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Transylvanian Geography & History
Early History

The Kingdom of Dacia was in existence at least as early as the 2nd century BC, and its political centre was located at several important fortified cities, among them Sarmizegetusa, which is near present-day Hunedoara in Transylvania. The Emperor Trajan crossed the Danube in 103AD at Drobeta-Turnu Severin in today's Romanian Province of Oltenia. He conquered the Dacian capital of Sarmizegetuza around 106AD, and established rule over the region. The Romans constructed mines, roads and forts to protect the region. Much gold, silver, copper and salt were exported back to Rome. Colonists from other Roman provinces were encouraged to settle the land, and cities like Apulum (Alba Iulia) and Napoca (Cluj-Napoca) began to grow. The Romans built many health spas - including the magnificent Baile Herculane, which is still fashionable today for its curative waters. The ancient Greeks had also set up many trading colonies on the Black Sea coast. Many of these early sites have now been excavated and make fascinating viewing.

The solar clock at the Dacian capital of Sarmizegetuza

However, the Dacians rebelled frequently, and with added pressure from the Visigoths, the Emperor Aurelian abandoned Dacia Trajana. The former province fell to the Visigoths and Carpians - until they were overrun in AD 376 by Huns, under the leadership of Attila. When Attila's empire fell apart, the region of Transylvania came under the control of Avars, and was heavily influenced by massive immigration of Slavic peoples.

Important Influences

Then, at the beginning of the 9th century, Transylvania was incorporated into the First Bulgarian Empire, until the Hungarian state was established 896 AD. This became a major power in the Middle and Lower Danubian Basin, and its influence remained until the end of the 15th century. The Kingdom of Hungary extended beyond the Carpathian Basin, and controlled South and East of Transylvania.

Another important influence in the region are the german-speaking "Saxons" who came from the western Holy Roman Empire (from what is now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) under the direction of Hungarian King Géza II, and settled in Transylvania from the 12th Century onwards. In 1211, Hungarian King Andrew II invited Teutonic Knights to settle and defend the southeastern corner of Transylvania against invading Cumans. The knights constructed numerous castles and towns, including the city of Kronstadt - now named Brasov. During this period, the Knights tried to gain control of Transylvania, but these attempts led to their expulsion from the region.

The Saxons, called "Sasi" (pronounced sass), built fortified towns and villages to protect Transylvania from attack by Mongols, Tartars, and the Ottoman Turks. Many of these medieval citadels survive today - the most spectacular being Sighisoara. Dating from the 13th Century, the Saxon Citadel of Sibiu was for centuries one of the largest and best fortified in Europe. The Sasi made an important economical and cultural influence on Transylvania, and created powerful Guilds. The Sasi were Lutherans and the church was the spiritual and social heart of the community. Many Sasi villages were protected by Kirchenburgen - fortified churches with massive walls and watchtowers. Large numbers of these churches remain intact, and are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Sasi named their seven cities "Siebenburgen". These are (in German, Romanian, Hungarian)...

  1. Bistritz, Bistrita, Beszterce
  2. Hermannstadt, Sibiu, Nagyszeben
  3. Klausenburg, Cluj-Napoca, Kolozsvár
  4. Kronstadt, Brasov, Brassó
  5. Mediasch, Medias, Medgyes
  6. Mühlbach, Sebes, Szászsebes
  7. Schãssburg, Sighisoara, Segesvár

The Saxon fortified church at Viscri, Transylvania

The Land Beyond The Forest

Since Transylvania is almost totally encircled by the Carpathian Mountains, the culture of the people who lived in this region for centuries has barely changed with time. Today it seems like an agricultural Shangri-La on the edge of industrialised Europe. Most people are farmers with livestock. Shepherds live in the mountains for months without returning to their villages. A significant proportion of the population of Transylvania are still Hungarians, and they call this region "Erdély" - the "Land Beyond The Forest".

Wallachia, "The Romanian Land", is the historical and geographical homeland of Romanians. In the early 14th Century, Basarab I founded Wallachia in a region to the south of Transylvania, beyond the Southern Carpathians and north of the Danube River. The traditional Hungarian name for Wallachia was "Havaselve" - which means "The Land Beyond the Snowy Mountains". In 1415, Wallachia came under the direct control of the Ottoman Empire, and this lasted until the 19th century, with brief periods of Russian occupation. The capital city changed over time, from Câmpulung to Curtea de Arges, then to Târgoviste, and in the 16th Century to Bucharest.

The forested province of Moldavia lies in the eastern Carpathian foothills. The local Hungarians planted many vineyards in this region, and Moldavia is now the largest wine production region of Romania. To the north lies the province of Bucovina - meaning "beech forests". It was in Moldavia and Bucovina that King Stephen the Great (1457-1504) earned his title "Great" for several successful military campaigns against the invading Turks, who had taken Constantinople and aimed to expand their empire across Europe. Stephen built dozens of fortified churches and monasteries all over the present-day province of Bucovina. Today, the Bucovina painted monasteries are among the greatest European treasures, and are one of Romania's many World Heritage Sites.

Sucevita fortified monastery in Bucovina, Romania

To the north-west of Transylvania is the province of Maramures - situated against the border with Ukraine. Almost completely isolated by the mountains, Maramures is the only region of Romania which was never conquered by the Romans. Today, Maramures still retains most of its original culture, including the use of traditional costumes. Almost everything - weaving, wordwork, agriculture - is still done by hand. Timber is the mainstay of the local economy. The large 15th Century wooden steepled churches are characteristic of the region.

The Ottoman Defeat at Vienna

The oldest surviving document written in the Romanian language is a 1521 letter from the Wallachian capital of Câmpulung, which warns the mayor of Brasov about an imminent attack by the Ottoman Turks. Later, the Hungarian Kingdom suffered a major defeat from the advancing Turks at the Battle of Mohács in 1526. The Turkish army invaded Moldavia in 1538 and continued westwards to conquer Buda and Pest - which today form the Hungarian capital, Budapest. In the Ottoman path stood the mighty Habsburg Empire - the most powerful European dynasty of the 16th Century - whose task was to protect the eastern frontier of Roman Catholic Europe against the might of Islam.

Meanwhile, Wallachian Prince Michael "The Brave" conquered Transylvania in 1599, and Moldavia in 1600 - thereby uniting all three Principalities for the first time. But the unity lasted only one year, when Michael was defeated by both Turkish and Hapsburg forces, and was finally assassinated in 1601. After his death, Transylvania came under Hapsburg rule with its capital at Alba Iulia, while the Ottomans continued control of Wallachia and Moldavia. The union of the three regions became a national objective for succeeding generations of Romanians. Michael ultimately became a Romanian national hero. Then, after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks at Vienna in 1683, Transylvania came within Habsburg rule, and the government of Transylvania was relocated to Sibiu. From 1711 onward, the princes of Transylvania were replaced with Austrian governors, and in 1765 Transylvania was declared a Grand Principality.

Sibiu seen against the Southern Carpathian Mountains

Transylvania & Romania United

In 1848, the Sasi and Romanians under Habsburg command overpowered revolutionary Hungarian forces who sought control of Transylvania. However, Transylvania soon became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was incorporated into the Kingdom of Hungary. As a result, the Romanian and Sasi population were heavily influenced by their Magyar rulers. In 1862, Wallachia - the region to the south of Transylvania became united with Moldavia to the east. This union created the state of Romania. After the Austrian Habsburgs dragged the Hungarians into the disastrous First World War, Hungary found herself being divided between her neighbours at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Transylvania became part of Romania, and despite some struggles to regain the land in World War Two, the territory remains firmly in Romanian hands today. In 1922, King Ferdinand I and Queen Marie of Romania were crowned in Alba Iulia as King and Queen of the expanded "Greater" Romania. The university city of Cluj-Napoca is now considered to be the capital of the Romanian province of Transylvania. Today, Romanians represent 75% of the population of Transylvania - about 5.4 million.

The Cultural Legacy

Despite the political and geographical split from Hungary in 1920, there are still 1.4 million Hungarians living in Transylvania. Their traditional culture has persisted, and large numbers still speak Hungarian as their first language. You can join local festivals where the Transylvanian Hungarians celebrate with their own lively traditional music and dance. Less noticeable, the Ottoman Turkish influence is still evident in Romanian music, traditional crafts, and even in culinary dishes.

Of the 800,000 Sasi who lived in Transylvania, only about 52,000 remain today. The majority were repatriated to the unified Germany. In 2007, Sasi Sibiu (Hermannstadt) was honoured as the Cultural Capital of Europe. HRH Prince Charles is an active supporter of the preservation and restoration of the Sasi and Hungarian villages in Transylvania, together with their unique agricultural landscapes. The great-great-great-grandmother of His Royal Highness was Claudine Rhédey (1812-1841), a Hungarian Countess who lived and died in a Transylvanian village close to Sighisoara.

Spurfilm's Rick Spurway in discussion with HRH Prince Charles in Transylvania

Romania possesses the largest gypsy population in Europe. During the busier times of the agricultural year in Transylvania, such as harvet-time, the gypsies play a vital role in providing occasional manual labour. They originally came from the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of India, and migrated towards Europe over a thousand years ago via Persia, Iraq and Turkey. Many still speak an Indo-Aryan language. They are now mostly integrated into Romanian society, and very few nomadic gypsies survive in the country.

There are several distinct gypsy groups in Romania - farmers, metal-workers, money-lenders and goldsmiths. The wealthier gypsies construct giant "palaces" which can be seen on the edge of many towns in Transylvania. Most Gypsies are great musicians, and this talent has earned them great respect throughout the world. In Transylvania there are many bars and restaurants where you can enjoy authentic gypsy rhythms performed by live bands. Officially, the 2002 census claims there are 535,000 gypsies in the country. However, fear of persecution, a mistrust of authority, and a desire to remain anonymous discourage the majority from registering as members of the Romanian population.

The SpurFilm crew filming gypsy metal-workers in Transylvania

Traditional activities of all the cultural groups of Transylvania - Romanians, Hugarians, Saxons and Gypsies - have been protected over centuries by the Carpathian Mountains that naturally enclose the region. This deeply rooted culture is the subject of a documentary series which is discussed in more detail elsewhere on this website.

A Rich Bio-Diversity

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Click to enlarge

Transylvania represents one third of Romania's area, and the region is contained within the protective curve of the Carpathian Mountains which stretch from Poland in the North-West and reach the edge of Serbia in the South-West. Geographically, the 2002 Romanian census classified Transylvania as the entire region of Romania west of the Carpathians. Within Romania their peaks contain hundreds of miles of unspoilt alpine meadows, forests, rivers, and lakes

click the map to animate
Click the map to animate

These untouched mountains and virgin forests represent Europe's last true wilderness and they possess a rich bio-diversity. The area is home to 60% of Europe's bears, 40% of Europe's wolves and 35% of its lynx, along with badger, stag, fox, deer and wild boar. Beyond this region, much of the rest of the country is covered with fertile plains which have ben planted with orchards and vineyards

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Click to enlarge

The Transylvanian Plateau is drained by the Mures, Somes, Cris and Olt rivers. Water from the snow-capped Carpathian Mountains drains along these four rivers into the River Danube which borders Romania in the south. From here the water flows eastwards through a massive Delta into the Black Sea. In complete contrast to mountainous Transylvania, the Delta is a vast area of wild, flat wetlands and floating islands. The Delta is home to large numbers of birds, which includes Europe's only pelican colony

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Click to enlarge

The three elements of the Carpathian Mountains, the River Danube and the unique Delta coastal region, all play a vital role in the shaping of Romania as a country, and also the history, culture and lifestyles of the people who live here. This subtle combination of geographical and historical influences lies at the heart of what makes Romania so special - and particularly the province of Transylvania

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Click to enlarge

Click here for Wikipedia on Transylvania

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