The Great Fire of Bucharest: archaeological finds

Bucharest has been beset by many tragedies throughout its five centuries of recorded history, from invasions of the Ottoman, Russian and Austrian armies, to plagues or destructive earthquakes and floods. The most devastating such event, in the context of its time, has been the Great Fire of Bucharest that occurred on 23 March 1847. It was a huge conflagration that swept though most of the mid-c19th the commercial and residential areas of old Bucharest. There are many accounts in the press, letters or private diaries of that era, but to date no proper research has been produced or published on the subject of this catastrophe, a symptom of the low quality level of historical scholarship in contemporary Romania. From an architectural point of view, the Great Fire is important because by wiping out most of the Ottoman Balkan central built area of the city, it freed ground for the erection of new buildings inspired from the French c19th historicist styles, that gave rise to what I call the Little Paris style. That architecture, which had its first green shoots in the aftermath of that devastating blaze, won Bucharest in the following decades its nickname on the “Little Paris of the Balkans” and will constitute one its hallmarks for the next one and a half century.

In early 2011, the mayoralty has started works for a large underground car park in the University area, which lays on the northern fringes of the zone reached by the Great Fire. The digs, now investigated by archaeologists, as required by the urban planning laws, are clearly revealing the stratum of burned out material generated by the conflagration, also yielding a diversity of artefacts that bear traces of intense fire. Bellow are a series of old engravings depicting the Great Fire of 1847 interlaced with photographs which I recently made there.

Old engraving depicting the Great Fire of Bucharest, 1847 (source: Adevarul newspaper)

The Great Fire was started by a teenage boy firing a handgun into a loft full of dry hay, a fact that gives you an image of Bucharest as a true frontier city on the wild fringes of Europe, in the Balkans, similar in many aspects with the rapidly developing cities of the US mid-West or of Russian East of that era.

The Great Fire of Bucharest, 1847; traces in the University area as seen in April 2011 (©Valentin Mandache)

The photograph above shows the archaeological investigations into the current digs for an underground car park in the University area. Note the thick black stratum of burned out material dating from the time of the conflagration. It was chronicled that the conflagration lasted for many days, some accounts mention even weeks, but I doubt their accuracy.

Old engraving depicting the Great Fire of Bucharest, 1847 (source: Adevarul newspaper)

A very illustrative image of the great scale conflagration, engulfing most of old Bucharest, about a square kilometre area of extremely high density habitation and commercial activity, as seen in those March 1847 days from atop the Patriarchy Hill, one of the few remaining safe corners of the city.

Soot traces on pottery from the Great Fire of Bucharest, 1847; traces in the University area as seen in April 2011 (©Valentin Mandache)

The photograph above shows mid c19th pottery bearing traces of intense fire, unearthed by the current archaeological investigations that take place at site of the underground car park works in the University area.

The ash and burned out material generated by the Great Fire of Bucharest, 1847; traces in the University area as seen in April 2011 (©Valentin Mandache)

The extensive stratum of burned out material generated by the Great Fire of 1847, revealed by the car park works in the University area, is marked on the photograph above with red broken lines.

Old engraving depicting the Great Fire of Bucharest, 1847 (source: Adevarul newspaper)

A very telling old engraving of drama suffered by the inhabitants of Bucharest during the conflagration of March 1947: the burning out of the New Saint George’s church.

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I endeavour through this series of periodic articles to inspire appreciation of the historic houses of Romania, a virtually undiscovered, but fascinating chapter of European architectural history and heritage.

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If you plan acquiring or selling a historic property in Romania or start a renovation project, I would be delighted to advice you in sourcing and transacting the property, specialist research, etc. To discuss your particular plan please see my contact details in the Contact page of this weblog.

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