23 November 2021

Naked Island in the shadow of the Iron Gates


The construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station has transformed the landscape, not only upstream but also downstream. While the upstream Danube section is a much better-known topic, especially in relation to Ada Kaleh and Orsova, the downstream section has received much less attention. The best known of these is the story of Simian Island, where the monuments and inhabitants of Ada Kaleh were uprooted and attempted to be resettled. The failure of the operation was predictable, but so was the failure of another project, the recultivation of Golu Island, which was almost completely destroyed by the power plant's gravel demand. 

View from the cableway on Golu Island to the Romanian coast (Collection of Emil Gyulai)

Until Attila Gyulai sent me the recultivation plans of Golu Island, I had practically no knowledge of this island. I might have caught sight of it on one of the Lower Danube maps. Anyways, this section on the Danube is rarely mentioned on the blog, mainly because of distance and the language barrier of the literature. In this case, we had to start from scratch, which also refers back to the Turkish name of the island, Çıplak Ada meaning Empty or Bare Island. As more and more information about the island became available, it became clear that this name could only be related to the former vegetation cover.

This post focuses mainly on the 1982 plans, with some digression into the island's past. The history of the island deserves a separate entry, since there are traces of human settlement from the Mesolithic period, before the spread of agriculture, to the Middle Ages. 

First, we have to discuss the obscure etymology of the island. Three names have come up in connection with it; Golu Island, Banului Island, and the aforementioned Turkish name Çıplak Ada. The name Golu Island is given on the plan, but in the archaeological literature, the name Banului Island has been widely used. There is some uncertainty as to the name of the island since there were at least four islands in this section before the construction of Iron Gate I, of which only Golu Island remains. However, it should be added that Golu Island has been extensively damaged.

Golu Island in 2015 with the Serbian-Romanian border (source)

This group of small islands was once the southern neighbour of Ada Kaleh, beyond the Iron Gates gorge and the Prigrada rapids. At Gura Vaii, the velocity of the Danube slowed down and began to deposit its sediment. The formation of the islands was also aided by the abundant supply of alluvium; the streams running down from the nearby valleys all built up a substantial cone of alluvium as they entered the Danube, which also made navigation difficult. At Gura Vaii, the Jidoștița stream is one such alluvial cone, narrowing the Romanian branch of the Danube. 

Golu Island, the last Mohican in the archipelago, is currently less than 1600 meters from the dam. The only aerial photo I have managed to find of the group of islands is one that shows it before the dam was built. Unfortunately, the lower tip of Golu Island is missing from the 1944 British Royal Air Force photographs, but the three islands above it can be matched from the two images. In fact, their former size can be established. One of them was separated from Golu Island by a narrow branch, and next to it was a slightly wider island, estimated to be half a kilometer long, facing the Serbian coast. 

The Golu island on the right and the later excavated islands in 1944.
On the opposite side is the alluvial cone of the Jidoștița creek.

A slightly larger island is visible to the northwest of the two. It must have been about a kilometer long, which means the Iron Gate I. power station's dam was built practically at the top of this island. So it's no wonder it had to be excavated. Their names survive on a manuscript site plan of the Al-Duna, the upper island, and the one nearer the right bank is simply called 'Serbische Insel', while the island above Golu Island is simply called Gura Vaii, named after the nearest Romanian settlement on the left bank. On the same map, the later Iron Gate I power station at Sip is marked in pencil just at the top of the uppermost island at river kilometer 943.

The Iron Gate I dam was built at the tip of the island on the left.

Without going into the history of the island in detail, it is important to mention that on the upper tip of Golu Island there was a four-tower Roman fortress called Transdiana, which was probably used as a castle in the "Byzantine" period and also in the Middle Ages. Luigi Fernando Marsigli carried out detailed research in the area during the anti-Turkish wars, and it was he who connected the remains of the pillars in the riverbed with the bridge of Emperor Trajan. His section XIV. and a 1790 map of the Transdanubian Plain also show Transdiana, which means that it may have been a significant ruin at the time. The height of its ascending walls still reaches 1.5-2 meters. Its importance is due to the fact that it defended the strategic crossing point on the Danube from the north, where the bridge of Emperor Trajan stood in Roman times. 

Insula Banul and its surroundings on a very detailed map of Marsigli, circa 1700. (source).

The castle was surrounded to the southeast by a deep moat, in which the Danube water could be used for defense purposes. Today, the castle is recognizable by a large electric pole, and a huge concrete tower stands near the moat. The island was extensively researched for archaeological purposes before the power station was built. It is very likely that this is why the fortress was saved from the fate of the other three islands. The archaeologists have excavated Mesolithic (~9500 years old), Neolithic and Early Iron Age settlements on the island, which may also indicate the periods when the Danube water level was sufficient to allow for permanent settlement. The importance of the Iron Age settlement is underlined by the fact that one of the settlements of the Early Iron Age Hallstatt culture was named after the island, the Insula Banului group.

Gravel transporting track between Golu Island (left) and the Gura Vaii concrete factory.
(Collection of Attila Gyulai) 
After the archaeologists had left, construction workers soon arrived on the island. Their task was to build a sluice track above the Danube to the concrete factory on the Romanian side, which would allow the material from the islands to be easily transported to the processing site. By dredging the three upper islands, they killed two birds with one stone, clearing the construction site of unwanted obstacles in the riverbed and securing the gravel supply for the construction site. Despite their archaeological importance, the sand and gravel layers of Golu Island have been affected by the excavation. In total, three mining pits were created. One in the interior of the island, next to the Roman fortress, beyond the moat. Two in the center of the island, which was later flooded by the Danube. The excess soil from the area was piled up on the lower tip of the island, burying the archaeological layers. At this time, around 1968-1972, the island could indeed claim the label 'bare', because of the barren, quarried landscape.

Plan of Golu Island in 1982 (Collection of Attila Gyulai)

About 10 years after the power plant was built, a site plan of the island's reclamation plans was completed. The plans called for an art center, an open-air museum, and a beach on the island, but the drawing has two interesting features. Firstly, the drawing shows contour lines, including in places where mining should have created negative shapes, i.e. underwater pits. Also interesting is the location of the beach pool. It is effectively a mine pit filled with water from the Danube, but it is drawn in a place where there are no mine pits nowadays. Neither the lake at the base of the fort nor the two pits dug in the middle of the island are depicted. Given these two factors, it is not unreasonable to assume that, despite the 1982 date, this drawing was made before the power station was built.

The upper tip of the Golu Island with the Roman fort. (collection of Attila Gyulai) 

If this plan had been realized, a small holiday island could have been created at the foot of the dam. At its center would have been a beach with adult and children's pools, shower cabins, changing rooms, open to the Romanian river bank. A clubhouse, accommodation, a restaurant, and a beach equipment rental would have been provided for the comfort of holidaymakers. An orchard would have been planted on the south-eastern, lower tip of the island, while the opposite tip would have been used as an open-air museum and art center around the fortress. The plan does not include a boat harbor or any other form of access. Due to the huge maintenance costs of the cableway, it is unlikely that the gravel transporting system would have been converted into passenger service. It was dismantled before 1978. 

From mine pit to beach. (Collection of Attila Gyulai)

A villa stands on the hillside above Gura Vaii. Once built for the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, its windows overlooking the Danube offered a view of the grandiose project and a magnificent view of the Danube islands used as a gravel pit. The villa was built to give the Yugoslav leader, Tito, a place to negotiate the construction of the power plant. After Iron Gate I was built, Ceaușescu never visited this villa again. Attention was diverted elsewhere. Just as the displaced Turks of Ada Kaleh were denied electricity for the rest of their lives, for the sake of which they wiped their homes off the face of the earth, so too was the use of Golu Island as a resort. Until the mid-1990s it was a no man's land, a military zone on the border between the two countries. Only the braver fishermen landed there, or the locals moved their pigs there, where they lived semi-wild and were slaughtered after they had gained weight. There were also many rabbits on the island 15-20 years ago, perhaps descendants of feral domestic rabbits. The floodplain forest is slowly reclaiming the bare island.

The reclamation was therefore finally carried out by nature itself. 

Thanks to Attila Gyulai and Alexandra Ion for the idea and help in writing this article!

13 October 2021

Danubian Island of the year 2021

This is the ninth time the Donauinseln blog announces the traditional poll for the Danubian Island of the year. 

You can vote for the three nominated islands between 13th October and 31st December 2021.

The aim of this contest is to focus attention on the often unknown islands of the Danube. Most of you probably visited the Seychelle Islands before any Danubian Island. This is the ninth poll, and we are happy we have started a tradition and more and more people will learn about these islands across the World.

The winners so far (you might noticed this is a Hungary-based blog):

2013. Kompkötő Island, Vác
2014. Helemba Island, Esztergom
2015. Kismarosi Island, Kismaros
2016. Szalki Island, Dunaújváros
2017. Csallóköz/Žitný ostrov, Slovakia
2018. Molnár Island, Soroksár, Budapest
2019. The Great Island of Rácalmás
2020. Kerekzátony Island, Ráckeve

Idén ismét két szigetet választottak ki a blog olvasói a kilenc szigetet felvonultató selejtező során; meggyőző fölénnyel a ráckevei Angyali-szigetet és második helyen befutóként az esztergomi Csitri-szigetet. A Dunai-szigetek blog idén a Türr István által megrajzolt, 90%-ban Magyarországon található Mohácsi-szigetet jelöli. Azaz a két egészen magyarországi sziget mellett egy szerb vagy horvát felségterületre átlógó sziget is indul a szavazáson.

ABC sorrendben mutatjuk be a jelölteket, amely egyben folyásirány szerinti sorrend is:

Angyali Island, Ráckeve

According to urban legend, the island was named after I. Matthias, king of Hungary, who called the landscape an angelic place when he sailed past it. The Angyali Island is a real island in the Soroksári-Danube with its stretched waters. This water stabilization has allowed the island to be populated since the construction of the lock at Tass. From the 1960s onwards, the island was gradually built up and a populous weekend community emerged, with more and more permanent settlers, who put their favorite island into the final round of voting by a clear majority. To the north is the Vesszőzátony Island. It is worth a visit, accessible by small boat from the Ráckeve side. 

Csitri Island, Esztergom

The smallest island of Esztergom is the Csitri (=small girl in Hungarian), if you don't count the disappeared Turán Island next to it. It is interesting that it is bordered on both sides by a tributary of the Danube, as it is surrounded by the Körtvélyes and Nyáros islands in the archipelago of Tát. Its fish shape and interesting name can be found on old maps, but later its tributaries have been considerably narrowed by river regulation. 

Mohácsi Island
Hungary's second-largest island is somewhat similar to the third largest island. The eastern branch of Mohácsi Island, the Baracskai-Duna, is channelized in the same way as the Soroksári-Duna at the Csepel Island. Until the 1870s it was a wilderness of floodplain forests alternating with marshy areas, although in the Middle Ages there were ten inhabited settlements. Its repopulation could only begin after the flood safety constructions. The agricultural landscape hides interesting landforms, such as a former bend on the "Riha" oxbow, a Roman fortress, and even a quarried limestone outcropping at Vári-puszta. It can be reached by ferry from the west and by several bridges from the east. The southern part is part of Serbia as far as Bezdán. 

The poll will be closed at noon 31st December 2021. The results will be available in the first post of the year 2022!

survey software

11 October 2021

Definitive goodbye - Fifty pictures from the sunken Ada Kaleh island


Waiting for the end. This could be the title of Ergün Koco's photo series on the island of Ada Kaleh, which was forced to submerge in relation to the construction of the Iron Gates I. dam. Ergün was a local Turk who used his camera to take one last photo of his homeland before the expulsion and perhaps collecting old family photos. Most of his pictures show a bygone idyll with storm clouds gathering behind. The island seems to be going about its daily routine, but on the other side of the Danube, infrastructure is being cut into the hillside to adapt to the new water level. Busy hands hammer away brick-by-brick the caissons of the island's eponymous fortress, while the wind chases the clouds across the sky. The waves of the Danube are still coming ashore, but the time is not far off when these waves will begin to lap higher and higher ground. They reach the coastal herbage, hug the stumps of felled trees, cautiously enter the thresholds of abandoned, demolished houses, and then take possession of the corridors of the fortress with ever-quickening steps, creeping up the walls like enemies. This process did not take place day by day; the vast reservoir was only gradually filled by the swollen river around 1969-1971. That is why it is impossible to give a precise date for the flooding of Ada Kaleh, since years may have passed between the last inhabitant taking to the water and the highest point of the island disappearing into the swollen river. Ergün Koco's pictures must therefore have been taken sometime in the late 1960s.

The author photographed all the buildings that were familiar and dear to him, even going up to the minaret and the neighboring hills, taking pictures of his family, relatives living and dead, the interior of their old house, familiar corners, and paths. He has nearly two hundred pictures, all of them imbued with a sense of definitive goodbye. By then, everyone knew that there was no longer any place for them on the island. 

Finally, all was lost

















































More stories on the sunken island, Ada Keleh: