Ada Kaleh was a survivor, until one day it was not. The island survived World Wars I and II, the collapse of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and a quarter century of communist rule. What it could not survive was progress. Sooner or later the modern world was bound to intrude upon the island. It was a miracle that Ada Kaleh survived as an outpost of Ottomanism for as long as it did. The Danube. which created, sustained, and protected it, ended up engulfing it. The same force of nature that allowed Ada Kaleh’s community to survive and thrive would end up drowning it. Ada Kaleh greatest sin was getting in the way of progress. When Romania and Yugoslavia’s leaders decided that the Danube would be harnessed for hydropower, the island’s inhabitants could do nothing about it.
Dammed If They Do – From Rivers to Reservoirs
The sight of a reservoir fills me with sadness. In my career, I have been lucky enough to work along such majestic American waterways as the Missouri, Bighorn and North Platte Rivers. While they are all still considered rivers, each of them was dammed in multiple places during the decades following World War II. The craze for dam building in the United States was in response to floods, hydropower needs, and irrigation projects. While capitalist and communist systems of governments were opposites in almost every respect, dam building was something both east and west had in common. Several of the Soviet Union’s most famous projects, for instance the Dnipro dam in Ukraine, harnessed waterpower. These were part of the rapid industrialization of the country. Many other communist countries believed that they could benefit from damming rivers.
Dams could improve navigation, flood control, and generate massive amounts of hydropower. For these reasons, particularly the latter, Romania and Serbia agreed in 1964 to jointly construct what would become known as the Iron Gate Hydropower Project. It took six years before the construction on the project began. Iron Gate Hydropower project was aptly named since it would be located at the 117- kilometer-long Iron Gate Gorge. A more scenic spot could hardly have been selected. Tragically, construction of the largest dam on the Danube – which would take place between 1970 – 72 – meant that Ada Kaleh’s days were numbered. The mile long, quarter mile wide island, was no match for the 220 square kilometer reservoir to be created by the dam. There was nothing Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants could do about the project. Protests in authoritarian Romania offered a path to imprisonment. The one question looming in everyone’s mind was what would happen to those living on Ada Kaleh.
Moving On – Lands of Opportunity
In 1967 the island was visited by Turkish President Suleyman Demirel, who offered its inhabitants the opportunity to resettle in Turkey. This was an offer many would accept since Turkey offered a more dynamic economy and greater personal freedoms than they could ever enjoy in Romania. On the other hand, Turkey was a foreign country to the inhabitants on Ada Kaleh. While they shared a common language, the Turkish spoken by those living on the island had developed into a distinct dialect. In a sense, they were always going to be outsiders. The cloistered world of Ada Kaleh could not have been much more different than the modern world. A couple of other options were also offered to the island’s inhabitants.
For those who wanted to stay in Romania, they were offered the opportunity to relocate in the Dobruja region in eastern Romania where there was a significant Muslim population. Another option seemed to offer greater promise. Downriver from Ada Kaleh and the proposed dam was Simian Island. It stood within sight of Drobeta-Turnu Severin, the largest city in the Iron Gates area. The island was also located across from a town that bore the same name as the island. The idea was to construct a “New Ada Kaleh” on the island by first moving the most significant structures to Simian Island. The inhabitants were then to follow. One of the first structures to be moved was the fortress for which the island had been named. Unfortunately, it would also be one of the last. The resettlement project never happened.
The end of Ada Kaleh was both a slow and swift process. As the water rose, the island which had sheltered an improbable community for two hundred thirty years was slowly submerged. Soon there was nothing left of the island except for memories. Even the towering minaret from the turn of the 20th century mosque, which had been one of the island’s most notable landmarks, no longer existed. Instead of leaving it standing partially above the water line, it had been dynamited so as not obstruct navigation. Ada Kaleh’s inhabitants were scattered across Romania and Turkey. They had trouble integrating into larger societies. An insular, island world was the only life they had ever known. Those who chose to stay in Romania belatedly realized that the promises previously made to them would not be kept. Those who moved to Turkey had more freedom, but soon discovered they had little in common with a fast paced, urban society. The only world in which they truly fit was now buried thirty meters beneath the Danube.
Ada Kaleh was now history.
Latent Ottomanism – The Slow Burn of Memory
There will never be another Ada Kaleh. That distant and mystical world of latent Ottomania which continued long after the empire’s expiration date, that culture of exoticism which organically grew on the edge of the Iron Gates is gone forever. An entire world had once existed in an area smaller than most villages. Customs that had long since faded into obscurity were still obeyed. Coffee and tea houses with the low hum of endless conversations, old men sitting in the streets while smoke rose from cigarettes that burned to the edges of their fingertips, bad teeth and black bread, the habitual haggling in the bazaar, the children hiding within the fortress walls, the unseen women who were the backbone of every family and that society all that would flicker and fade in the slow burn of memory. Ada Kaleh survived for centuries against incredible odds. The island had finally been beaten by the one thing it had passively resisted for so long, the idea of progress.
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