In the mists of time, when the Great Flood covered the earth, Noah sent a raven to search for land. It never returned. Elders tell a story of how the raven reached a fruitful realm, south of the Carpathians and north of the Danube, later to be called Wallachia. Wishing to stay, it nestled there.
At the foothills of the mighty Carpathians, where pastures, forests, rivers, and hills mingle, lies a small village with a well-kept secret carrying on the name of the mysterious birds that once roamed these lands. Corbi, “ravens” in translation, is just as old as time. Its story begins when the giants walked the earth…
We all heard about an ancient race of giants, and if it’s proof you want, Corbii de Piatra Monastery might be the place to start. The Ravens of Stone in translation, a rather unusual name for a house of god, it is home to countless curiously shaped boulders and cliffs. Just under the entrance to the church lies a giant’s body turned to stone, frozen for eternity, his head resting on the grass. He’s not the only one. A stroll along the cliffs reveals many other such guardians, all stone-still. In a time when everything came in large packages, the cliffs at Corbii de Piatra were home to giant ravens that could start a storm just by flapping their wings. They built nests into the sandstone block using their flint beaks and sharp claws, which could explain why the cliff appears drilled in the strangest of shapes.
Mystery flows in the air. Undecipherable symbols everywhere, historians clueless about what they might signify. A reminder of how little we know about our past. The many strange shapes carved into the cliffs recall of mythical creatures. Every single one has its story to tell. We just have to learn to listen. Corbii de Piatra, a small monastery in Arges County, is unique in Romania for two reasons. First, it is home to the oldest mural paintings in Wallachia. Dating from the end of the 13th century or the first decades of the 14th century, the work of painters brought from Constantinople, they have never been restored. Considerable parts of the original paintings have been preserved to this day, and they could very well be the oldest in Romania too. Another unique feature is the naval with two functional altars. According to an old rumor, one was Orthodox and the other Catholic, but the theory has long been debunked. Following a Byzantine layout, the church is essentially Orthodox. Nevertheless, it is unlike any other rock church in this part of the world, as its structure is very similar to Cappadocia’s sanctuaries.
First documentary attestation dates from 1512, but historians believe it’s at least 1,000 years old, with an architecture specific to 10th century Byzantine art. It might have all began as a simple cave carved into sandstone in the 2nd century AD, used as hideout by the early Christians. The small entrance, only one meter tall, supports the theory. But its history may go even further into the past. Set on a Dacian hearth, these caves might have once been a place of worship for Zamolxis’ disciples, the Dacians’ supreme god.
The 25-meter tall yellow-gray sandstone block is well hidden. You cannot see it from a distance. But once you find yourself standing in front of it, you know you’ve crossed a border. We walk up the path, past the old wooden belfry and along colorful rose bushes, their fragrance casting a spell on us, as if to ease the transition into another world. We reached the church. A long cave with a low ceiling and a table fit for a giant welcomes visitors. Then, two chambers carved into the sandstone cliff, neither of them any larger than a medium-size livingroom, beckon us to enter. The first serves administrative purposes, selling religious objects and offering some scarce information about the monument, only enough to stir one’s curiosity. The second chamber is the church itself, with its altars and valuable mural paintings, some Biblical scenes still visible today.
Winding paths take us above the church, where an old stone cross watches over the valley. Further along, we reach a flat tableland carved into the stone, the place where Neagoe Basarab, Voivode of Wallachia, held pubic trials. Close by, we find his throne, carved into the grayish stone. The bloody altars where Dacians sacrificed their sons and brought offerings to their gods later became a refuge for Christian hermits and a place where Wallachian rulers would seek justice. Ironic, isn’t it?
Stories that once kept children awake at night by the fire are now threatened by extinction. Fewer and fewer people know them. Yet these legends continue to weave their flimsy thread, holding onto the sandstone like the mighty ravens a long time ago, hoping not to be forgotten.
While wandering on the winding paths around and above the church, a musing inscription on a wooden plank captured my attention and left me daydreaming. It read:
“In the olden days, people worshiped crosses of stone and had a heart of gold. Now we worship crosses of gold and have a heart of stone.”