Quiet Days in Saaremaa

Church of St Catherine in Muhu

Church of St Catherine in Muhu. Photograph: G Leighton. License: CC BY-NC 4.0

Ihad spent about five total hours in Copenhagen, Denmark. Two of them were at the airport, where I was catching a flight to Tallinn, Estonia. The other two were in the Jeernbane Cafeen, a small beer bar adjacent to the main train station. The remaining one hour was spent on the train to the airport. I was just finishing a conference on the crusades and the military orders in the city of Odense, and from this point I would be spending the next six weeks traveling around the Baltic States to collect research materials for my PhD thesis. My trip would begin in Tallinn for one night and then a remaining six days on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. It was the summer of 2016.

I was coming to the island to collect data on the medieval churches there, built from the 1220s to the 1290s. While the remote cabin I was staying in had no electricity or running water, by the end of the second day, I would settle into a nice routine of rising early at about six in the morning and enjoying the solitude, then perusing plans for which churches I was supposed to visit that day. I had mapped the island before my trip and had plotted each day’s focus, moving from the south gradually to the north. This would allow me to experience the entire eastern coast of the island by the time my trip had come to an end.

Saaremaa has a curious etymology. Its Latin name, Oselia, has unclear origins, though it clearly remained in the German, Danish, and Swedish names for the island: Ösel, Øsel, and Ösel, respectively. Saare is the Estonian word for “island” and maa “land”, yielding a literal translation of “Island land”. Viking sources refer to the island Eysysla, yielding, again, “Island land”. Saaremaa is a mid-sized island off the north-western Estonian coast. It covers roughly one thousand square miles and is relatively low-lying in terms of its landscape. While there are some cliffs on the western end of the island, the landscape is otherwise strikingly flat, particularly when the morning and evening fogs come in off of the Baltic Sea. It is a popular summer destination for those living in the surrounding countries of Finland, Denmark, and Estonia, and I would be visiting during this time, in July.

The island has a unique history. Some of the earliest mentions of it come from Viking accounts in the eighth century, but there have been people living there long before the arrival of the Viking hordes. For example, there survives a meteorite crater on the island that struck sometime in the fourth century BC, at Kaali; this became a sacred site to the inhabitants there, documented by Viking accounts and archaeological finds that may indicate that the crater (at the bottom of which lay a lake) was the site for ritual sacrifices. Other excavations include ship burials that predate the Viking era.

Kaali meteorite crater
Kaali meteorite crater. Photograph: G Leighton. License: CC BY-NC 4.0

The inhabitants of the island were known since the time of the Middle Ages for their piracy, if we are to take the words of the chroniclers documenting the crusades to the Baltic region throughout the thirteenth century. For example, Henry of Livonia, a German priest writing in the 1220s, described the inhabitants of this island as pirates, noting their ferocity and their frequent attacks on pilgrims and crusaders. The anonymous author of the Livonian Rhymed Chronicle, writing in the 1290s, made note of how these people could only be attacked in the winter time, when the sea between the Estonian mainland and the island of Saaremaa froze over: “The master [of the Teutonic Knights] was of the mindset, with the pilgrims, to collect an army from all throughout the land, who would with him to Osel, when the ice was hard.” When I had successfully navigated the streets of Tallinn in my rental car and made it through the countryside, I could not help but remember that account when I saw the small strait of sea that separated the island from the rest of the main.

Saaremaa was conquered and converted, at least theoretically, in the winter of 1227, “when the snow covered the land and the ice fields welled up, so that the surface of deep sea froze over and hardened as a rock.” Henry of Livonia records that the crusader army crossed over the sea to the small island jutting of the northern tip of Saaremaa, called Muhu (Mone in German; castrum Mone).

Here lay the remnants of a strong hill fort, typical for the fortifications of the inhabitants, which served to be the last stronghold of Estonian resistance. The anonymous Rhymed Chronicler, writing in 1290, described the strength of the hillfort: “they [the Oselians] made a strong fort there at Muhu / it lay in the sea.” He later says that the crusader army marched across the ice to “the house at Muhu”. Henry tells us that the battle was particularly brutal. In his account (of which he was likely an eye witness), he vividly recalls how the crusaders, on one side, called on God to help them, while the pagans in the fort, called upon their god, Tharapita, to help them thwart the crusader army. After a lengthy siege, the Estonian garrison surrendered, and from this point onward there was a Christian presence on the island.

There was still strong resistance to the Christianisation of the island, particularly in the St. George Night Rebellion of 1343-1345. Hermann of Wartberg, a chronicler in the Teutonic Order writing in 1378, provides an account of the uprising. The Oselians laid siege to the castle at Pöide, taking their advocate and stoning him to death along with a priest.

Pöide church, west end.
Pöide church, west end. The crack in the middle is from a lightning strike in 1940. Photograph: G Leighton. License: CC BY-NC 4.0

As I drove onto the island in the early morning, the fog had lifted, and I got my first glimpse of Saaremaa: grey with slight showers and a small strip of green, the island, on the horizon. Leaving the ferry and arriving onto the island of Muhu, I immediately saw the signs for the hill fort (castrum; Maalinn) and the nearby church of St. Catherine. This small, white church was constructed sometime in the 1220s, and its present structures dates from the 1260s. It vies with the small church at Valjala, further to the south, for the title of the island’s oldest church. In fact, it was constructed shortly after the conquest of the island by the crusaders, in 1227. It’s interior still retains a rarity among the island churches, containing thirteenth-century frescoes of Old Testament prophets. It also contains frescoes of saints and apostles.

I had decided to postpone my visit to Muhu in hopes of better weather, which ended up paying off nicely. Trying to beat the rain, I headed south over a small land-bridge that connects Muhu to Saaremaa. I drove steadily and took in the flat, empty road in front of me, paying attention to the road signs which listed many of the villages, parishes, and churches that I had read about in accounts.

I was staying in the small village of Valjala, renting a cabin on a local farm; in truth, it was more of a  hut. The hut was entirely made of wood, with a thatch roof, a simple writing desk, and a gas lamp. There was no electricity, or running water, though the comfort was such that I had no issues with it at all. The bed, a simple twin with a hand-sewn comforter thrown on top. Both inexpensive and remote, I do not think there could be any better place in all of Saaremaa to lodge in order to experience the island’s isolation and to hear the quiet echoes of its history. After a few cups of coffee each morning, I would spend the remainder of my time navigating the island and gathering every piece of information that I could.

The hut was about a twenty-minute walk to the island’s oldest church (Kaarja), built shortly after the conquest of Muhu. Henry of Livonia called the settlement there “the strongest city” on the island.  The crusaders laid siege to the hillfort with wooden towers that they built from surrounding trees, until those in the fort realized that they could no longer withstand the assault. After the conquest of the fort, Henry wrote that the priests entered the fort, threw down an idol of Tharapita, and proceeded to baptise the inhabitants from a fountain in the middle of the fort. The fountain is still there today, pictured below inside the church.

Kaarja church, interior
Kaarja church, interior. Photograph: G Leighton. License: CC BY-NC 4.0

Built by pilgrims at some point in the thirteenth century, not one source mentions the small church of Kaarja, which sits in the middle of an empty field. It is, by far, one of the gems of Saaremaa. Entering the church, one is confronted by the austerity of the walls and the silence of the space. Adjusting to the light, though, the thirteenth-century masterpiece of Saaremaa comes to life. This silence is intriguing considering the rich artistic material inside of them, something extremely rare for the northeastern Baltic region. The Reformation, the Livonian War (1558-1583), two World Wars, and occupation by the Soviet Union make it remarkable that any structures from the crusade period survived. Perhaps the finest examples of medieval sculpture for an entire region that is renowned for its remoteness (even contemporaries in medieval Europe appear to have been quite unaware of Livonia) are present in this modest church.

The most surprising aspect of the churches of Saaremaa is that they clearly were cause for fascination by the chroniclers who documented the Christianisation of the island, though the sources are silent in terms of providing us any major detailed information. From what we do know, they were built by crusaders who would journey to Riga, the main city from which the crusading expeditions would depart; along the journey they would stop on the island of Gotland, and then Saaremaa. Where were they coming from? Primarily from further west along the Baltic sea, namely northern Germany and, in some instances, Denmark. Once in Saaremaa, the churches likely served as places for the crusaders to take shelter from the weather. The churches are sometimes referenced in charters recording grants of land and exchanges of property rights, the settlements of disputes, and occasionally are referenced in the later chronicles of the fourteenth century. For example, as recounted earlier, Hermann of Wartberge, writing in 1378, mentions the church at Pöide, and he also mentions the foundation of the church at Muhu by the Livonian Master of the Teutonic Order, Otto of Lutterberg.

The Baltics, as shown in a map of 1573 by Joann Portantius

The Baltics, as shown in a map of 1573 by Joann Portantius. Saaremaa (written as Osel) can be seen in the very middle. The city of Riga can be found toward the bottom of the Sinus Magnus Livonia (today called the Gulf of Riga). Castles/forts are shown in red throughout.

The sculptures in the church are also quite rich. Perhaps most striking are two thirteenth-century depictions, one of St. Catherine of Alexandria and the other of St. Nicholas. They are photographed below. The iconography is no coincidence. Catherine of Alexandria was an important saint among crusaders, who saw their journey as a spiritual exercise and viewed themselves as armed pilgrims. This is present in contemporary descriptions of the crusaders to the Baltic, referred to as “pilgrims” in the various sources (peregrini; pilgerîn). Catherine was an early martyr of the church, dying in Alexandria, Egypt, at the hand of the Roman Emperor, Maxentius, around the year 305. Crusaders and knights in the Teutonic Order, a military order of monks who provided hospitality to pilgrim-crusaders in the Holy Land since 1190 and in the Baltic since 1236, venerated Catherine especially because of her conviction and fearlessness in the face of martyrdom. The iconography of her sculpture at Kaarja also shows her triumphing over a demon, another attribute of Catherine since she stood in resistance to the paganism of the Roman Emperor. Clearly, to crusaders going to the Baltic to take part in the armed conversion of pagans, Catherine was an important saint, since they saw their mission as a continuation of her struggle.

St. Nicholas was a third-century martyr and is the patron saint of safe-travel, pilgrimage, and seafarers. Crusaders going to the Baltic often endured shipwreck and attacks by pirates and naturally dedicated their churches to saints who protected them. St. Nicholas was also a popular saint with merchants of the Hanseatic league, who established contact with the Baltic region before the crusaders had. In fact, on the first crusade to the region of Livonia (sometime around 1198), it was the merchants (Kouflûte; mercatori) who took the armies from north Germany by ship to the island of Gotland, and then to Riga. Nicholas churches were constructed throughout the thirteenth century on the island of Gotland at Visby, Lund, Sigtuna, Danzig, and other major cities along the Baltic littoral. As the great Baltic German historian Paul Johansen († 1965) noted: “St Nicholas was the manifold patron saint of the sea-faring German merchants in the north.”

Sculptures of St. Catherine & St. Nicholas

(Right) Sculpture of St. Catherine, 13th century. Note figure of the Roman emperor, Maxentius, under Catherine’s feet, being taken away by the devil. (Left) Sculpture of St. Nicholas, 13th century. Note the figure handing Christopher a boat, reflecting his patronage of sea-farers. Photograph: G Leighton. License: CC BY-NC 4.0

Ispent the six days systematically visiting the medieval churches on the island. The weather was particularly nice. It was well-suited to long days in the sunshine, and quiet drives along the flat, island roads. The island rarely gets too hot, at least not in July, and the humidity is never too high. The end of the days were, by far, my favorites. Sunset in Saaremaa comes at around ten at night in the summer, so after a full day of travel I would go down to the main city, Kuressaare, and enjoy a cold glass of beer in the town square. Even at the height of the summer tourist season, the town was surprising in its emptiness, but I found this to be all the more charming. Moreover, my Estonian is non-existent, and English is not really the first language of many on the island. If you’re lucky enough to know Russian, you will be fine for a chat with the younger people. If you know German, you can certianly talk to the older ones.

Dinner consisted of cold cuts and pickles, with some local fish and cheese. The beer was unremarkable, but nothing tasted better on the particularly warm days. For the next week, I would be enjoying the solitude, remoteness, and mystery of this island, and there are few things better than a cold glass of beer to write up the  day’s research as the sun begins to set on the Baltic.

By far, the most intriguing part of Saaremaa is the sense of mystery that seems to infect the place. The streets are silent, the forests and pastures are still, and the fog (if you are lucky) will roll in from the sea and cover the land, emphasizing the unique spirit that Saaremaa has. Aside from this silence and stillness, you are at the same time surrounded by a very clear sense and presence of a deep, rich, even exotic past. This manifests itself in many ways, ranging from the pre-Christian hillforts that dot the horizon, to the bright red roofs of the medieval pilgrim churches rolling into view as you speed down the quiet road. From more modern times, the nineteenth-century buildings of the town square provide an echo of a quiet life, in a quiet time, on a small island in a smaller sea. The “Island-land”: I can think of no simpler and better a name for a place to get away.


Primary references

Henry of Livonia. Heinrici chronicon Lyvoniae, in Monmumenta germanie Historia. Scriptores rerum Germanicarum in usum scholarum separatism editi, vol. 31, edited by Leonid Arbusow and Albert Bauer (Hannover: Hahn, 1955).

Anonymous. Livländische Reimchronik, edited by Leo Meyer (Paderborn: F. Schöningh, 1876).

Hermann of Wartberge. Hermanni de Wartberge chronicon Livoniae, in Scriptores rerum Prussicarum. Die Geshichtsquellen der Preussischen Vorzeit bis zum Untergange der Ordensherrschaft, vol. 2, edited by Ernst Strehlke (Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1863), pp. 9-116.

Secondary references

Alttoa, Kaur. ‘Die so gennante Zwickelkolonette in den Kirchen auf Saaremaa (Ösel)’, Baltic Journal of Art History 4 (2012): pp. 7-41.

Bome, Helen and Kersti Markus. ‘Karja kirik – kõige väiksem “katedraal” [Karja Church – the Smallest Cathedral]’, in Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi [Studies on Art and Architecture] 4, no. 14 (2005): pp. 9-51, English summary on pp. 47-51.

Johansen, Paul. ‘Die Kaufmannskirchen im Ostseegebiet.’ Vorträge und Forschungen 4 (1958): pp. 499-525.

Kjellin, Helge. Die Kirche zu Harris auf Oesel und ihre Beziehungen zu Gotland (Lund, 1928).

Tuulse, Armin. ‘Die Kirche zu Karja und die Wehrkirchen Saaremaas.’ In Opetatud eesti seltsi Aastaraamat [Annales litterarum societatis Etshonicae] (Tartu: 1940), pp. 137-92.