One of the defining images of my childhood is a Transylvanian village seen from the backseat of a car. It’s not a particular village, it’s a composite of many villages. Not so much a village, but a state of mind. My face against the warm glass, my eyes filled with wonder, the world my oyster. Not because I hoped to find a pearl, more so because I felt like a pearl, ensconced in our Oltcit that only had two front doors. Once shuttered inside, my father at the wheel, my mother the co-pilot, I felt like being on the lower decks of the Enterprise, discovering new civilisations. There were the neat villages of the plains, rows of copycat houses, with chickens, insolent cats and slightly feral dogs fording the ditches that separated them from the road. There were the scattered houses of mountain villages, exotic in their disarray, churches teetering dangerously on rocky outposts. And then there were odd villages, with strange houses that had ornate wooden gates encased in the building itself. These are Saxon villages, my parents explained, the Saxons are in fact Germans. Were, more precisely, because most of them had left. I felt sad that the Germans left, as a child I had nothing but fondness for them. They had beautiful clothes, houses and garden gnomes, as I’d seen in the Neckermann catalogue, used by Romanian seamstresses as ‘fashion magazines’ from which they pilfered ideas. The cute Volkswagen Beetle, the little frog, as we called it, was German. The sad but uplifting church hymns we sang had been written by Germans too. Football was a sport played by 22 men and Germany won. I mistakenly thought that Kinder eggs were German, on account of the name, but the deliciously sour Nimm2 candy was the real deal and it contained vitamins, because Germans were of course scientific and healthy.
All these memories came flooding back as we veered off the highway at Sibiu, heading north east towards Sighișoara. Perhaps one day the Romanian highway network, ostensibly built by sloths and snails, will reach Sighișoara too, to the merriment of locals and the tourist hordes, but my childish heart will bleed a little, just as it bled for the mysterious Germans I didn’t know. The highway is fast and efficient, but you never get the thrill of the few seconds when you glimpse the terrace of a village pub, your life ever so briefly intersecting the secret lives of others.
There is also something ironic in a highway reaching Sighișoara. From its very inception the whole point to Sighișoara was that it should be very, very hard to reach. By anyone, in general, and the Tatars, in particular. Its first historic mention dates to 1280, though chroniclers hint at a Saxon settlement as early as the 12th century. Speaking of the Saxons, you might wonder how they ended up in the heart of Transylvania, and the answer is, they were invited to come. Hungarian King Géza II hoped the settlers would enforce the border and vitalise the economy, which they very successfully did. The first settlers came from the Moselle region and today’s Luxemburg, with subsequent waves arriving from other German speaking lands as well, such as Thuringia and Bavaria. By the 14th century, Sighișoara (known, as any self-respecting Transylvanian town by a variety of names, the Hungarian Segesvár, the German Schäßburg, the Yiddish Shesburg or the Latin Castrum Sex) was a flourishing civitas.
It’s this fabled medieval city which has quite miraculously, given the eventful nature of history in this part of the world, survived to this day. Sure enough, there are well preserved old towns in many cities across the continent, but few have kept their structure as well as Sighișoara has. The outer walls, which protected it from enemy invasions, still stand, along with most of the bastions, which bear the names of the guilds that oversaw their upkeep. During our leisurely perambulations in the balmy late summer afternoon, my father was approached by a woman who, somewhat discombobulated, asked him the directions to the fortress. Well, dear lady, we are in it. She must have expected a stern, martial structure escaped from a Gothic novel. But the good people of Sighișoara were only martial in as much as they needed to protect their lives- and goods, from invaders. Fundamentally they were craftsmen and merchants who walled their city out of necessity. Occasional confusion aside, Sighișoara, even in a ‘not quite over but almost there’ pandemic limbo is a popular tourist destination, so the late afternoon hours draw a considerable crowd to the heart of the old town and the terraces lining the narrow streets. As with many hyped places, a brisk, early walk might yield more insight to the discerning traveler.
Morning sneaks slowly into the citadel. The sun remains trapped behind the hills to the east. You can feel its warmth and see its pink shimmer above the blue mountain ridges on the horizon, yet it stays hidden for a while. If you find a lucky angle, no plastic chairs, gaudy ads, or oversized BMWs (there is a tenth circle of hell Dante forgot to mention, and it’s for people who enter narrow historic streets with SUVs) you might just picture that small boy who is supposed to have been born in one of the houses near the imposing clock tower. His father was seeking shelter from the Ottomans in the gutsy Saxon town. The son would grow up to be known as Vlad The Impaler. Incidentally, Vlad’s later dealings with the Saxons were not always serene, to use a euphemism. As a result, it is believed that they started some rather unsavoury rumours about an appetite for blood that went beyond impaling. (Yes, publicly badmouthing homies you are upset with began long before social media.) The rest is history, with a pinch of Bram Stoker’s hyperactive imagination.
Mercifully, the Dracula tackiness is kept to the bare minimum, though a (silver) bullet was recently dodged when the creation of a Dracula theme park in the area was vetoed. It would have been a tremendous pity to trivialise a town that bore witness to so much history and heartache. In the gauzy morning light, its ghosts seem to benevolently haunt it. The Saxons left, unwillingly at first, deported to Soviet gulags after WWII, then willingly escaping the infernal shadow of Communist Romania to return the long-lost motherland. (Having to call a place motherland after centuries of your ancestors not having lived there, an eerily frequent occurrence in 20th Century European history, is of course an interesting topic to be saved for an altogether different conversation.) Yet at this hourly hour, the first words I hear are German. A tourist is carefully treading on the cobblestones of the main square, slowly approaching a sleepy cat, like the Little Prince taming the fox. ‘Miez, miez, du bist eine schöne Katze’, he pats her behind her soft, silky ears. The schöne Katze, as alle schöne Katzen, is completely unbothered. She will remain unbothered as the day goes on, the sun rises, the languages in the square multiply, reconstructing the many towers of Babel that protect the town and its people, present and past.
The Saxons took their defensive role very seriously and besides walled cities they also built fortified churches. The Transylvanian hinterland was dotted with villages huddled around a church that was protected by sturdy walls. In times of peace, the fortifications were used to store goods and provisions, which came handy in times of war, when the community would take refuge inside the fortification. There are over 150 such churches in Transylvania, of which seven are on the UNESCO World Heritage List (in good company with Sighișoara).
Biertan is one of these seven and lies 30 kilometres to the south of Sighișoara, a short drive off the main road to Sibiu. Economically speaking, its time to shine was in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when it became an important market town, but its influence steadily declined in favour of larger regional centres, such as Sighișoara, Sibiu and Mediaș. It however remained the seat of the Transylvanian Lutheran bishopric until the early 19th century. The church is the last in Transylvania to have been built in the late Gothic style and boasts a sacristy door with a very complicated lock system- in a trilingual guide, the English description was a few rows, the Romanian- several paragraphs, while the German went on and on for more than a page, possibly because a German person would actually be able to operate the thing, so they needed clear and detailed instructions. The church is further equipped with an organ, an ornate pulpit, and a rock by the entrance where, on Sunday, people who had misbehaved over the week were exhibited, seemingly to teach them a lesson. Which makes sense given the gothically stern faces of the bishops I’d seen in the crypt- before anyone gets Bram Stokerian ideas, they are very much dead, and I am referring to their gothically stern statues. In a somewhat more Indiana Jones twist, the crypt was raided by the kuruc troops (mostly ethnic Hungarians engaged in an anti-Habsburg rebellion) in 1702, as part of their utter devastation of the fortified church itself.
Besides its church, Biertan has another claim to fame: the Biertan donarium, found in 1775 in the nearby Chinedru forest, is considered by some to be evidence that a Latin speaking population stayed behind after the Roman retreat. Its four words, Ego Zenovius votum posui, are etched into the memory of anyone who has studied history in the Romanian school system, firm evidence that Romanians were here first. And that’s all important, of course, so Hungarian historians fling back theories of how the entire Latin speaking population must have descended to the south of the Danube, leaving behind an abandoned nothingness into which the Hungarian tribes moved in so, you guessed it right, they were here first. You could look at it as almost endearing, kindergarten level bickering, were it not at the heart of a very toxic discourse that polarises the two nations into a pointless battle that will never have a winner. Transylvania as an entity was built by the many, and not the few. No one has full claim to it, but all its people have added building blocks to the fortress, making it all the better.