The Voivodal Palace and Old Princely Court of Bucharest

old princely court and voivodal palace bucharest

In Bucharest on Franceză Street, nestled between the bustling cafes, inviting restaurants, and crumbling, yet still inhabited homes of the old city, lies the ruins of the former Wallachian Voivodal Palace. While the complex has been closed for renovations throughout much of the decade, I had the opportunity to visit its arched gateways and subterranean chambers a few years ago while they were still accessible to the public. The ruins of the Voivodal Palace and Princely Court provide an exciting window into medieval Bucharest, prominently displaying the city’s important status in the Wallachian principality.

The ruins of the Voivodal Palace and Princely Court provide an exciting window into medieval Bucharest, prominently displaying the city’s important status in the Wallachian principality

During the reign of Vlad Țepeș, it is known that one of the early capitals of Wallachia (Known in Romanian as: Valahia, Țeara Rumânească, and Цѣра Рȣмѫнѣскъ) was located at Tîrgoviște. However, the rising power of the Ottoman Empire forced the voivode to pay increasing attention to his southern border along the Danube, necessitating the inevitable rise of Bucharest as a major city within the Wallachian lands.

 It is believed that the Wallachian rulers often held court here as early as the fourteenth century during the reign of Mircea the Old. However, it was under Vlad that the complex became a major fortress from where he could project power towards Giurgiu, which was then occupied by the Turks. There are records from as early as 1458 in which Vlad issued documents attesting to the fortress’s importance. In the said documents, he wrote to the people of Brașov, asking for their services in constructing the walls of the fortress.

Voivodal Palace - Bucharest - There are records from as early as 1458 in which Vlad issued documents attesting to the fortress’s importance.

The palace’s ruins could be entered through a bricked archway, possessing a small column near the entrance, a reminder of the Byzantine origins of the architectural style. Beneath, there are residences, chancelleries, and reception halls. The brick styles suggest that the building had been constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed at various moments of its history.

Old Princely Court - Bucharest. The brick styles suggest that the building had been constructed, destroyed, and reconstructed at various moments of its history.

The chancery’s now cold and silent halls only holds echoes of the warmth and life that once held court here. It is almost certain that there are halls and tunnels go far deeper than I was able to visit, considering that it is possible to see even more medieval chambers beneath the nearby building of the Romanian National Bank. I do not know if it is possible to explore this area, as I have never tried.

Courtyard of the Old Princely Court

The courtyard now holds the distinction of being an archaeological garden, full of broken stonework. It is important to note that Vlad Tepeș was not the first Wallachian ruler to inhabit the fortress, but rather his brother – Radu the Beautiful. During the endless dynastic wars plaguing the region, the Moldovans under Ștefan the Great besieged the fortress 1473 aiming to overthrow Radu and place Vlad back upon the Wallachian throne. Ștefan would go on to burn and raze the Bucharest fortress after his victory, but the palace complex would ultimately be repaired and extended.

The courtyard of the Old Princely Court now holds the distinction of being an archaeological garden, full of broken stonework.

The palatial complex’s exterior is littered with stone crosses and inscriptions, written mostly in Slavonic, medieval Romanian (in the Cyrillic script), and Greek. These inscriptions may have once been located inside the palace’s halls, but have since moved outside as the complex fell into ruin, considering that the exterior courtyard once functioned as a garden.

These inscriptions may have once been located inside the palace’s halls, but have since moved outside as the complex fell into ruin, considering that the exterior courtyard once functioned as a garden.

Over the next century, Bucharest’s tîrg and strategic importance had expanded to the point that the Wallachian rulers made a permanent residence out of the palatial complex and the town became the capital of the principality. The nearby „Buna Vestire” church was constructed by Mircea the Shepherd in 1545 and is the oldest surviving church in the city. Similar to the palatial complex, the church was built in a combination of Byzantine and Moldovan styles. It is here that the rulers of Wallachia would be crowned over the following centuries, even if the palace itself fell into disuse and was eventually abandoned by the end of the eighteenth century.

Unfortunately, as previously mentioned – the palatial complex cannot be visited today. It is currently in a state of reconstruction and I cannot fathom of what its future state will be as a museum so I hope that this note will serve as a memorial for the Princely Court’s authentic shape and state in situ, lest it is lost to history.

Sarmizegetusa Regia – Dacian Holy Land

Darius Roby - Exploring Sarmizegetusa

Entering the autumnal forests of the Oraștie Mountains, I feel that I am entering a spiritual realm. It is a early morning, deep within the chilly throws of October, and evidence of the year’s decline is paramount. The ground is covered in leaves, and the forests create a mosaic of reds, yellows, and browns.

muntii orastie - sarmizgetusa regia

Looking up towards the surrounding peaks, I see them hidden in mists of fog, inviting the traveler to discover the secrets of the Dacian holy land, crowned by the ruins of Sarmizegetusa Regia.

Dacian Holy Land

The fortress and religious sanctuaries of Sarmizegetusa is the culmination of the Dacian march towards cultural and architectural sophistication. The historian Dan Carlin cites a similar example of what occurred in Gaul, shortly before Caesar’s conquest.

Entrance to Sarmizegetusa

He noted that due to various degrees of contact with Rome, the various tribes of Gaul had each obtained various levels of cultural sophistication. He described the Gauls of the north as being less developed and more barbarous, while a member from a southern Gallic tribe may have been described as little more than a Roman with a moustache. For the Dacians, the years after their successful war against Domitian, Emperor of the Romans, led to architectural adaptations that would shape an all too short golden age of Dacian prosperity.

Ruins of Sarmizegetusa, Dacian Holy Land

Fortress and Sanctuaries

Walking along the wooded road up the mountain twists the traveler through twisted ravines, leading to sharp drops leading into a nearby creek. From here, it is easy to understand why Decebal would feel secure, high up in his mountain fortress. Sitting on top of a 4000-foot mountain, the fortress’s wall – a rare example of Dacian wall-building techniques, comes into view.

Dacian Walls of Sarmizegetusa

The citadel was built on five terraces, stretching over an area of nearly 30,000 square meters. The walls were thick, and built in a way to be flexible – absorbing the projectiles of Roman siege weapons. The murus dacicus is a true achievement of ancient military architecture.

Beyond the citadel, partly covered in leaves, I noted the existence of a paved road. This remarkable find appears to have once connected the distance from the citadel towards the religious sanctuaries below. Constructed from large limestone slabs, the paved road is another extraordinary example of Dacian engineering and cultural sophistication.

Paved Dacian Road, Sarmizegetusa Regia, Romania

A walk further down led me to a clearing, where the holy sanctuaries of the Dacians could be found. There were numerous temples, accented by the ruins of a large circular temple. Its perimeter appeared to have once consisted of a large double belt, made of andesite. The first comprising of massive bocks and the second including groups of pilasters. Inside, there were the presence of several wooden posts plastered with clay. With the large wooden posts still present, the ruins reminded me all too slightly of Stonehenge in England.

Circular Sanctuary, Sarmizegetusa

This temple was probably dedicated to Zalmoxis, the chief of the Dacian pantheon. During Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, the destruction of this temple would have meant the end of the Dacian religion. As a people who believed themselves to be immortal, this would have been a significant event – shattering their morale and signaling their defeat. There are other temples in the area, also appearing to have been constructed of andesite. In fact, looking closely at the ground, one can almost see it sparkling just a bit – a reflection of the andesite-rich terrain.

The Andesite Sun - a Dacian Sundial used for religious sacrifices

Nearby can be found a large circular disk, also constructed from andesite. Named the “Andesite Sun,” it appears to have been a type of sundial, and was used for religious sacrifices. There is also evidence of a system of ceramic pipes, which channeled water down below toward the citadel’s residences.

Ceramic Pipes and water system at Sarmizegetusa

Sarmizegetusa is only one (albeit the most significant) of the Dacian fortresses situated in the nearby mountains. Others have been discovered at Blidaru, Piatra Roșie, Căpâlna, Bănița, as well as Cetățuie. It appears that shortly before Decebal’s final defeat, he constructed these fortresses in a spirited, but futile attempt to stave off the power of Rome.

Sarmizegetusa is only one (albeit the most significant) of the Dacian fortresses situated in the nearby mountains.

Alongside a religion that proclaimed them to be immortal and having the most impressive mountain defenses in the barbarian world, the Dacians perhaps approached the Romans with overconfidence. Indeed, the fact that Trajan’s legions were able to traverse the mountains and ultimately raze the fortresses point not towards the Dacians’ shortcomings, but more towards the overwhelming power of Rome during the noontide of its glory.

Densuș Church – The Oldest Church in Romania

Densuș Church - Biserica Densuș, Hunedoara Romania

Location and Original Purpose

To the west of Hațeg lies the ruins of the former Roman capital of Dacia – Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, founded by the emperor as a monument to his conquest of the Dacian country, and a symbol of Rome’s commitment to pacify and develop the region. It is well known to historians and travelers.

Approximately 10 miles north of Sarmizegetusa, in the village of Densuș, exists a most curious church. It is not only a rare example of medieval Orthodox architecture in Transylvania, it is also noteworthy due to its original base – appearing to have been constructed out of ancient Roman stonework and columns, perhaps dragged from Sarmizegetusa itself. The church appears to be a hodgepodge of Roman, early Romanesque, and high medieval Gothic styles smashed together over the centuries into a most curious mystery.

Densuș Church Architecture - "The church appears to be a hodgepodge of Roman, early Romanesque, and high medieval Gothic styles smashed together over the centuries into a most curious mystery."

It is understood that a structure existed here as early as the second century, clearly connected to the Roman conquest of the area. There are arguments that the structure was originally a Roman or Dacian temple that was ultimately converted to a Christian church during late antiquity. Personally, I fail to find the logic in such arguments. The theory of the Dacian temple in particular appears to be rather implausible, considering that the great temples and fortresses of Dacian Sarmizegetusa can be found higher up in the mountains, only 30 miles away. The site’s construction on the flatlands of the Țara Hațegului, close to the gates of the Roman capital, clearly points towards a Roman origin for its construction.

Densuș Church - Biserica Densuș - Roman Columns

The argument that the site was originally home to a Roman temple appears to be more credible. The northern face of the church’s walls remain colonnaded to our present day, providing hints towards the purpose of the original structure. On the roof, above the altar, two stone lions can be spotted, united by their tails. The church is all the more curious due to the fact that the altar is facing southwards and not towards the east, as in other early Christian churches.

Biserica Densuș - Intrare

Entering through a small stone door, the church’s interior is another tale itself. There is a stone tower, through which sunlight can enter the structure. The narthex is supported by four columns, which all four are re-purposed Roman funerary stele.

Densuș Church - Columns & Roman Funerary Stele

Some of them have been painted over with the images of Orthodox saints with gouged out eyes (curious in itself), but there were also a couple where the Latin inscriptions were still visible. They appear to describe the funerary tomb of a Roman general named Longinus.

Biserica Densuș - Icoanele Fără Ochi din Hațeg

Hero of the Dacian Wars

According to the writer Dio Cassius, Longinus was a Roman legionary commander in Trajan’s invasion force. In a scene that is also depicted on Trajan’s column, we learn how Decebal attempted to win the war. Concerned about Rome’s overwhelming military power and desiring peace, Decebal, the king of the Dacians, attempted to assassinate the Emperor of the Romans. Having failed, he then tricked  and captured Longinius, and attempted to extract from him the Roman military plans. After the general refused to betray his emperor, the Dacian king then used him to put pressure on Trajan. The story goes that the Dacian king offered the return of Longinus if the Romans would quit Dacia. The Emperor of the Romans refused, his resolve to destroy Dacia only strengthened further due to Decebal’s stratagems.

Densuș Church - Latin Inscriptions on Funerary Stele

Dio Cassius continues, stating that Longinus decided to take matter into his own hands. Offering to return to the Romans to convince Trajan to give up the war, and writing a proposal towards that end, Decebal granted the general his release. Once he was free of his Dacian captors, Longinus drank poison that he had secured from a messenger and so ended his life. A formerly captured centurian would later tell Trajan the story of what occurred and soon afterwards the Dacians were defeated and the destruction of Sarmizegetusa Regia took place. It is said that in honor for his service, a mausoleum was constructed for Longinus, on the site of the Densuș church.

Transformation and Ultimate Fate

The mausoleum stood for ages, and may have been used for sacrifices to Mars. As antiquity entered its evening tide, the Romans would ultimately withdraw from Dacia and nearby Sarmizegetusa was abandoned. As with most ancient constructions, the structure probably collapsed (or was destroyed) at one point or another.

Biserica Sfantul Nicolae din Densuș, Hunedoara, Romania

During the 7th century, curious local proto-Romanians, having forgotten the structure’s original purpose and unable to read the Latin inscriptions, rebuilt the structure as a crude church, in a Romanesque style and dedicated to St. Nicolae. The church’s final stage was achieved during the 14th century, when Gothic elements were added, and the murals were painted by the local master Ștefan. One of the most significant images shows a baby Jesus, wearing traditional Romanian clothing.

Densus Church - Painting of Jesus in Popular Costume

The Densuș church is remarkable from both an aesthetic and historical point of view. As Romania suffered the ravages of time and endless conquests, there is perhaps no better example of an artifact, literary work, or monument that does a better job of tying Romanians to their Daco-Roman origins. Indeed, we are lucky that the church still exists. During the nineteenth century, desiring to replace the church with a more modern and dogmatically Orthodox style design, local villagers very nearly succeeded in ordering its demolition. Understanding the church’s historical (if not its religious) significance, the Hungarian authorities prevented them from carrying out these plans, allowing it to survive until our present day.

Tower of Ștefan Cel Mare – A Symbol of Piatra Neamț

Tower of Ștefan the Great alongside the "Nașterea Sf. Ioan Botezătorul" Church, in the Princely Court. Turnul lui Stefan cel Mare - Piatra Neamt

In the center of Piatra Neamț can be found an ensemble that is without peer throughout Romanian Moldova. Presently constituting a park, the area houses the ruins of a medieval princely court (rom: Curtea Domnească) dating back to the 14th century. It houses a church, built in the traditional Moldovan style, cellars, the remnants of some walls, as well as an impressive clocktower. The architectural detail in the complex is breathtaking, the Moldovan style being a melange of Gothic and Byzantine influences. Alongside the park, there are also other buildings housing Piatra’s prehistoric history (Cucuteni culture) as well as an art gallery.

The tower in particular, stands at a height of 60 feet and its construction is attributed to the Stefan III the Great of Moldova. Serving as a defensive structure with a commanding view over the Bistrița river valley and the passes into the Carpathians, it has survived remarkably intact since its initial construction in the year 1499, with photographs from the nineteenth century attesting to this. It stands as a symbol of the city of Piatra, and even holds a place of honor on the city’s coat of arms.

Before the 1860s, the Romanian language was written in the Cyrillic script. Even further back in time, religious books were simply written in Slavonic. Tower of Stefan - Piatra Neamt

Visiting the complex provides an opportunity to descend into the world of medieval Moldova, as artifacts are kept there. There were other princely courts of greater importance, but considering the example of Suceava, they are largely ruins. Access is achieved through a metal external stair that leads to an elevated door.

The large bell inside the Tower of Ștefan the Great. Piatra Neamt

The “ground floor” offers an exhibition of the tower’s evolution throughout the centuries – largely in regards to the bell room itself, where there are four bells. The largest was constructed during the seventeenth century, there is second bell which dates from the nineteenth century, and there are two others from the late twentieth century – constructed by the artisan Damian of Târgu Neamț. They can be reached at the top floor via a winding internal stair.

Due to its height, and the stone nature of the structure, the tower’s interior is cool and makes for a pleasant respite from hot summer days. There are other objects to be seen within the tower – largely religious books written in Slavonic and in Romanian.

An example of an old Romanian language book written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Tower of Stefan - Piatra Neamt

The tower is the chief element that makes up Piatra’s princely court, but the rest of the complex is also worth visiting. Some parties are still being unearthed and research due to recent construction works. I have even heard of the existence of underground cellars with ancient and secret tunnels that reach all the way to Neamț Fortress, nearly 30 miles away…

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