Monday, 21 October 2013

Enisala – romantic setting, disputed history

‘Advertised’ as the only medieval fortress in Dobruja, the southeastern region in Romania, bordering the Black Sea, Enisala is an extremely rewarding experience, as adjectives like ‘romantic’, ‘glorious’, and ‘legendary’ flood one’s mind at the first visit. If heading north from Jurilovca, one is guided by a corridor of trees and welcomed by the image of the fortress, at a distance, standing tall and proud on a hill whose structure and appearance make the traveller recall Scottish landforms, with a twist of French Provence, in an extremely approachable Romanian landscape.

Seen from afar as an irregular polygonal construction, Enisala had two chambers and walls built of rock (Jurassic lime). With natural defences to the western, southwestern, and northern part, the access to the fortress is via the southeastern wall. The first chamber has four towers and three abutments and was discovered during the archaeological diggings undertaken between 1963 and 1964, while the second chamber was discovered following an aerial picture taken around 1969. It was located to the north of the first chamber and was larger in area.

The name of the fortress was formed by adjoining the Turkish word ‘yeni’ [new] and the Dobrujan regionalism ‘sale’ [settlement]. The explanation may reside in the fact that the Turks may have adapted the name of the administrative unit near the fortress, called Vicus Novus [the new village], and later on Novoe Selo. Although there are sources referring to Enisala Fortress under the Latin names of Heraclia or Heracleea, how can the Turkish influences be explained?

Built by the Genovese powers at the end of the thirteenth century/beginning of the fourteenth century on the ruins of a Byzantine structure and later on included in the defence system of Wallachia [the southern Romanian region stretching during the rule of Mircea the Elder (1386-1418) between the Southern Carpathians (to the north), the Danube (to the west and south), and the Black Sea (to the east)], Enisala had a strategic and military role. Its main mission was to control and to defend the land and especially the water traffic when Lake Razim – which it overlooks – was still a gulf of the Black Sea. During that period, the Genovese were practically the only ones in the region to afford investing in a construction of such grandeur and Enisala Fortress was an establishment to join the other Genovese settlements in the region – the towns of Chilia and Likostomion in Danube Delta, Cetatea Albă at the mouth of Nistru River, as well as Caffa and Balaclava in southern Crimea. First conquered by the Turks in 1388, it was reconquered by Mircea the Elder in 1393 and lost again to the Turks in 1417. When the latter managed to conquer Chilia and Cetatea Albă in the second half of the fifteenth century and following the formation of the sand streams separating Lake Razim and the Black Sea, Enisala was abandoned because it was no longer according to the strategic and economic interests of the Ottoman Empire. 

Enisala’s downfall would actually be its salvation. In spite of the order given by the Russian generals, aiming at the destruction of all the medieval fortresses in northern Dobruja 200 years ago during a period of heightened Russian influence in the region, Enisala was the only one to escape by being inactive at that time. As a result, it boasts the label listed at the beginning of this article and can still delight the eye of the travellers and historians alike. 

 -Contributed by Olivia-Petra Coman.
Bibliography: (accessed 22/09/13) (accessed 22/09/13) ‘Archaeological News, European Lands’, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 54, No. 4 (1950) Bilde Pia, Guldager; Bøgh, Birgitte; Handberg, Søren; Munk Højte, Jakob; Nieling, Jens; Smekalova, Tatiana; Stolba, Vladimir; Baralis, Alexandre; Bîrzescu, Iulian; Gergova, Diana; Krapivina, Valentina; Krusteff, Krassimir; Lungu, Vasilica, and Maslennikov, Alexander, ‘Archaeology in the Black Sea Region in Classical Antiquity 1993-2007’, Archaeological Reports, No. 54 (2007–2008), pp. 115-173 
Iosipescu, Raluca and Iosipescu, Sergiu, ‘Cronica cercetărilor arheologice din România’, Campania 2011, București

            © Marcel Băncilă

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Beyond Borders Welcomes Olivia Petra

Beyond Borders would like to welcome Olivia-Petra Coman!

We look forward to hosting Olivia's post on Enisala, a medieval fortress is Dobruja, Romania on Monday 21st of October. Don't forget to follow Olivia on twitter and check out her amazing blog, Petra's Chessboard.


History postgraduate student and experienced traveller, always thirsty for adventure.

I travel the world to discover its hidden treasures, I dream to get to the historical sites I’ve only explored in books, and I hope to make a difference through my work and vision of the world around me.  


Twitter: @oliviapetra

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Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Synagogue El Tránsito

Figure 1 El Tránsito Exterior

In relation to my recent academic inquiries about the status of Jews in medieval Spain, I would like to devote this post to the Synagogue of Samuel Ha-Levi, or what is better known as El Tránsito.

El Tránsito was built within the Christian kingdom of Toledo and was founded and financed by Samuel Halevi Abulafia who was treasurer of the Castilian king Peter I, and a prominent member of Toledo’s Jewish community.[1] El Tránsito was built in the fourteenth century for personal use by Ha-Levi and was attached to his home via private gates.[2]

Figure 2  El Tránsito Exterior

Based upon an exterior view, the synagogue has an appearance of a simple edifice with horseshoe shaped windows, which were a common aspect in medieval Spanish architecture.

However, the interior of the synagogue has decorative aspects that may be likened to the interior of Alhambra (constructed intermittently between the 9th-14th centuries in the Muslim kingdom of Granada) in regard to the Nasrid style finely carved stucco with arabesque motifs as well as the horseshoe shaped archways.[3] 

These decorative aspects are reflective of the predominant styles within the medieval Iberian Peninsula and could be could be found in Christian, Jewish and Islamic architectural structures.

Figure 3  El Tránsito Interior

Figure 4 Alhambra

But the aspect of El Tránsito that I find particularly interesting is the incorporation of both Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions within one edifice. To me, this relates to how the social structure of Toledo and other areas within the Christian kingdoms of Spain were, in certain instances, indefinable. I shall use the socio-political role of the Jew as an example. On one hand the Jews were ‘servants’ of the crown used to proliferate its wealth, whilst on the other hand, they were vilified for the very acts they were entrusted to complete. I would suggest this may be due to the nature of some of these acts in the eyes of Christianity (such as usury), which, in turn, reflected upon, and propagated, the perceived ‘nature’ of the Jews.

Figure 5  El Tránsito Islamic and Hebrew Inscriptions

Figure 6  Alhambra
Due to their linguistic proficiencies, the Jews acted as intermediaries between Christian and Muslim kingdoms and as tax collectors the Jews were an important aspect to the continued financial growth of the crown.[4] According to Law XXV of the Siete Partidas, the almojarife (a role usually fulfilled by a Jew) should be ‘loyal and without covetousness.’ [5] Also, in some areas of Spain the Jews were so important to the economical and ‘commercial well-being’ of the town that they were permitted to attend general assemblies of the Cort. [6]  However, Christian accounts of Jews (both illustratively and in writing) describe the Jew as a greedy, ‘renegade rogue’ that lies and covets money and wealth. [7] Additionally, in Cantiga 348, the Virgin described the Jews as “'people much worse than the Moors'” who hoarded and buried their wealth.[8]

Figure 7  Teófilo in Satan’s court. 
                                    Source: Escorial Ms. T. I, fol. 3r, detail. 

The Jews were also known to be knowledgeable about sciences and medicine, which proved to be useful in the medical treatment of Alfonso X. [9] However, within literature and other religious accounts, the Jews were not to be trusted. The Jew’s proficiencies, which many people sought and relied upon, were conveyed as a form of trickery because as a people the Jews were devilish magicians who formed a brotherhood with the devil.[10] Furthermore, within illuminated manuscripts, this brotherhood was amalgamated by the illustrative representations of the physical similarities between the devil and the Jew. [11]

Figure 8  El Tránsito Hebrew Inscriptions

Even though there are numerous accounts (both written and Illustrative) delineating the socio-political and religious standing of the three Abrahamic religions living within medieval Iberia, one cannot ignore the visual intermingling of ideas and traditions that occurred within the area. To some, these intertwined visual aspects speak to the idea that the Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in medieval Iberia happily and openly shared ideas, but, to me, it speaks of the delicate nature of the socio-political currents of the time period. The existence of architectural structures that exchanged hands (from Muslim to Christian or Jewish to Christian) but were still able to retain much of its cultural identifiers relates to what I would consider to be a power struggle even though the area was dominated by one religious culture.


[1]Sinagoga del Tránsito
[2] Ibid.
[3] The Art of the Nasrid Period
[4]Jonathan Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, Cornell UP 2006, 68.
[5] Robert I. Burns, S.J. ed, Las Siete Partidas, Vol 2: The Medieval Government: The World of Kings and Warriors, translated by Samuel Parsons Scott, University of Pennsylvania, 2001, 327.
[6]Jonathan Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia, Cornell UP 2006, 90.
[7]Gonzalo de Berceo, The Miracles of Our Lady, stanzas 679-681;648.
[8]Walter Mettmann ed, Alfonso X, el Sabio: Cantigas de Santa Maria, Castalia, Madrid, 1989
[9]Francisco Prado Vilar, 'Iudeus Sacer: Life, Law, and Identity...,' in Kessler and Nirenberg, Judaism in Christian Art, Philadelphia/Oxford: Pennsylvannia UP  2011, 116.
[10]Gonzalo de Berceo, The Miracles of Our Lady, stanzas 766-769.
[11] Pamela Patton, 'Constructing the Inimical Jew in the Cantigas de Santa Maria: Theophilus' Magician in Text and Image.' In Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism, Anti-Semitism and European Art Before 1800, ed. Mitchell Merback. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2008, 244.

Figure 1-
Figure 2- Ibid.
Figure 3-
Figure 4-
Figure 5-Sinagoga del Tránsito
Figure 6-
Figure 7-David Nirenberg, “Christian Love, Jewish ‘Privacy,’ and Medieval Kingship,” in Center and Periphery: Studies on Power in the Medieval World (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2013), 30.
Figure 8-Sinagoga del Tránsito

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