You have to work extremely hard to reach this forgotten gem of European Muslim heritage. The Bender Fortress sits in a harsh little corner of Eastern Europe, close to the Ukrainian border, in a ‘state’ guarded by gruff-looking soldiers wearing insignia that suggests the Soviet Union is still alive and well. The fort is in the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic or ‘Transnistria’, a self-declared semi-autonomous state within the country of Moldova. The international community and the United Nations don’t recognise the state, seeing it simply as part of Moldova. Yet Transnistria has its own government, parliament, military, currency, police and flag – the only one in the world to still bear a hammer and sickle. And much like the old communist countries, it is not a very welcoming place.
The Fort sits on a raised hillock just north east of the centre of the town of Bender, overlooking the Dnister River. The surrounding grounds have an eerie post-apocalyptic feel. Abandoned bunkers sit in the shadows of large dilapidated buildings where every window has been shattered. On the walls, painted target men stand in a state of arrest, riddled with bullet holes. Large metal containers rust away in twos and threes, and overgrown weeds appear in every crack along the concrete path leading up to the fort.
In many ways, it is a fitting location for a military monument. Until very recently this five centuries-old fort was still being used by the Russian military as a training base. They took back the town and fort in 1812 following the Russo-Turkish wars. Before that, it was under the stewardship of the Ottomans who built the fortress in the 16th century. The man behind its construction was a certain Ko’cer Mimar Sinan – the greatest Ottoman architect ever.
Sinan based his design on the Western European ‘bastion style’, and built the fortress at a pivotal moment in his career. It was the year 1538 and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had just taken the town of Tighina, renaming it Bender, and needed to fortify it. He called upon his most capable and trusted haseki (elite guard), Sinan, to carry out the construction on a strategic hillside overlooking the river. Until 1882, Sultan Suleiman’s Imperial tugrah (insignia) was inscribed on a marble slab above the entrance to the fort, alongside the year of construction, 945 AH (approx 1538).
The stunning fortress would have been one of the last projects Sinan undertook before being promoted to the Office of Architect of the Abode of Felicity the following year – starting a prolific 50-year period as the Muslim empire’s chief architect. It was in this phase of his life that Sinan designed and constructed masterpieces including the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul and his magnum opus, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey – a period in which Ottoman architecture reached its artistic zenith.
The fort’s Muslim past can still be appreciated inside one of the towers, where a small museum, houses mannequins dressed in full Ottoman military regalia; glass cabinets display coins, swords, muskets, and other remnants from the Ottoman period that have either been dug up or were left behind. The room is decorated with classical Ottoman banners and a series of murals that depict the fort at various phases of its life including the Muslim era, which shows the vast complex complete with mosque and minaret. There is also a miniature model of the fortress in the centre of the room that helps to bring it all to life.
Where in the world: Bender fortress is a short taxi ride or 30-minute walk north of Bender town’s main bus station overlooking the Dnistra River. The town of Bender is 75 kilometres southeast of Moldova’s capital city, Chisinau.
In and out: There are trains and shared taxis that run between Bender and Chisinau, but to get into Transnistria, you must register with the Transnistrian immigration authorities, who will issue you a 10/24 hour entry card, which you must keep on your person at all times and hand to the border guards on your way back out of Transnistria. If you are arriving by shared taxi, make sure you get this document at the border when the taxis stop there. However, if you are coming by train from Chisinau, check before you leave with the tourist board in the capital on how to acquire the entry card before boarding the train as it does not stop at any border point and there is no way of getting the card. If you don’t, it will mean you have entered Transnistria illegally – something the border guards do not take very kindly when you are trying to leave.
Top tips: Don’t forget Transnistria has its own local currency, the Transnistrian ruble, and this cannot be bought anywhere outside of Transnistria. Furthermore, you will not be able to withdraw any money using your bank cards in Transnistria as none of the ATMs accept international cards. It is, therefore, best to arrive with enough dollars, euros, Russian rubles or Moldovan Leus and exchange them locally.