Sheep in diaspora

Thanks to my occasional ‘day job’ of guiding British visitors around Romania, I’m lucky to get several trips here a year.  One tour has just ended and the next is about to start, so in the breathing space between them, I want to record a few of the new insights that are lighting my way to what I hope will by a richly rewarding transhumant experience that will help to remind us just how much we owe to sheep and shepherds.  One of these flashes has come from Alexandru Surdu’s book, Scheii Brasovului.  The book is a fascinating history of the Schei district of Brasov, published in 1981 after years of frustration and stone-walling by his fellow academics, censors, publishers and the like.  Schei was inhabited long before the Saxons elbowed their way into Brasov.  It (probably) gets its name from the Slavs that swirled in and out following the Romans’ withdrawal from Dacia in 271AD – but Schei was also a cauldron of other peoples with their own long-forgotten claims to belonging here, including Cumans, Pechenegs and the Dacians themselves.

Tomorrow (12th May), if you can get here in time, you can enjoy the spectacle of a spring-time rite of passage that dates back to the Dacian pastoralists who lived, loved, herded sheep and fought here so long ago.  Called Junii, a word for youth, it is a gathering of clans of men who have sworn eternal brotherhood.  They dress up in all kinds of weird and wonderful variations on traditional Dacian costumes and parade – or gallop – on sturdy semi-grei (small cart-horses) from Schei through the old Saxon citadel and back to the grassy glades of Pietrele lui Solomon to get legless.  Pietrele lui Solomon, or Solomon’s Rocks, are cones of schist which close this end of the city in mountainous mystery.  It promises to be very hot.

On another spare day, I walked to Pietrele lui Solomon myself.  You can carry on panting up forestry roads far beyond them until you reach Poiana Brasov, or you can meander off into the leafy woods in scores of other directions, sucking in moss-clean air and quite forgetting that Transylvania’s second largest conurbation lies at your feet.  Spring sprung quickly in Romania this year – it took two weeks from cold winter and dead, yellow grass, to temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and greenery bursting out all over.  At the moment the apples, plums, apricots, pears and cherries are at their tender best, with blossom drifting about on the roads as if it grew on trees.

In Piata Uniri, Schei’s main square, stands a 15th century Orthodox Church with spires like you see on a Disney castle.  Disney must have copied them, though, because these are the real McCoy, and this church, dedicated to Sf. Niculae, is the most important centre of Romanian culture in Brasov if not the whole of Transylvania.  Why?  Because it was here in the 16th century that a group of theologians and teachers got together and opened the first Romanian school, founded the first Romanian printing press, and here where there is the largest collection of Romanian manuscripts in the entire country.

The school and printing press were housed together in a charming two-storey 18th century building which is now a museum.  You can visit it for the price of a packet of chewing gum and, if you have any Romanian at all, treat yourself to a presentation by the priest, Parintele Olteanu.  I just happened to be there at the same time as a group of secondary school kids, and the banter was fast and furious.

Upstairs in the museum there is a display of some of the museum’s precious Romanian literature, written in Cyrillic letters (Romanian did not use a Roman alphabet until the 19th century), and to catch the children’s interest before it disintegrated into mobile phone conversations, Parintele Olteanu asked them who they thought was the most famous Romanian character in the world.  ‘Dracula’ was the – predictable – reply.  But who was the real Dracula?  ‘Vlad Tepes’ came the shout.  ‘Not at all’, replied Parintele, and he went on to give a account of the blood-curdling activities of Countess Erzsebet Bathori, a 16th century Czech noblewoman who believed that bathing in virgins’ blood would keep her young.  ‘She was the real Dracula’, said Parintele, ‘and Vlad Tepes had nothing to do with Bram Stoker’s fictional Transylvanian count.  Stoker read about the Countess on a visit to Prague and realised that she was the perfect model for the vampire he was looking for’.  All he had to do was change her gender and move the location to the mysterious Land Beyond the Forest – Transylvania.  But where was Dracula’s castle?  ‘Bran’, said someone.  ‘No, absolutely not: it was near Bistrita [northern Transylvania]’ – and that does tally with Bram Stoker’s tale, since his Dracula lived near the Borgo Pass (Pasul Bargaului) which is near Bistrita.

When the kids had filed out, declaring that they had not been bored, Parintele Olteanu gave me five minutes of his busy time.  I mentioned my interest in transhumance, and received another flash: Parintele Olteanu is a brother of Parintele Pavel of J, the one who raised the money to restore the paintings in the 18th century Orthodox church, and the one who told me so much about one of Romania’s most famous shepherding villages, and the villagers’ independent, self-reliant spirit.

I rang Ghita before I began the last tour.  He was on the road with his sheep near Cluj, and sounded as though he were suffering from lack of sleep.  He and Andreea have a daughter.  I cannot wait to see them and their families again.

And today, the Polish-Romanian-Ukrainian transhumance must have set out from Rotbav on its 100 day journey across the Carpathians to Koniakow.  It would have been great to be there but I had to stay in Brasov to prepare for the next tour.  I heard that an Austrian film company is making a documentary about the trek for the BBC.

Meanwhile my Georgian (Caucasus) friend, Devi, is leading her own transhumant tours with people rather than sheep, but we have a lively dialogue going about who will visit whose shepherding country first: she is as passionate about shepherding as me, and with her German-Javanese-Turkic background, keeps coming out with the most amazing facts – such as that one of her Turkic grandfathers was a shepherd in the Crimea, which makes me wonder if it is possible that his path crossed those of the Romanians heading east with their flocks of Turcana, and later Karakul, and if so, what they thought of and said to each other.

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