Dacian fortresses of the Orăștie Mountains

The six Dacian Fortresses of the Orăștie Mountains in Romania, constructed in the murus dacicus style, stand as remarkable testaments to the ancient civilization’s strength and ingenuity. Erected during the 1st centuries BC and AD, these fortresses were built as a defense mechanism against the impending Roman conquest and played a significant role in the Roman-Dacian wars.

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the six fortresses – Sarmizegetusa Regia, Costeşti-Cetăţuie, Costeşti-Blidaru, Piatra Roşie, Bănița, and Căpâlna – served as the defensive system of Decebalus.

Today, the remains of these fortresses are remarkably well-preserved, offering a captivating glimpse into the vibrant and innovative culture of the past. Located in Hunedoara County, with the exception of Căpâlna in Alba County, these fortresses collectively represent a significant chapter in the history of this region.

Sarmizegetusa Regia

Sarmizegetusa Regia, the Dacian capital before the Roman Empire wars, held immense significance as a military, religious, and political center. Situated atop a 1200m mountain in present-day Romania, this fortress encompassed six citadels and formed the core of a vital defensive system in the Orăștie Mountains.

It is crucial to distinguish Sarmizegetusa Regia from Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, the Roman capital of Dacia built by Emperor Trajan, which was not the Dacian capital. The confusion surrounding these two cities has led to misunderstandings regarding Dacian military history and organization.

Visitors eager to explore the Dacian fortress of Sarmizegetusa Regia can drive up to one kilometer from the city walls. Starting from Costeşti, Hunedoara County, a 19-kilometer road leads to a point approximately 850 meters from the fortress’s entrance. The final stretch must be traversed on foot along a paved path made of andesite slabs.

Sarmizegetusa Regia comprised a citadel, residential areas, workshops, and a sacred zone. The fortress, constructed with massive stone blocks known as murus dacicus, occupied nearly 30,000 m² across five terraces.

The sacred zone housed significant Dacian sanctuaries, including rectangular temples with visible column bases. Noteworthy among them was the circular sanctuary, reminiscent of England’s Stonehenge, featuring timber posts arranged in a D shape within a timber circle and a low stone kerb.

The “Andesite Sun,” a fascinating artifact resembling a sundial, suggests that Dacian culture was influenced by Hellenistic learning in geometry and astronomy, acquired through contact with Hellenistic Greece.

Below the citadel, settlements were home to civilians and were constructed on artificial terraces such as Feţele Albe. A sophisticated ceramic pipe system ensured running water reached the noble residences, reflecting a relatively high standard of living in Dacian society.

The great circular temple at Sarmizegetusa Regia has intrigued scholars for centuries. Initially mistaken as a “church,” it gained attention during excavations in the early 19th century. Various interpretations have been proposed over the years, with some considering it a funerary monument or a solar sanctuary. Extensive excavation and restoration efforts were conducted between 1950 and 1980.

The temple featured a double andesite structure, comprising massive blocks and groups of pillars. Inside, a solstitial apsidal chamber with limestone-block entrances occupied the center, and the temple boasted a conical roof.

Terrace X housed a temple with andesite columns, known for its preserved bases and remnants. This temple, consisting of six rows of columns with ten elements each, was likely left unfinished due to the Dacian-Roman wars.

The Andesite Sun monument, an altar used for sacrificial rituals, captivates tourists. Its upper part featured a central andesite disc surrounded by 10 massive andesite plates arranged as “rays.” The lower part consisted of limestone blocks and a drainage system, but deterioration has taken a toll on the monument.

Sarmizegetusa Regia played a crucial role in the Dacian civilization, showcasing their advancements in various fields. The Romans ultimately destroyed the city, replacing it with their own capital, Colonia Ulpia Traiana Augusta Dacica Sarmizegetusa, located 40 km away.

The archaeological discoveries at Sarmizegetusa Regia provide insights into Dacian society, including the worship of the deity Zalmoxis and advancements in medicine, metalworking, and technology.

The Dacian fortress of Căpâlna

The Dacian fortress of Căpâlna, perched atop a steep hill, was constructed in the latter half of the 1st century BC as a military stronghold. Its primary purpose was to safeguard the passage from the Sebeș Valley to the capital of the Dacian kingdom, Sarmizegetusa Regia.

Positioned roughly 2 kilometers south of the village of Căpâlna, within the Săsciori commune, the fortress occupies a hill known as Dealul Cetății, reaching an elevation of 610 meters above sea level. This prominent location lies on the left bank of the Sebeș River, nestled between the Gărgălău Valley and the Râpa Stream. The hill’s slopes are notably steep, and the ancient road ascends from the Râpa Stream, winding its way towards the fortress.

A sign near the bridge in Căpâlna guides visitors towards the fortress, which can be reached by traversing approximately 2 kilometers along a rugged gravel road, commencing from the main road (DN67C) situated at the valley’s base.

Historian Téglás Gábor made mention of the fortress in his 1892 article titled “A történelemelőtti Dáciáról” (About prehistoric Dacia), while Halavátsy Gyula provided a description of it in his 1906 travel notes.

Archaeological expeditions took place in 1939, 1942, and 1954, led by Mihail Macrea and Ion Berciu, followed by further endeavors in 1965-1967 and 1982-1983, under the coordination of Hadrian Daicoviciu.

It is believed that the fortress served as the residence of a Dacian chieftain. Excavations unearthed various artifacts, including ceramics, iron and bronze tools, silver and bronze jewelry, as well as Roman coins from both the Republican and Imperial eras. Notably, a gold necklace and two gold earrings were discovered in the vicinity around 2002-2003.

The fortress bore witness to clashes between Dacians and Romans during Trajan’s Dacian Wars. In the initial conflict, the Romans seized control of the fort, which was ultimately burned and destroyed by them around 106 AD.

Encircling the fortress is an elliptical wall spanning approximately 270 meters. This wall suffered partial destruction during the first war but was promptly rebuilt just prior to the second conflict.

Within the fortress, two terraces were uncovered, with an observatory tower situated atop the higher level terrace.

In a strategically advantageous position near the primary fortified gate, stands a tower house measuring 9.5 meters by 9.5 meters. Following the first war, a second gate that opened towards the Sebeș Valley was blocked, likely after 102 AD. The fort adheres to the architectural principles observed in the Dacian Fortresses of the Orăștie Mountains, with the wall characterized by the typical murus Dacicus.

Outside the fortifications, three defensive ditches were identified. During the excavations carried out from 1982 to 1983, ruins of a Dacian sanctuary were discovered. Recognized for its historical significance, the site was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.

The Dacian fortress of Bănița

Bănița, Hunedoara, is home to the Dacian fortress of Bănița, one of the six Dacian fortresses in the Orăștie Mountains recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Romania. Its origins can be traced back to the time of Burebista, but it underwent reconstruction under King Decebal and met its demise in 106 during the Dacian-Roman wars.

Perched upon a hill known as Piatra Cetății or Dealul Bolii, with a peak reaching 904 meters, the Bănița Fortress commands a striking presence, isolated from the Sebeș Mountains to the north and the Retezat Mountains to the southwest.

The fortification was strategically positioned solely on the northern slope, featuring a series of encircling walls, towers, battle platforms, and a defensive rampart constructed from stone, wood, and earth. These structures were skillfully built along the terraces and the ridge of the hill.

Access to the fortress was granted through a monumental gate situated at the end of a 115-meter-long and two-meter-thick wall. A limestone staircase, adorned with andesite balustrades, led the way through the gate. From there, the fortress sprawled across three successive terraces, each safeguarded by a protective wall on the northern and northeastern sides. On the second terrace, a wooden observation pavilion was erected on a stone foundation. The highest terrace boasted a trapezoidal wall for enhanced defense.

After the Dacian-Roman wars, the fortress fell into ruin but later found use in the medieval era when a new fortification was established within its boundaries. In the late 19th century, stones from the original Dacian walls were repurposed for the construction of a railway at the foot of the hill. The only archaeological excavation campaign conducted at Bănița took place from 1960 to 1961.

The fortifications encompassed a range of military structures, including encircling walls, towers, battle platforms, and defensive ramparts. Their primary objective was to impede access to Sarmizegetusa Regia from the south. Within the fortress, a watchtower was erected, providing optimal vantage points for observation. Notably, two substantial walls in the style of murus dacicus were uncovered.

To reach the fortress, the most direct route is through the rear of the Peștera Bolii cabin. The fortress can only be entered from the northwest side, following an unmarked path that may prove challenging for those unfamiliar with the area. Additionally, atop the hill of Bolii, there once existed a rectangular sanctuary—an esteemed sacred space.

The Costești-Cetățuie fortress

The Costești-Cetățuie fortress, situated near Costești village in Hunedoara County, Romania, was a fortified town of the Dacians. This significant archaeological site forms part of the Dacian Fortresses of the Orăștie Mountains World Heritage Site.

Constructed during Burebista’s reign in the 1st century BCE, the fortress was strategically built to defend against Roman forces. However, it met its destruction at the hands of the Romans in 106 CE and was left unreconstructed.

Perched on the superior plateau of a hill at an elevation of 514 meters above sea level, the fortress served as a formidable stronghold with defensive purposes. Alongside its defensive function, it likely encompassed a civilian settlement and served as a regular residence for Dacian kings. Its crucial role extended to safeguarding the road leading to Sarmizegetusa Regia.

The initial defensive system consisted of an earthen rampart enveloping the hill’s upper plateau and terraces. Anchored within the rampart were stout wooden stakes interconnected by woven branches and earth, forming a protective palisade behind which defenders sought refuge. Surprisingly, the fortress lacked a moat, and its rampart created an “open claw” entrance, exposing attackers’ flanks.

Inspired by Hellenistic architecture, the fortress walls were selectively constructed on gently sloping parts of the hill. Experts refer to this unique construction technique as murus Dacicus (Dacian wall).

The walls, measuring at least 3-4 meters in height and 3 meters in thickness, comprised regularly cut shell limestone blocks. These blocks, varying in dimensions, were joined by an infill of earth, unprocessed stones, and other materials. The absence of mortar necessitated the carving of swallowtail-shaped grooves atop the blocks, enabling the insertion of wooden beams. The infill material secured the structure, preventing the collapse of the two faces.

Bastions were strategically integrated into the fortress walls at intervals. The ground floors of these bastions served as storage spaces for provisions and weapons, while the upper floors functioned as living quarters and fighting positions for defenders.

Behind the walls, fighting platforms supported by limestone blocks further enhanced the defensive capabilities. If attackers managed to overcome these defenses, they would encounter another gate blocking access to a steep slope leading to the upper plateau. Only a double palisade made of thick wooden stakes protected the two residential towers beyond this gate. Conquering this palisade would ultimately result in the fall of the fortress.

Additional smaller defensive systems included a formidable bastion on the ascending road to the fortress and an isolated tower situated behind the rampart, extending from the inner wall. In close proximity, a fortification on Cetățuia Înaltă Hill and a tower on the Ciocuța Heights further contributed to the fortress’s protection.

The Costești-Blidaru fortress

The Dacian fortress of Costești – Blidaru is another one of the six Dacian fortresses nestled in the majestic Orăștie Mountains, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in Romania.

Constructed in the 1st century BCE with the primary objective of safeguarding against Roman conquest, this fortress stands near the picturesque village of Costești, in the commune of Orăștioara de Sus, located in the captivating Hunedoara County.

In the year 1921, D. M. Teodorescu emerged as the first archaeologist to set foot within the ancient walls of the Blidaru fortress. However, it was not until 1953 that the first systematic and comprehensive archaeological investigations commenced under the guidance of C. Daicoviciu.

Over the years, ongoing excavation campaigns have diligently continued, leading to the remarkable revelation of nearly the entire architectural grandeur and defensive structures of the fortress.

Perched on the formidable Blidaru ridge at an elevation of 750 meters, the Costești – Blidaru fortress stands as the most commanding and fortified complex within its environs.

Its extensive expanse spans an area of approximately 6000 square meters, exhibiting an imposing presence. Situated along the left bank of the Grădiștei River, mirroring its counterpart, the Costești fortress, the Blidaru fortification encompasses two interconnected enclosures, fortified with a total of six robust towers.

The initial citadel, which dominates the upper plateau of the hill, boasts a distinctive trapezoidal shape and is fortified with four external towers strategically positioned at the corners.

The architects of the fortress ingeniously designed its entrance through Tower I, cleverly hindering the maneuverability of any potential invaders and forcing them to navigate a path to the right, thereby exposing their vulnerable flanks to counter-attacks. Within the citadel’s interior, echoes of a tower-residence resonate, offering glimpses into the daily lives of those who once inhabited this remarkable stronghold.

The second citadel, located to the west of the initial one, assumes a pentagonal configuration, maintaining a slight variation in elevation between the two structures. Notably, the eastern side of the fortifications remains a shared element between the two citadels, serving as a testament to their interconnectedness and strategic alignment.

The dating of the fortress was established by meticulously analyzing the construction periods. It is believed that the first citadel was erected towards the conclusion of, or following, the reign of Burebista. The subsequent extension, forming the second citadel, materialized during the final years of the 1st century CE, showcasing the evolving defensive tactics and architectural prowess of the Dacian civilization.

The Piatra Roșie fortress

The Piatra Roșie fortress, which means Red Rock, located in the Orăștie Mountains, sits southwest of the royal fortress of Sarmizegetusa Regia, perched on the rocky massif of Piatra Roșie in the Şureanu Mountains, surrounded by deep ravines. This historical site finds itself within the boundaries of the Grădiștea Muncelului-Cioclovina National Park, adding to its natural allure.

Comprising two fortified enclosures constructed at different times, the fortress spans a total area of 1.2 hectares. The initial phase saw the establishment of a long rectangular main citadel, stretching 102 meters, strategically positioned at the highest point of the land.

This main citadel boasted watchtowers on both ends, with two additional outlying watchtowers. Subsequently, the space between the watchtowers was enclosed with walls, further fortifying the central area. Interestingly, the construction process involved flattening the hilltop to create a functional space, accentuating the engineering ingenuity of the builders.

Evidence suggests that the Piatra Roșie Fortress served as the residence for esteemed individuals of high rank. Man-made terraces, discovered throughout the eastern and northern parts of the hill, as well as the surrounding hills, bear witness to extensive habitation in the area since ancient times. These terraces provide a glimpse into the lives of the past inhabitants, offering insight into their way of life and societal structure.

Historical records trace the knowledge of the Piatra Roșie ruins back to the early 19th century. However, it was during a comprehensive archaeological campaign in 1949 that systematic research was concentrated on the site.

Excavations recommenced in 2004, shedding new light on the fortress’s history. The stronghold is believed to have spanned approximately a century and a half, from its probable foundation during the reign of Burebista to the final days of the Dacian kingdom.

The inevitable fate of the Piatra Roșie Fortress came as it succumbed to the Roman siege, led by the Roman forces marching towards Sarmizegetusa Regia from the Strei Valley. The Romans set fire to the buildings, tore down the walls, and the fortress descended into ruin and obscurity.

Scattered remnants suggest that in the early millennia that followed, the fortress might have been repurposed as a shelter, although the exact circumstances remain uncertain, shrouded in the passage of time.

In close proximity to the fortress lies the impressive monumental stepped road, skillfully paved through the encompassing forest on either side. This road stands as a testament to the advanced engineering skills and infrastructure of the ancient inhabitants, illustrating their ability to navigate the challenging terrain while connecting various settlements and fortresses in the region.

Perched atop a lofty peak, challenging to conquer, the Piatra Roșie Fortress offers a breathtaking reward to those who ascend its heights. The panoramic view of the valley stretching out from the plateau’s edge is nothing short of spectacular.

However, the fortress has not been spared the avarice of treasure hunters, who, as early as two centuries ago, inflicted damage upon or even obliterated certain sections of the ruins, forever altering the site’s historical integrity.

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