Biertan – the Anatomy of a Fortified Church

    Biertan – the Anatomy of a Fortified Church
    Last updated: August, 2019

    One of the reasons you should visit Romania are its beautiful medieval castles and fortresses. But if you want to see some authentic old villages, you should go to Transylvania. These villages remained unchanged in structure for hundreds of years. Except for the fresh paint on some of the houses, they seem frozen in time. There are seven villages with fortified churches in Transylvania on the UNESCO World Heritage site. But perhaps the most imposing one of them is the fortified church of Biertan.

    What Is a Fortified Church?

    The spiritual and defensive center of each village was a fortified church where the villagers would retreat with their belongings in case of an attack. This is very typical of Transylvania and was prompted by the Tartar destruction of the country in 1241.

    Transylvanian houses

    The villagers would store dry food (flour, dried ham and fat bacon) within the church walls and use it when they were forced to retreat there. Because the thick walls remained cool year round, food was also preserved there in times of peace.

    Characteristic wooden gates for the villages in Transylvania

    What to Expect at Biertan Fortified Church

    Biertan is a typical Saxon village, dating back to 1283. The village lies in a long valley, surrounded by hills and vineyards. The main characteristic of the Saxon villages are the fortified churches. So it comes to no surprise that Biertan is dominated by the Saint Mary’s fortified church, a hilltop construction surrounded by fortified walls.

    The fortified church in Biertan was built the 16th century in the style of a Gothic church.

    View of the Fortified Couch of Biertan
    Biertan Fortified Church

    Biertan was one of the strongest fortified churches in Transylvania and the last one to be constructed in Gothic style.

    The Ramparts

    There are five ramparts on the inner wall, and three walls in all. One of the great attractions for visitors is the door of the sacristy that dates back to 1515. The door is unique because it has a complicated locking system operated by a key and a crank.

    walls surrounding Biertan Fortified Church
    The Outside walls surrounding Biertan Fortified Church

    The access to the fortress is through a covered staircase, very similar to the one in the medieval citadel in Sighisoara.

    view of the covered staircase leading to the fortified church of Biertan
    Covered staircase leading to the fortified church of Biertan

    The Church Sanctuary

    The present church has three naves and was built between 1500-1516. Another church occupied the same place before. You can still see some frescos from the beginning of the 16th century on the Southern tower of the inner wall as well as the tombstones of the Saxon bishops in the Mausoleum tower.

    View of Biertan church nave
    Biertan church nave

    The church has a spectacular altarpiece with twenty-eight icons, painted by a Viennese artist in the year 1483.

    altar piece at Biertan church
    Painted altar piece at Biertan fortified Church

    The Gate Tower

    In the south area there is the gate tower with defensive role and in the west there is a massive tower. The legend says that spouses who were seeking separation were locked in the tower and forced to stay with each other for two weeks before being granted the divorce. If at the end of the two weeks they still wanted to divorce, they would be separated. But in the tower the couple had to share one bed, one chair, one table, one spoon, one fork, and no knife. And so in 300 years only one divorce happened in the fortified church of Biertan.

    Tower at Biertan fortified church
    Tower at the Fortified Church of Biertan

    Visiting hours

    High season (April 1 to October 31) Church opens Daily: 10:00–19:00
    Low season (November 1 to March 31) the church is closed for visitors

    A Final Note


    There are around 200-250 villages with fortified churches in Transylvania, scattered along the main roads between Sibiu and Târgu Mures, and Sighisoara and Brasov. Every village has the typical small, brightly colored houses and a bulky and sometimes oddly shaped church. It’s a pleasure just driving around and looking at them.The Saxon villages in Romania still maintain their medieval charm. Traditions, culture and lifestyle in this area of the country remained unspoiled for centuries.