The Moldoviţa monastery was built in the 16th century as a protective barrier against the Muslim Ottoman conquerors from the East. Today, the Christian-Orthodox site mostly draws religious Romanians to its walls.
The frescoes show the holy scriptures
Time appears to have stood still in the Moldoviţa monastery. This religious fortress with its heavy thick walls lies deep in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the Romanian province of Moldavia.
Colorful frescoes adorn the outer walls of this 16th century structure -- testimony of the battles over belief and economic power between the Christian Roman Empire and the Muslim Ottomans, which lasted for centuries.
The call to prayer has not changed since the monastery's founding in 1532: a nun hammers out a rhythm on a piece of wood. It is the signal for a secret mass, dating back to a time when being Christian was still dangerous.
The nuns, dressed in their all-black habits, hurry to prayer, lost in thought. They appear to be far away from all earthly matters. The faithful from the surrounding villages or from further away try to catch their hands and kiss them. But the nuns don't allow themselves to be distracted by these acts of humbleness. They hurry on, averting their eyes. Whoever wasn't quick enough to kiss a nun's hand can find comfort and blessing in the monastery's church. Monasteries reflect the Romanian soul
Sister Maika Jopraxis Lex has been living in the monastery for over 50 years. She sells religious pictures in a small kiosk. Sister Maika says not that many visitors have been coming since the political changes of 1989, when Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was overthrown, marking the end of decades of communist rule.
Many religious Romanians come to see the paintings
But, she says, those who do visit are devout Christians. The old frescoes on the churches' outer walls have made this monastery a place of pilgrimage. Sister Maika explains that the pictures show parts of the Bible. There are five such monasteries in Moldavia with frescoes painted on their outer walls.
"Together, they form a complete picture telling the entire story of the Bible," says Sister Maika. "It's the holy scriptures in color."
Many frescoes were destroyed during Turkish rule, leaving the paintings intact in only five Moldavian monasteries. UNESCO has therefore added them to its list of world heritage sites.
The Moldavian monasteries have always been more than just refuges for Christian beliefs, though. For Orthodox Romanians, they're considered the birthplace of their national identity.
"We really like the monasteries," says tourist Ioan Chelaru. "They have a heart and are really Romanian -- and it's always been like that." Reigniting the monasteries' religious life
For centuries, the nuns in Moldoviţa have lived according to strict rules. Their day begins at six with prayer lasting several hours. Then the nuns tend to their fields.
Only five Moldavian monasteries still have intact frescoes
Romanian monasteries used to be very wealthy and had large estates, shops and mills. But the communist regime of Ceauşescu disappropriated them of most of their means. Today, the remaining ten hectares of monastery land are just enough to cover the thirty nuns' needs.
Ceauşescu's overthrow in 1989 led to many changes for the church in Romania. Since then, people have been free to worship. All across the country, new churches are a visible sign of this new piety.
Only two of the old Moldavian monasteries are currently filled with religious life. But the Romanian Orthodox church is considering making all five living centers of faith again.