Dobrudscha, The Land That Was Our Home

Stiller-Leyer, Gerlinde. "Dobrudscha, The Land That Was Our Home." Mitteilungsblatt, August 2009, 14-15.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

A Small Excursion into the Antique Past

(Text submitted by Frau Gertrud-Knopp-Rueb, taken from s Jahreskalender der  Dobrudschadeutschen)


The Dobrudsha is a Romanian province situated in the Southeast of Romania. There is perhaps hardly any other stretch of land in Europe which can demonstrate a diversity in its development, in its flora or fauna, and in the population itself as is seen in the Dobrudsha. It is a diversity that emerged from an intersecting corner of three worlds: Central Europe ending in the thickets of the Dobrudsha, the Silver Coast demonstrating a Mediterranean character, and Eastern Europe beginning not far from the valley of the Danube. In the West, the Dobrudsha borders wide Danube pastureland, in the East there are the blue waters of the Black Sea, in the North there remains a primeval avian paradise, a nature preserve, and in the South we find the [so-called] Silver Coast with its 300-meter-elevation [nearly 500 feet] crest of the Deli-Orman (wild forest), an extension of the Middle Balkan Mountains, which at the same time forms the border with Bulgaria. During the course of history this southern border has been defined by political and military necessity, and so its actual course has frequently been changed. The last two times this happened was in 1913 and in 1940. At the Peace of Bucharest (1913), which ended the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria was forced to cede a tract of 8,000 square meters [nearly 10,000 square yards] to Romania. In 1940, the tract was given back to its earlier owner, and on February 10, 1947, the delta island of the Danube's Chlila arm as well as the "snake island" were ceded to the Soviet Union. Between the two World Wars, the Dobrudsha measured 23,262 square kilometers [ca. 8,400 square miles], about 200  kilometers at its longest [ca. 120 miles] and 45 kilometers at its narrowest [ca. 28 miles]. Today, following the ceding of South Dobrudsha to Bulgaria, the remaining area measures only 15,536 square kilometers [ca. 5,600 square miles]. Following the course of the Danube in an easterly direction from Belgrade, one notices that, at only 110 kilometers [ca. 66 miles] from the Black Sea, the river is forced to take a northerly direction, and only after a detour of about 270 kilometers [ca, 160 miles] does it resume an easterly direction near Galatz. This detour that the Danube is forced to take is due to the fact that the Dobrudsha is really a stretched-out boulder covered with a loess soil that in the South measures up to 80 or more [ca. 50 or more] meters in depth. In certain spots, the naked rock does crop out..Before emptying into the Black Sea, the Danube forms a set of numerous watery, marshy arms that play host to a multiplicity of bird species and harbor a rich supply of fish.  In the Northwest we find the "sierra-like" Dobrudsha Mountains with their characteristics of central [European] mountains that causes visitors to compare the area with Thuringia. The highest elevation is the 467-meter [just over 1500-foot] apex of the Goldberg [Gold Hill/Mountain]. During the distant past the area was covered with oak and linden trees. We should also mention the Danube flood area in the West, the so-called "Balta," which measures between 10 and 20 kilometers [ca. 6 to 12 miles] in width. On its Northern side there is a flat spit that in the South ends up as a steep shoreline, culminating to a height of over 200 meters [nearly 500 feet] in the Southeast. At its heart, the Dobrudsha resembles a saddle, which at its Southern edge rises up to 500 meters [over 1600 feet]. For this reason, wells in the South had to be dug very deeply to reach ground water levels. The very center is a definitive steppe, for which water is a crucial element. Minimal precipitation brings about bad harvests, but with timely and sufficient rain the soil bears rich results.

The South of the Dobrudsha is a high plane in which canyon-like valleys have been carved. The Deli-Orman originally was a dense, low-grown forest, which is why the Turks called it the "wild forest." Final mention should be given to the so-called limans (a Turkish name for "lagoons") an the Northern coast of the Dobrudsha, by means of which the waters of the sea and of the Danube mix and reach far into the land. Only during our times have some of these "sea" been drying up, some due to human actions.

Whence the Name "Dobrudsha?"

The origins of the name Dobrudsha go back as far as the time of the Bulgarian kingdom and its principalities founded on the lower Danube in the 14th century. Presumably Prince "Dobrotich," a so-called Kuman (a Turkish-speaking people), a son of the Boyar Balica, made his career at the court of Byzantium. He distanced himself from the Bulgarian princedom and as Despot of Byzantium he acquired the entire West Coast of the Black Sea, including the Balica Princedom, and thus the independent East-Bulgarian Empire was founded. The former "Scythia Minor" was given [a form of] his name, "Dobrudsha."

Excerpts from the History of the Dobrudsha

The Dobrudsha has always been a "Peoples Pathway" and a border region for Greeks, Scythians, Thrakians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantians, Bulgarians, Tatars, Turks and Romanians. Its bridgehead-like situation at the intersection of the Rhine-Danube pathway and the land road from Eastern Europe to Constantinople and the Orient made the Dobrudsha a much fought-over border and transition land of great economic significance. Consequently during the course of time its population had to endure and to accept many incursions and even conquests. Ruling the longest here were the Romans, the Byzantians, and the Turks. The Dobrudsha was populated as early as the older Stone Age, which is demonstrated by relics of cultural areas that have been discovered at the Cape Midia, north of Constanta, on the Black Sea as well as in  a grotto next to the Danube. Discoveries from the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages also show that the Dobrudsha was populated during those times. Further proof comes from ruins of Greek cities and from the innumerable Tumulis (mounds) found in the area of the steppes. These burial mounds stem not only from the Grecian-Roman periods, but also from pre-historic times.

Scythia Minor

During the antique, the Dobrudsha was called "Scythia Minor."  The Scythes were a people of horsemen, riding nomads from Iran, who settled in southern Russia, and from here they pushed further into the Dobrudsha, because the area seemed to look like the South Russian steppes, so they called it "Scythia Minor." Actually the Dobrudsha had one other designation, but one that was limited to its coastal areas, namely, "The Left Pontus." This designation, used primarily by the Greeks and seafarers coming from the South, stems from it being situated occidentally on the Black Sea. Aegean seafarers appeared at this particular sea as early as during Nicaenian times, as shown by statements of the Argonauts. Grecian thrusts into the "Left Pontus" became a booming business for long stretches of time. Around 650 B.C. the city of Istros (today's Histria) was built on a small rocky island in the Sinoe Lagoon, but in the third century B.C. it was completely destroyed by the Goths.

Persian Rule

The very oldest historical data on the Dobrudsha stem from the Greek historian writer Herodotus. He writes about an expedition by the Persians under Darius against the Scythes. Until 480 B.C. the Persians were actually the rulers over this area. Subsequently the Dobrudsha belonged to the Kingdom of Thracia. About 280 B.C. the Celts arrived and settled at the lower Danube, thus causing a lot of problems for the Greek states. By 46 in the Christian Era, the Dobrudsha was finally integrated into the Roman World Empire. In 378 A.D. it became Goth, and in 587 was thoroughly plundered by the Avars. In 679 A.D,  the Bulgarians entered the area and founded the first Bulgarian Empire. Additionally, the Dobrudsha also suffered conquest by the Petchengs, the Magyars, the Russians and the Kumans. The latter, having come from Mongolia and having been forced out of South Russia, settled down in the Dobrudsha in 1233 A.D. and remained the ruling population until the Tatar invasion of 1241 A.D. During 1396 the Hungarian king Sigismund, heading a great army that was represented by knights of the entire Occident, made yet another great thrust to drive the storming Osmans back. The battle of Nicopolis was decided against him, and consequently the Dobrudsha and all of Bulgaria fell entirely under Turkish rule. During the subsequent four centuries very little information can be gleaned about the history and the inhabitants of the Dobrudsha. Only one thing is certain: The new Turkish rulers did concentrate on populating the Dobrudsha. The victor, Sultan Bayadis I, brought Tatars into northern Dobrudsha, Sultan Mohamed I, used Tatars from the Crimea and Turkmanians from Asia Minor to colonize central Dobrudsha, and with Cherkassians he settled the northern area. Thereby he secured absolute control for the Ottomans over the right side of the Danube stretching all the way to its delta. This rule, lasting four and a half centuries, signified the end of any [prior] civilization in the province, and the Cherkassians in the North would later become the most dangerous neighbors to German settlers. The area was characterized by unrest and lack of security. The fact is that the Dobrudsha had become a cornerstone for a series of World Empires. Its geographical situation and its insular nature always played an important political role.

Of Roman Times

In Tomi, todays' Constanta, the then banned Roman poet Ovid reported extensively and vividly on the area. He spent his final years in Tomi, in constant complaint about the dreariness of the countryside and the rough nature of its populace. Reasons for why this respected and popular poet of noble ancestry was exiled in 9 A.D. to faraway Tomi - this extreme end of the world, as it seemed to him - have not been explained with certainty. From indications in his writings, he had been witness to an event that might have brought shame to the family of Emperor Augustus, although it is apparent that Ovid himself had not been part of the event. After eight years of exile in Tomi, he died in 17 A.D. On the market place of Tomi, a memorial - one which stands to this day - was erected in his honor. Also in the Dobrudsha, the famous "Tropaeum Traiani," a gigantic victory memorial, was erected in 109 A.D. Stemming likewise from Roman times are the so-called Trajan Walls (fortress-like walls), also called the "limes," that stretch across the Dobrudsha in three separate phases, from the Pontus Euxenius (Black Sea) all the way to the Ister (Danube), and one likewise extending from Tomi, today's Constanta, to Axiopolis, today's Cerna-Voda. These walls served the Romans as protection against frequent incursions by the Barbarians from the North. There were walls also during the time of the Goths.

Further Data

It was during Roman rule that Christendom came to the Dobrudsha. Legend has it that the Apostle Andrew, the brother of Peter, was active in the Dobrudsha. The then Bishop of Tomi was a participant in the very first and "world-wide" Council of Nicea that was held in 325 A.D. The West-Goth Bishop Wulfila also worked in the Dobrudsha. In 369 A.D. he translated the Bible into the Goth language.

It is very important that we mention the ten Russo-Turkish wars between 1768 and 1878, which made the Dobrudsha a major scene of blood and horror. After taking it over, the Russians, in their unbridled zeal for conquest, brought nothing but destruction to the Dobrudsha. Its area was razed, its towns and villages burned to ashes, and its poor population deported or chased away. A plague breaking out in 1829 made the war-time situation even worse.

We owe the first German description of the Dobrudsha to the future General Field Marshall Helmut Graf von Moldtke, who in his early years actually was an officer in the Turkish service and had crossed the Dobrudsha. In his book "Briefe ueber Zustaende und Gegebenheiten in der Tuerkei in den Jahren 1835 - 1839 [Letters on Conditions and Events in Turkey During the Years 1935 to 1839]" he described the area in detail, including the condition of the Dobrudsha he had observed in 1839. In one of his letters he writes as follows: "The entire land has become a dreary wasteland. Man has chased man away from the region. One third of the former population no longer exists, and the cities are literally piles of stones. The entire Dobrudsha region now counts barely 20,000 inhabitants. A small, mixed population of Tatars, Wallachians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, and a few Turks remains after the latest war, for after each war thousands of Bulgarian families moved to Bessarabia and to Crimea, because they felt threatened by Turkish revenge." Thus, by 1840 the Dobrudsha was as good as empty, and only gradually would it fill up with people again.    

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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