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The water, aqueducts, and wells of the city

As an important medieval and modern city, episcopal seat and, later, capital of the Principality of Transylvania, Alba Iulia benefitted from water supply works which would have met the expectations of upper class lifestyles. Apart from wells providing water to public squares, palaces, and inner courtyards, the fortress was provided in the time of Gabriel Bethlen with an aqueduct. The water was used not only to support daily needs, but also for the functioning of beautiful artesian fountains.

The inhabitants and builders of fortifications usually make considerable efforts to ensure water supplies. In this case, drinkable water from springs located in the neighboring hills was provided by water pipes installed by the Romans. Another way fresh water was supplied was by digging wells.

From the Middle Ages to the modern period, several wells have provided water to monasteries, churches, palaces, garrisons and so on. One of the oldest fountains, built of stone, was discovered in the courtyard of “1 Decembrie 1918” University of Alba Iulia, near monastery edifices dating from the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, several wells were located in the courtyard of the mint, two of which also had water pumps. In addition, a basin which supplied the fountains with water via pipes existed in an annex of the mint, located in Miceşti (Kissfalud). Wells can still be seen today at several spots in the Fortress, such as Fortress Square (formerly Custozza Park) and in the courtyard of the Medieval Hotel. The most beautiful well, that of Apor Palace (currently the Rectorate of Alba Iulia University), was built with carefully shaped stone blocks. This well probably dates from the early seventeenth century and may have had special installations appropriate for an aristocratic residence. Another fountain, which lacks its decorations, is preserved in the courtyard of the Roman Catholic Palace. Outside the city was the famous “Thieves’ well”, located at the foot of the western hills.

In 1831, as we learn from a Latin inscription, a distinctive fountain was built at a spring located below the terrace of the fortress. Collective memory preserved the name of spring from which Emperor Joseph II drank cold water when he visited Transylvania, calling it thereafter the “Emperor’s spring”.

Running water came not only from springs and wells within the city, but also from the capture of springs located some distance from the city. One of the most audacious achievements of the reign of Gabriel Bethlen (1613-1629) was the creation of the water supply system for the Princes’ Palace, one of the earliest in the region. It would be hard to imagine a comfortable princely residence, on a par with those of western European monarchs, without a fresh water supply. The Transylvanian chronicler George Kraus mentioned the presence of Italians at the palace of Gabriel Bethlen. One of them, John Fontanicy the Venetian, “had run away and escaped from Transylvania in the same year, because he was poorly paid for the water works constructed in Alba Iulia, which were a good thing.” The years referred to in this narrative are 1619 and 1620. Fontanicy’s aqueduct imitated the Roman system, using pottery pipes embedded in mortar and buried in the earth. The source of the water for the aqueduct was on Mamut Hill, at the Thieves’ well. The pipe went down to the area known as Podei (where Adalbert Cserni saw it) and from there to the fortress. Within the fortress, the pipe reached the Princes Palace, climbed to the second story, and supplied the fountains. Although the aqueduct crossed the former city, located on the western side of the fortress, it did not supply the houses there with water.

The chronicler J. Szalárdi (1601-1666) described the water supply installations built during Gabriel Bethlen’s reign in the following words: “he brought abundant spring water from the mountains located on the west and the vine fields through underground pipes. The water flows first in the courtyard of the kitchen, in front of the open towers, and thence by the church to the inner market of the city. From this market it flows in front of the lower gate which led to the courtyard of the princely stables, not far from the back side of the old church.”

Before long, the situation changed, perhaps after the great Turkish-Tatar invasion of 1661. Another chronicler, Wolfgang Bethlen (1639-1679), stated that “the fortress has only two water wells…. There was a fountain in Grapevines’ Hill with an underground spring, from which the princes brought water to the palace through pipes, but because of the damage wrought by time, only traces of it are still visible.” Another aqueduct was built by the Austrians for the new Vauban-type fortress. It was mentioned in 1736: “In the middle of the fortress is an artesian well made of stone to which water flows through a 4600 meter aqueduct which was built by the present leader of the fortifications, Colonel von Weiss.”

From the accounts of these chroniclers, one can conclude that the fortress had beautiful artesian wells, the first being constructed by Gabriel Bethlen for the Princes’ Palace. The Ottoman chronicler Evlia Celebi, who participated in the sacking of the city in 1661, wrote that “in various small rooms and those with story, there were basins, water tanks and chutes from which clean water sprang, being thus adorned by various art works.”

It is difficult to imagine the shapes of these artesian fountains, as today we can see only their ordinary, plain casing. Archaeological excavations have found traces of a well on the northern side of the Roman Catholic Episcopal Palace. Unfortunately, a lot of detail has vanished - sculptures, colonnades, drains, hardware and inscriptions can only be can only be guessed at, based on analogous fountains from the same period. For sure, the fountains at the Princes’ Palace and Apor Palace must have been equal in elegance to the buildings situated in their proximity. (C.I.P.)