Sulina In History

Today, Sulina is Romania's easternmost port. It is easy to find on any map of the world: one merely has to trace the course of the Danube to the point where it empties into the sea. There, at the river's end, on a spit of land, a group of people settled and prospered, and their town gained renown… There is nothing unusual up to this point. When you think that you are arriving in a frontier port, you would expect to be greeted by walls and battlements, and even a few large coastal towers, or at least the ruins of a Turkish redoubt. Or, since we are dealing with a fishing town, you would expect to meet the edifice of a busy covered fish market. But you will find none of these, only a few isolated lighthouses at the river's mouth. What is surprising, however, when one disembarks, is that there is almost no difference in level between water and dry land, between the consolidated promenade and the gentle flow of the waters. The waters flow into the unknown, into the open sea, where, not far away, lies the legend- and mystery-shrouded Isle of Snakes, also named the white island (Leuce) because of its herons or its rocks glinting in the sun. It is as though it had been created by the goddess Thetis for her son Achilles, to whom the Greeks were to build a temple. Using the island as a landmark, the ships of the Euxine Sea headed towards the mouth of the Kalonstoma arm, today's Sulina, and thence upstream. The River Ister was to enter the epic of the Argonauts, as well as the geographies left by Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemaeus, Arrian and other scholars of antiquity. This spit of land at the mouth of the river was also to figure centuries later in Byzantine chronicles (Constantine Porphyrogenetes, 913-959) under the name Solina. Nor do the works of Anna Comnena pass over the name of Solina in silence. Later, it was to become a centre of transit for Genoese traders. However, on the shore of a "Turkish lake", which is what the Black Sea became in the Middle Ages, Sulina declined to the level of a mere fishing village, moreover one with an ill repute, for its name was linked to local pirates and was guarded by a simple Turkish fort. Nevertheless, the interest of European states in developing commerce on the Danube grew considerably in the Nineteenth Century, and in 1840 the first international treaty for free circulation along the river was signed between Russia and Austria. Soon, however, the expansion of Russia to the mouths of the Danube would give rise to the oriental crisis that led to the Crimean War (1852-1856). One conflict, which took place at the beginning of the war, was sparked by a stray bullet, or perhaps a bullet from a pirate's gun, which killed the captain of a British ship anchored at Sulina. The event resulted in the bombardment of the town, which was wiped from the map. The Paris Peace Treaty of 1856 led to the establishment of the European Commission that would regulate navigation on the Danube. This would sow the seeds of new life for Sulina. From that date, the town at the Mouths of the Danube would be reborn, like the Phoenix from its own ashes: at Sulina, the major powers of Europe – France, Great Britain, Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey – mobilised to regulate shipping and commerce on the river. Sulina was to polarise the most illustrious politicians of the day, and good economic relations were to materialise in the declaration of a free port (Porto Franco). Although the region was under Ottoman rule, Sulina was to attract a workforce to match the new demands and at the same time the most important shipping companies of Europe: the Lloyd Austria Society, Deutsch Levante Lines, Egeo (Greece), Johnston Lines, Messagerie Maritime (France), the Romanian Maritime Service and other offices from Italy, Belgium etc. Given the foreign presence in Sulina, there were no fewer than ten consular offices, symbolically united at the town's Diplomatic Club. Sulina became famous for the major hydro-technical works that regularised the mouths of the river and for the excavation of the Sulina Canal, which was co-ordinated by some of the most renowned names in the field, such as Sir Charles Hartley (1856-1907), nicknamed the "father of the Danube", who worked with leading engineers from Britain, Austria and Germany. All this was to be reflected in the life of the town. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, Sulina could boast a thriving and enviable urban life. For the one thousand two hundred houses there were one hundred and fifty-four shops, three mills, a water and electricity plant, a telephone line to the rest of the world, running through Tulcea and Galatzi, seventy small enterprises, five miles of modern streets, two hospitals, and a three-hundred-seat theatre. The population reached fifteen thousand inhabitants, and was a veritable melting pot: Greeks, Romanians, Russians, Armenians, Tartars, Britons, French and others (all in all, twenty-two nationalities). The language of daily communication was Greek, while the official language of the chancelleries was French or English. Education was provided by one Jewish, one German, two Romanian and two Greek schools, as well as a number of religious schools, a gymnasium school, a professional school for girls and a British marine institute. Religious freedom is still reflected today in the four Orthodox schools (two Romanian, one Russian and one Armenian), an Anglican church, Catholic church, Protestant church, Jewish synagogue, and two mosques. An image of everyday life is provided by the local newspapers: the Sulina Gazette, the Sulina Courier, the Sulina Delta, and the Sulina Annals, which were printed in a number of different languages, not to mention the image of Sulina society to be found in immortal works such as Facing the Seas by Admiral August Hobbart and, in particular, Europolis by Jean Bart (Eugen Botez), captain of Sulina port, who, during long nights of winter solitude, painted a dramatic idyll of love and the cruelty of a rapacious and precarious society. Let us not forget that the intellectual life of Sulina was also marked by the presence in the town of poet Alexandru Macedonski, Princess Ecaterina Moruzi, niece of Ioan Sturza, Prince of Moldavia, and sub-prefect C. C. Moruzi, and the town's most famous son, conductor George Georgescu. The Second World War brought destruction. The economy entered decline, cultural life unravelled, and bombs fell upon the buildings of Sulina, leaving only sad, scattered fragments of the once warm, protective outlines of the town's wood-clad edifices. The town's isolation from the world, from the effervescence of active society, due to the post-war occupation, emptied the town, blighting any perspective of reconstruction and renewed local pride and harmony. I was witness to numerous tragedies caused by this policy of isolation, including the enduring memory of those terrible scenes of mothers receiving letters from their children abroad – children who had succeeded in foreign climes thanks to the cosmopolitan atmosphere in which they had been brought up – and out of fear refusing to recognise them or enter into longed-for correspondence with them. Now, besides the few urban "stumps", the image of the Sulina of former days is conjured up for us by the gravestones in the town's cemetery, which is a record of the everyday glories and tragedies of its past, its great epidemics, and its harmonious and beneficent cosmopolitanism.

by Gavrilă Simion