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Sunrise, Old Orhei monastery, Republic of Moldova   Source: Calin Stan/Adobe Stock

The Little-Known Treasure of Beautiful Moldova - Old Orhei


Moldova may be the least visited country in Europe, but it has the largest wine cellar in the world, and a history that stretches back for millennia. Because of its incredible past, it has been home to many different cultures and civilizations.

Old Orhei is an archaeological park set in a stunning landscape, with many remains in the park dating from prehistoric to medieval times.

A Glimpse into the Violent History of Old Orhei

The site is located in a river valley on what was once an important trade route. Archaeological remains from the Neolithic and later eras have been found here. From the 3 rd century BC to the 1 st century AD, the Dacians erected a ring fort that they used to control this strategic area.

Location of Moldova, Europe (Google maps)

Location of Moldova, Europe (Google maps)

The area was invaded and devasted by the Mongols in the 13 th century and the Golden Horde, who dominated Russia and Ukraine, invaded and conquered this part of Moldova in the 14 th century. They built the first known town at Old Orhei, then known as Yangi-Shehr, establishing a fort and a caravanserai (roadside inn) for merchants in the new settlement. The town was multicultural with Christian and Muslims living side by side. The Golden Horde collapsed in the 14 th century and the principality of Moldova emerged. Yangi-Shehr became known as Orhei at this time.

The Moldovans built a new fort in the area and also a major monastery. The Crimean Tartars, successors to the Golden Horde, destroyed the old town of Orhei in the 16 th century and a new town, known as New Orhei, was later built some 6 miles (10km) away from the destroyed settlement. The Moldovans fought the Ottomans for many years, but were eventually forced to submit to the Muslim Empire.

During the Ottoman period, the valley near Old Orhei was used by Christian rebels known as Hadjuks. A cave monastery was built and used by Christians fleeing Muslim rule.

In 1905 the Orthodox Church built a monastery and church on the ridge overlooking the valley. It was closed when the region was annexed by Stalin in 1939, although it is still home to a small number of monks. Old Orhei became part of the Republic of Moldova in 1991 when it broke away from the Soviet Union.

The Sights of Historic Old Orhei

The best known landmark in Old Orhei is the cave monastery, which occupies a remote, rocky ridge overlooking the Răut River. It was hewn from rock and consists of a few spartan rooms and a chapel. The monks’ graffiti can still be seen at the cave monastery.  

Cave monastery of Old Orhei, Moldova (lic001 /Adobe Stock)

The wooden church and monastery, which is dedicated to the Ascension of St Mary, stand at the top of the ridge. It was recently restored after many years of neglect under communist rule and is a beautiful example of wooden folk architecture. It has two spires, cupolas, and beautiful gardens.  The remains of a 14 th century defensive wall stand adjacent to the monastery.

Located in a loop of the river Răut, only a few remnants of the old town of Orhei remain. The baths which were built by the Golden Horde and are known as the Tartar Baths, can still be visited.

Interior of the cave monastery, Old Orhei (Uladzik Kryhin /Adobe Stock)

The medieval caravanserai and Christian monastery are to be found at the site and among the other ruins in the old town are the governor's palace, stone dwellings, and the citadel. Some of the medieval walls still stand. There are also a number of 18 th and 19 th century houses that were built in the local peasant style and are still inhabited by local farming families.

Travelling to Old Orhei

There are a number of day tours from the Moldovan capital of Chisinau and it is possible to use public transport to visit Old Orhei.

The village of Butuceni is adjacent to the archaeological park and the two exhibition centers display relics and artifacts from digs carried out at Old Orhei. Accommodation in Butuceni is plentiful.

Ruins of Old Orhei’s medieval fortress (lic0001 /Adobe Stock)

The tourist office at the entrance to the ruins of the old town sell entry tickets and English language boards provide information on the area. The many hiking trails around the archaeological park take visitors past spectacular scenery, but tourists are asked to dress appropriately as this region is conservative.

Top image: Sunrise, Old Orhei monastery, Republic of Moldova   Source: Calin Stan/Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


Bacumenco-Pîrnău, L. and Bejenaru, L., 2018. Daily life objects of bone and antler in the towns of Medieval Moldavia. Case study: Old Orhei (Republic of Moldova). Quaternary International, 472, pp.160-167

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Curta, F., & Stephenson, P. (2006). Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500-1250. Cambridge University Press

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Sommer, R., & Benecke, N. (2005). L ate-Pleistocene and early Holocene history of the canid fauna of Europe (Canidae). Mammalian Biology, 70(4), 227-241

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Looking at the house @ 49 secs of the vid' could well be in a village in South Africa. The roof overhang, giving a cool porch, is typical, the house colour and the dust road. Even down to the branch laced fence, the pillars and the deep blue sky and sunshine, are the are norm, here in S.A.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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