There are times when a certain opportunity falls out once in a lifetime. It so happened that recently, during three days, I’ve had to visit areas that few people have visited, to hear and see things that few people have heard and seen, to explore places of my native land, where I have never been before, although I live quite close, and to meet many interesting and sincere people.
The fact is that so far no one has investigated bats in the attics of churches in most of Transcarpathian region. And here again confirms the words once said by a well-known Transcarpathian local historian and archaeologist Fedir Potushnyak: “Where I live – is my own Africa, it should also be investigated”. Nowadays, although we know that there are officially 23 species of bats in our region, not everything is known about their habitats and other features of life in detail.
These unique animals – mammals that can fly – are quite vulnerable species of living organisms and are therefore listed in the Red Book. They live mainly in caves, in tree hollows, in cellars and attics. Of course, they also live in the towers and attics of church temples.
Photo 1. Andriy Bashta is looking for bats under the temple dome
Not all temple towers are suitable for bats. Temples of dome construction, for example, are not worth exploring in this regard, because bats have a specific way of life – when they do not fly, they cling to the appropriate surface on which they can hold their clinging legs, and hanging down their heads. That’s how they sleep, breed and develop. Bats can live both alone and in colonies, so the towers and attics of temples, which have open wooden beams under the roof, are most suitable for the settlement of bats. But the towers of the dome construction (as shown in Figure 1 and Photo 2) are much less suitable for these bats, except that only their basements are for wintering. You can learn more about these unique and useful animals from our newly created educational video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQEfKInv34s.
Fig. 1. Dome temple in section
Picture 2. Under the dome of the temple
(Source of photo: https://pravlife.org/ru/content/pochemu-chasto-mozhno-uvidet-lyudey-stoyashchih-v-hrame-pod-samym-kupolom-eto-osoboe-mesto-s)
Taking into account the fact that the spread of bats in Transcarpathian temples has not yet been investigated, as well as due to the negative attitude of a significant part of society towards these animals, inspired by stereotypes and prejudices, and, more recently, by stories about the origin of Covid-19 epidemic allegedly from these animals, a project on research and protection of these vulnerable animal species was planned for the beginning of 2020 (“Raising environmental awareness of the local population through joint conservation of bats in the border areas of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Ukraine”, Project Manager Bokotey Alexander). Within the framework of this project, the famous ornithologist Andriy-Taras Bashta, PhD in Biology, senior researcher at the Institute of Carpathian Ecology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, was invited to study bats. He conducted basic research and species identification by various methods: checking the excrements, visual inspection of attics and bells, etc. Together with him, we visited and examined about forty temples of different confessions. At present we have found 5 species of Chiroptera, about which will be published in detail in a scientific article.
Photo 3. Common noctule
An interesting fact was that in some temples there were colonies of not one but two kinds of bats, in addition, one of them lived under the roof of the tower, and the other – under the roof of the temple.
Here I want to stop a little and share the feelings that covered me when we found one of the first colonies of bats exactly under the roof of the Roman Catholic temple in the village of Rativtsi (Uzhgorod district, Transcarpathia). They had to be photographed in order to fix the scientific material. Imagine that you stand almost in total darkness and notice through the camera flashes a colony of small bats under the roof, some of them flying in front of your nose or near your ear, or above the top of your head, and you hear neither rustling nor fluttering of their skinny wings! But you can still hear sounds of their social interaction. With the help of a special application for smartphones it becomes possible: (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.elekon.batlib&fbclid=IwAR3bXjhfPuUllA7hUA8WmE6LYbVc6-yWrCQeRbhW1bVk8uFUVjp3IdOMGKI).
It is known that bats use echolocation, that is, they “produce” ultrasound and, with the help of echoes from surrounding objects or obstacles, can bypass them in the darkness and orientate themselves perfectly in space. It is interesting to note that bats communicate with inaudible signals for the human ear, and these signals are unique for each species, which means that each species can be identified with a special device – ultrasound detector.
Sometimes there can be only one species of bats in the temple (single males or a colony of females), less often – two species, but usually the temples are empty or bats have lived here before (you can see it from the presence of old excrements). Their presence or absence may depend on many factors, such as the time of year, as there are migratory bat species, which may come only for a certain period – during seasonal migrations, in particular, in August or September. Their presence can also be affected by the coziness of the attic (lighting, protection from drafts, etc.), and the recently changed roofing also dramatically reduces the likelihood of the emergence of Chiroptera in the attics or under the roof of the temple towers. If there are martens or owls on the roof of the temple, you are also unlikely to find bats here. Owls, by the way, were also found by Andriy Bashta in some temples. The process of bats research is very fascinating, especially in the company of the leading expert in this field, from which you can learn a lot. But it is not the only thing that attracts local history interest.
Experts will examine first of all not newly built temples (because bats simply wouldn’t have had time to settle down in them), but temples with their outstanding history and architecture. For example, Andriy and I had the opportunity to visit a unique in Transcarpathia Reformist church with two towers. As Mr. Zsolt Kovtyuk, the pastor of this Reformist community in the village of Syurte (which was called Strumkivka during the Soviet Union and the first years of Ukraine’s independence) told us, there are only four or five more such churches in Hungary.
Photo 4. Calendar with images of bats – a gift to Pastor Zholt (village Syurte), who sincerely received the researchers in the unique in Transcarpathia Reformist temple with two towers
Other temples have also surprised us many times. For example, in one of the temples in the village Rativtsi, we saw a metal window with bullet traces from the Second World War.
Photo 5. Metal shutter of one of the temples in the village Rativtsi with bullet traces
As the cleric told us, at the end of the war there were three German soldiers hiding here, shooting off the Soviet troops. There are traces of bullets on the forged gates of the same temple.
Similar traces of bullets (but a little less noticeable) were also shown to us at the reformist temple in the village of Pallo (formerly Pavlovo), to which we were led and about which Zoltan Chengeri told a lot. The temple was built in 30s of XX century. And although it looks like stone from the outside, inside it is wooden, which is a very interesting combination. According to Mr. Chengeri, who really loves and knows very well almost everything about this building, before the construction of the temple preliminary assessment of the soil showed that it will not withstand a massive stone construction, so it was decided to build a light one – wooden. The ceiling of this church was hung with ropes to the roof beams. We did not see such a thing in any other temple, which we examined and in each village we visited, if possible, several temples. And here it is worth noting that believers of one confession kindly provided us with contacts of believers and even priests of another confession, who could open the doors of their temples for us. There is a sense of friendliness between believers of different Christian confessions, as well as the fact that some temples were commonly used by Greek Catholics and Roman Catholics (Greek Catholic temple in the village of Pallo), or by Greek Catholics and Orthodox (the temple in the village of Yarok and in Uzhgorod district of Domanintsi). Church of the parish of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the village of Yarok particularly impressed us. It was built in 1802, but the construction started during the life of the famous Greek Catholic Bishop Andrew Bachinsky, as evidenced by a commemorative plaque on the wall in the narthex of this church building.
Photo 6. Greek-Catholic Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Yarok village
When you’re in the attic of such old churches, you involuntarily think it’s not quite safe, because who knows if the boards will hold you…. Therefore, for greater safety when moving under the roof of old buildings, you always have to become one foot on two boards, and when looking for bats in the gaps between the roof beams – move along the periphery of the strong rough (although also very old) beams, as it was mostly done by Andriy Bashta.
We would also like to mention here a rather remarkable building of the Reformist church in the village of Palad’-Komarivtsi, which is one of the highlights of the thematic tourist route “Roads of medieval churches”. It rises on a hill in the centre of the village.
Photo 7. Reformist church in Palad’-Komarivtsi village
This temple is remarkable for the fact that wall frescoes were found in it, which is mostly not typical of Protestant church buildings. The fresco depicts scenes from the legend of St. Lazlo. The paintings date back to the early 16th century.
Photo 8. An ancient fresco on the wall of the temple.
By the way, this church is very popular among researchers, it was explored during the implementation of the project “Tourist route for common religious and cultural heritage” within the ENPI Hungary-Slovakia-Romania-Ukraine Cross-border Cooperation Programme 2007-2013.
To finish, I would like to recall an interesting situation that happened to us in one of the days of our expedition. When we were going to examine the Roman Catholic Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the village of Storozhnitsya, a boy about 15 years old came out to us and was quite surprised that we were looking for bats in the church (apparently, because no one in this region has ever done that before). He tried to explain to us in every possible way that we are unlikely to find anything, as he did not notice any bats here. But during all three days of our jorney we heard quite often such words, so it was important to verify it personally. As usually, we examined the attic and the roof under the temple tower. Without finding anything, we already thought the guy was right. But as we walked out of the temple into the courtyard, there was an alive bat lying on the floor just before the entrance. When we entered the temple, it was definitely not there. It is quite possible that it flew out of the tower of the temple, frightened by us. But that’s just my guess. This case proves once again that we should never give up on research and exploration. It is appropriate to remember here the expression that since childhood my father repeats to me: “He who seeks, he will always find”. These words are eternal because they have gospel foundations.
Photo 9. Andrei Bashta examining a bat found near a Roman Catholic temple in the village of Storozhnitsa.
Our travels and research we plan to continue in other parts of Transcarpathia, so, of course, there is a desire to share personal discoveries and impressions with you, dear readers.
Mikhail Bilanich, employee of the Institute for Ecological and Religious Studies, Head of the Nature Sector, Legotsky Warehouse, local historian.
translated from Ukrainian by Natalia Dyman
The article has been prepared with the financial support of the European Union. The content is the sole responsibility of the Institute for Environmental and Religious Studies and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.