region of much of its Hungarian and German architectural and cultural heritage, most apparent in the small villages of Transylvania, where the spirit of multi-ethnic community still existed. In 1988, the Romanian government completed work on a new dam on the Târnava Mică river, the reservoir of which flooded the nearby town of Bezidu Nou and the homes of its largely Hungarian Sabbathist Jews.

A monument to the memory of the town was erected near the ruins in 1995, the inscription of which reads, “On the floor of the lake rests Bezidu Nou. Its 180 former residents, now scattered in the world, mourn it still today. Obsequious servants of the dictatorship demolished it and flooded it, thereby destroying a historically and religiously unique community, in which families of different nationalities and faiths lived with one another, full of understanding and good peace over the centuries. Now the prayers of Roman Catholics, Unitarians, Greek Catholics, and Sabbatarians have gone silent forever. Let this place be a symbol of religious tolerance.” All that stands today is a single wall of its stone church tower, a chilling and all-too-familiar symbol of devastation and loss, one that marks the fate of similar towns all over the area.

The village of Geamana, situated in the Apuseni Mountains, was the victim of a different kind of industrialization. It was not the pooling reservoir of a hydroelectric dam that subsumed the town but an artificial lake of toxic sludge, chemical waste from a nearby copper mine diverted to Geamana in 1980. [Note: the cyanide leeching in a nearby mine has been a source of controversy for years, resulting in the 2013 Roşia Montană protests all over the country, the largest civil movement in Romania since 1989.] The vision of Geamana’s deconsecrated and dilapidated church surrounded by neon orange water is a horror.

Years ago, during a road trip through the same mountains, my wife and I stopped for lunch at Fantanele Lake. The lake is home to old Beliş, another sunken town, its ruins submerged in the reservoir made by a nearby dam. This and more my wife read aloud to me as we parked our car and stepped out into the fresh, cold air. “In the dry season,” she read, “when the water recedes from the shore, the steeple of the old church becomes visible above the water line.”

As we made our way delicately down the steep slope to the water, I lent my wife my arm to steady her descent, gentleman that I am, but it was only near the bottom that I realized that it was, in fact, she who had been holding me up. My knees grew weak at the approach of the dark body of water that stretched out in front of me, and I began to feel dizzy. As I sat on the shore collecting my breath, I tried to put into words for her that abstract feeling playing on my nervous system. It was loss, a microcosm of the sensation I was to feel only two short years later.

It is true that the destruction of small towns and villages to make way for industrial facilities is a global modern phenomenon. But the decision to destroy these pieces of heritage necessitates a judgment about their cultural and historical value that should never rest in the hands of cultureless bureaucrats and philistines, to say nothing of power-mad dictators. The loss of Ada Kaleh is an unspeakable tragedy, but its memory is a reminder of what a community can be when protected, however temporarily, from those who would exploit the land, the labor and the gentleness of contented people.

If the only way to live in peace on this earth is to hide in the protection of its shaded spaces, then let the darker corners of our minds serve as refuge for these lost artifacts, and let those corners host, like the shores lining the treacherous waters that consumed them, shining monuments to their memories.

For me, Ada Kaleh lives at the bottom of a deep body of water, where I keep closely those things lost to me.

Dr. Igor Gyalakuthy is a professor emeritus at the Universitatea Nationala de Arte in Bucharest. In 1993, he received the national medal for achievement in the field of art history. He lives in Cluj- Napoca with his Lakeland terrier Bausa.