By Giles Eldridge
This story starts with the splendidly named Baron Barbu Bellu, who was a 19th century Judge, member of parliament and briefly a minister for both Culture and Justice. In 1853 he donated land to the local municipal administration to be used as a cemetery due to the need for more burial sites within reach of central Bucharest. Apparently this was a purely altruistic gesture but If the intention was to allow the family name to live on forever then it seems to have worked. Actually at that time he was not yet a Baron, that title was given to him by the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef in 1866.
Keeping in step with its illustrious beginnings, this is no ordinary cemetery, not a simple place for burial, rather it is one of those places where extraordinary lives and stories combine with fabulous architectural monuments. It is up there with Highgate in London or Père Lachaise in Paris, in quality and range of visually intriguing tombs.
The Aromanian People
Baron Barbu Bellu’s background has taught me something about regional ethnicity. Barbu Bellu was in fact from a family of Aromanian stock. Deriving from Vlachs (as in Wallachia) Aromanians are an ethnic minority previously residing in what is now Southern Romania, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria who, having somehow developed a slightly separate culture and language around 1,000 years ago, became dispersed throughout the wider region. As a latinised language and culture they became torn between this Byzantine background and an ever stronger Greek culture fighting the Ottoman empire. As a result, by the 19th century there was a movement of Aromanians (Vlachs) northward to various parts of Romania just at the same time that French ideas of nationhood and human rights were taking hold. This produced a push to maintain things like schools to preserve the Aromanian culture within and outside of Romania. A combination of Greek aggression and Romanian communism put an end to it all. The Aromanian language is now dying out and it is 50 years since the last school or church closed. This is another reminder that although Romania is not multi-cultural it is multi-ethnic, the diversity is in the history; the results being between part of the Roman Empire and Greece and Turkey – the dynamism of a heady cocktail of Byzantine and Ottoman concerns.
Garden of Souls
Sometimes referred to as Bellu’s Garden of Souls, the cemetery is divided into sections for the differing professions, as if from the start it set out to be a museum of lives. Initially occupying 17 hectares it is now nearly twice that size.
Here are a few tombs and their stories to give an idea of the different people who are laid to rest at Cimitirul Bellu.
Toma Caragiu (1925-1977) Actually born in Greece to an Aromanian family. Actor in film, television and stage known well for his comedic yet serious monologues, he was absolutely a household name back in the day. The bust at his tomb is tremendous in its depiction, being in a caricature style. However it hides the tragic fact of his premature death during the infamous 1977 earthquake that killed some 1,500 Bucharest residents.
Henri Coandă (1886-1972) – Familiar to all as Bucharest airport’s dedication. He produced the Coandă 1910, an early attempt at a jet plane. Controversy surrounds this aircraft regarding its status as an actual jet engine and if it had in fact even made a flight, but it was the only plane exhibited in Paris the same year without a propellor, so it was part of the vanguard without a doubt. No one can dispute his patented discovery: the Coandă effect, which showed how jet air follows the curve of a form (leading to the production of an actual flying saucer and, more prosaically, to the production of Dyson’s blade-less fans).
Aurel Vlaicu (1882-1913) Yet more airborne shenanigans as Vlaicu was an early developer of sustained monoplane flight, apparently using rubber band powered models to refine his initial designs, which went on to win numerous prizes for precision flying. He died in an attempt to fly over the Carpathians in one of his own planes.
Panait Istrati (1884 -1935) Sometimes referred to as the Maxim Gorky of the Balkans, he is someone with Greek ancestry, reminding us that Romanian history is as much Greek as it is Roman, at least in the south eastern part of the country. Istrati was an itinerate literary figure with adventures in many far off places and his stories reflect this with his use of a vagabond character, based on himself and his experiences, from house painter to hog farmer.
Ștefan Luchian (1868-1916) Typically for the times a painter who, having studied in Munich, went to Paris and returned to Romania to paint in an Impressionist style with the addition of some Symbolist and Art Nouveau traits. Illness paralysed him after 1909 but he continued to paint having his brushes tied to his wrist, leading to some controversy about the provenance of some of the later works.
Lia Manoliu (1932-1998) After 6 separate Olympic attempts and 2 Bronze medals she finally achieved her goal at the 1968 Olympics for the Discus event. At 35 years old and against the advice of the Romanian Athletics Federation she turned up to the games with an injured arm and her doctor’s opinion that she would only have one opportunity to throw after which the injury would render her unfit. She made just one almighty throw and took the Gold medal.
Maria Tănase (1913-1963) Always covered in flowers this simple tomb displays the huge appreciation of the fantastic singer known as Pasărea Măiastră, The Magic Bird. If her name is still unfamiliar to readers I implore you to listen. In terms of the female voice, she is as important to Romania as Édith Piaf is to France, being of exactly the same era. Hers was sadly another early death at the age of 49; with nearly a million people on the streets of Bucharest for the funeral.
Of course many more stories such as these await at Bellu for what is surely a life affirming tour of Romanian culture, academia and science.