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A lost historical monument: Roman and late Roman fortification from Ada - Kaleh Island

Paper written by Archaeology expert Dorel Bondoc PhD, of Oltenia Museum, Craiova, Romania

Dorel Bondoc
Dr Dorel Bondoc
Muzeul Olteniei, Craiova
poziţia actuală: muzeograf



The XIXth Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, Pécs 2003, was held under the late auspices of Marcus Aurelius, who had to fight against Marcomanns and Sarmatians in the sixties and seventies of the 2nd century AD along the frontiers of the province Pannonia. The stoic philosopher wrote some of his works during these campaigns and died in 180 in Vindobona (Vienna). His bronze statue was erected in the auxiliary fort Lugio (Dunaszekcsö) at this time. The perfectly made bronze head, depicted on the frontispiece, counts apart from the equestrian statue in Rome as the most valuable and best bronze image of the emperor (preserved in the Janus Pannonius Musem, Pécs).

This paper appeared in:

Limes XIX

Proceedings of the XIXth International Congress of Roman Frontier Studies

Pécs, Hungary, September 2003

Edited by

Zsolt Visy

University of Pécs


Ada-Kaleh island (Fig. 1) had lain in the middle of the Danube, before it was covered by the waters of the river, downstream the Iron Gates, at a distance of 4 km south-east from Dierna (Orsova) and 18 km from Drobeta (Tumu-Severin). In the region, the climate is mild, wet in winter and hot in summer. The mediterranean influence allowed the adaptation of some exotic species of plants and animals.

This paper is meant to describe, as far as the available knowledge allows it, a historical and archaeological monument, which was lost for good. Ada-Kaleh island was 1.750 km long and 400-500 m wide and lay in Mehedinti county, Romania.

At the beginning of the 15th century, the island was occupied by Turks, who intuited its remarkable strategical importance for the development of the river trade on the Danube, after the exit from Kazan region. In 1718, as a result of the treaty from Passarowitz (Pojarevat), the northern Serbia, Banat and Oltenia became possessions of the Austrians, as was also the case of Ada-Kaleh island which bore the name New Orsova then.

The Austrians built a strong fortification of "Vauban" type (Fig. 2) on the island. In 1739, after the treaty from Belgrad, Austria returned Serbia and Oltenia to Turkey. As a result the island was occupied again by Turks, who gave it the name Ada-Kaleh, which may be translated as "the island of the fortress." The toponym can also be found in the documents of that time as: Ada Kale, Ada Cale, Adakaleh, Ada Kaleh or Adacale.

The efforts of the Austrians to retrieve the island between 1789-1790, were unsuccessful. After 1829, together with the treaty from Adrianopol, the Romanian States obtained many facilities such as: administrative autonomy, free trade, rulers appointed for their life time, etc. Therefore, the strategical importance of the island diminished considerably after applying the stipulations of the treaty. At the Peace Congress in Berlin (1878), the situation of the island wasn't raised for discussion during the negotiations, it was actually forgotten, continuing to be an isolated possession of Turkey. On the 22nd November 1885, the island was declared open and from now on, the military functions of the island were ended. This was the situation of the island until 1919, when it was returned to Romania, under the right of self-determination of the inhabitants. The situation was registered by the treaty from Trianon (1920) and it was admitted by Turkey only in 1923, as part of the treaty of Lausanne.

After 1923, the island became a touristic paradise. The ruined fortifications, the occupations and customs ofthe natives, very interesting from the ethnographical point of view, the exoticism of the climate, fauna and flora were interesting sights for visitors and local tourism was developing. The economic situation flourished as never before, especially after 1931, when the former king of Romania, Carol II, visited the island and the inhabitants were given many privileges.

At the end of the 1960s and at the beginning of the 1970s, the governments of Romania and Yugoslavia decided to start the construction of a lake for the Iron Gates I hydro-electric plant. In 1971, as a consequence, when the project was put into practice, Ada-Kaleh island was covered by the waters of the Danube as the water-level rose. Parts of the Austrian and Turkish monuments from the island which could be saved were moved to the island Ostrovul Simian, thanks to the academician C.S. Nocolaescu-Plopsor and the architect Adriana Mihai. These consisted of part of the walls of the fortress, two gates and some Turkish monuments. The inhabitants were moved to other places according to the Decision 2147/1967 of the Council of Ministers of Romania, according to the Decree 1008/1967.

The problem of the existence of a Roman fortification on Ada-Kaleh island was raised for discussion by the Serbian archaeologist Vladimir Kondic. Quoting the count Marsigli, Kondic presumed that there was a square fortification of quadriburgium type with circular towers in the corners. On the island, there might have been two towers for observation and signaling.

Vladimir Kondic, who identified Ada_Kaleh Island with ducepratum, which translates as "Commander's Pastures" (dux = commander, pratum = pasture) and he thinks that Ada-Kaleh island could have been useful for this purpose during the 4th century and also in the 6th century. His opinion was received cautiously by Milutin Garasanin, who thought that the identification Ada-Kaleh with Ducepratum and Sip with Caput Bovis were the only credible way to adapt Procopius's notes to the field situation for this sector of the Danube. The Byzantine historian wrote that after Novae, there came the fortresses Cantabaza, Smornes, Campses, Tanata, Zernes, and Ducepratu, and then he added: on the other bank there were built completely, many fortresses. Against the identification Ducepratum with Ada-Kaleh, there can be invoked the fact that the toponym (locality name) Ducepratum with its etymology (the Commander's Pastures) can't be placed on an island, but rather on one of the banks of the Danube.

There are more details in some topographic materials from the modern age. Thus, a map from the 18th century: Plan de l'Ysle de Orsova et de la fortification situee sur le Danuve... drawn by Joseph Deharo, Viscount of Lincourt, presents an Austrian fortification of "Vauban" type on Ada-Kaleh island. At present, the map is at the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul, inv. 5842. Inside the Austrian fortification, there is a structure in the shape of a quadriburgium with rhomboidal comer towers (Fig. 3). When I used this information for the first time, I was not sure of its Roman origin. The rhomboidal shape of the comer towers suggests that it might be a structure which is a part of the Austrian fortification. Anyway, rhomboidal towers are not unusual in the Roman age; there are similar constructions at Transdierna, in Dacia Ripensis, today Tekija, in Serbia.

The fortifying of the places on Ada-Kaleh island and Orsova was registered by F. von Reilly on the map Karte von dem Osmanischen Reiche in Europa, from 1796. This map might have been taken again under the same name by F. L. Gusefeld in 1802. Both maps present distinctly the fortifications from Ada-Kaleh island (= New Orschova) and Orsova (= Alt Orschova). It can't be specified if they were Roman or mediaeval constructions.

Meanwhile, new information has become available. Recently, a map drawn in 1744, by Avon von Bellavich, at 1: 68.000 has been commented upon. The title of the map is Plan des gegen das Turkische Gebeit ausgestellen Banatischen Cordons mittelst welchen die bereits vorhandene gut-und Brauchbahre alte, dann die neu zu errichten antragede Wachlehaltnussen als Chardaquen, Wachthauser, Erd-und Ruhr-Hutten nach ihrer verschiendenen Bau-Arth mit distinguierten Farben aufgezeichnet seynd. At present, the map is at the War Archives in Vienna. The area of Orsova contains also a draft of the Austrian fortification of "Vauban" type from Ada-Kaleh island (Fig. 4); the island is named here with the old title Insel Orsova. As in the case of Joseph Deharo's map, discussed above, inside the Austrian fortification, there can be clearly noticed a quadriburgium with corner towers, protruded out of the enclosure. Unlike Joseph Deharo's map, on the one drawn by Avon von Bellavich, the corner towers are almost round. The difference can't be explained.

The raising of the Austrian fortifications of "Vauban" type on older ruins, actually over the Roman foundation is not an unusual fact, this situation having been recorded in other places (see for example, the situation from Alba Iulia, where over the walls of the Roman camp Apulum there was raised a fortification of "Vauban" type; it is also the case at Singidunum camp and that of the fortification from Pancevo and from Sapaja island, which were superposed by Austrian fortifications of the same type).

In order to support the existence of a Roman fortification on Ada-Kaleh island, there can be invoked another topographic source. This is a military map (Fig. 5), made by the Topographic Board of the Ministry of Defence of Romania (R.S.R.) in 1962, at the time when the island hadn't been flooded yet and no archaeological excavations had been made. The map presents a rectangular fortification (probable size: 25Ox2OO metres) divided north-south and east-west by cardo and decumanus maximus. All these indicate a Roman camp. From the middle of the eastern side of the fortification, where probably there was a gate, there started a road to the eastern extremity of the island. In this point, the map shows a circular construction; these might be the ruins of a tower for observation and/or signaling.

Among the topographic sources quoted above, there is an discrepancy concerning the shape of the Roman fortification on Ada-Kaleh island. On the one hand, the Austrian map by Avon von Bellavich registers a fortification of quadriburgium type, dated probably from the Late Roman period. On the other hand, the military map drawn by the Topographic Board of the Ministry of Defence of Romania (R.S.R.) in 1962, presents a construction which seems to be a Roman camp from the 2nd - 3rd centuries. For the time being, this discrepancy can't be explained and there isn't any reason to suspect the information given by the two maps of inaccuracy

Near the island, there are the mouths of the rivers Bahna and Cema. From the strategical point of view, it is clear that Ducepratum-Ada-Kaleh could block or signal the penetration of any barbarian invaders through these forts. Through this fortified place, there also could be ensured the security and control of the navigation on the Danube. The identification of a signaling tower on the eastern extremity of the island is justified for this purpose.

The period of when the fortification from Ada-Kaleh island was built cannot be specified. The military map made by the Topographic Board of the Ministry of Defence of Romania (R.S.R.) in 1962 indicates a Roman camp from 2nd - 3rd centuries. The plans from the Austrian maps show a quadriburgium from the Late Roman period. A coin from Constantinus the Great's time, discovered in 1967, dated at 306-307, might indicate the existence of the fortification in this emperor's time. Anyway, if it had borne the name Ducepratum, then the fortification would have been restored during the period Anastasius-Justinian, as Procopius registered it among the military buildings raised or restored during this period.

Nowadays, Ada-Kaleh island is under the waters of the Danube. In 1845, when the Romanian scholar August Treboniu Laurian visited the island, he didn't notice any ancient traces; the only explanation seems to be that, at the time, the fortification was completly destroyed by the construction of the Austrian fortification and then by the construction of the Turkish buildings. The archaeological excavations from 1967-1968 support this assertion. Excepting a coin from the 41h century discovered in the filling modern stratum, no other Roman traces have been found on the island. This lack raises a serious problem. This could be explained by the fact that the Roman traces could have been cleared up from the island or partly used for the mediaeval and modern constructions. It is well known that in many cases, the Austrians dynamited and blew up the old foundations (this method was put into practice at Cenad, on the island of Sapaja, etc.). It is possible that on Ada-Kaleh island, the Austrians might have done the same and the Roman traces were destroyed.

There is also another remark. During the archaeological excavations from 1967-1968, it was found that, in order to raise the floor level inside the Austrian fortress, there was brought, "a large amount of earth, brought, it seems, entirely from one or both banks of the Danube, laid among the walls and then levelled." I haven't proposed myself to find by all means explanations for the lack of Roman traces but the ones enumerated above can be objective causes of this problem. On the other hand, examining the published plan of the excavation, it can be noticed that they were just tests meant to point out the Austrian fortress (Fig. 2). The results of the previous excavations from the 1965-1966 led by N. Constantinescu haven't been published yet. As shown from the available published plans, a large part of the area has remainded unexplored. All these make me think that the archaeological secrets of Ada-Kaleh island have not been revealed completely.

Anyway, Ada Kaleh island represented throughout its entire history a very important strategic point in the area of the Iron Gates. The idea of the need for a Roman fortification here comes naturally from its location in the middle of the Danube, which allows for the easy crossing of the river. Therefore, a barbarian invasion through this ford was difficult to avoid. There are analogies for this fact in the case of the islands Ostrovo, Sapaja, Ostrovul Banului and Ostrovul Mare, where the Romans built strong fortifications. Not least, for this discussion it is very illustrative to note the interdiction imposed on the Sarmatians by the emperor Marcus Aurelius, interdicting the barbarians' access to the islands on the Danube.

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