03 October 2013

Between the woods and the water - Ada Kaleh, the drowned island

It has been 40 years ago the Romanian authorities flooded dozen Danubian villages upstream the Iron Gate gorge in the name of „progress”. Patrick Leigh Fermor returned here once more, and devoted the epilogue of his book ’Between the woods and the water’ to this appalling devastation. Ada Kaleh, this little island with the Turkish inhabitants were forced to move to Simian Island downstream the hydroelectric station. Thier mosque has also been moved with the old fortress, but just like the old trees, their community did not survive. They disappeared in every corner of the world. Everything has fled.

Thoughts at a Café Table Between the Kazan and the Iron Gates

Progress has now placed the whole of this landscape underwater. A traveller sitting at my old table on the quay at Orsova would have to peer at the scenery through a thick brass-hinged disc of glass; this would frame a prospect of murk and slime, for he would be shod in lead and peering out of a diver’s helmet linked by a hundred feet of breathing-tube to a boat stationed eighteen fathoms above his head. Moving a couple of miles downstream, he would fumble his way on to the waterlogged island and among the drowned Turkish houses; or, upstream, flounder among the weeds and rubble choking Count Széchenyi’s road and peer across the dark gulf at the vestiges of Trajan on the other side; and all round him, above and below, th dark abyss would yawn and the narrows where currents once rushed and cataracts shuddered from bank to bank and echoes zigzagged along the vertiginous clefts would be sunk in diluvian silence. Then perhaps, a faltering sunbeam might show the foundered wreck of a village; then another, and yet another, all swallowed in mud.

He could toil many days up these cheerless soundings, for Rumania and Yugoslavia have built one of the world’s biggest ferro-concrete dams and hydro-electric power plants across the Iron Gates. This has turned a hundred and thirty miles of the Danube into a vast pond which has swollen and blurred the course of the river beyond recognition. It has abolished canyons, turned beetling crags into mild hills and ascended the beautiful Cerna valley almost to the Baths of Hercules. many thousands of the inhabitants of Orsova and the riparian hamlets had to be uprooted and transplanted elsewhere. The islanders of Ada Kaleh have been moved to another islet downstream and their old home has vanished under the still surface as though it had never been. let us hope that the power generated by the dam has spread well-being on either bank and lit up Rumanian and Yugoslav towns brighter than ever because, in everything but economics, the damage is irreparable. Perhaps, with time and fading memories, people will forget the extent of their loss.

Simian, the "new Ada Kaleh" island

Others have done as much, or worse; but surely nowhere has the destruction of historic association and natural beauty and wildlife been so great. My mind goes back to my polymath Austrian friend and his thoughts on the still unhindered thousands of miles which led fishes from Krim Tartary to the Black Forest and back again; how, in 1934, he lamented the projected power-dam of Persenbeug, in Upper-Austria, „Everything is going to vanish! They’ll make the wildest river in Europe as tame as a municipal waterworks. All those fish from the East! They’ll never come back. Never, never, never!

The new featureless lake has taken all the hazards from shipping, and the man in the diving-suit would find nothing but an empty socket on the site of the mosque: it was shifted piecemeal and reassembled in the Turks’ new habitat, and I believe a similar course was followed with the main church. these creditable efforts to atone for the giant spoilation have stripped the last shred of mystery from the haunted waters. No imaginative or over-romantic traveller will ever be in danger of thinking he detects the call to prayer rising from the depths and he will be spared the illusion of drowned bells, like those of the legendary city of Kitezh, near the Middle Volga, hard by Nizhni-Novgorod. poets and story-tellers say that it vanished underground during the invasion of Batu Khan. Later it was swallowed up in a lake and chosen listeners can sometimes hear its bells tolling from the drowned towers.

Gates of iron
But not here: myths, lost voices, history and hearsay have all been put to rout, leaving nothing but this valley of the shadow. Goethe’s advice, ’Bewahre Dich vor Räuber und Ritter und Gespenstergeschichten,’ has been taken literally, and everything has fled.

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