Utopian thinking is something that human beings typically do, and people have always sought to be both in the world and out of it. People believe that society is good, but at the same time they believe that it is bad, that it brings unhappiness. Therefore, an enclosed space to protect the individual from the evils of the outside world, to protect themselves and their loved ones, has often been imagined by writers, philosophers, social thinkers and even regular people, in less sophisticated ways.
In Romanian culture one such space is the island of Ada Kaleh. With an existence recent enough to be documented through oral history and a history palpable through written sources, Ada Kaleh was no utopia. It became one after it disappeared into the waters of the Danube in 1970 after the Iron Gates I hydroelectric plant was put into operation. An extremely ambitious joint project of Romania and Yugoslavia, the Iron Gates plant required not only great financial efforts, but it also affected human habitat.
Ada Kaleh was located between two worlds and two countries, on the border between the Ottoman Empire and the Austrian Empire. It was a customs point, and the two empires were fighting over controlling it. A fortress was built on the island, which also gave it its name: Ada Kaleh, which means "the fortress on the island". Today, it's a lost legend to most people, but also a lost paradise if we let our imagination run wild. However, the island has survivors, one of them being Turhan Semsi, the president of the Bucharest branch of Turkish Democratic Union in Romania, from whom we learned who lived on the island in the middle of the great river.
"Just like any story begins, once upon a time there was Ada Kaleh. Indeed, it was an island downstream Orsova and upstream the Iron Gates, somewhere in the middle where the dam is today. It was a small community, where we lived well together with all the other ethnic groups on the island. Most of the inhabitants were Turks. I have memories of my childhood, the life back then, with our customs, with our hardships, but also with our joys, especially in summer time, when visitors would come to the island."
Pervin Halimoglu lives in Istanbul but she was born and lived in the paradise of Ada Kaleh. The persistence of her childhood memories is doubled by nostalgia for a wonderful place, as described by those who have been there and by the illustrations that still exist.
"It's difficult to speak of Ada Kaleh. One that hasn't seen or tasted something, doesn't know how that really is. We were born and lived there, I was 18 when I left the island. When I dream I still dream of myself being there, nowhere else. I had a very beautiful childhood there, one that very few people have the chance of having, I think."Turhan Semsi's memories become even more realistic when the mystery appears. Because any utopian place must also be mysterious.
"When I was a child, a fourth grader, together with two friends, we would always seek to go there where our parents had told us not to, the tabu places. Obviously, we did the opposite they told us. There was a cross-shaped fortification on the island, where the tranches were, with an underground access way. The fortification was deep below as it was tall. So we entered a gallery carrying torches and candles and we discovered access to four tunnels. Two of them crossed the Danube, one leading to the Romanian shore, and the other one to the Serbian one. We didn't go very deep into the upstream gallery, but we were curious if we would be able to cross the Danube to the Yugoslav shore. We started walking, but at one point the water got deeper and we turned back. Our parents later told us that that tunnel had actually collapsed when the Danube was low. A ship had passed, destroying the upper part of the tunnel that flooded."The island and the fortress are the isolated spaces that people have most often imagined as places of happiness and tranquility. But, on Ada Kaleh, we would probably never had the opportunity to go and see if that's true. (MI)