Photo: Otto Schemmel

Berethalom (Biertan, Birthälm) is a Saxon fortified church in Transylvania, Romania. It is located on a hill higher than 388 meters. “Bert” stands for a German name and “holm” may come from the German or Hungarian word for “pile”, in Hungarian it is “halom”. The place was inhabited by Saxons before the Mongolian invasion in 1241. Before 1300 there were about 50 houses (households) surrounding it. (Note: a “house” was the name used for the building of an extended family, the contemporary tax collectors collected taxes by “houses”).

Berethalom before 1918 Source: Benő Gyula

The fortified church was built on a hill in the center of the village, surrounded by two intact rings of walls with several gates, some of which were used as storerooms, council chambers or dungeons. From the northwest tower, a covered staircase leads to the upper courtyard, in the center of which stands the late Gothic three-nave hall church with its beautiful nave vault and ornate Gothic windows. Its fortification system, with a triple wall with seven bastions surrounding the church, was built in different periods. Its inner ring of walls includes a gate and a clock tower, but the third ring of walls was never fully completed.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

It was first mentioned as an “oppidum” in 1397, but it became a “civitas” in 1418. The settlement had its own court, which functioned until 1883. The settlement flourished in the first half of the 16th century. It was an market town and in 1500 it had 230 inhabitants. In 1532 there were 345 families and there were seven kinds of guilds. Among the pictures, you can find the flags of these guilds.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

Between 1387 and 1518 44 students from Berethalom visited schools abroad, mostly in Vienna. The place belonged to the administrative district of Kétszék until 1553. Then, its judicial privilege was reinforced and received further rights. You can read more about the German Saxons of Transylvania on my page:

Photo: Alessio Damato

The great treasure of the Gothic church is the largest Gothic winged altar in Transylvania. The three-tiered altar with its twenty-eight panels was built between 1483 and 1524. Impressive in both size and craftsmanship, the interior is decorated with a statue of Christ on the cross, and the altarpiece is interwoven with carved vines. The German Lowland-influenced panels depict scenes from the life of Jesus. The interior walls are decorated with medieval guild banners and oriental carpets. The church has a remarkable sacristy dating from 1515.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

The heyday of the small town took place in the 16th century, it was almost as rich as the local center of Kétszék county, the market town of Medgyes (Medias). In fact, more people lived there in the 1500s, as Berethalom paid taxes on more houses than in the town of Medgyes. Its school was mentioned for the first time in 1532. As for the importance of the settlement, even a Diet was held there in 1540.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

There is an interesting story about the Bortorony (Wine Tower), the eastern tower of Berethalom Church, where divorcing spouses were locked up for four centuries, where they were allowed to use only a plate, a spoon, and a fork, and to sleep in the same bed. It is believed that all but one were reconciled. Besides the Wine Tower, the other towers of the church also had important functions. One of them housed the city’s bacon store.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

In 1572 it became the center of the Saxon Evangelical Church, and for 300 years all the Evangelical bishops of Transylvania came from Berethalom. Both Prince Rákóczi I György and Prince Rákóczi II György visited it. As for Prince Bethlen Gábor, he received the Voivods of Wallachia and Moldavia in Berethalom in 1626.

Berethalom (Biertan, Birthälm) Photo: Kocsis Kadosa

In the 17th century, there was a great epidemic when half of its people died. The fortified church was taken in 1704 by the “Kuruc” rebels and four towers were damaged at that time along with some precious parts of the interior. The army of Forgách Ferenc (16,000 Kuruc soldiers) had been staying in its area for six weeks in 1705. Only ten houses were standing in normal conditions in 1741 while there were 346 “barren” estates and 104 ruined houses.

Photo: Diana Popescu

The Transylvanian Saxons hold their annual meeting in Berethalom, the Sachsentreffent, the most interesting Saxon cultural event in Transylvania. The all-day event in September offers a comprehensive insight into the culture, costumes, and music of the Transylvanian Saxons. It is also the time when some of the Saxons who emigrated to Germany return home for a few days. The Saxons, who have lived here for centuries, left their ancestral homeland in two waves. The emigration began in 1980 and reached its peak after the changes of 1989 when almost all the members of the community of 600 people moved to Germany.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

Today, it is protected by UNESCO and is part of World Heritage. In our days, the population is predominantly Romanian, with a significant Roma population and a Hungarian and German community of about 30 members. In addition to the majority of Orthodox and Greek Catholic denominations, the village is populated by Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Adventists, Reformed, and Roman Catholics. The fortified church has become one of the most visited monuments in southern Transylvania and one of the most spectacular testimonies to the history of the Transylvanian Saxons. In 2019, about 45,000 people bought tickets to visit the monument, the vast majority of them foreign tourists.

Berethalom Photo: Mayer Jácint

Source: Erdélyi Napló

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