Sulina - A European Destiny

Institute for Ecomuseum Research in Tulcea
Sulina is the easternmost settlement on Romanian – and the EU – territory, with a distinct history of its own. The oldest mention of the name 'Sulina' (Selinas) is found in the work De administrando Imperio, written in the 10th c. by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogennetos ("the Purple-Born"). In this period, the Byzantine Empire exerts its authority on the western shore of the Black Sea and in the Delta. In the 14th to 16th centuries, the settlement is recorded increasingly by medieval sources – especially on portolan charts and Italian maps – in its versions Selina, Sollina, Solina or Seline, against the background of weakened Byzantine power and local strengthening of the status of Italian merchants. After Chilia is taken in 1484, the region is under Ottoman rule for nearly four centuries and a half. The town is mentioned in the founder's act of Besir Aga's vakaf (waqf) in 1745. On that occasion, the construction of a lighthouse and that of a stronghold is mentioned, with the aim of assuring the connection between the Ottoman capital and the region of the Danube mouth. The accounts of foreign travelers at the end of the 18th c. conjure up an image of an isolated town, with 10 to 20 houses, in the vicinity of which a few shops, cafes and wooden mosques set up 'business'. The Russian-Turkish Wars at the end of the 18th c. and at the onset of the 19th c. led to the advent of uncertain and decadent times favoring the development of piracy. Towards the middle of the 19th c., Sulina was a settlement with rural features, made up of a few timber and reed huts set on the beach, with circa 1000-1200 inhabitants – foreigners, for their most part: Ionians, Greeks, and Maltese. The presence of the European Danube Commission (EDC) at Sulina in the period between 1856-1939 through the agency of a part of its most important bodies – the Accounting Office, the Port Commandment, Technical Services, Naval Inspection, Hospital Services – brought about the development of the settlement into a major town with a flourishing economy based on commerce and navigation and, at the same time, into the most important port of the western coast of the Black Sea. EDC, made up of representatives of the signatory powers of the Paris Peace Treaty (in 1856) – France, England, Russia, Prussia, Austria, Sardinia, and Turkey – played the role of undertaking studies, carrying through the necessary navigation works, and imposing a status of liberty at all the mouths as far as Isaccea. After signing the Berlin Treaty of 1878, Romania, integrating the Dobrujan territory within its borders, would become a member of this international organization. Following studies undertaken by a technical commission, appointed by the signatory powers of the Paris Treaty, the Sulina Arm would be an option for its fitting out as the main navigable fluvial channel. The English engineer Sir Charles Hartley was appointed to draft the plans and see through the technical works. They would have had to clear major obstacles that stood in the way of good navigation: numerous sand banks and a low depth of water, resulted from alluvial deposits. The effects of this initiative was to bring about a development of navigation, the increase in grain exports, the reduction of navigation costs. These arrangements determined the development of the Sulina Port which after 1870 would receive the statute of porto franco, a free international port, in which the incoming merchandise was exempt from customs duties – a status that would bring economic development and extremely favorable social reshuffles to the town. The local urban industry was represented by the 'Geovani Carnana Enterprise' (foundry and naval repairs), three steam mills, 69 small enterprises. Additionally, EDC workshops and shipyards for buoyant material repair, producing or making functional the needed equipment for the workers' teams, the production of wooden or iron parts for embankment or fluvial work, for repair and maintenance of all EDC buildings at Sulina, Tulcea and other ports, took place at Sulina. The town underwent a gradual modernization, which went hand in hand with the economic development. Wharves on both sides of the Danube were constructed. Port illumination at the beginning of the 20th c. was made possible with the help of electrical plants. The task of fitting out the household water supply infrastructure occurred between 1897-1903 when the water plant was constructed, and then subsequently modernized in the inter-war period. In 1957, Sulina was connected to Galatzi and Tulcea by telegraph cable, and in 1903 telephone services were introduced. Moreover, measures for reclaiming and sanitizing the swampy areas were taken, an initiative that contributed to the dwindling of the number of people infected with malaria. EDC constructed two hospitals with modern equipment, with medical visits and hospital treatment offered to its staff, the town population and transiting sailors. The beach was trimmed up, and the town pronounced a health resort in 1932. On the Danube promenade, the EDC Palace was erected in 1868, an establishment that had in-house dwellings for its employees. The urban evolution of the place – pronouncing Sulina as an urbanly enlarged village after Dobruja's administrative integration into the state of Romania – led to the construction of further public edifices. In the Administrative Palace, the vice-prefecture, the town hall, and customs were also hosted. A theatre with 300 seats was also erected, with wooden planks that would see the performance of great actors: Nottara, Brezeanu, Marioara Voiculescu, Theodorini. The local printing houses issued newspapers and magazines, among which the most renowned: 'The Sulina Gazette', 'The Sulina Annals', and 'The Danube Delta'. In order to deal with the commercial issues and contentions in 1900, a significant number of consulates were seated at Sulina: England – vice-consul, Austria – consul, Belgium – consul agency, Denmark – vice-consul, Greece – vice-consul, Holland – consul, Russia – vice-consul, Turkey – vice-consul. Likewise, a number of ship companies appointed their agents: the Romanian Maritime Service, Austrian Lloyds, Johnston Line (England), Westcott Line (Belgium), the Messageries Maritimes Company (France), the Aegean Company (Greece). From the perspective of ethnicity, one could speak of a cosmopolitan population. In the volume 'Dobruja at the threshold of the 20th c.', by M. D. Ionescu, the presence of 2056 Greeks, 803 Romanians, 594 Russians, 444 Armenians, 268 Turks, 211 Austro-Hungarians, 173 Jews, 117 Albanians, 49 Germans, 45 Italians, 35 Bulgarians, 24 English, 22 Tatars, 22 Montenegrins, 17 Poles, 11 French, 7 Lipovans 'with priest', 6 Danes, 5 Gagauz and 4 Indians, is recorded. With EDC assistance, the representative communities founded and maintained numerous schools and religious establishments. At the onset of the 20th c., education was assured in two Romanian, two Greek, two German, and one Jewish elementary schools, and a French boarding house. Likewise, two Orthodox churches, one Protestant church, one Catholic, one Church of England church, one Jewish temple and two mosques were functioning. Starting 1864, on a land placed at their disposal by the local authority, the European Commission built a cemetery common for all Christian denominations; in 1871, the same was done for the Muslim community. Alongside them, the Jewish cemetery was constituted. The entire ensemble makes up a genuine historical reservation. Then the tragedy of WWI ensued. Next to the economic standstill due to obstructed commerce, military operations largely destroyed the constructions of a town left nearly deserted. According to the diary of the physician V. Strejan: "In 1919, there was deadly silence in the town. Ruins, ruins all over the place, roads and paths befallen by weeds, fences forfeited. The merry houses made of plank and painted in bright colors – destroyed, one after another, to make fire. In the harbor, nothing is loaded, and nothing unloaded anymore… the town appears to be dead. A group of Bolsheviks set fire to the handsome theatre built by Moruzi in 1918. Only the still intact minaret of the old mosque tries measuring up to the lighthouse. On the right and on the left, only households in ruins, without doors or windows. The EDC Palace – bombarded as well and partly destroyed. Also, the Post Office – with its windows supplanted by planks. The police now bears a somber look, accompanied by a litany of empty houses and businesses… only in the Southern part of the town, around the authorities and the EDC, is there some life left… the rest is ruin and desertedness." After 1920, the settlement is restored rapidly, in both economic and urban respect. Some of the buildings regain their original look, but most of them are built on vacant lands or instead of the ruins, in the fashion of new times, all planked with saw-milled timbers. In 1939, EDC was disbanded. In fact, the great economic depression of 1929-1933 administered the first blow, and in 1939, this body's entire activity fell under complete leadership and control of Romania. The members of communities directly dependent on the EDC were repatriated. The cosmopolitan life of Sulina ceased to exist. The wrath engendered by the two world wars also affected Sulina, and the town was heavily bombed. Many of the buildings were destroyed or vanished forever. What is more, when the town had to observe the steep restrictions of its 'border territories' status, commerce practically ceased to exist, the refugees did not return, the economic life came to rely on fishing and associations of crafts. The new body responsible for the Danube mouth would be the Lower Danube Fluvial Administration. During the communist regime, through the industrialization policy and even through reorganizing the free harbor, a futile attempt at reactivating Sulina urbanism was made. Nowadays, the glory and the glamour of Sulina in past times is conjured up by a handful of edifices and monuments that have stood the test of time, some of them thrown in an advanced state of decay: the old EDC Palace, several churches, the multiethnic graveyard, the water plant, and, last but not least, the lighthouse. The Sulina Lighthouse, presumably constructed at the beginning of the 19th c., under Ottoman Empire rule and handed over to EDC in the year 1879 for administration, maintenance and repairs, was after 1989 restored by the Ministry of Culture and Religious Affairs and ceded to ICEM Tulcea administration after 2003. This authority turned it into a museum by arranging two rooms situated at the ground floor. Today, the museum is a local landmark of the town, and, at a 2.5 km away from the seashore, a witness amongst others to the changes in the coast line. Further Reading: Syntheses: 1. ***La Commission Européene du Danube et son oeuvre de 1856 à 1931, Paris, 1931 2. Covacef, P., The Living Graveyard at Sulina, Constanta, 2003 3. Ionescu, M.D., Dobruja on the verge of the 20th c., Bucharest, 1904 4. Stanciu, S., Romania and The European Danube Commission. Diplomacy, sovereignty, international cooperation, Galatzi, 2002 5. Stanciu, s. and Duta, A., Treaties, conventions and other documents regarding navigation status on maritime Danube, Galatzi, 2003 Articles: 1. Dracodaidis, PhD, Sulina. Data concerning the Danube Delta in the space of 1850-1940, Mss., 2000 2. Duta, Al., The lighthouses of The European Danube Commission in the Danube Delta and on the Snakes' Island (1856-1939), in: 'The Danube Newsletter' 7-8, 2004 3. Gemil, T., Turkish-Osman document regarding the building of a lighthouse at Sulina (1745), The Pedagogical College 'Constantin Bratescu', in: 'Values of Romanian Civilization in Dobruja', Constantza, 1993 4. Zaharia, P., Sulina, porto franco, Peuce 8, 1977-1978.

by Mădălina Ciocoiu; Cristian Micu