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February - March 2007
Transylvania - Land of Dracula?
by Gabi Otvos
To most people in Western Europe Transylvania means one thing: Dracula, the vampire count, featured in the classic horror story by novelist Bram Stoker. There is of course, far more to Transylvania then the myth of Dracula – it is a land of dramatic mountains which shelter Europe’s last bears and wolves, of green valleys, lush countryside and fascinating towns and villages. It is a beautiful region of great diversity in terms of geography, ethnicity, religion, architecture and last, but not least, of gastronomy!
Transylvania - the name means ‘beyond the forest’, became a part of the Kingdom of Hungary in the 11th century. It then successively became an autonomous principality under Turkish ‘protection’ in the 16th century, a part of the Austrian Empire (Austria - Hungary after 1867), and a part of the Kingdom of Romania after World War I. Approximately the size of Ireland, with a population of about 8 million, it is bordered by the Carpathian Mountains on three sides and by the Hungarian plain to the west.
Geographically in Eastern Europe, Transylvania has strong links with the West and its standard of living, although considerably lower then that of Western Europe, is the highest amongst Romania’s provinces. As a result of its history, the region is shared by three peoples: Romanians (the majority), Hungarians, and Germans (Saxons). There is also a sizeable Gypsy minority, and scattered Jewish and Armenian communities.
The Saxons were invited to settle in Transylvania by the Hungarian King after the devastating Mongol invasions in the 13th century. They built beautiful towns like Brasov, Sighisoara and Sibiu, whose citadels, fortifications and medieval layouts survive to this day. Practically intact Saxon fortified churches like Prejmer and Biertan are on the United Nations World Heritage list. These churches were built as veritable fortresses, capable of housing the population of a whole village in times of danger. Hungarian towns like Cluj, Targu Mures, and Oradea excel with their 18th century Baroque and 19th/20th century Art Nouveau architecture. The area around Odorheiu is home to a distinctive Hungarian group, the Szekelys, with a rich heritage in woodcarving and pottery. Romanians, the oldest inhabitants of Transylvania, who traditionally lived in the mountains and worked on the land, built exquisite wooden churches – masterpieces of carpentry. Gypsies, it is believed, came to Europe from Northern India some 1000 years ago. They too have a distinctive style of architecture, as displayed by the large houses built for their extended families.
During its period as an autonomous principality, Transylvania developed a remarkable degree of religious freedom. Catholics and the various Protestant groups like Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians were protected by the state. Orthodoxy, the religion practised by most of the Romanian population, was ‘tolerated’. It cannot be said that the various ethnic communities and religious groups always lived in peace with one another, and Romanians in particular suffered from oppression. Nevertheless, over the centuries, a Transylvanian identity has emerged which, hopefully, will be the key to the region’s future.
A large proportion of Transylvania’s population remains rural and old customs, traditional music, clothes and festivals are still part of ordinary life. However, change is in the air. Urbanisation, industrialisation and globalisation are on the march and, as part of Romania, this small corner of Europe is ready to face the future as a new member of the European Union. There is no way of knowing how things will change and how much of its fascinating heritage will survive, Therefore, there is no better time than now to go and visit Transylvania!