For those who were away the day Romania was done

I got an email the other day, a while ago now, asking me to explain where Romania was because my correspondent couldn’t work out the screen shot in a previous post. I thought this might present an opportunity to stick in some bits and pieces that don’t obviously go anywhere else and to answer some questions. Geography. Okay. There. That’s Romania. Bordered to the north by the Ukraine and Moldova (now there’s another new (but actually very old) one for you), to the west by Hungary and to the south by Serbia and Bulgaria. After providing the southern border, the Danube turns sharply north at Silistra and drains through a vast marshy delta into the Black Sea. There is a sprawl of seaside resorts down this coast which continue all the way to Turkey and beyond. The Carpathians curl across its north and down through its centre leaving the Pannonian Plain to the west, and to the east the coastal plain which is part of the steppelands which finish somewhere near Siberia. It is almost exactly the same size as Victoria but a lot harder to get around. This is where we went. Maramures is a region not a city.

The people. I took this photo not just because the ice cream was good, which it was, but because this charming Romanian at Sighisoara seemed to suggest a much more widespread physical type: smooth olive skin, neatly defined features, warm brown eyes, slender, sometimes tall but generally not. I don’t know whether you are allowed to talk about physical types; probably not. But at Brasov (‘brush-off’) I had this sense of being surrounded in the Square on a party night by hundreds of very good looking people with similar features.

At left Mircea Eliade, the great Romanian philosopher and writer. Ionescu fits. Even Ceaușescu, at right, at a pinch.

History. Romania doesn’t get its name from the many Romany (‘gypsies’) who live there. That’s a story for another day. It gets its name from its inhabitants’ desire to be clear that they are ‘citizens of Rome’, and in fact one of the very last remnants of that classical empire. But both Herodotus and Thucydides are clear that the people who originally lived between the Danube and the Tisa were Dacians (not to be confused with Thracians who lived where contemporary Bulgaria is).

In the second millennium of the Christian era, this was part of the Ottoman empire, the dominant ‘international’ political influence of at least half that period. It wasn’t a heartland of the empire in the way that the western Balkans and Greece were, and in fact when Mehmet II was at his peak so was Vlad Tepes, (‘tsepesh’ if you care, also ‘The Impaler’) providing constant interference and harassment from the northern provinces of Wallachia, much of today’s Romania, and Moldova. (Vlad had a son called Mihnea ‘the Bad’. If you were his dad wouldn’t that set you back? It would me. But in the circumstances, it may have been his father who coined the tag.)

I have found the vestiges of the Ottoman empire irresistible, and its story bears greatly on this whole area. So, indulge me a few glimpses.

I must have been away the day the Ottomans were done, an empire that lasted 600 years, possibly about 10 times longer than the international dominance of the US of A. (The Persian Empire wasn’t covered in great detail either as I remember. As for Ashoka … well! The new National Curriculum will resolve these problems I am sure.)

The Ottomans emerged from nowhere if that’s what we can call the Anatolian foothills. No city, great or small; just raggle taggle bands of nomads who got a taste for real estate which eventually extended from the Persian Gulf to the walls of Vienna and from North Africa to the Crimean peninsula and beyond. This was the Abode of Peace, Dar ul-Islam, and areas outside it Dar ul-Harb, the Abode of War.

Although this expansion had been going on for a century or more, the first recorded battle is a giant landmark in Balkan history which remains a bitter and provocative memory today. On 15 June 1389 they destroyed the Serb forces at Kosovo on the Blackbird Field and swept north. Their ‘capital’ was Bursa south of where Istanbul is today near the shore of the Marmara Sea, and their playground for hunting and leisure was Edirne now on the border of Turkey and Bulgaria where our bus was stripped and our luggage searched at 1.30 in the morning before we were sent on our way. At its height its armies were assembled each year on 23rd April, St George’s Day (how odd that the patron saint of both England and the Ottomans was St George, and that both versions are depicted, as we saw in Cappadocia, slaying a dragon), and the season of conquest — north, south, east or west, whatever had been chosen — would begin. After six months or so, for 200 years, these armies which often included the sultan would return fat with the spoils which would make them temporarily rich and new tax regimes which made them rich for a great deal longer.

The Ottomans won (for several hundred years, invariably) because they had cannons and because they were organized. Theirs were the first armies in the world to have uniforms, to be paid timar, a regular stipend, and to have a band playing to egg on the warriors. (We heard what such a band would sound like in the 1453 Museum in Istanbul and it would have been suitably terrifying.) The shock troops were janissaries, a quite particular form of levy. Every three years towns, especially in the Balkans and Greece but more widely spread as well, would be visited by a representative of the empire to select the finest Christian youths — the fittest, the strongest, the best looking, the power forward match-winners (in a localised football note, think Carey, Brereton, Brown, Ablett snr.) — to serve the Sultan in a complicated form of slavery. They were taught Turkish, fed, housed, educated and trained and never allowed to marry. This semi-desirable situation was not available to Turkish Ottomans because Muslims could never be slaves.

Here we see Kemal Ataturk, hero of modern Turkey and its President for 15 years, in a janissary uniform.I can’t help you with why. The remarkable head gear is said to be shaped like a sleeve of the gown worn by the founder of the Dervish order.  Its name, ketche, can be literally translated as ‘felt’. It was worn by all janissaries without exception.

The janissaries became soldiers, and those who displayed particular aptitude for study became kapikullari, the bureaucrats who provided the empire with its strength. The CEO of the empire was the Grand Vizier who walked the finest of lines between being all powerful and subject to strangulation by the Sultan’s bowstring (among the jobs of the Head Gardener). Of the 36 Grand Viziers who followed the Sultanate of Mehmet II, 34 were not Muslim born and several were Jews. The Grand Vizier who caused the building of the bridge over the Drina, Sokolovic, was doing his Serbian home town a favour. (For a visual sample of the area and an aural sample of the book click here.)

The Ottomans were comparatively benign rulers. At left is a copy of the edict of Mehmet II guaranteeing religious freedom to Bosnia in 1458 for example, which enabled Bosnia to survive as such an unusual amalgam of Muslim Turk (or Bosniak), Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb, for as long as it did. (Digressing, Ottoman script is truly remarkable as this close up of a ‘deed’ describing the towns and villages to be administered by one pasha illustrates. One story says that it derives from the illiterate Osman’s signature, inking his fingers and swirling them across the page.)

The Ottomans didn’t interfere much with local culture or language. As a rule, new, or old, subjects were not required to become Muslim. A rough but comparatively consistent form of justice was instituted. They weren’t traders; that was left to the Armenians who built their own niche in the empire’s workings. They were rentiers, and the rent was, for the times, fair. The real violence was kept for the palace and its inhabitants.

Sultans were lineal descendants of the House of Osman and, for the first few centuries at least, when a Sultan was near death or died, fratricide was the standard and accepted practice. The son who got in first and organized the killing of his siblings (often half siblings considering that at its peak the Sultan’s seraglio had around 4000 women) would ascend to the throne. As with many of the royal houses of Europe this did not produce an especially healthy lineage.

The taking of Constantinople (from the remnant members of the Byzantine Empire) was a high point in Ottoman history, not least because it united ‘the two halves of the world’. It’s a story too long to be told here, but it includes the portage of dozens of large vessels over Pera (where we stayed in Istanbul) to be refloated behind the giant chain which cut off access by water to the Golden Horn. Ten metre long brass cannon which could fire shot weighing ¾ of tonne moved by carts pulled by 30 bullocks and attended by 700 men damaged the walls. Mehmet had an army of what may have been 300,000 men, but even so was constantly being counseled that this was inadequate to defeat the fortifications defending the 4,983 (names recorded) inhabitants capable of bearing arms. The deep defensive ditches (correctly, fosses) between the double walls were filled with the bodies of the dead so that other forces could cross them. But in the end it appears that the Ottomans won simply because someone from inside left a postern gate, the tiny hidden entrances used to nip in and out while a siege was in progress, open. The failed siege of Vienna 150 years later where the Ottomans were defeated by what we now call an extreme weather event is an equally dramatic tale.

Albanians were still paying tribute to Turkey in the 20th century, still sending delegates to a parliament which had become a shell game with no pea.

This is the empire described by Tsar Nicholas II as ‘the sick man of Europe’, a phrase which has delighted sub editors ever since. The bigger it got, the more flaccid it became. It never seemed to learn that there were other sources of wealth besides plunder; and when the plunder dried up, the cost of the war machine broke the country. Among other infamies, the janissaries began charging ‘tooth rent’, a cost to food suppliers generated by the act of eating, and famously revolted  before being disbanded.

One of the Sayings of the Prophet that had strong currency in the Empire was: ‘Every novelty is an innovation. Every innovation is an error. Every error leads to hellfire.’ Time was thought to be circular rather than linear. Evliya Celebi (at left), a janissary who among many many other things wrote, describes himself looting the same house he looted one year previously and looking for and finding the hatchet he had left there, a small proof of the ubiquity of eternity. Great empires become encrusted with a thousand types of cosmopolitanism, all too digestible when the direction is strong and the leadership inviolate. But when the order changes what is left is a potpourri of romance and memories.

After that modest digression, back to Romania — Food. Superb. Delicious. Wonderful. Here’s a portion of what the Intrepid trip notes had to say about food: ‘Vegetarians might find the menu selection less varied than they would see at home. Vegetarianism is not as common in this region and generally the choices are basic, involving vegetables and fried cheese. Vegans will find it even more challenging. Vegetarians might choose to supplement meals with supplies bought from home, e.g. protein bars, dried fruits and so on.’ Not so.

A full tilt Romanian evening meal is likely to consist of soup (phonetically ‘chorb’ or ‘chorb-uh’ everywhere in the eastern Balkans and Turkey) often vegetal, salad (anything up to 10 or 12 on a restaurant menu, variations on a theme, with shepherd’s salad the heartiest with corn, cheese and nuts), stew (the Hungarians do not have a mortgage on goulash), cake and fruit. Polenta in various forms appeared as an option at most meals. Cheese was a staple. At one hotel where we had breakfast I counted 14 different types. Snacks come out of the street windows: a score of different types of pretzels, and layers of filo, rolled or flat, filled with cheese or fruit. Shops selling gyros (the meat we get in souvlaki) were everywhere. Breakfast was bread (often home made), hard and soft cheese, excellent yoghurt, tomatoes and peppers — and when I say tomatoes and peppers, I mean tomatoes and peppers straight out of the garden such as you have never tasted. Four of our five local guides commented on the exodus of young people from country regions. Each of them, remarkably, used the image of there being no one left to tend the tomatoes to describe the calamity that was in the offing.

It is true that we were there at the height, or just after, of the harvest; but what we ate was food rather than salt, sugar and fat. Here are the highly photogenic Mat and Luz eating in a hotel in Velika Tarnovo (Bulgaria actually), the sort of meal we could have had although from memory I think I had a cheese omelette and Myrna a salad at the same table. What you are looking at is a ‘sache’ (that mysterious English word) of roast vegetables, another of pieces of pork, some bread which has been on the griddle and some polenta.

Accommodation. Great. Clever. Very well located 3-star hotel accommodation, very clean, very comfortable, everywhere with wifi internet connection. Three ‘homestays’, which could be better described as very good quality bed and breakfast places; not, definitely not, sleeping on straw palliasses being nudged by donkeys. At right Myrna is on the stairs of the one we stayed in at Sighitu, and yes that is a Jag in the driveway. To the considerable amusement of all those not concerned, Chris and Joop did have drawer beds in Viscri. Our room had an ensuite and a gorgeous ceramic stove just in case the weather turned cold which, of course, it never did. Why did I become interested in eastern Europe? I’ve been wondering that myself. It could have been getting excited about Balkan music after watching Emir Kusturica’s film ‘Underground’. It was so gay, so crazy, such a exhilarating mixture of east and west. And that’s an interest I’ve pursued. But it might have been reading Neal Ascherson’s book The Black Sea, a masterpiece, which introduced me to the Samartians, the Scythians and the Pechenegs and the prospect of ecological catastrophe if the Black Sea turns itself upside down (which is all too possible). I also think it introduced me to the idea of the Saxon villages in Transylvania which ever since I have wanted to see. And then during the troubles in the mid-90s I was reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts and Ian Malcolm’s Bosnia: A Short History and Rebecca West’s Black Lamb Grey Falcon. All these are from a genre of writing which attracts me greatly: going somewhere and thinking out loud about what it means (another master, the Pole Ryszard Kapuściński).

More recently I’ve read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the Woods and the Water. An 18 year-old Englishman determines to walk from Amsterdam to Istanbul and has adventures on the way. A Time of Gifts, devoted to the first section of the walk is not as good, but once he crosses the Danube at Esztergom, in Hungary but on the Slovak border (in 1934), the story just gets so interesting and the language begins to sing. As well as being a war hero, a boxer, a horseman, the lover of a Romanian princess and an historian, Leigh Fermor is a stylish magician with the English language.

There is a story attached. Not only did he write this book in his 70s, five decades after the experiences he describes, but he left all his notes at a Romanian country house he was staying at in the 1950s. They were miraculously recovered 25 years later.

This book sits with Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and maybe Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (a bit disappointing on a recent read) on a list of the great contemporary travel books ever written. There is vivid curiosity, exuberance and joy, all great human qualities, in each of these books, all that I have mentioned in fact.

Was our trip anything like these adventures? Of course not. We were cosseted middle-aged tourists, and anyway the world has changed so very much. But still, there were times when the fragrance of these experiences of travel could still, just, be sniffed in the air. Now where were we? Ah yes. Three favourites.

3 thoughts on “For those who were away the day Romania was done

  1. Pingback: ELSEWHERE 2010: Bosnia. Not Don’s Party | mcraeblog

  2. Pingback: ROMANIA #3: TO THE SOUTH | mcraeblog

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