Rare Arabic Votive Inscription on Romanian Church Doorway

Arabic votive inscription on Romanian church doorway, dating from 1747, Old St Spiridon Church, Bucharest. (©Valentin Mandache)

Most of what is now Romania has been for centuries a part of the Ottoman Empire. The principalities of Wallachia and Moldova, and also at a later date Transylvania, where the only autonomous Christian protectorates of this empire, governed by Christian princes, where permanent places of Muslim worship or settlement where not allowed, following special c15th autonomy treaties with the Porte. For about one hundred years, from the beginning of the c18th, Wallachia and Moldova where governed by princes from the great Istanbul Greek families, loyal subjects of the sultan, who lived in the Phanar quarter of the great city, hence the generic name of their rule in the Danubian principalities as the Phanariot regime. They opened this peripheral region, previously dominated by the Hungarian and Polish kingdoms, to the culture and economy of the rest of the realm of the Padishah. Bucharest thus became a city where one could encounter traders from as far as Damascus, as well as Tripoli or Cairo. Also representatives of diverse Christian sects and denominations from throughout the Ottoman Empire found in this city a welcoming home. One of them was the Patriarch Sylvester of Antioch, in Syria, a mainly Arabic speaking church, who resided in Bucharest during the fifth decade of the c18th, a period of bitter struggles within this church that led to its split into an Orthodox and a Greek Catholic branch, in communion with Rome. Prince Constantine Mavrocordatos, the ruler of Wallachia and a member of the the very prominent Ottoman Greek family of Mavrocordatos from Istanbul, that had a crucial role in the Greek Enlightenment, granted, in 1747, to the Patriarch of Antioch and his suite of Arabiac speaking monks, the Bucharest church of “Saint Spiridon of Trimutinda” (known today as “The Old St Spiridon Church“) and other revenue making properties in the city. The photomontage above and the slide show bellow the text show the impressive doorway of this church, decorated with a votive inscription in Romanian (rendered in Cyrillic characters), Greek and Arabic languages, containing Prince Constantine Mavrocordatos’ solemn statement granting the church to the Patriarch Sylvester of Antioch and his congregation. The Arabic text is a rarity for Bucharest and Romania in general, where Muslims, in conformity with the special Christian protectorate status of Wallachia and Moldova within the Ottoman realm, where not allowed to build places of worship. By contrast, Arabic speaking Christians, were responsible for one of the such rare old inscriptions of Bucharest. The votive inscription also contains a medallion with the symbols of Wallachia (an eagle) and Moldova (an auroch head) together, denoting the fact that Constantine Mavrocordatos was appointed by the Sultan to rule at one time or another in both principalities. I very much like the particular design of this doorway, a beautiful mingling of Ottoman Islamic and Byzantine shapes, that became the hallmark of the Romanian church architecture of the c18th and the c19th, from where the architect Ion Mincu, the initiator of the Neo-Romanian style has found a rich source of inspiration. This inscription is a witness of an epoch when this land was part of a great empire that stretched from Budapest to Mecca, and how fashions and styles from far away lands blend and enrich each other, resulting in processes that can take centuries in new vitalist artistic expressions.

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I endeavor through this series of daily 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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