The Ottoman Outlier – Ada Kaleh: An Island Apart In The Danube (Part One)

Hundreds of years from now there will come a moment when the dams which hold back the Danube River give way. As the deluge begins to drain downriver, natural wonders long since submerged by manmade reservoirs will reappear. Slowly rising to the surface, these wonders will remind anyone lucky enough to see them of the losses incurred by the dams. These wonders include an island waiting to be rediscovered near the Iron gates of the Danube, that narrow, rocky, river route through which the Danube passed prior to construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. Even today, the area has a commendable degree of natural beauty that recommends it to visitors. The awe-inspiring rock formations of the Iron Gates can still tower above the waterline. Unfortunately, the same is not true for an island that vanished into the depths after the construction of Iron Gate I.

An isolated existence – Ada Kaleh in a 1909 postcard

Creating A Community – A Contested Space
The evocatively named island of Ada Kaleh (island fortress) drowned beneath a rising reservoir in 1970. The island had been one of the most unique communities in Europe. It was the last European possession of the Ottoman Empire. In the mid-14th century, the Ottoman Turks first set foot on European soil. Up until the late 17th century they expanded their territory in Europe to include the Balkans, a sizable portion of Hungary and on occasion the Gates of Vienna. It was not until after World War I altered the geopolitical map of the Balkans irreparably, that the Turks finally relinquished their hold on Ada Kaleh. Turkey (the smaller successor of the Ottoman state) handed it over to Romania in 1923. The island stood close to the Romanian side of the Danube. Across the river was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).

While Ada Kaleh became Romanian territory, it would always be a world apart, a fascinating outlier of ethnic Turks surrounded by the Danube. In a twist of historical irony, the creation of Ada Kule as a viable community occurred due to the same waters which would drown it. A mile long and a quarter mile wide, The Danube churned up enough gravel and sand over thousands of years to create an island just before the Iron Gates gorge. Both the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs coveted the island due to its strategic location. Ada Kule offered an opportunity to control access along the middle Danube. Because of this, the island became a contested space. One coveted by powers both great and small.

An island apart – Ada Kaleh Bazaar in the late 19th century

Ownership & Occupation – Plaything of the Great Powers
The location of Ada Kule from the 17th century forward straddled imperial borders. It became a point of contention between the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Occupation and ownership of the island was tenuous. Ada Kule was the plaything of two great powers. In 1689, the Austrian Habsburgs gained control of the island. This did not last long. Only two years later, the Ottomans took it back. A year later they lost the island. Then in 1699, the Ottomans took it back again. Thus, in a ten-year period Ada Kule changed ownership on four occasions. This pattern continued into the 18th century as the island changed hands another three times. In attempting to secure their hold on the island, the Habsburgs imported labor to build a fortress on it. Expert stone masons from central Europe began work in 1717 to construct an impregnable defensive structure.

A large pool of laborers helped put the Habsburg plans into action. They suffered in the fetid summer heat, failing to fend off insects and disease. In the winter, they subjected to ferociously icy winds that came howling off the river. Despite these climatic extreme, the laborers were able to build the most permanent fixture in the island’s history. The fortress took twenty years to construct. It included bastions, barracks and defensive works built to ensure that the Habsburgs controlled access to the river. The stout defensive works were no match for a four-month siege by the Ottomans. The fortress fell to the Turks a year after its completion. It would stay under Ottoman control except for a brief two-year interlude of Habsburg rule from 1789 – 1791. A treaty handed the island back to the Ottomans, who would hold onto it until the early 20th century.

Stepping into the past – Postcard of Ada Kaleh fortress

Natural Defenses – An Isolated Existence
Despite the Ottoman Empire’s prolonged retreat from the Balkans, Ada Kule’s status remained strangely the same. This Ottoman outlier’s existence became more precarious during the 19th century. Habsburg and Serbian territory would surround it. Nevertheless, it still had the natural defenses of the Danube still protecting it on all sides. The island’s relative isolation allowed it to develop an exoticism that had vanished from the land adjacent to this stretch of the Danube. In 1867, Ottoman troops left Serbia, but the island stayed part of the Sultan’s lands. A decade later, the Ottomans vacated Romania. The Austrian Habsburgs had long since pushed the Ottomans out of the middle Danube and yet the Sultan still held onto the island. It was one of the most unique arrangements of the time. While the forces of nationalism surged across the Balkans, tearing Ottoman possessions from the empire’s grasp, and threatening the implosion of Austria-Hungary, the Turks on Ada Kule continued their quixotic existence.

The Treaty of Berlin, which had granted Romania its independence, failed to mention Ada Kaleh. The regional powers brokered a deal in another treaty allowing Austria-Hungary military control over the island, while those who lived on it continued to be subjects of the Sultan. The island remained immune from the geopolitical and ideological forces which convulsed the latter half of the 19th century. Hidden in plain sight, Ada Kaleh went mostly unnoticed. One person who did take notice was the Sultan in Istanbul. After the construction of a new mosque there in 1903, the Sultan donated a large carpet to cover its interior floorspace. He also continued to appoint civic and judicial officials to administer affairs for his subjects. Ada Kaleh was an island unto itself, an insular world that left to its own devices. In the coming century that would not continue. Ada Kaleh, both physically and politically, was about to experience drastic changes.

Click here for: Twilight of the Ottomans – Ada Kaleh: The Last Refuge (Part Two)