Ada Kaleh: A lost way of life

Ada Kaleh (meaning “Island Fortress”) was a small island on the Danube peopled mostly by Turks. It was submerged in 1970 during the construction of the Iron Gates hydroelectric plant. In 1934 it was visited by the young English adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

“The first thing I saw after landing was a rustic coffee-shop under a vine-trellis where old men sat cross-legged in a circle with sickles and adzes and pruning knives scattered about them I was elated when bidden to join them as if I had suddenly been seated on a magic carpet.”

Ada-Kaleh(1935)The island, three kilometres downstream from Orşova – a port city on the Danube river in south-western Romania – has been a bone of contention ever since the Austrians built a fort there to defend it from the Ottoman Empire. It forcibly swapped sides several times during the 18th century.

Even though the Ottoman Turks lost the areas surrounding the island after the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78) and the Romanian War of Independence which was a part of the same conflict, the island was totally forgotten during the peace talks at the Congress of Berlin. It remained Turkish territory and the Ottoman Sultan’s private possession until it was occupied by the forces of the Hungarian Kingdom of Austria-Hungary in 1913. At the end of the War, Romania unilaterally declared its sovereignty over the island and in 1923 Turkey officially ceded Ada Kaleh to Romania.

Ada-Kaleh(2)The island’s people lived primarily on making clothing, growing tobacco, trapping fish, and tourism. In its last years of existence, the island’s population ranged between 600 and 1,000 inhabitants. The Ada Kaleh Mosque, dating from 1903, was built on the site of an earlier Franciscan monastery. The carpet of the mosque, a gift from the Turkish Sultan Abdülhamid II, was relocated to the Constanţa Mosque in 1965. Before the island was covered by the waters of the Iron Gates dam, part of the population moved to Köstence in Romania and the rest to Turkey.

Ada Kaleh plays an important part in the novel Az arany ember (1872) by Hungarian dramatist and author Mór Jókai – published in English as “The Man with the Golden Touch”. In the book Ada Kaleh is called “No One’s Isle” and is a symbol of peace, seclusion and beauty, juxtaposed with the material outside world.

In Between the Woods and the Water (1986), the second volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his mid-1930s journey on foot across Europe, the author describes a brief visit to Ada Kaleh. He lovingly portrays people whose manners and style, despite their patched and threadbare clothes, were full of dignity. “On encountering a stranger, they touched heart, lips and brow with the right hand, then laid it on their breast with an inclination of the head and a murmured formula of welcome… An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island were the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.”

Ada-KalehAn old man offered refreshment to Leigh Fermor, who was duly instructed in the local etiquette. “First, to drink the small glass of raki; then eat the mouthful of delicious rose-petal jam lying ready spooned on a glass saucer, followed by half a tumbler of water; finally to sip at a dense and scalding, thimbleful of coffee slotted in a filigree holder. The ritual should be completed by emptying the tumbler and accepting tobacco, in this case, an aromatic cigarette made by hand on the island.”

Deciding to rough it for the night in a clump of poplar trees, Leigh Fermor followed a pathway among pear trees and mulberries that “led to a little cemetery where turbaned headstones leant askew and in one corner lay the tomb of a dervish prince from Bokhara who had ended his life here after wandering the world, ‘poor as a mouse’, in search of the most beautiful place on earth and the one most sheltered from harm and mishap.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, by Artemis Cooper, was published in 2012. A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986) are high on anyone’s list of great travel writing. Ada Kaleh remains submerged beneath the waters of the Danube. But it lives on in memory.

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