EXCLUSIVE FEATURE: Sarmizegetusa Regia, the root of Romania’s collective memory

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When we decided to climb up to Sarmizegetusa Regia we haven’t actually known the precise time of covering the ground of 18 kilometers from Costesti.

After all, how long could it take by car?

The hot summer day of mid July seemed to fossilize everything around, the air, the clouds up to the sky, the thick forest beyond, the green grass of the fields, including the road ahead of us. But we soon realized the fossil road was not just a metaphor but bitter reality, as we embarked on an almost 20-km patchy causeway that we eventually made it in almost one hour and a half.

With one piece of disgruntled husband about the difficult road and two pieces of impatient children, I found out the road was not in fact a big trouble for me as I was expecting to.

I was kind of ashamed I had never been to Sarmizegetusa Regia up to now. After all, it can be considered the birthplace of the Romanian people. At the same time, I was wondering what could the place display, something that could compensate for the painful access road. And these thoughts kept me busy for the entire ‘ascent journey’ so that I shouldn’t have to bother about the potholes on the road too much.

‘Nuts Dacians and cool Romans’ or was it vice versa?

The more you advance to the heart of Orastie Mountains, the air gets thinner and thinner and the heat stays behind. Once arrived, you have that “thanks God” feeling. But soon the landscape catches you, so that you lose reaction of any potential “oh, my God!” when you see your extremely dusted car as if it has just escaped a rally.

We had to walk several meters up to the clearing that shelters the former Dacian citadel, accompanied by the ancient ruins on each side of the mountain paths, but it was no bother at all. The thickness of the forest surrounding us while walking gave a fairytale feeling in exchange. The touristic guideposts sprinkled on the way were consolidating this feeling.

Anyway! These Dacians must be sort of nuts to climb their capital up here’, my elder kid noticed. ‘And the Romans must have been kind of cool to find them’, she continued.

Indeed, Sarmizegetusa Regia was ‘something’ back then, the largest settlement from pre-Roman Dacia, and so were the Dacians. The fortress consisted of three areas with distinct functions: a civilian settlement placed on the hill’s slopes, a fortress located on the highest area (1000 m) and a sacred area. The entire dwelling agglomeration covered several kilometers on the southern and eastern slopes of the hill. In the beginning (1st century BC) it was a sacred place due to the presence of certain religious structures in the sacred area.

Over time, mainly after the middle of the 1st century BC, the rich iron ore and the development of the ceremonial and religious centre led to the creation of a settlement having a flourishing economy. The exploitation of the iron resources transformed Sarmizegetusa into one of the largest metallurgical centers in temperate Europe in the 1st century AD. Temples, houses, workshops, granaries, installations for water taping and various objects point to high living standards.

Reading this description on the surrounding boards, I wondered if it wasn’t a little bit opposite from what my kid remarked: that ‘these’ Dacians must have been quite ‘cool’ to have created all these and that Romans must have been kind of ‘nuts’ to track down the settlement and to have the patience to conquer it eventually, even if it took them some time to do it. In the end, it looked like they equally possessed both features.

For Sarmizegetusa Regia was the hardcore of the Dacian Kingdom conquered by Trajan in AD 106.

The fortress, a quadrilateral consisting of massive stone blocks, was constructed on five terraces, on an area of almost 30,000 sqm.

The Stonehenge resemblance

The sacred zone — among the most important and largest circular and rectangular Dacian sanctuaries – includes a number of rectangular temples, the bases of their supporting columns still visible in regular arrays. Perhaps the most enigmatic construction at the site is the large circular sanctuary. It consisted of a setting of timber posts in the shape of a D, surrounded by a timber circle which in turn was surrounded by a low stone kerb. The layout of the timber settings bears some resemblance to the Stonehenge.

An artifact referred to as the “Andesite Sun” seems to have been used as a sundial. Since it is known that Dacian culture was influenced by contact with Hellenisitic Greece, the sundial may have resulted from the Dacians’ exposure to Hellenistic learning in geometry and astronomy.

The temples built of timber and stone used to have monumental proportions, and together with the altar ( the “Andesite Sun”) formed an assemblage where religious ceremonies and rituals were performed. The divinities to which these temples were dedicated are yet unknown.

The sacrifices altar here is unique in the Dacian world due to its impressive proportions and elaborated structure. In the upper side, the only visible part in the ancient times, the altar consisted of a central disc made of andesite, surrounded by 10 “rays” made of massive andesite slabs. Towards the external edge several small marble pieces were placed in rectangular cavities.

Intelligent sewer systems

The lower side was made of limestone blocks disposed in median lines and towards the extremities, while clay was pressed between them. The liquids poured onto the altar’s surface during sacrifices dripped through an orifice cut onto one of the “rays” and then flowed along a drain carved on a limestone block and into a sewer which crossed the sacred area.

The altar’s plan is completed by a row of 16 blocks having an orientation (north south axis) that led to the hypothesis that the monument also served as an astronomic device.

The sacred area suffered massive and systematic destruction after the Roman conquest, so it is almost impossible to identify the initial features of these religious constructions.

Civilians lived below the citadel itself in settlements built on artificial terraces. A system of ceramic pipes channeled running water into the residences of the nobility.

Even if few information is available now about the Dacians’ day-to-day life, the ruins of their citadel and the pieces discovered here somehow cleared the picture up.

Yet, many stories still lie behind, just like as the vipers crawling up there, never too visible, but always present for the vigilant mind’s eye.

When you are amidst the columns you forget about the difficult road up here, as you get that deja-vu feeling that helps you bear the way back, which however seems shorter and easier. Besides, you feel as if you have been here before and that you’ll be constantly coming, although you probably won’t, anyway, not too soon.

Aside from the access road, which however is promised to get better, you shouldn’t expect too much from Sarmizegetusa Regia, I mean no wonder sight. What it will definitely give you in exchange is that feeling of belonging, which cannot be captured by any sightsman’s description, by any touristic promotion campaign.

What was Sarmizegetusa for me? A nude, still virgin place that you cannot see with your eyes anymore but with your soul, as it goes back in time too much, like a memory from your past that you cannot remember anymore but you can still feel it.

Outcome on the way back: one piece of me less ashamed for not knowing the place before, one piece of husband more delighted about the location and more resigned about the bumping road and two pieces of children sleeping on the back seats, probably dreaming of sweet memories.

Original photo gallery by Romania Journal 

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