Romancing Romania’s Sarmizegetusa Regia

Jocelyn Murray May 19, 2016 No Comments

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Sarmizegetusa was the capital of Dacia (present-day Romania) before its conquest by the Roman Empire in the early second century AD.  Built right into the mountains of the Carpathians, the main fortress was the citadel of King Decebalus of Dacia, and the site where the final siege took place before the Romans captured the city and turned Dacia into a Roman province.

Ruins of the Dacian temples in the Sacred Zone in Sarmizegetusa.
photo by Cosmin Stefanescu CC By-SA 3.0

Sarmizegetusa was chosen to be the Dacian capital for its proximity to the holy mountain of Kogaionon and the cave of the god Zamolxis whom they worshipped. The region was rich in silver and gold mines, and provided much wealth to the ancient Dacians.

Today there is little left of ancient Sarmizegetusa. The temple ruins are all that remain. But hiking through the dappled light of the towering trees, one can imagine what it must have been like to arrive at the citadel’s imposing stone towers and massive double-layered andesite and limestone block wall protecting the city from trespassers. Remnants of the wall and sacred road beckon visitors to explore this hidden site.

Walking by the remains of the ancient fortress walls of Sarmizegetusa is utterly bewitching.

The stones are pitted and overgrown with moss and weeds, but one cannot help being drawn to them. Touching their rough surfaces is like reaching across the veil of Time and being immersed into the past. How many people have walked on this same road, or followed ox-drawn carts through the massive gates that once guarded the citadel’s entrance? Or arrived on horseback, ducking where the branches hung low as the sounds of hoofs clicked on the paved road, or stepped softly along the packed earth?

A section of the Sacred Road of Sarmizegetusa. King Decebalus of Dacia must have traversed this path many times.

Sarmizegetusa was built on several hillside terraces carved out of the mountain, below which the ancient River Sargetia wound on one side, and deep valleys flanked the other sides. The city was divided into a tree-lined sacred zone, from which rose several round temples with rings of soaring stone columns, and two sprawling residential districts with wooden homes, workshops, and a marketplace full of shops. There was a sewer system, running water, and streets paved in broad flagstone. But its main, heavily fortified gate was accessible by a narrow slope cutting through tall fir and oak trees which stood like watchmen guarding the paved sacred road leading to the city.

The foundations of the temples are all that remain now. But the ruins are enough to set the imagination soaring.

Getting to Sarmizegetusa is no small feat. But this is precisely what makes it so remote and enticing. The ruins wait in a glade hidden by trees high in the mountain. They are shrouded in mystery and nature’s glorious splendor. A sense of reverence fills onlookers as they summon images of Dacia’s mighty past. But as thoughts turn to the final siege, one can almost imagine the cries and panic of the people as they fought the Romans who were attacking the walls which no longer provided security.

Portrait of King Decebalus as he might have appeared.

The sound of scraping on a stone brings to mind the Roman army circling impatiently by the outskirts of the now-broken wall. If I close my eyes I can imagine the horses of the Roman cavalry stomping and snorting in eagerness and expectation. The screeching of a bird is reminiscent of the wailing of the ancient inhabitants of the doomed city. The breeze is thick with the scent of balsam and cedar, but one can also imagine it carrying the scent of the fires from the Roman encampment below. The ancient ghosts seem to beckon visitors, sending shivers of anticipation along the nape.

The atmosphere is charged with something almost supernatural. It is at once reverential and exhilarating as only the sublime combination of nature and ancient ruins can evoke. With every step I am drawn deeper into the mystique of this beautiful and haunting site.

Visiting a place like this makes one think of the key players in its past. I would have liked to meet Decebalus.  He was a fascinating man. A natural born leader, intelligent, confident, noble, ambitious, fiercely independent and proud. A man among men. But in Emperor Trajan he met his match. And as the old adage says, “pride goeth before a fall,” because it was Decebalus’s pride that led to his demise and the vanquishing of his mighty kingdom.

Another view of the ruins surrounded by trees.

 

Location

Sarmizegetusa Regia is a must-see for lovers of history and nature. It is located in Transylvania, in central Romania, 15 miles northeast of the town Hunedoara. This archeological site is a real treasure. The road leading up the mountain is long and off the beaten path. But once there, the hike through the woods is well worth the effort. It is a pristine place, tranquil and cloaked in ancient allure. There is something almost magical about the landscape. It has the romance of seclusion, something which I love.

Certainly, large cities with their people, monuments and history have their appeal, but places like Sarmizegetusa have the ability to captivate one’s imagination through the unrivaled allure of nature, the mystique of ruins, and a sense of seclusion, all of which will set any romantic’s soul on fire. Mine certainly is. Ah, mighty Decebalus. What has become of thee?

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Jocelyn Murray is a travel writer and historical fiction novelist. She holds two university master's degrees in both English and Education, along with a bachelor's degree in Economics and European Studies. She also has a teaching credential and taught at the elementary school level.

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