Standing out in the World: 5 Out of the Ordinary Things about Romania
The European Union’s sixth largest country after Brexit and one of Europe’s most important agricultural producers, Romania inherited from its 41-year-long communist regime a legacy of poverty, corruption and backward mentalities which still drags it down to the bottom of many rankings. (For example, it has the fewest households with indoor flushing toilet, it has the lowest consumption of books and the smallest number of young graduates in the EU, etc.) However, Romania keeps attracting scores of fans - among the most illustrious, the Prince of Wales, producer Charlie Ottley and writer Arabella McIntyre, who all bought property in Transylvania. That’s because the country is simply beautiful and inhabited by people who are generally all too happy to have a chat, a drink and a bite with friendly foreigners. And also because there are a few decidedly intriguing, fascinating things about it that make it quite an original place to discover. Besides Dracula.
1. The only Latin country in the Eastern Orthodox Church
Over 85% of the Romanians declare themsevels (practising or not) Christian Orthodox. They are officially affiliated to the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC), whose earliest recorded activity dates to the 13th century, but which was canonically recognised as autocephalous in 1885 and declared a national church in 1923. In all of the other Orthodox Churches around Romania (Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine), the language of liturgical use is Slavic. And although the official language of the ROC used to be Old Slavonic (since the first Romanian translation of the Bible appeared in 1688) and the current Church terminology is still replete with Slavic-origin words, the earliest Church terms come from the Roman colonisers and the institution’s official language is today Romanian. That makes the ROC the only Christian Orthodox church in the world that uses a Romance language. So mirroring the term “Roman Catholic”, we might call Romania a Roman Orthodox country. Odd.
2. “A Latin island in a Slavic sea”
Dacia, the territory that the Romans colonised to give birth to Romania, and Britannia were the most far-off outposts of the Roman Empire. That gave them not just an interesting geopolitical role, but also an interesting linguistic status. In the case of Romania, the language branched off good old Latin to become a distant relative of Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and it was spoken in a territory completely surrounded by Slavic-speaking states. Or almost completely: the exception was Hungary, whose language is neither Romance, nor Slavic, but Uralic. Well, it was against that background that the Romanians pitted themselves as special in the region: the only “Latin-blooded” people and the only Romance language speakers around. But, it turns out, the Romanians’ blood is actually pretty much the same as the Hungarians’: our genetic makeups have rather equal shares of Celtic and Slavic “blood”, with only a slightly higher percentage of Greco-Roman “blood” in the case of Romania. Funny, if you think of it: the only descendants of the Romans in the region ended up with the same DNA as those they supposedly differ so much from – a unique situation to be in…
3. The subterratean link of Romanian to Albanian
A certain percentage of the Romanians are great fans of the Dacians. So much so that, despite the lack of any written historical records from the Dacians, they claim that Dacia was a great empire with a great culture, and that it was actually Latin that derived from Dacian. That has been labelled by more reliable scholars as “Dacopathy” and it has been analysed repeatedly. The analysis did unearth an interesting hypothesis, though: Romanian and Albanian are related, and that has to do with both Dacian and Latin. First of all, there are a number of words of unknown origin in Romanian which we share with Albanian: mal, barză, mazăre, viezure; and since Albanian is thought to be a direct descendant of Dacian, those words could stand proof of the legacy of Dacian in Romanian. Secondly, the phonetic evolution of Latin words is very similar in Romanian and in Albanian. For example, Latin fossatum (“village”) generated in Romanian fsat (today, sat) and in Albanian fshat; Latin leporem (“rabbit”) evolved to Albanian lepur and Romanian iepure. The conclusion? Romanian and Albanian are sister languages as far as the stages and mechanism of their Latinisation is concerned.
4. The Dacian ancestors that Romania and Spain share (not)
There is no historical doubt that the Dacians who inhabited the territory of today’s Romania at the time of the Roman colonisation are, along with the Romans, the forebears of the Romanians. But how on earth did they end up imagined as the ancestors of the wise King Alfonso X of Castile, León and Galicia? The King was a prolific author who in his chronicles enthusiastically exalts the fabulous far-off land of Dacia and its worthiest: Zalmoxis (“don Zalmoxen”, the wonderfully wise god), Burebista (don Boruista, the great king) and, finally, Deceneus, who taught the Dacians the secrets of the natural and the celestial worlds and whom he, Alfonso el Sabio, considered… his very own ancestor. “King Alfonso laid at the foundation of his Spanish kingdom the great Dacian history”, the glory of which he aspired to replicate in the Iberian peninsula. How, geographically speaking, Deceneus the Dacian could have produced offspring that migrated that far west? The most sensible answer is he probably couldn’t and didn’t. But Alfonso X was, according to Spanish historians, prone to fantasising about his origins in order to gain the political legitimacy needed to counter Arab rule in Hispania.
5. There are three Romanias in the world
Alfonso X apart, there is one thing Spain and Romania do have in common: analysts refer to “two Spains” in much the same way as they do to “two Romanias”: a “deep Romania” – rural, agricultural, presumably monocultural and monoethnic, unadulterated by foreign fashions, mindsets and other such influences; and a Romania that tends to be urban, cosmopolitan, competitive, polyglot, Western-minded and, critics say, oblivious of its authentic roots. Well, as of the 2014 presidential elections there’s been a third Romania: the Diaspora. There are seemingly about 3-4 million Romanians living abroad, mainly in Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the UK, the USA and Canada, who really tipped the balance in 2014 and determined who the country’s next president was going to be. Wildly diverse, ranging from unskilled workers to highly qualified researchers, the Diaspora has poured substantial income into the fatherland by sending money regularly to their families back home. People in the Diaspora also have the double role of acting, for better or worse, as “ambassadors” of Romania abroad, and importers of Western practices and trends in the mother country. How are the three Romanias getting along, one might ask? They pull together when they do not collide…
Alexe, Dan. Dacopatia şi alte rătăciri româneşti. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2015.
Boia, Lucian. De ce este România altfel? Bucharest: Humanitas, 2012.
Djuvara, Neagu. O scurtă istorie ilustrată a românilor. Bucharest: Humanitas, 2013.