Top: The Church of the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple in Bârsana (Barcánflava); The church in Șurdești (Dióshalom), center: The church in Plopiş (Nyárfás); The Merry Cemetery of Săpânța (Szaplonca); bottom: wooden church of Rogoz; church entrance, Maramures (Máramaros)
The Wooden Churches of Máramaros in Northern Transylvania
Charles Bálintitt Jr.
The County of Maramureş (Máramaros megye in Hungarian) is in the north of Transylvania in today’s Romania on the Ukrainian border. The western half of this border, with a slight divergence here and there, is the path of the Tisza River, until the Tisza takes a sharp turn toward the north. The total land area of the County is approximately 6,304 square kilometers (2,434 square miles). About 43% of this is covered by the Rodna range of the eastern section of the Carpathian Mountains. The tallest peak is called Pietrosul (“Nagy Pietrosz” in Hungarian), which reaches a height of 2,303 meters (7,556 feet). Also close to 80% of the land area is comprised of woodlands. No wonder they have so many wooden churches in this area.
Transylvania has some of the most beautiful scenery in any part of the world that I have seen. The Maramureş region is no exception. So it is no surprise that the Magyars crossing the Carpathians in 895 decided to begin settling in Transylvania on their journey westward. The once large Hungarian population of Maramureş has steadily decreased over the years, as is the case in many parts of Transylvania. The total population of Maramureş has also decreased from a high of 538,534 in 1992 to 461,290 in 2011. Out of this number there are 82.4% Romanians, 7.5% Hungarians, 6.8% Ukrainians, 2.7% Gypsies and 0.3% Germans.
There seem to have been two reasons for the construction of wooden churches in this region: One was because of the plentiful wood available throughout the County, and the other was the ban on building stone churches, enforced by the Catholic Austro-Hungarian authorities against Christian Orthodox denominations. These churches were mostly Eastern Orthodox with a few Greek Catholic ones as well. The wooden churches that we see today were built between the 17th and 19th centuries. This was well after the Protestant Reformation and the split of Western and Eastern Christianity, but tensions between the various Christian faiths were still high.
The main type of wood used is oak, which seems to have stood the test of time quite well. The most distinguishing features of most of these churches are the lofty narrow tower and the immense roof, which seems to overshadow the rest of the structure. The architectural style is Gothic. They are very interesting structures indeed, often with carvings on the exterior and murals painted on the interior walls by local artisans. The expertise in carpentry to create such edifices was passed down from generation to generation.
The churches in the following eight towns were registered as World Heritage Sites in 1999 by UNESCO: Bârsana (Barcánflava in Hungarian), Budești (Budfalva), Desești (Desze), Leud (Jód), Plopiş (Nyárfás), Poienile Izei (Sajómező), Rogoz (Rogoz) and Șurdești (Dióshalom). So they have been recognized by the world for their religious, architectural and historic significance. At the same time, they are still functioning churches that are filled with the faithful every Sunday.
The area also has some interesting museums. For example in the town of Sighetu Marmației (Máramarossziget) you will find the Museum of Maramureş; the Elie Wiesel Memorial House, probably due to the fact that the County has a sizeable Jewish population; and the Victims of Communism Memorial, also appropriately known as the “Museum of Arrested Thought”.
In addition to the church constructions, a lot of wood is used in the Maramureş region for other buildings as well. There are also the intricately carved gates in front of many of the homes in this area. Wood has likewise been used for the colorful headstones at the “Merry Cemetery” in the town of Săpânţa (Szaplonca), Romania. Here the people believe in a wonderful afterlife and celebrate death as something special that delivers the person to this much better life. They don’t share in the ideas of most of the rest of the Christian world, where death is treated as a very solemn occasion and the epitaphs are almost always very respectful. Here the good as well as the bad is written about each person’s life. Some are also quite humorous. One example, was written by a woman’s son in law (Translation found on Wikipedia):
Under this heavy cross
Lies my poor mother in-law
Three more days should she have lived
I would lie, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause' if she comes back home
She'll criticize me more.
But I will surely behave
So she'll not return from the grave.
Stay here, my dear mother in-law!
This region, as so many other areas of Transylvania, would be quite well worth the visit. I know that now I will also put it on my list, the next time I am fortunate enough to find myself back there again in that beautiful section of the world and the home of my ancestors.
Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.