The Danube Delta From 800 To 1900

The Delta has undergone tremendous changes over the centuries. The oldest written sources, from the Greek-Roman times, concur only partly; yet in majority they offer hints of modifications. Numerous ancient references have been used to identify and track down geo-morphologic elements of the Delta in those periods: alluvial deposits, lakes, the arms of the Danube, etc.BYZANTIUM AFTER BYZANTIUMIn the Byzantine period most of Dobruja (Scythia Minor), the Delta included, belonged to the province Thema Paristrion. The brisk commercial-navigable traffic and the natural conditions in the Delta hugely favored the development of urban settlements. Lykostomion (wolf mouth in Greek, translated as Vylkov in Slavic) was mentioned in the 9th century, on the Chilia arm, alongside Proslavitza or Periaslavetz (hypothetically set at Nufaru). From Lykostomo, the Byzantines tried to protect the navigable waterway and at times pursued military expeditions. In the 10th century, the Byzantine emperor and writer Constantine Porphyrogenitus alludes to the Sulina and Chilia arms for the first time.
Archaeological research in the Danube Delta confirms man's presence in this area which from antiquity to the modern age has represented a nexus of widely circulated routes that helped the local population stay in permanent contact with more advanced civilizations. Artifacts have been discovered from the Roman and early medieval periods (the 8th-10th c.) on the Letea Grind (sandbank) , in the Gradina lui Omer (Homer's Garden), Salistea lui Trisca (Trisca's Grove), on Caraorman Grind at Zaitova Point, on the territory of C. A. Rosetti commune, in the Salistea lui Carlan, in the Periprava village, in the Capul Ghiolul Nebunu (Mad Muddy Pond Cape), in Cardon village in the Salistea Tarla Popii (Priest's Plot Grove) and Tarla Rosie (Red Grove) points.
The mouths of the Danube, intensely used for commercial and navigation traffic as well as for their natural riches, represented favorite locations. Important cities developed: Lykostomion, where the Byzantine fleet was stationed, and Periaslavetz. In a letter dated 968, to his mother, Sviatoslav of Kiev described the locality as a big commercial center to which numerous important roads converged since brisk exchanges were carried out: gold, textiles, wine and fruit from Greece, silver and horses from the Czech land and from Hungary, wax, honey and slaves from Russia.
The Byzantine chronicles, the medieval maps or the portolans (nautical charts) used by Genovese sailors mention several localities in the Danube Delta. To quote Sancti Georgi (Sfantul Gheorghe), Donavici (Dunavat), Proslavita (Nufaru), Solina (Sulina), Lykostomo (Periprava), Chilia, etc. Archaeological digs undertaken in some of them corroborate the information provided by written sources. Thus, research points to the existence, on the right bank of the Sfantul Gheorghe arm, in the area of the Nufaru locality, of an important urban center in the 10th-14th centuries, sheltered by the walls of a fortification the Byzantines erected from scratch, in the late 10th century. On the opposite bank of the Danube, at Ilganii de Jos, ruins of Roman fortifications were also unearthed.
The ancient Aegyssus (Tulcea) was also inhabited at that time, as proven by archaeological digs and coin discoveries. The Byzantine stronghold of Aegyssus was short-lived, however, since in 1064 it was razed down by an inroad of the Uzes (Oghuz Turks). That did not put a stop to habitation in the region, as indicated by archaeological material and a large number of coins found on the present-day territory of the city, dating back to the 10th-15th centuries.
Domestic crises and raids by Turks from Asia Minor and by Crusaders weakened the Byzantine Empire, which triggered a state of political volatility that rebounded on Dobruja as well. Under the circumstances, Italian (Venetian and Genovese) merchants settled their representative commercial offices along the Black Sea coast. Lykostomo, Chilia, and Vicina at the mouths of the Danube blossomed. The economy of Northern Dobruja (the Danube Delta included) returned to normal, the Genovese engaging in merchandise swaps with various other European states. Textiles, ornaments, fine ceramics, spices, wines were brought over in exchange for grains, hides, salted fish and roe, salt, etc. Several documents of the time attest to the brief military and political sway of Genovese merchants, also pointing out that the Genovese used to exile prisoners in the area currently taken by the Caraorman village.A HUB OF INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE In the 13th-14th centuries, the region of the Danube mouths and of the Black Sea was one of the most active in international trade. Toward the end of the 13th century and the early 14th century, Chilia Veche was known as an important center of commercial negotiations for Genovese traders. The city struck its own coinage, the so-called "asperi boni argenti et spendibilis de Chilii". The brisk quality of the traffic at the mouths of the Danube is further evidenced by the discovery, on the Uzumbair hills near Tulcea, of a great hoard of Tartar aspers and Byzantine hyperpers (23,000 coins) from the 13-14th centuries. In the mid 14t century a local price, Dimitrie, played the part of protector of the cities in the region.
Moreover, we have compelling, though indirect, information from Al-Idrisi, an Arab geographer at the court of Norman King Roger II of Sicily, and his work, The Delight of One Who Wishes to Traverse the Regions of the World or Roger's Book. Idrisi gave an approximate geographic location to several localities in the Danube Delta. Thus he wrote about Akli (Aqlik, Akla, Chilia?) that it was "situated in a very bountiful, perfectly cultivated plain. Its plots are big and well watered. To the north there are mountains (?) and beyond them there flows the Danube. The city features workshops and very crafty artisans, experts in working iron."
Another locality, Armucastru (Ermocastro – Jurilovca?) was, for Idrisi, "an old city, with tall buildings, plentiful fields and prosperous trade; settled on a pleasant slope, it towers over the sea." Next he continued his presentation by describing Pereiaslavetz (Nufaru?), "situated on the bank of a river and close to a moor."
"There, within the Black Sea, is the source of all merchandise!" exclaimed a Venetian in the mid-14th century, obviously for the very reason that the region had turned into a hub of international trade, a wellspring of goods and riches. The Danube Delta, its cities and access routes sparked harsh international disputes in the 14-15th centuries.
The socio-political framework obtained after the setting up of the medieval state of Dobruja and its integration into Wallachia (1388), during the reign of Mircea the Old ushered in fresh life into the province. That represented one of the most important moments in the history of the Romanians, witnessing to the creation of the political force needed to stamp out the repeated attacks of the Ottoman Empire in the Danube region. The very title assumed by Mircea as "Great Voivode and prince (…) of all the Podunavia, down to the Great Sea…" is yet one more proof of that fact that his rule included the Danube Delta, too. After Mircea's demise, the Turks conquered Dobruja following their 1419-1420 campaigns. Nonetheless, the Delta and the city of Chilia remained under the sway of Alexander the Kind.
When Stephen the Great took over the throne (April 1457), Hungary and Poland, in their expansionary drive, craved Moldavia, and access to the Lower Danube and the Black Sea. Under the circumstances, to further consolidate his position at the Black Sea, between 1475 and 1479 Stephen the Great erected Chilia Noua (New), in front of Old Chilia, on the left bank of the Chilia arm. In 1484, after crossing the Danube at Isaccea, the Turks laid siege to and took Chilia and the surrounding region. Then the entire Dobruja, the Delta and its surroundings fell under Ottoman rule for nearly four centuries and a half.
The strategic and military importance of the area round the mouths of the Danube increased steadily in step with the ever widely yawning differences between the great powers in Eastern Europe. Matching the maritime trade once pursued by the Genovese and the Venetians was the inland commerce at the mouths of the Danube, a region that became an important transit area for the merchants in the Balkan Peninsula, around the Baltic Sea, and in the Romanian Lands. Thus the cities of Tulcea, Isaccea, Babadag and Chilia (Noua) turned into powerful economic and administrative centers at the crossroads of big commercial routes.THE PATH TO MODERNITYIn the 16th-18th centuries the Danube ports of Macin, Isaccea, Tulcea, Chilia (Noua), Turkish Bestepea (Mahmudia) as well as the Pontic ports saw a regular traffic of farming produce coming from Dobruja. Besides cereals (wheat, barley, rye), documents also mention sheep, cattle, foodstuffs (cheese, lard, suet, honey, wine), fish and fish products, vegetables, raw materials (wood, iron). Fabrics, footwear, Bursa silk, carpets, furs from Russia, hides, Morocco leather goods, China, etc. were also marketed. Documentary sources of the 18th century speak of a Delta rich in produce, with commercial centers supplying Istanbul, the neighboring cities as well as the Ottoman expedition troops passing through Dobruja. Travelers visiting the Delta in the 16th-18th centuries declared themselves amazed at "the wealth of sturgeon, beluga, and carp which the fishermen cut open to take out the roe", then deliciously produced various preparations, much sought after throughout Europe, from Greece to Poland, Russia and Denmark. Other references are made to the water mills on the Danube, and to the six-blade windmills on the Sulina arm. Besides, fishing and farming, the Romanians, the majority population of the Delta, along with the other ethnic groups, engaged in animal breeding. In the 18th century, Dobruja turned into the theater of the military operations that ended the several stages of the long Russian-Austrian-Turkish war, known in history as the "Oriental crisis". Following those wars, both Austria and Russia acquired the right to navigate down the Danube, on the Black Sea, and in the port cities at the mouths of the Danube. Thus the respective geographical area gained first-class importance.
Between 1806 and 1812 the Russian-Turkish war raged in the wake of which Chilia arm became the boundary between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, although holding sway on the Danube mouths under the Adrianople Treaty (1829), Russia failed to maintain navigation in the sector, and the Great Powers decided to set up a European Danube Commission (1856), which triggered important navigation developments between Isaccea and Sulina.
The last mentioned locality – housing the EDC headquarters – was an ancient settlement, to be found on the maps and portolans of the 14th-16th centuries. The 1745 foundation document of the Sulina vakaf (a pious Islamic construction) mentions the lighthouse and the citadel there. The construction took up a considerable area of the Danube Delta, between Chilia Veche and Bestepe, and was built for the following reasons: "The Sulina arm is a difficult waterway to follow and in the darkness of the night and many a loaded ship sink and flounder, which causes disruptions to the supply of some cities, in particular the residence of the great sultanate, the protected city of Constantinople … We have therefore donated the following: … the lighthouse tower which we newly built … on said arm, to the benefit of people, and a solid citadel which we constructed next to the lighthouse …" After 1856, the European Danube Commission erected imposing buildings to house its administrative services, berths, workshops, a modern lighthouse, a hospital, a telegraph station. Flying on top of the new consular agencies one could distinguish the ensigns of the European naval powers that contributed to the special upswing of the city, deemed then a true "Europolis" (as writer Jean Bart's novel with the same title so readily depicts).
After Dobruja became part of the Ottoman Empire, documents testify that its population continued to be predominantly Romanian, with names such as Mihnea, Stefan, Bogdan, Mihail, fishermen from Chilia, enrolled, ever since 1505, in the books of the local tax collector as paying their fishing dues.
Two contemporary chronicles attest to the presence of Romanians in the Delta ever since the 15th century. The first is the chronicle of the Byzantine Ducas. Writing about the war preparations of sultan Mohammed II, in 1461, Ducas underlined that "every Romanian living in Lycostomo started to be afraid." The second document is the so-called Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493, which states that "Romanians also inhabit the islands of the Danube, among which Peuce, famed ever since antiquity." The Peuce island was actually the Delta, wholly or partly.
Fifteenth and sixteenth century maps gave the ancient or Turkish names of the settlements in the Delta.
The names recorded in maps and documents, particularly in the Turkish ones – the defter of the 15th-17th centuries, the 19th century tapi­ (land title deeds), corroborate the existence of a numerous autochthonous population of farmers, cattle breeders, shepherds, fishermen, craftsmen and merchants who gave very expressive and characteristic Romanian names to settlements, waters, hills, islets, lakes, springs, and shoals in the Delta.
An important role in preserving the local element in the Danube Delta was played by seasonal migration connected to cattle breeding and attested to by Romanian denominations like Salistea lui Carlan, Tarla Rosie, etc. Most of the settlements in the Delta featured in maps and documents from the Russian-Turkish wars in the 18th century and the early 19th century are new localities superimposed on older ones. Numerous Romanian toponyms have been preserved in Russian cartographic sources from the 19th century (maps of the Russian General Staff between 1828 and 1829, or 1877 and 1878, such as the Danube islands of Cap de Drac, Tataru Mic, Chiper, Papadia, Peros, Odaia, Gradina, Colina Noua, Crasma, Cimitiriu, Matita, Garla Sondrea (these place-names mean: Devil's Head, Little Tartar, Pepper, Dandelion, Hairy, Chamber, Garden, New Hill, Pub, Cemetery, Fishing Net, Sondrea Pond), etc. All these are only part of the place-names conveyed to us by historical and cartographical documents.
Some population movements led to the foundation of new settlements or the modification of the ethnic profile of certain areas. Thus the Turks withdrew part of their population in the Delta across the Danube, at the Dunavatz river bend, and thus the Romanians of Chilia came to lay the foundations of the Bestepe village. After 1829 the Turkish population left the localities situated in the Sfantu Gheorghe arm region heading towards the south of Dobruja, and places like Murighiol, Mahmudia, Colina, Bestepe came to be inhabited by Romanians from Moldavia and Bessarabia. Later on, they withdrew to urban centers like Tulcea, and populated various districts bearing the names of the localities from which they originated. Ukrainians and Lipovan Russians, along whom the Romanians lived in peace and harmony, gradually repopulated the abandoned localities, just like the inner Delta settlements, with a few exceptions where the Romanians and the Ukrainians still prevail.
At the same time, the Turkish-Tartar population abandoned numerous localities in the Razim lake area, which was then repopulated by Bulgarians.
The melioration of the Sulina arm by the European Danube Commission (after 1856) gave fresh impetus to commercial and transportation activities at the same time with a decrease in the amount of activities on the Chilia arm. This was accompanied by a numerical growth of the population, owing to a considerable migration from Moldavia and Wallachia, and the setting up of new localities like Ilganii de Sus, Partizani/Regele Carol, Crisan/Carmen Sylva, Floriile, Torba Goala, Ceamurlia, Vulturu, Stipoc/Regele Ferdinand, Mila 23, particularly on the Sulina Canal. Numerous foreign travelers comment in their chronicles on settlements inhabited very often by Moldavians. In 1876, Elisée Reclus showed in the ethnographic map of Dobruja, accompanying his geography treatise, that from Cernavoda up to the Black Sea the population on the right bank of the Danube, of the Danube Delta included, was mostly made up of Romanians. 
After the achievement of state independence, in 1877, Dobruja was integrated within the borders of the Old Kingdom of Romania. The land organization measures and some social administrative reform which now applied to the territory lent a new direction to the Delta's development.
In the future, the Tulcea Institute for Ecomuseum Research plans to undertake a multi-disciplinary research of the Danube Delta, befitting the diversity and richness of the cultural heritage of the Delta.

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by Aurel Stănică