If there is a quintessential European nation, country or group of people who personify the rest of the world’s idea of what it means to be European, Romania might be pretty close. Its storied history, and the contributions of the Romanian people in literature, art, and philosophy are well known; and who doesn’t think of beautiful Gothic castles and churches when they hear the word Romania?
Of course, many people around the world see in Romania a country of myth. They see the inimitable Count Dracula and his iconic Transylvanian castle. They see the birthplace of monsters, of dangerous things in dark forests, of mysteries on foggy mountains, and horrors unseen in the night.
None of that’s real though. Or, well… most of it isn’t real. We all know – or we think we know – that Dracula really did exist, in some form or another. The Romanian government keeps his famed castle as a tourist attraction today, though the history of it remains somewhat blurred to the outside world. Parts of the country do have foreboding forests, nestled between its 14 mountain ranges, where indigenous species of wolf, and bear, and wild boar still roam free to this day (albeit in dwindling numbers, unfortunately).
It’s easy to see how those of us who see only portions of this beautiful land on TV and in story can fall prey to fantasy and myth. It no doubt wouldn’t surprise you then, to find that Romania still holds some well kept secrets in its mountains and small villages?
Romania consists of 41 counties, and situated in the southern interior is one called Buzău. This county is home to some 400,000 people and it hosts the southern end of the Eastern Carpathian Mountain range. It also hosts, in those mountains, a wonderful gem of culture and architecture. Several, in fact.
There’s a commune, known as Colţi, nestled into the curvature of the Carpathian Mountains (yes, the mountain range that loaned its name to the evil Vigo the Carpathian of Ghostbusters II, among other characters) which consists of a number of small villages. These villages, such as Aluniş and Nucu, are the surviving remnants of an ancient troglodyte community.
Now, lest you take that in the wrong direction, the people who lived there circa 1050-1280 AD were anything but ignorant. The word troglodyte applies because they dwelled in caves carved into the mountain. There are a number of cave complexes through the region of Colţi, consisting of dwellings, storage spaces, and churches. In fact, the oldest surviving Eastern Orthodox Church is a cave in Aluniş, dedicated to the Decollation of Saint John the Baptist.
The other reason this ancient community of shepherds can be called troglodytes, is because they were, essentially, hermits.
The earliest inhabitants of these cave communities practised a mystical tradition of prayer from the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine, known as Hesychasm. Its literal translation from Greek is ‘to keep the stillness’, and was a form of deep prayer meditation. You may gather from the definition that Hesychasm requires a certain solitude, and in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.
That, in and of itself, leads to a somewhat isolated existence, but some weren’t content to simply shut the door, as it were. Some went further.
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