History before history:
A thousand years of loneliness
The dates are cold and approximate: it may have been 1274, it may have been 1277... Both tradition and the documents in the archives of the Bishopric of Buzau lead, however, to the end of the 13th century. And the information I bring is truly extraordinary: the attestation, with scripture, of the existence at Aluniș, in the Colților Valley, in Buzău County, of a place of hermitage of the first Christian monks. The years in the documents mark, in fact, the entry of this place of prayer into the attention of the sovereign authorities of Wallachia. Also linked to these years is the legend of the digging in stone of the little church that was to become the heart of the Aluniș monastic settlement. Little by little, from a place of refuge from the world of monks eager for seclusion and seclusion in prayer, Aluniș, with its chilies carved in stone, since the first centuries after Christ, becomes a monastery in the full power of the word, a monastery of the masses, endowed with estates, cattle and expensive gifts by landlords and lords, some pious, others, just eager to get along with the One Above. And so, from a place hidden from the world, Aluniș became, after 1270, a real magnet for clergy and monks, and in recent years, a tempting attraction for tourists eager to see with their own eyes the wonders of the Buzau Mountains. From a few monks, at most 12, as was the Isis law at the dawn of Christianity, Aluniș has grown in only 300 years to 30-40 monks. Around 1580, the viceroy Mihnea Turcitul gave the monks of Aluniș amber mines, royal altar doors inlaid with precious stones and extensive land on the banks of the Buză.
The seven magic steps The monastery of Aluniș becomes more and more known and respected, it develops continuously, until the end of the 19th century, at the dawn of the modernization of the United Principalities, when Alexandru Ioan Cuza's reforms aiming at the secularization of the monastery's wealth lead to the disappearance of monastic life in the area, when the little church in the mountain becomes a church of mirrors for the villagers of Colți commune. There are almost 1000 years of documented history of the Aluniș monastic complex, enough material to write an entire library about how much and more happened in this corner full of mysteries in the Buzau Mountains. But that's not the real history of Aluniș. Its history is not written in dates, it is not fixed in years. To understand it, you have to see Aluniș, to fill yourself with its energies, as you fill yourself with fresh mountain air. To step on the places and climb the paths trodden a thousand years ago by the Sikhs, to lean your elbows on the stone-hewn crags where candles burned a thousand years before the earliest records, to recline under the low, prayerful vaults. The true history of Aluniș is the history of 1000 years of solitude and prayer of its hermits. For, although documented only in 1270 or so, signs of an effervescent Christian life are to be found everywhere at Aluniș and around its little church.
"Here, in the Buzau Mountains, an anachronism was practiced, a life of wilderness, of solitude, which involved virginity and black fasting. We ate once a day, after sunset, we ate nothing cooked, only what nature gave us, and all this generated a high degree of soul vibration. The first monks hid at Aluniș precisely in order to be able to have a permanent dialogue with God. These hermits did not even communicate with each other, they spoke no more than seven words a day, it was a life truly in Christ. This is how the isistical life in Buzău was in the first centuries after Christ. There would have been one, two, three monks, maybe nine, but not more... This is what a hermitage meant: a maximum of 12 people, with a hieromonk who could also officiate at mass in the absence of a priest, he usually living in the centre of the complex, and the others in dwellings dug into the rock, like at Aluniș, or in the huts". Historian and tour guide Diana Gavrilă takes me with knowledge and certainty into the world of Aluniș more than 1000 years ago. Those were the times when Sava Gotul, who became the spiritual father of the area, was martyred in 372, drowned in the Buză river for his Christian faith. "How many other monks will not have lived as intensely as St. Sava Gotul, how many will not have been fulfilled in silence here, in the caves of Buzau, before we learned of the existence of Aluniș? And how many will not have fled precisely from the reigning recognition of the Aluniș settlement, which threatened their peace and that state of true life?".
The mountain top chapel I am high up, at Aluniș, perched above the "Jilțul of God", and I gasp for breath after the steep climb up rocky edges, no wider than a span - the only ladder between Heaven and the tens of metres deep pit that opens up beneath every step, every step. We have just retraced the path, hard and arduous as a penance, of the old hermits, from the little church at the bottom to the top, to the most hidden of their chilies carved into the rock.
"I say it with all responsibility: this is the Romanian Athos! In 3 square kilometers there are 18 monastic settlements, 18 settlements that were used either as places of worship - churches, hermitages - or were monastic settlements for monks", says Professor Dumitru Nica, my guide, a passionate researcher of the area.
"We can link the Aluniș ensemble to the nearby Church of Joseph, where we find a fish carved in stone, which is an early Christian symbol. There is a communication in this whole area, which must be seen as a whole. That's why it's clear to me that there has been an inhabited community here since ancient times, since before Christianity."
In the middle of July, sunlight shines on the Buzau Mountains in amber glow. It's only here, at the top, at the end of a few hundred steps, that you find true peace. Only up here, after you have stepped on each of the seven initiatory steps, carved into the rock, like the prop of imaginary pillars supporting the roof of the world, only here you find rest for your feet tired of climbing, good refreshment for your sweaty forehead and peace for your soul.
I am in the "God's Jilting Place", a huge throne carved out of the hollow stone on the mountain top, in front of a sacrificial altar, used, Professor Nica believes, by the ancient Geto-Dacians, in times when the best among them gladly received to be sent forth, an offering to the supreme god, for the peace of those left on earth. A land like that of the Buzau Mountains, which, seen from above, from the "Jilț", you could well confuse with the Heaven promised to the sacrificed, thrown in spears from the rock altar. Nowhere is the good order of the world more clearly seen than from here, from the height of the 800-metre high 'Jil of God'. I can see the Valley of the Colts, Drugea Peak, Martyr's Peak is behind the throne, in front is Cherry Peak, on the horizon, high and white as a snowdrop, is Goti Peak. I look around, and every place in the sky hides a story, every hill doses a mystery, every rock raises a question. I am in the "Jilțul of God", and at the foot of my world is the land of the ancient Argonauts, the land of the giants, the land of the brave Dacians, the homeland of amber and gold, of living fire, a world pulsating with history and magic, like the tumultuous soul of "mud volcanoes".
The Mother of God in my dream
The world as seen from God's Jilting Place
At the foot of the ancient sacrificial altar and the "Jil of God", two shepherds, Simon and Vlad, rested, as the legend goes, many hundreds of years ago. "While sitting at the stem of a tree, one of them fell asleep, swaying in the breeze, in the scent of flowers and the song of nightingales. He had just fallen asleep and heard in a dream a loud voice commanding him to dig into the mountainside nearby, for there he would find an icon of the Virgin Mary. He was commanded to go on digging the rock and not to stop until he had discovered the miracle. And the man, in the fear of God, set to work. Together with the other shepherd and with the help of the locals, they started digging the rock, and were amazed when they found the holy icon in the middle of it. Many people would have come to see the miracle. It was a sign from God that a church was to be built there."
Told with the spirit of Diana Gavrilă, the legend of the icon seems like a true story that takes you with your mind, but also with your eyes, through the places of enchantment that lie before you. You can see the two shepherds, struggling to dig into the rock, you can feel how the sun's scorching heat and the cold spring water soothe them, how they pray, still weakened, to the Virgin Mary to show herself to them! And the Mother of God fulfils their wish, rising brightly from the rock that was to become the altar of a wonderful church!
The fairytale church
With its blue wooden porch, as if from a fairy tale, hidden in an ocean of greenery, the little church of Aluniș sticks to your soul. From the moment you enter, until you step into the heart of the church, carved out of stone by the shepherds Simion and Vlad, there are many details that give you a feeling of affection that only a grandparents' house can give you: icons with gentle faces, old crosses, scrolls with gnawed edges, old dustpans and table cloths, fresh flowers in the windows and the smell of candles that fill the place with the scent of piety. As soon as you escape the tourist hustle and bustle around the old place of worship, you're alone in front of the altar. Everything is so intimate at Aluniș that, as soon as you begin your first prayer, you feel the echoes of your own thoughts reverberating through the church, like the pipes of an organ.
The stone walls are rough and bevelled like an old man's hands. Every line, every wrinkle, every scar tells a story. A story of patience and faith, of humility and beauty, for, small enough to hold no more than 20 souls, but with a divine harmony of proportions, the rock church of Aluniș has a nobility and distinction lacking in the gold-plated cathedrals of Christendom. Separated from the nave by two pillars, the altar, which I enter with my guide, the passionate Professor Dumitru Nica, is in itself a veritable museum. On the left, above the stone veil in which the priests ritually wash their hands before the service, the names and faces of the two shepherds, Simon and Vlad, founders of the church and witnesses of the miracle of the apparition of the icon of the Virgin Mary in the rock, are carved into the mountain. Around the altar table, candle and icon friezes crowned with magnificent Maltese crosses give the place a royal air. From place to place, Professor Nica pauses and gently touches the altar walls with his fingertips. His eyes no longer help him as they used to, but he feels every part of this little church dear to his soul. "There should be a Cyrillic inscription and another cross here," the professor tells me, and there is. I touch the rock wall, too, to feel the roughness of the work. "It was dug with a "ghionoaie", a kind of pickaxe with a thin, curved beak, which gives the effect of a vault," the professor explains, before leading me towards the chapels of the rocky monastic complex at Aluniș.
The chilies of the Sikhs of Aluniș look like the blue church's babies. Vaults carved into the rock, in which the monks have walled themselves alive. Heavy wooden doors, leaning against the stone wall, separated the outside world from the world of uninterrupted prayers of the heart. The traces of the stone excavations here are clearly and brutally visible, as if each furrow cut into the mountain were a sign beyond time to us today of the power of a prayer or a day spent with the Lord. Notches in the stone "beam" from a time when people talked to God. You don't need charisms from the 1300's, nor beautiful handwritten letters of gift scribbled on leather from the 1500's or so, you don't need excavations or confirmations. You only need to enter the chapels of the monks and touch the rough stone of the mountain, to caress with your eyes the naive lines of the Maltese crosses, to convince yourself that the true history of Aluniș is not that of after 1274 or 1277, but the history of 1000 years spent in the kingdom of silence. Here you understand how little you need to be happy, how little you need to feel fulfilled with God: four walls in a rock, a small crack in the sky, just enough to let out the thin smoke of burnt vines in winter, and just enough to let in a touch of light from Above during the day. A narrow bed carved into the rock, like the pagan sacrificial altar on the top of the hill, a little corner for the hearth, small candle friezes or icons painted directly on the mountain rock. A handful of acorns, mushrooms or herbs, a few poppy seeds, as much water as God gives... And you need, of course, faith and peace, the prayer and silence that many of us lost long ago, that silence in which you can listen to your heart, that silence at the beginning of the world, that silence that Aluniș lost, once, at the beginning of the 13th century, when the world outside invaded, with its noise and its restlessness, the holy peace of the chilies of Colți.
I come down from above, from the "Jilțul of God", and I pass once more through the little church to worship. When I go back out, I find a 76-year-old peasant from Aluniș in a pew. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully, measuring his words like the old-time schimnicii, as if he had no disqualification from meaningless words.
- Santa George, I ask him, do you like to come to this church?
- Don't tell Dumniezo not to live! If I don't live, I'll get drunk instead. How I live again, how I feel good!
- But what's so special here, old George? What do you find here that's so good for you?
- Quiet, dear child! This is where I find peace. And peace is from Dumniezo!
Questions and mysteries after 2000 years
In 1871, the archaeologist and writer Alexandru Odobescu, accompanied by the Swiss painter Henri Trenk, found all these vestiges in a much better state than they are today, after a century and a bit of aggression, insensitivity and irresponsibility had fallen over the silence of the millenary chapels. One of the oldest and most important centres of Christianity in our country lies abandoned, at the end of an impassable road, without professional tourist markings and without any security, in the Year of our Lord 2015! Many other vestiges and inscriptions still uncovered, inscriptions with unknown alphabets are still waiting to be discovered at Colți.
The "Ace Formula" reporter in Jilțul lui Dio Just near the church, the locals came across a medieval wall, traces of the marble pillars that supported the entrance to the church in the past, based on two lions, were also found in the area. What were they doing there? Are they signs of a pre-Christian cult dedicated to the goddess Cybela or were they, as the peasants say, the dogs of the two legendary shepherds who dug after the icon of the Virgin Mary and who founded the church at Aluniș? After 2000 years, the magic of Aluniș continues to fascinate, one only needs to have the curiosity and patience to search.
(Photos by the author)
- Author: Ciprian Rus