Vauban and bastion fortresses in Romania

The impressive Vauban citadel structures of the 17th – 18th century warfare era, with their characteristic star shape and diamond profile bastions, are usually associated with Western Europe defence architectural tradition perfected by the great French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707).

Less well known is the fact that remarkable Vauban type fortresses are also encountered in South East Europe, within the territory encompassed today by the state of Romania, which throughout history has been a borderland between conflicting powers that came into contact in this region.

In the 18thcentury the Ottoman Empire, the erstwhile hegemon of the Balkans came to blows with the advancing Habsburg and Russian empires in the lands between the Carpathians Mountains and the river Danube, where the principalities of Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldova, historic provinces of Romania, are located. I describe that very peculiar geopolitical situation as a triple junction point of empires. The convergence of three competing powers within those territories had a powerful influence not only on local military architecture, causing the Vauban fortress type to be widely adopted, but has also produced the odd mix of western and oriental civil architectural styles encountered in today Romania.

I will be presenting here some of the most representative such historic military architectural structures using satellite images from Google Earth, endeavouring to complement them in the foreseeable future with photographs taken in situ, as I will travel throughout Romania and visit those places. The map bellow indicates the location of the citadels mentioned in the article.

Romania's region: a "triple junction point" of empires where the continous state of warfare in the 18th century made necessary the construction of many Vauban type fortresses (like the one refered to in this article and circled on the map)

Romania’s region: a “triple junction point” of empires where the continous warfare between the Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires in the 18th century made necessary the construction of Vauban type fortresses (circled locations are refered to in this article)

* Austrian fortresses

Austria incorporated in 1699, after the conquest of Ottoman Hungary, the autonomous Transylvanian principality and its adjacent areas (Partium, Banat). The virtually continuous warfare in this borderland with the Turks and the necessity to firmly secure the territory, determined the construction of strong Vauban fortresses to protect main towns and reinforce strategic points along the advancing front line. Thus one of the oldest and most impressive such fortresses was erected between the years 1714-38 in Alba-Iulia (Hungarian: Gyulafehérvár, German: Karlsburg) the ancient capital of the principality.

The Vauban fortress of Alba-Iulia (Gyulafehervar, Karlsburg), 1714-1738

The Vauban fortress of Alba-Iulia (Gyulafehervar, Karlsburg), 1714-1738. View from 1.9km altitude.

The citadel surrounds the old Roman city of Apulum, one of the oldest continuously settled places in Romania, and its grid of streets sill preserves the Roman layout. The Austrians even used blocs of stone from the old Roman defence walls.

The city of Cluj (Hungarian: Kolozsvár, German: Klausenburg) was, as the seat of the Transylvanian parliament, the Diet, also provided with a Vauban fortress at practically the same time (1715-35) as Alba-Iulia, of smaller proportions, without ancillary fortifications on account of this town’s more protected location at the centre of the province.

The remnants of Cluj's (Kolosvar, Clausenburg) Vauban fortress

The remnants of Cluj’s (Kolosvar, Clausenburg) Vauban fortress. View from 0.9km altitude.

The citadel had five bastions and today is barely visible (I circled with white rectangles the still discernible bastions), just some wall remnants projecting out of the ground, highlighting its contour. There are still preserved a number of four original buildings inside the wall enclosure and the south-west and north gates. A surrounding ditch is also quite visible on the satellite image.

The plains between the river Tisa and the western Carpathian Mountains, known as the Partium region, were much exposed to enemy attack and the important market town of Oradea (Hungarian: Nagyvárad, German: Grosswardein) located in that area was endowed witha powerful Vauban citadel build in a few stages, starting with 1725, throughout the 18th century.

The Vauban fortress of Oradea (Nagyvarad, Grosswardein), started in 1725

The Vauban fortress of Oradea (Nagyvarad, Grosswardein), started in 1725.View from 1.0km altitude.

The fortress, although is today a protected monument, suffers because of the lack of funds for vital repairs and criminal behaviour of some of local citizens that steal brick and stone from the old structure for use in unsightly constructions typical of the recent callous property boom in Romania.

Timisoara (Hungarian: Temesvár, German: Temeswar) and the surrounding territory of the Banat was secured by the Austrians with a large Vauban fortress, built in 1723-65, which replaced an old smaller Ottoman citadel.

The remnants of Timisoara (Temesvar) Vauban fortress

The remnants of Timisoara (Temesvar) Vauban fortress. View from 2.5km altitude.

This fortress was a major military structure with nine huge bastions. In the second part of 19thcentury most of the walls and bastions with the exception of the eastern one (Theresia Bastion- circled in the image) were demolished to make space for new modern city infrastructure, as Timisaoara was rapidly expanding during the then impetuos industrialisation era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The old fortress’ street grid is still in place as is evident in the satellite photograph.

The exposed plains of the Banat frontier required the building of other key fortresses, and one of the most powerful, and perhaps the most spectacular in Romania was erected in Arad (same name in Hungarian and German), a city about 50 miles north of Timisoara, in 1763-83.

The Vauban fortress of Arad (1763-83)

The Vauban fortress of Arad(1763-83). View from 2.3km altitude.

Its location is quite dramatic, in a huge bulge like bend of the Mures river. The citadel is still even now a military base, which is in a very run down state and there are plans from the authorities to declare it a historical monument and thus open it to the public. The Arad fortress is probably better preserved due to its continuous use for military purposes throughout most of its existence, in contrast with other Vauban fortresses form the old Habsburg territory contained within Romania that endured a multitude of often destructive uses such as housing projects, warehousing, prisons or left to fall apart.

* Ottoman Fortresses

Throughout the 18th and first part of the 19thcentury, the Ottoman Empire came in this region under relentless attack from both the Habsburg and Russian empires. The answer of the Turks in terms of fortifications was to establish the main defence line on the lower Danube river course. Thus a chain of fortresses that contained important Vauban type elements and structures was unfurled from the Banat to the maritime portion of the river in the vicinity of the Danube Delta. The battles for these strongholds became legendary in Europe and even Lord Byron describes in his poem Don Juan (canto vii and viii) the dramatic fall to the Russians of one these fortresses in the savage 1790 siege of Ismail, located close to the Danube Delta. Byron gives there a fitting description of Ismail citadel mentioning specifically that is a Vauban type:

(ix) The fortress is called Ismail, and is placed/ Upon the Danube’s left branch and left bank,/ With buildings in the Oriental taste,/ But still a fortress of the foremost rank,/…

(xi) This circumstance may serve to give a notion/ of the high talents of this new Vauban/…

(Lord Byron: Don Juan, canto vii)

The diminished financial means of the Ottoman Empire in that period when it had to suffer successive defeats at the hand of its more resourceful and better organised enemies, and the fact that the Porte had to use hard to get foreign engineers (often sourced from the contingents of western war prisoners), was reflected in fortifications provided with smaller bastions and surrounding forts. The system was nevertheless effective, as it maintained the frontier of the empire until the independence of Bulgaria, following the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78.

On the Romanian bank of the Danube the main Ottoman strongholds were in Wallachia in the cities of Braila and Giurgiu (there was also a minor citadel in Turnu) where the Turks controlled not only the fortresses, but also the surrounding countryside. Wallachia and in addition Moldova as frontier buffer territories, enjoyed a great degree of autonomy and self-government under the Ottoman protectorate, ever since the 15thcentury, when that understanding was reached between the Sultan and the local princes. The Porte, in exchange for a hefty tribute, was not allowed to station its armies, colonise, build mosques or directly govern those princedoms; a very peculiar situation for the entire Ottoman Empire. That explains the lack of 17th – 18thcentury Ottoman fortifications and garrisons in Wallachia and Moldova proper and also the effective use, because of their virtual “no man’s land” status, as a convenient war theatre by all conflicting powers.

Braila on the left bank of the Danube, not far from Byron’s Ismail fortress, was a very important Ottoman garrison city and the shape of its old citadel is still detected in the contour of the modern roads and habitable areas. The more verdant semicircle noticeable in the image bellow is the old fortress’ ditch that stood in front of the bastions, today functioning as the main boulevard of this city.

Braila: street delienation of former Vauban fortress

Braila: street delienationofformer Vauban fortress. View from 2.75km altitude.

The citadel was demolished in the course of the 1828-29 Russian-Turkish war by the Tsar’s troops and its territory given back to Wallachia as was stipulated in the 1829 peace Treaty of Adrianople. The citadel has never been rebuilt, and the same fate also suffered Giurgiu and Turnu. The semicircle shape of the Vauban fortress structures had decisively conditioned the urban planning and directions of development of the modern town, Braila being one of the best and most judiciously planned towns in Romania. There are some old remnants of the old walls close to the Danube river bank or as the cellars of houses built on top of the demolished fortifications.

However, that Ottoman Vauban type fortress that has vanished in Braila is quite well preserved in Bulgaria, which stayed longer under the Turks and did not fall under the Adrianople Treaty obligations. Thus the citadels of Vidin and Silistra on the Bulgarian bank of the Danube can still be admired. I have here an image of Vidin, where a Vauban bastion is clearly distinguishable (circled).

Vidin, Bulgaria: remnants of Vauban type fortress

Vidin, Bulgaria: remnants of Vauban type fortress. View from 2.3km altitude.

* Russian Fortresses

The Russian Empire also built or took over a number of Vauban type fortresses as it advanced against the Ottomans in the Black Sea steppe frontier. Such a fort was erected in mid 18th century in Chisinau, today the capital city of the Republic of Moldova, the former eastern half of the old Principality of Moldova. The only reminder of the old fort in contemporary Chisinau is the grid of streets intersecting at right angles, and the main square in the centre of the city; a setting which also determined the shape and directions of a healthy modern urban planning during the city’s great demographic expansion as the result of the Soviet industrialisation policies in the 1960s-80s.

* The Forts of Bucharest

Vauban’s genius in designing fortresses was not only confined to the 17th and 18th centuries. His siege and defence architecture principles went well beyond his time and were followed practically until the advent of mobile warfare in WWII. The famous Maginot Line is considered in many aspects the ultimate defence structure that can trace its origins in Marshal Vauban’s seminal works.

Bucharest, the capital of modern Romania, was provided toward the end of the 19th century with some of the most extensive and up to date defence structures in Europe. At the initiative of King Carol I, a very able military professional formed and trained in Germany, the Belgian general Henri Alexis Brialmont was instructed to design the remarkable defence complex that stretched over a circumference of 72km around the city. Built and equipped between 1884 -95, there is a series of 18 forts placed at a distance of 4km from each other with another 18 intermediate batteries placed in between the forts as can be seen in Google image bellow (I delineated in red the ring of forts, where the larger prominences on the circumference are forts, smaller ones batteries).

The line Bucharest forts and batteries: masterwork of general Henri Alexis Brilamont

The ring of forts and batteries that once were meant to protect Bucharest: masterpiece of general Henri Alexis Brilamont. View from 35.0km altitude.

Bucharest forts sketch map (source:)

Bucharest forts sketch map (source: “Fortificatia Permanenta Contemporana”, by D.I. Vasiliu, Revista Geniului, Bucharest 1934)

Brialmont was in his early career a follower of Vauban’s principles and many elements in his later designs for Romanian or Belgian (Liège, Anvers, etc.) fortifications show that influence, as can be seen in the shape of Bucharest forts and batteries, an example being the following scheme:

Bucharest fort type I- Vauban inspired (source: "Fortificatia Permanenta Contemporana", by D.I. Vasiliu, Revista Geniului, Bucharest 1934)

Bucharest fort type I- Vauban inspired (source: “Fortificatia Permanenta Contemporana”, by D.I. Vasiliu, Revista Geniului, Bucharest 1934)

These structures were connected through a road and railway, which today function as the belt roads of Bucharest, practically in the same state as 120 years ago, serving a city of 3 million inhabitants, thus giving a measure of how Romania’s capital infrastructure was neglected by the communist and post-communist regimes. The fort ring also conditioned, as in the case of Braila described above, the urban development of Bucharest, being the main framework for the interwar urban master plan of the capital, still followed by today city authorities. The period when the forts were built coincides with the great civilian building boom that saw the emergence of the picturesque “Little Paris” style (Romanian provincially interpreted French architectural styles of the Second Empire period) in Bucharest and the rest of the country. All of that was possible because of a healthy economy and availability of finances stemming from the country’s position as a major European grain producer and exporter.

The forts are now in a ruinous state, deteriorating through neglect at an alarming rate. Nothing is being done by the government of the city authorities to redress the situation although the forts would constitute a major international tourist attraction. Although the fortifications are huge structures surrounding European Union’s 6thlargest metropolis, paradoxically not many of Bucharest’s citizens are aware about their existence, a result of the last six decades of communist and post-communist low quality education and lack of interest in their own heritage. Some of the forts are still army property, but left to fall apart, while others are falling prey to rapacious real estate interests in the form unchecked building development during the recent property boom in Romania. In one of the forts, Jilava, functions an infamous prison, while in Magurele fort, the irresponsible government used it some years ago as a makeshift dump for radioactive material (they claim that the fort has now been decontaminated).

*Conclusion

The symmetrical layout of the Vauban fortresses has conditioned the modern urban development of most of the cities referred to above. This type of old military architectural structure constitutes a spectacular piece of heritage that significantly enhance the aspect of a city. In Romania, especially in the area of Transylvania, these fortifications have also the potential to become focal points and examples for the restoration of the old city centres that are now in need of urgent address after many decades of neglect.

Romania at this moment in time does not have the necessary resources, skills and will to preserve, repair and promote the Vauban type fortresses as some of the main historic and tourist attraction of the country. The fortresses mentioned in this article are inestimable European historic and cultural assets in the care of the Romanian state, which although acknowledges their importance in legislation and lists some of them in the national heritage database, in practice does not do much for their protection and preservation. The potential is huge, and hope rests now mainly with the few local enthusiasts and some local authorities (certainly not the Bucharest ones) recognizing the importance for the identity of the local communities and tourism industry of these impressive pieces of military history. (All rights reserved ©Valentin Mandache, v_mandache@yahoo.co.uk, www.viapontica.wordpress.com)

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If you are interested in acquiring a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in locating the property, specialist research, planning permissions, restoration project management, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog.

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4 comments on “Vauban and bastion fortresses in Romania

  1. Ada Kaleh (the “Fortress Island” in Turkish language) is one among quite a few such examples of Vauban type or like bastioned fortresses built by the Ottomans on the Danube line. The list can continue with Nikopolis, Harsova, Kilia, Babadag, etc… It resembled in many ways the Danube line of fortifications built by the Romans or Byzantines, their empire builder predecessors, in many instances in the same locations, the Turks re-using the old masonry of the old citadels.

      Valentin Mandache http://www.viapontica.wordpress.com 

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