In Search Of The Very Beginning – Sandor Korosi Csoma: From Szekelyland To The Orient (Part One)

How far would one person go to discover the origins of his people? In the case of Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Koros), a Szekely, the answer is halfway around the world and close to the top of it. Even if he had to walk, ride and sail thousands of miles through often treacherous physical and political terrain, overcoming a multitude of obstacles from climate to culture, Csoma was going to do everything he could to explore the theory that the Szekelys were direct descendants of the Huns and/or the Uighurs, an ethnic group inhabiting East Turkestan (western China). He was the proverbial man on a mission, risking his life to see whether the theory was true. In the process, Csoma crossed the near east and the entirety of central Asia. Though he did not find the answer he was looking for, Csoma did end up making history. He founded Tibetology, wrote the first Tibetan-English dictionary and became revered as one of the great Orientalists of all time.

This from a man who did not have wealth or privilege to assist him in his path breaking pursuits. Csoma came from a humble background, growing up on the frontiers of a kingdom where very few knew or cared about the Orient. He was forced to rely on a supreme intellect that infused him with a love of learning and an inexhaustible amount of curiosity. That intellect was almost always enough to see him through in a life filled with adventure and scholarly achievement that no one could have predicted for a Hungarian, especially a Szekely who grew up in a cloistered society remote from the great centers of learning in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though Csoma’s fame comes from his philological works and vast travels, his early years in Szekely Land followed by studies in Europe are also worthy of attention. If for no other reason than to try and understand how someone who was born into such humble circumstances could become a man of unmatched intellectual powers.

A Brilliant Intellect -Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Kőrös)

A Brilliant Intellect – Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Kőrös)

Out Of Obscurity – Setting A New Course
Just south of the spa resort town of Covasna in Transylvania, where legions of tourists enjoy the healing effects of mineral waters, lies the small village of Chirius. Turn off Highway 13E, onto one of the village’s backstreets and in a few hundred meters there is a bust of the villages’ most famous native, Sandor Csoma. Just below the bust, small wreaths festooned with ribbons with the colors of the Hungarian national flag are attached to the monument. Such recent evidence provides proof that Csoma has not been forgotten by Szekelys and ethnic Hungarians in the area. Chirius, was where Csoma was born into a relatively poor Szekely family. At that time, the village was known by its Hungarian name of Koros as it was then located on the Kingdom of Hungary’s southeastern frontier. Koros was shadowed on its western flank by the Penteleu Mountains. In these same mountains, just ten kilometers to the east, was where the Hungarian Kingdom’s southeastern border was historically located. By the late 18th century, Szekelys had been guarding this border for over five hundred years. Though the Szekelys, like the rest of the Hungarian Kingdom, were under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs at this time, they continued to perform their traditional (and compulsory) border guard duties, Sandor’s father was one of them.

Sandor Csoma was the sixth child in a large family. His brothers and sisters did little to distinguish themselves from others in the region. They were quintessential Szekelys, living according to the traditions and patterns which had proscribed their behavior for centuries. Sandor would turn out to be altogether different from his siblings. He would likely have followed in his father’s footsteps as a border guard since there were few other promising career paths available to Szekelys in the borderlands at this time, but Sandor showed himself to be highly intelligent. He excelled in the village school to such an extent that his father was successful in helping him gain admission to Transylvania’s most prestigious Protestant college, the Bethalinium in Nagyenyed (present day Aiud Romania). This would be a crucial turning point in Csoma’s life. It set him on a course that eventually led to his travels and studies in the Orient.

Bust of Sandor Csoma Korosi - In Chirius (Koros) Romania

Bust of Sandor Csoma Korosi – In Chirius (Koros) Romania (Credit: Csanády)

A Limitless Capacity – Following A Distant Dream
Boarding school taught Csoma more than academic subjects and course work. Discipline was rigorous, providing him with structure and focus that would be extremely useful in helping him cope with the hardships and setbacks that would occur during his travels later in life. The education he received was supposedly going to be provided free of charge, but there were strings attached. Csoma’s family did not have the means to pay for any part of his schooling. Thus, he was forced to earn his tuition by working. He did this by acting as a servant to fellow students. In addition, he taught summer courses at another school in Transylvania. Such experiences were invaluable, cultivating a tireless work ethic that when coupled with his insatiable curiosity and brilliant intellect led to academic achievement. Csoma did so well at college in Nagyenled that after passing his final exams that he was invited to continue his education with more advanced studies. During this time, he attained the highest honors from the college which resulted in a scholarship from the Prince of Transylvania. This allowed him to spend three years studying philosophy and another four years immersed in theological studies.

Csoma looked geared for a career in the priesthood, but during his advanced studies he became fascinated with theories concerning the origins of Hungarians. The theory that the Hungarians descended from the Avars and Huns had been growing in popularity. There were other professors who believed their most distant ancestors were the Uighurs. Csoma was determined to investigate these theories and find hard evidence confirming where the Hungarians had originally come from. This would mean travelling to the Orient sometime in the future. Such a dream would have seemed distant to most men, but Csoma was not like most men. His capacity for knowledge was limitless. He would soon realize that his capacity for travel was much the same. Though Csoma had yet to set foot in the Orient, his studies in Transylvania first showed him the way.

 

A Bilingual State Of Mind – Place Names In Szekely Land: Etymological Exotica

One of my favorite travel activities takes place before I ever leave home. This involves spreading out a map and studying it while planning a travel route. For Szekely Land, I had an excellent road map of Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) that I purchased at a MOL petrol station in eastern Hungary. I like to buy good quality road maps of places that I plan on eventually visiting. This is in the hopes that one day I will use them. That moment had arrived. Scanning the map for potential routes I could not help but notice the very strange names of Szekely Land’s larger towns. This became more than a temporary distraction as I began to wonder less about the route I would take and more what these names could possibly mean. The fact that each town had a Hungarian and a Romanian name complicated the situation further. I found myself having so much trouble with these names, that I decided to research their actual meanings.

Multilingual sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Multilingual sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Mutually Unintelligible – Lost In Translation
On the western edge of Szekely Land was the city of Targu Mures. Though it has a Romanian majority, it is home to a very large Hungarian minority who call the city Marosvasarhely. I found these the easiest names to pronounce of the cities in Szekely Land, but while saying them was rather easy, I did not have the slightest clue as to what they meant. A bit of cursory research resulted in the discovery that both the Hungarian and Romanian names of the city meant virtually the same thing. The Romanian “Targ” and Hungarian vasarhely both mean marketplace. The meaning of these words may be synonymous, but the difference in languages could not be more distinct. Romanian, part of the Romance language family and Magyar (Hungarian), part of the Finno-Ugric family, have little in common.

As for the Mures and Maros found in the city’s names, they refer to the river which runs through the city. This being Transylvania, there is also a German name for the city. Historically it was home to a community of Saxons. Superficially that name, Neumarkt am Mieresch, looks very different from either the Romanian or Hungarian versions. Yet when literally translated the German variation means the same thing as in the other languages. The genesis of this name dates back to the early 17th century when the famous Transylvanian prince, Gabor Bethlen (an ethnic Hungarian), granted it the status of a free royal city. This brought the city special economic privileges which boosted its role as a trading hub. The economic imperative is a long running thread in Targu Mures’ history. The most striking example of which can be found in the first documentation of its name in 1349, then it was known Latin as Novum Forum Siculorum which means New Szekely Marketplace.

Bilingual street sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Bilingual street sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely) (Credit: Kulja)

If Words Could Smell – A Pungent Odorheiu
The further eastward I went on the map into Szekely Land, the stranger the names. One of my favorites was a small city that went by the name of Odorheiu Secuisec in Romanian. I knew the latter word in the name meant Szekely in Romanian, but the first word was baffling. If words could smell bad, then Odorheiu had a foul stench about it. Entering it in Google Translate did nothing to clarify its meaning. According to that program, Odorhei in Romanian means Odorhei in English. I contacted a Romanian friend of mind, whose replied that she was “Not sure if it means anything.” The German form of the city’s name, Odorhellen, was just as odious as the Romanian form and offered no better explanation. I had better luck with its Hungarian name of Szekelyudvarhely which means Szekely courtyard place. The name likely results from its historical role as a hub of Szekely power for many centuries. The name was one of the few I found much easier to pronounce in Hungarian than Romanian. It also offers an example of how the Hungarian language combines words into one long stream of consonants and vowels, while Romanian more logically – at least to my mind – spaces out the different words, even if they are still unintelligible.

Moving eastward again, I found more toponymic teasers. The city of Miercurea-Ciuc (Romanian) was noticeable for the simple fact that it looked like a word one would find on the back of a medicine bottle. The name looked and sounded just about as foreign as anything I have had the displeasure of pronouncing. The Hungarian name, Csikszereda, was a bit easier to say, but understanding its meaning a bit more mind bending. Miercurea means Wednesday in Romanian, as does szereda in Hungarian. After some research I discovered that the name derived from trade fairs held in the city on Wednesdays. I found this to be a rather delightful derivation, a reminder that trade fairs were the medieval equivalent of market days which still take place in towns both large and small in Transylvania.

Untying The Tongue –   Saying What You Mean
I found my favorite Romanian city name, Sfantu Gheorghe way down in the southeastern corner of Szekely Land. The word Sfantu literally rolled off my tongue. It was easy to remember and define, as the Romanian word for Saint. Since the second word quite obviously was the Romanian word for the name George, it meant the city was named for Saint George, who was the patron saint of its most famous medieval church. The Hungarian word for Sfantu Gheorghe was a built more difficult to enunciate. Each time I tried to say Sepsiszentgyorgy, I felt like the word was being spit out of my mouth. The Sepsis prefix added a whole new layer of meaning to the word. It is a callback to the earliest days of the Szekely in Transylvania, when they inhabited the southern frontier in the Sebes area. They were displaced from that region when the Kings of Hungary settled Saxons there beginning in the 12th century. The Szekely have kept this medieval memory alive through the name of Sepsiszentgyorgy.

The strange sounding names of Szekely Land were not confined to the largest cities. There was Sangeorgiu de Padure (Erdoszentgyorgy), Cristuru Secuiesc (Szekelykeresztur) and Targu Secuiesc (Kezdivasarhely). The map was covered in exotica to the point that one word names were relatively rare and noticeable. By going north to south, I spotted Borsec (Borzek), Balan (Balanbanya) and Baraolt (Barot). I got the distinct feeling after looking at Szekely Land, that I would need more than a road map when traveling through this remote land. A bilingual state of mind, a vocabulary guide to untie my tongue and a knowledge that all the names somehow might make sense are travel essentials if I really want to understand Szekely Land.

An Antidote For Modernity – The Szekely & Szekely Villages: On The Verge Of Collapse & Still Standing

Despite Szekelyudvarhely’s clean swept streets, neatly kept public spaces, soaring churches and quaint beauty, it was far from being the standard bearer of Szekelyland. Though it was tiny compared to other Romanian cities, Szekelyudvarhely was an urban metropolis by the standards of the region. It ran counter to the popular image of the Szekely as a prototypically village people, their past and present shaped by those tiny tumbling wonderlands that so many of them call home. Villages are the hub of community, where the heart of Szekely culture beats slower, but stronger. If I was going to gain insight into Szekely culture, heritage and traditions than an exploration of their villages was a must. Szekelyudvarhely had been an inspiration, but Szekely villages might offer revelations as to how these people subsisted in one of Europe’s remotest areas.

A Little Bit Of Heaven - View over the village of Szekelydersz (Darjiu, Romania)

A Little Bit Of Heaven – View over the village of Szekelydersz (Darjiu, Romania)

Beautifully Rugged – A People Like Their Land
The villages were not difficult to reach as they could be found in any direction throughout the region. It did not take long for me to see just how different Szekely villages were from the small city of Szekelyudvarhely. Everything looked original with an indigenous quality of craftsmanship.  The structures, whether homes, gates, or fences looked both vigorous and worn, much like the rough hewn people I saw plying the streets. Villages reflected the Szekely and the Szekely reflected the surrounding landscape. One that was beautiful in a deeply rugged sort of way. The weather was harsh, the terrain by turns hilly and mountainous. Life in Szekelyland was the opposite of easy. Luxury and creature comforts from the modern world looked to be in short supply. Many villagers earned their living in activities that could be classified as little more than subsistence level.

The structures in Szekely villages, rustically colorful homes, tip wells and wood carved gates were symbolic of the people. Many of the villages looked on the verge of collapse, but somehow kept standing. I got the sense that these people were rich in a way that outsiders such as me would never really understand. Money was no match for tradition and culture in these villages. The rhythm of life was still based on the seasons, of which winter was the longest and most pervasive. I assumed that outside of automobiles (which were in short supply), electricity and modern forms of communication, very little had changed in Szekely villages over the past several centuries. The Szekely had lived so long in trying circumstances, physical, political and economic that getting by was an accepted way of life. The faces of Szekely men and women were etched with stoicism. Physically they looked strong and stout, the kind of strength both mental and physical that comes from a lifetime spent trying to subdue less than hospitable terrain. Szekely stubbornness could overcome almost anything.

Collective Individualism -Szekely Gate in Marefalva (Satu Mare, Hargita)

Collective Individualism -Szekely Gate in Marefalva (Satu Mare, Hargita)

Life In The Village – Gates, Hooves & Horsepower
The most notable symbol of these villages was the ubiquitous wooden Szekely gate. Many of these were decorated with an amazing array of folk motifs carved into the wood with careful precision. Though many were decorated with carvings, they were not decorative like those to be found in Hungary. There was nothing new or polished about these gates. Szekely gates were made to be used and re-used thousands of times. Their antiquated, semi-decrepit rusticism as much a hallmark as their two doors, a large one for wagons and a smaller one for people. Many were faded from weathering, dusty and hard-bitten like the villages they stood within. The gates were original, historical and quite useful. There was no better place to look at these gates then the village of Marefalva (Satu Mare, Harghita), a few kilometers east of Szekelyudvarhely. By one count, more than eighty Szekely gates fronted on the main highway cutting through the town. The majority of these could be seen from the main highway winding its way through the village. The gates were the pride and joy of Marefalva, a nod to collective individualism, a paradoxical pride on display for public viewing. A fine example of this was when my wife wanted to take a photo of one, a villager was standing on a ladder doing some minor repair work. He asked if she would like him to move, which he soon did. His face was an expression of pride as she snapped several photos. Then he placed his ladder back in the same place and continued with the repairs.

The same quiet sense of duty could be seen in the faces of those who plied the village thoroughfares and rural byways in horse drawn wagon carts. Wagon drivers, almost always accompanied by a stocky accomplice, could be seen driving a couple of horses along at a ponderous pace. Unblinking, indifferent to those on foot or the dull whine of automobile traffic, they trotted on towards greener pastures or back towards home. The wagoneers seemed to exist outside the present, spirits of a former age that mysteriously arrived and departed with little regard to time. They were not in a hurry, there was no reason to be. Time was elastic, it expanded at the speed they set each day. The same speed decided centuries ago by hooves and horsepower. The wagons, drivers and passengers bore an uncanny resemblance to etchings in 19th century ethnographic tomes. They had been summoned forth from parched pages as an anecdote to modernity.

Spirits of a Former Age - One horsepower in Szekelyland

Spirits of a Former Age – One horsepower in Szekelyland

The Difference Between Want & Need – A Szekely State Of Mind
The beauty of Szekely villages came from their time worn look. The homes, many of them little more than brightly painted cubes covered in a sheen of summer dust, were the humble dwellings of people who had learned to survive with a graceful indifference to the vicissitudes of life. In the villages I suddenly became aware of a class system inherent to Szekelyland. Survivors lived in the villages, thrivers in Szekelyudvarhely and a few other larger towns. There were many more survivors than thrivers, but no one looked like they had missed a meal. These were a people, like their land, richly endowed with everything they needed. They knew what the more populated outside world had yet to comprehend. Specifically, that getting what you need is more important than getting what you want. And what did these people need. Food, water, a roof over their heads, wood and livestock. Everything and nothing had changed in these villages over the years. Kingdoms, empires and dictators came and went, perhaps next would be the fall of nation-states, yet the Szekely always managed to remain.

The Spirit & Sadness Of Victory -Laslo Djere: Triumphing In Tragic Circumstances

Tennis is a lonely sport. When a player steps onto the court they are all by themselves. Even the best professional players, who have coaches, trainers and sports psychologists, can only glance helplessly at their entourages once a match begins. Verbal and moral support is kept at a distance. A player is left to rely solely on their wits and skills. They become a lone battler whose only solace is that they are opposed by another lone battler. For those on the pro tennis tour this loneliness often extends beyond the court. Many of those ranked outside the top 100 spend much of their time traveling to tournaments alone, dining alone, living in hotels alone and spending their time in foreign countries alone. Home is a succession of cities they never really get to see. There is little glamor to be found in this life of loneliness. I was reminded of this a few days ago when I once again came across the name of Laslo Djere (Laszlo Gyore). This time, I was astonished to discover that he was the fifth seed at an ATP tournament in Marrakech, Morocco.

Prior to March, Djere had been a young up and coming player slowly on the rise. Then all the sudden he was a seeded player at a tour event. Discovering this, led me to do some research on his meteoric rise. Djere’s ascent in the ranking was due to some fantastic results during the first three months of 2019 which lifted him all the way to #32 in the world. This made him the top ethnic Hungarian tennis player in the world, as he soared past Marton Fuscovics. Unlike Fucsovics, who has been making Hungarian tennis history during the past year, Djere is relatively unknown among those who follow Hungarian tennis. That is because he grew up outside of Hungary in the predominantly ethnic Hungarian town of Senta, located in the northern part of Serbia. This has made Djere something of outlier in his homeland just as he is in Hungary. It is an interesting situation since he is a minority in a nation that is dominated by Serbs. And yet this is not the most remarkable aspect of his tennis career and recent rise. That is because Djere has managed to climb up the tennis rankings in the loneliest possible circumstances. Tragically, neither of Djere’s parents are still alive to see their son’s rapid ascent in the world of men’s professional tennis.

The loneliness of life on the men’s professional tennis tour has been compounded for Laslo Djere. His father died of cancer seven years ago long before his son became a pro. Then only two months ago, the same disease took the life of Djere’s mother. To lose one parent as a young adult is a grievous blow, to lose them both is a tragedy. One can only imagine the grief Djere suffered at the beginning of this year. The loss for him and his sister of that familial support system which is so critical to the security and stability of a family is difficult to comprehend. The fact that a grieving Djere faced this difficult life situation with resolve and courage shows the quality of his character. That he produced the greatest results of his career is even more remarkable. He did this half a world away from his homeland, at two consecutive events in Brazil, turning the first part of 2019 from a personal tragedy to professional triumph. Unfortunately, these victories can mitigate, but never heal his grief.

The Spirit Endures - Laslo Djere

The Spirit Endures – Laslo Djere (Credit: si.robi)

Tempering Optimism  – A Boost of Confidence
In September 2017, Djere first entered the top 100. Then his movement up the rankings stalled. For a year and a half, his ranking hovered between #85 and #110. His results were good enough to maintain a decent ranking. Conversely, they did little to raise hopes of renewed promise. The beginning of Djere’s 2019 tennis campaign was lackluster to say the least. In January and early February, he lost four consecutive matches, including one where he was forced to retire. This was understandable. Djere had his mind on much more important things back home. When he did reengage mentally with the tour, there was nothing that portended favorable results. The best hope was for Djere to get back on his favorite surface, red clay. A swing through South America in February offered him just that opportunity. He showed up in the seaside, carnival loving city of Rio de Janeiro for the first of two tournaments in Brazil. Any optimism Djere might have had was likely tempered when he glanced at the draw.

This was because he had drawn the top seed, Dominic Thiem from Austria. Thiem is a formidable foe for any player on the pro tour, especially on red clay. In 2018, Thiem made his first Grand Slam final on red clay at the French Open. To say Djere was an underdog would be an understatement. No one would have known that by the final score. Djere laid a drubbing on Thiem, beating him easily in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3. It was his first victory over a top ten player and served as a huge confidence boost for the coming rounds. He went on to win his next four matches and the tournament without the loss of a single set. Djere’s performance was extraordinary, both because it was unexpected and utterly dominant. The triumph came with a heavy heart. A hint of sadness seeped through during the trophy presentation when Djere dedicated the victory to his parents who had sacrificed so much for him to succeed. It was obvious that even though his parents were not with him physically, they would always be with him spiritually.

The Heart Of A Champion- Laslo Djere in Rio

The Heart Of A Champion- Laslo Djere in Rio (Credit: Laslo Djure Instagram)

Family Honor  – A Vast Potential
It is not uncommon for a player who manages an astonishing performance one week to suffer a letdown the next. It would not have been surprising to see Djere lose early in Sao Paulo after his title winning run in Rio. Unlike the week before, he was tested early and often. In each of his first three matches, Djere was taken to a third set before he prevailed. He made it all the way to the semifinals. It was a fine showing coming on the heels of a magnificent one. After the two tournaments in Brazil, Djere’s ranking jumped 62 spots, from #94 to #32 in the world. With these successes he kickstarted his career and began to realize his vast potential. Whether he is well on his way to greater things only time will tell. More important than any tournament victories or rise in the ranking is the fact that Djere continues to honor his parent’s faith in his ability. That is because he triumphs over tragedy every time he steps on the court.

A Last Bastion – Szekelyudvarhely: The Most Hungarian City in Szekelyland

Seven years ago I arrived in the southern Hungarian city of Pecs. I can still distinctly recall my astonishment at the vibrancy, beauty and history of that provincial city. This was the first of many similar experiences in Hungary. It happened so many times, in so many different Hungarian provincial cities – Sopron, Szeged, Szekesferhvar and Szombathely just to name a few – that I almost forgot how wonderful the feeling could be. Repetition has a way of dulling even the most memorable experiences. That was until I arrived in the city of Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania), the largest city in Szekelyland on a late summer day. I came expecting a down at the heel, provincial outpost. What I found brought back that delightful sense of déjà vu consistently induced in me by Hungarian provincial cities. The only difference, Szekelyudvarhely was located deep in Romania, eastern Transylvania to be exact. Cut off from Hungary by long ago border alterations and most of Romania by the Harghita Mountains, the Hungarian speaking Szekely people of Szekelyudvarhely have created a wonderful city. Despite suffering grievous wounds due to the twin vices of the 20th century, radical nationalism and vile communism, the Szekely have cultivated a thoroughly Hungarian city where I least expected to find it.

Vibrant beauty - Interior courtyard at the Town Hall in Szkelyudvarhely

Vibrant beauty – Interior courtyard at the Town Hall in Szkelyudvarhely

Thoroughly Hungarian – The Unspoken Words
Szekelyudvarhely’s Hungarianess or as the inhabitants would likely prefer it to be called, Szekelyness, is centered around language. Not once in several days while staying in the city did I hear a word of Romanian spoken. I saw a Romanian flag flying over the Town Hall. Romania’s national colors were to be found on the police cars and the Romanian word for police, “politita”, was emblazoned on the sides of these cars. Some shops had their names or functions written in Romanian. These were the only noticeable national reminders of Romania to be seen.  Everything else was thoroughly Hungarian. The people looked and acted like Hungarians, with only one exception, they were friendlier than Hungarians back in the mother country. I soon discovered that favorite Hungarian language pastime, literature, was alive and well with the Szekely. I came across three bookstores in the space of 30 minutes and 800 meters. I was forced to suspend disbelief, was this Szekelyland or Hungary? There was little difference to be found in Szekelyudvarhely’s Belvaros

Public monuments in Szkelyudvarhely were no less conspicuous for their nod to Hungarian nationalism. While walking by the neo-classical House of Culture, I noticed a bust of Istvan Szechenyi, the “Greatest Hungarian” prominently placed close to the entrance. In the town center, there was a large and prominent statue of a Honved (Hungarian) military soldier atop a towering pedestal. This was in memory of those Hungarian soldiers from the city who had been killed in World War I. A Hungarian War Memorial in the heart of Romania was a strange site indeed, since Hungary and Romania were on opposite sides in the war. The two had fought both during and after the war. Such incongruities and historical dissimilarities felt totally in keeping with the discombobulating Magyar aesthetic of the city.

Changing sides - World War I Monument in Szekelyudvarhely

Changing sides – World War I Monument in Szekelyudvarhely (Credit: Bbama)

Another Realm – Signs Of Szekely Life
In the main square, within a stone’s throw of the town hall was a statue of Balazs Orban, the Szekely who wrote the first and still greatest descriptive book of Szekelyland. He is revered by Magyar nationalists as not just a Szekely, but also a Hungarian national hero for his ethnographic work. The best example of this trend was a sculptural garden in the city center with bust after bust of famous Hungarians and Szekely. Each figure had a ribbon in the color of the Hungarian flag tied around their neck. Such prominent placements of Hungarian heroes were to be seen across the city, a constant reminder that such historical personages are revered by the Szekely as true representatives of their heritage. Such overt national signs were everywhere, including in the realm of business.

The restaurants, the shops, the accommodations all catered to Hungarian speakers. I soon began to wonder if there were any Romanians who lived in Szekelyudvarhely. In the absence of experiential evidence the question sent me to the latest census searching for answers. Those figures show the proportion of Romanians in the city is just 2.6%. Hungarians make up 95.8% of the population and outnumber Romanians by a ratio of 37 to 1. Thus, the number of Romanians in Szekelyudvarhely is nominal. I imagine that most of them are only here as representatives of the national government. Perhaps from a Romanian perspective, this would be a hardship posting, working in a bizarre environment where they might feel like a foreigner in their own country. Szekelyland may be in Romania, but from what I saw there is hardly any Romania in Szekelyland. The difference between the two is more than a divide, it is a chasm.

 

For what they dream of - Szekelyudvarhely in 1868

For what they dream of – Szekelyudvarhely in 1868 (Credit: Karoly Rusz from Balazs Orban A Szekelyfold leirasa)


Magnetic Attraction – Longing For Land & A Way Of Life

Prior to my arrival in Szekelyudvarhely I was under the assumption that the Szekely were under threat of being totally absorbed into Romania. Several days in the city did much to change my mind. While their total numbers have dropped in Szekelyland, the Szekely are holding on tighter than ever to their ethnic heritage and what they consider their homeland. This adherence to Szkely freedom has been a boon to the economy, at least in Szkelyudvarhely which seemed to be doing remarkably well for a provincial outpost. There is an entire cottage industry of Szekely heritage tourism that brings a stampede of Hungarians each summer.

Szekely villages attract tourists who stay for several nights or longer in Szekelyudvarhely. These tourists fill local coffers with the money they spend. Szekelyudvarhely may be a small urban center, but its continued prosperity depends to a certain extent on the nearby villages and heritage tourism they manage to attract. It was a marriage made possible by Hungarians back in the mother country longing for a land and way of life that does not exist back home. Szekelyudvarhely may be of Hungary, but it is not Hungary. This is part of its magnetic attraction for Magyars. Nothing in the future is likely to alter that fantastic feeling.

Dreams Dancing In The Distance – Romantic Notions: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part Four)

Our gracious guide to the Szekelyderzs Fortified Church, Anita, patiently answered all our questions. She then led us out of the church back onto the lush green lawn inside the fortified walls. At this point, there was only one thing left to do, climb the Fortified Church’s bell tower. While my wife stayed behind chatting with Anita in Hungarian, I embarked on a climb to the top. Almost immediately, I realized that this was not going to be an easy task. There were five levels to scale using slanted ladders that doubled as the steepest set of stairs I have ever climbed. Some of the steps were nearly vertical. Each time I ascended a flight, I would find that scaling the next ladder was steeper and more dangerous than the last. The landings were not much better, at each one I could hear the planks beneath my feet rattling. Midway to the top, I realized that coming down would likely be much more dangerous than going up. That thought filled me with trepidation. I became more careful and reticence as I was beset by the thought of what might happen if I lost the courage to climb back down. Getting stuck in the tower for several hours until I could be rescued by a bunch of Szekely was a ridiculously romantic notion.

Keeping time - The bell tower at the Fortified Church of Szekelyderzs

Keeping time – The bell tower at the Fortified Church of Szekelyderzs

Living In The Shadows Of History – Standing On Its Own Merits
Such misgivings failed to stop my progress. I forced myself to keep climbing upwards. At one point I was forced to grip the wooden beams above me as an extra safety precaution. I had my mind set on getting to the top for no other reason than I thought there would be magnificent photo opportunities overlooking the village and surrounding landscape. Somewhere along the way it occurred to me just how much trust was placed in visitors to Szekelyderzs. People who were much less agile or sure footed than me probably attempted to summit the tower. This could possibly lead to dire results. Nonetheless, there was not a single sign warning anyone of the consequences. This was the sure sign of a less than litigious culture in Romania, especially compared to the United States. At your own risk meant just that. Such trust in common sense was refreshing, even if it might lead to accidents.

Very little of the property was off limits to visitors. A person was free to wander where they liked. Paying the entrance fee was obligatory, but in our case did not occur until the very end of our visit. At times, I had to remind myself that this was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most exalted designation a historical or cultural site could ever hope to attain. And yet there were no guards, security was nonexistent, nothing was enclosed within glass or sequestered behind bars. I would later learn that only the church priest knows the riddle that can open the medieval lock that allows access to the fortified church. This was tradition, the basis for nearly everything in these villages. Those who lived in Szekelyderzs (Darjiu Romania) were used to living around this history. They did not deify or sanctify the site any more than it needed to be, the fortified church stood on its own merits. It was still as much a part of community life as it had been five hundred years before. No one need erect signage stating that this was one of the premier cultural sites in Eastern Europe. It was up to visitors to figure this out for themselves. Just as it was up to visitors to decide whether they could safely scale the bell tower.

An incredible imposition - The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from above

An incredible imposition – The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from above

The Illusion Of A Rural Idyll – Beyond The Fortified Walls
By the time I made it to the top, my hands were shaking and legs beginning to quiver. I now faced another problem. This bell tower was still in use today. I had lost track of time, having no idea how close it was to the top of the hour. I tried to be mindful that a bone rattling series of rings might be forthcoming at any moment. My attention was soon drawn to the windows where I could look out over the village and surrounding countryside. Just below where I stood was the church. From above it was even more impressive than below. The immaculately tiled reddish-orange roof imposed itself on the view. It dwarfed anything else in the village beyond the fortified walls. Rooftops of the houses in Szekelyderzs were mainly clustered around the road that wound through the village. I noticed that the tiles on many of the roofs were chipped or missing.

From above, the village looked quaint and unpretentious. A rural idyll to those who do not have to fight the elements or agricultural markets to eke out a living. This part of Romania was naturally blessed, but economically depressed when compared to the rest of the European Union. As part of what is known as the Centru (southern Transylvania) economic region it has an income per person that is just 54% of the EU average. I was not surprised. Rural life often looks inviting to those who have never lived within its economic strictures. The road through town showed multiple signs of agricultural life. Looking down at one stretch of road I counted four tractors and just a single car. Further out in the distance were the fields and meadows that provided a livelihood for so many of the villagers.

A romantic notion - The view above and beyond Szekelyderzs

A romantic notion – The view above and beyond Szekelyderzs

Limitless Possibilities – Walking Into Another World
The landscape looked beautifully bucolic. I felt the urge to give everything I had ever known up and begin walking towards the highest hillside in the distance. Then follow the forests and grasslands into another world, one filled with limitless possibilities. Dreams of months spent wandering around Szekely Land began to dance in my head. It could be the subject of a fascinating book and a different life, one that I lacked the courage to pursue. A man can still dream in Szekelyderzs. My imaginary process was interrupted by a rumble of thunder as dark clouds floated onto the horizon. A storm had suddenly formed. A reminder that forces beyond our control are always waiting outside the walls that we build to protect ourselves. Forces, that I was unwilling to confront.

The Ancient Comes Alive – “They Want To Be Buried Here”: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part Three)

We went to Szekelyderzs (Darjiu, Romania) hoping to see something dramatic. The fortified church certainly did not disappoint. The photos I had seen of it beforehand were stunning, but nothing could compare to standing inside the walls and looking up at centuries’ worth of history formed from stone and mortar. The church’s exterior was resplendent and intimidating while the fortress walls were stark and impenetrable. Each structure in the complex was in surprisingly good condition. It did not take me long to realize that what surrounded me was an icon of Szekely architectural history. Nothing else we would see in the region during the coming days was comparable to the magnificence of these battlements that had repelled innumerable invaders. Above it all, soared a bell tower that hovered over the village it had helped sustain both spiritually and culturally for ages.

To the light - Inside the church at Szekelyderzs

To the light – Inside the church at Szekelyderzs

A Witness To History – Tradition & Trust
The fortified church complex was full of surprises, the most memorable of which was an English speaking guide. One that would provide insights into both the architecture and Szekely Land. Her name was Anita. She was tall, skinny and kind, with brown hair that fell just beyond her shoulders. When searching for the correct word in English, she would sometimes twirl her fingers around a lock of hair. Though of high school age, she still had many such girlish impulses. Her knowledge of the fortified church was impressive. She spoke with an intimacy that came from being part of life and history in this forgotten land. Life and history in Szekely Land had given rise to traditions. And these traditions had been carried forward into the present by villagers who had not forgotten the practices of their forebears. A fine example of this was the first place Anita showed us, the larders where local villagers stored foodstuffs right up through today. I imagined that many of her ancestors had done the same.

After we entered the church, she related the legend of St. Ladislaus slaying the Cuman Warrior, portrayed in an exquisite medieval fresco that was painted nearly a century prior to Columbus landing in the New World. I could not believe what I was seeing, this fresco and patches of several others covered the wall. They dated back to the early 15th century. None of them were protected by glass or armed guards, no cameras kept a close watch. The only visible thing standing between visitors and these frescoes for an entire summer was a high school girl. Yet there was something invisible and infinitely more secure which protected them, trust. Those in charge of visitor services at the fortified church have placed a remarkable amount of trust in the young docent. From what I experienced their trust had been rewarded. Her level of seriousness, focused interpretation and knowledge of both the church and Szekely history was spot on.

Preserved by trust - 15th century fresco inside the church at Szekelydersz

Preserved by trust – 15th century fresco inside the church at Szekelydersz

Austere Reminders – Inside The Hallowed Hall
Getting up close and personal with history at Szekelyderzs was a welcome respite from my usual experiences with museums in wealthier countries, including my own. The fortified church was not just part of the past, but also the present. The idea of preservation here was not inclined towards curation or climate control. Instead the past was preserved by keeping alive age-old traditions. The bastions along the fortified walls were still used by the villagers as storage for meat. The church was an active Unitarian one, with regular weekly worship services. I picked up one of the hymnals covered by a hand knitted dust jacket. In a few more days a villager would be holding this hymnal, reciting songs their ancestors had sung for centuries. Everything in the church looked ancient yet alive. The sky blue pews, life like frescoes still vibrant after six hundred years, intricately carved wooden chandeliers and the ornately crowned pulpit, it was all living history.

Anita led us over to the southside of the church where she pointed out a brick in the wall. Carved on it was a runic inscription dated to 1274. This was the lone visible clue as to the Romanesque Church which had once stood on this site and had been replaced by the Gothic inspired edifice we now stood within. The brick was an austere reminder that the church had stood in some form or fashion since the earliest days of Szekely settlement in the area. The person who carved the inscription on this stone had no idea that seven and a half centuries later people would be standing in front of it marveling at this symbol of time tempered immortality. It was just about as close to forever as any history in Szekelyland can get.

The ancient comes alive - Interior of the Church at Szekelyderzs

The ancient comes alive – Interior of the Church at Szekelyderzs

Working The Land – A Szekely State Of Mind
We were soon back outside asking Anita a few questions about what life was like in Szekely Land for a young person. Until we met her, everyone we had seen in Szekely villages had been middle aged or older. Now we were lucky enough to find the opposite, a Szekely teenager. Anita said that many young Szekely left the region looking for better opportunities, usually in Hungary. She said that almost everyone eventually comes back. “They love this land, they want to be buried here.” I asked her if she had been to Hungary and if so, what did she think of Hungarians? Yes, she had been there. She paused to answer the second part of my question. Then a bit embarrassed, she nervously remarked “they are nice, but spoiled. We try to be humble.”

She explained that Hungarians had it much easier in their own country than the Szekely did in their homeland. From what I had seen so far, I had to agree. The economy was rural, people still lived off the land. The Szekelys were a linguistic island in a country that they were still somewhat strangers within. Hungary was richer, more materialistic and modern. The way of life in Szekely Land looked rich and rewarding, but nothing came easy. This was a land where you had to work for everything. I asked Anita if she would leave Szekely Land to go to university?” She said there were some good universities in Transylvania that she could attend. And then added, “I want to come back. I love it here.”

A Stubborn Resistance To Time – Stand Alone: The Fortified Church At Szekelyderzs (Part Two)

From the moment of our arrival in Transylvania I had one goal in mind, to visit the Szekely Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Darjiu, Romania). I first discovered the church while researching the trip my wife and I would take to Eastern Transylvania and Szekely Land in the months prior to our departure. Photos of the fortified church gripped my imagination. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The bare, white washed fortification walls looked impregnable, the church sequestered inside it an angular presence full of sharp edges and blunt battlements. It was a stunning slice of architectural austerity. Every part of the complex was of the essence, not a single inch of space was wasted.  This was where I wanted to go in Transylvania, everything else became secondary. I soon learned that seven fortified churches in Transylvania have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but Szekelyderzs Fortified Church is the only one Szekely rather than Saxon in origin. This tidbit of trivia made my urge to visit almost uncontrollable. It was one of a kind. I had to go there, I had to see it. Szekelyderzs was to be the Holy Grail of the trip to Transylvania.

The Road To Inspiration - Village of Szekelyderzs

The Road To Inspiration – Village of Szekelyderzs

Positively Pastoral – Self-Sufficient In Szekely Land
Visiting the church became a singular goal, to the point that I planned our travel itinerary with it primarily in mind. Accommodation was selected in the nearby small city of Szekelyudvarhely, mainly because it was within half an hour’s driving distance of Szekelyderzs. When we first entered Szekely Land on a Thursday morning, the sun was burning bright and the sky above covered in a blanket of blue as puffy clouds floated on the horizon. After a single stop to tour a historic salt mine that had been converted into a surreal underground theme park at Sovata, I vowed to continue onward until we arrived in Szekelyudvarhely. This meant skipping a stop at the beautiful village of Farkaslaka (Lupeni, Harghita County, Romania). It was there that I noticed a group of cars parked at a cemetery within easy walking distance of the highway. Groups of people were making a beeline to pay homage to one of the Szekely’s most famous writers, Aron Tamasi, who was buried there. I promised that we would return but knew otherwise. At that moment nothing was going to get in the way of getting to Szekelyderzs.

We arrived just after 1:00 p.m. in Szekelyudvarhely and quickly checked into our accommodation. There was still plenty of time in the afternoon to visit Szekelyderzs. The goal was within reach. And thus, our final journey to the village began with a drive along a slim, but well-maintained road. It wound its way through lush meadows and hills fringed with scattered forests. The landscape was positively pastoral, broken only by an array of atmospheric villages. This part of Szekely Land was a world unto itself. A few kilometers after leaving Szkeleyudvarhely it was hard to imagine that such a city existed anywhere nearby. The villages we passed through looked self-sufficient and stand alone. They were connected only to the surrounding landscape. Lushness, greenery and overgrowth prevailed. There was a way of life here that I imagined had never changed. I knew this was an illusion. These villages had been buffeted by a torrent of geopolitical tempests during the 20th century. Their residents had weathered such storms by adhering to traditions, which the many tip wells and wagon carts symbolized. A stubborn resistance to time and change was a perceptible trait in this land.

A Model Opportunity - Reconstruction of the Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs

A Model Opportunity – Reconstruction of the Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs

Glowing In The Sunlight – The Impossible & Impregnable
After a few more curvy kilometers we suddenly arrived at the village of Szekelyderzs, a place filled with the romance of a decaying world. Everything in the village looked older than its age, the houses were weather beaten, the road crumbling and a single grizzled resident sat by the roadside. He leered ominously at us when we drove by. The only notable exception to these less than desirable atmospherics were the great white walls that surrounded the fortified church glowing in the sunlight. They looked both impossible and impregnable. We pulled just off the roadside onto a patch of dirt which doubled as the parking area. Upon leaving the car, I immediately noticed a notable absence of noise. The village was silent, save for the intermittent bark of a random dog hidden somewhere behind fences that fringed so many of the homes. I immediately set myself to snapping a photo of the fortified church rising above the walls, but the height was too formidable an obstacle. Whereas in the past these walls withstood the Tatars and Turks, now they repelled the photogenic eyes of starstruck travelers.

Thankfully the point of entry was free of obstruction. Strangely enough, it was also free of people or docents. The only thing here to greet us was an entrance way at the very bottom of a bell tower that stretched towards the sky. We were soon inside the walls, peering up at the massive church that had been previously hidden from view. The building dwarfed its surroundings, taking up much of the interior. Along the church’s exterior we soon spotted a woman who paid us little attention. She was feverishly beautifying the grounds closest to the church walls. Placing flowers in the fertile summertime soil. Two girls soon appeared on the grounds as well. They looked to be sisters, one of high school age, the other much younger. The girls were called over by the woman and began helping her. I decided the woman must be their mother.

On the inside - The fortified church and bell tower at Szekelyderzs

On the inside – The fortified church and bell tower at Szekelyderzs

A Local Guide – The Power of Mutual Comprehension
After a few minutes the older of the two girls walked over to us and introduced herself in Hungarian. She turned out to be the local guide. I held out little hope that she would be able to speak English. She began to converse in Hungarian with my wife who would then translate. When I made a couple of remarks, she looked at me, nodded in understanding and began to speak in English. I was taken aback. Her English was still a work in progress, but she was able to converse with me rather well. Having the guide services of an English speaking Szekely was a rarity. This tour was going to be better than I could have ever imagined.

A Siege Mentality Not Lost To History – Prior To Arrival: The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs (Part One)

Deep in the heart of Transylvania lies Szekely Land, and deep in the heart of Szekely Land are countless villages that stand as time worn testaments to Szekely culture. A stoic adherence to tradition and the remoteness of their homeland – a basin surrounded by the spectacular beauty of wildflower filled meadows, rippling hills and low mountains covered in thick forests – has allowed the Szekelys to preserve their age-old customs. The sublime obscurity of these villages means that many architectural wonders associated with the Szekelys long and often fraught history are still standing. Culture and architecture are inextricably intertwined, acting as repositories of the ancient and antiquated. These are places that the modern age has long since passed by. Paradoxically, such places have never gone out of style. The most obvious example of this provincial phenomenon is the Szekely Gate. An elaborately carved wooden gate which contains two entry ways, one for the ubiquitous horse drawn wagon carts and another for people. These gates have become a fashionable marker of hard core Hungarian identity. They can be found decorating residences throughout the nation of Hungary.

Another iconic fusion of architecture and culture in Szekely Land (as well as greater Transylvania) is the fortified church. One of the best examples can be found in the small village of Szekelyderzs (Darjiu). When most people think of churches, they imagine a place of peace and solitude. Then again, most people have not been historically duty bound to protect the frontier of a kingdom that was under constant threat of a foreign invasion. The Szekelys role as border guards for the Kingdom of Hungary provided them with certain privileges which gave them a higher status than other groups in Hungary. Yet these privileges also came with a cost, the highest of which might be someone’s livelihood or life which could be lost while fighting to hold the frontier. The Szekelys were duty bound to provide military services in a part of Europe that was riven by conflict, most prominently with the Tatars and Ottoman Turks for hundreds of years. This meant constant vigilance, which could transform a house of worship, into a house of warfare. The upshot was the rise of fortified churches such as the one at Szekelyderzs that has been deemed worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Citadel of the Spirit - Darjiu Fortified Church

Citadel of the Spirit – Darjiu Fortified Church (Credit: Riccardo Capobianchi)

Arsenal Of Tradition – Getting Defensive
Szekelyderzs is remote, even by the standards of Szekely Land. While the village is only a half hour drive from one of the larger cities in the region, Szekelyudvarhely (Odorhei Secuiesc), it is not on the way to anywhere. Szekelyderzs is quintessentially rural as it contains more animals than people. The same could be said of the village’s wagons to cars ratio. Szekelyderzs would be like hundreds of other villages in Transylvania, with its modest homes, one paved through road and pastoral landscape, if not for the spiritual citadel at its core. The fortified church at Szekelyderzs is the only site of interest that manages to bring outsiders into the village. Even then, visitation only averages a modest 6,000 per year, nine-tenths of which are Hungarians. Still, Szekelyderzs is fortunate to have such a drawing card, but it had to earn it. Such a stout fortification invited the interests of invaders who damaged and sometimes nearly destroyed it. On five separate occasions, the first in 1606 and the last in 1834, the church underwent major repair work which saved it from dilapidation or destruction.

What was saved and subsequently restored is a site of commanding presence. From outside it walls, the fortified church is geometrically spectacular, all angles and edges arranged in a medieval symmetry. The fortification aspects consist of five-meter high walls with bastions standing guard on each side. A tower rises above the entire complex, acting as a prominent lookout point over the village and into the countryside. The white washed walls protect a monumental Gothic style church whose origin dates all the way back to the 14th century. The most impressive exterior elements of the church, a double stacked structure upheld by rib vaulted arches, was constructed during the late Gothic era of the 15th century. The newest part of the church exterior is still old by modern standards. Originally covered in shingles, the roof was re-covered by tiling in 1760.

Arsenal of Tradition - The Fortified Church in Darjiu

Arsenal of Tradition – The Fortified Church in Darjiu (Credit: Riccardo Capobianchi)

Heroic Deeds – A Window Into Glory

The interior of the church is just as impressive. The remnants of medieval frescoes painted by a master, Paul of Ung in 1419, can still be seen. They offer a window into the glorious artistic renderings that once covered these walls. The most famous existing fresco depicts the legend of Saint Ladislaus slaying a Cuman warrior. This legend is based on a historically documented battle that took place in Transylvania during the latter half of the 11th century after Cumans invaded the Kingdom of Hungary’s eastern reaches. As the story goes, Ladislaus spotted a Cuman warrior stealing away a beautiful Hungarian girl while fleeing the field of battle. He tried in vain to catch up with the warrior. Ladislaus was finally reduced to calling out to the girl. He asked her to pull the Cuman warrior off his horse, which she proceeded to do. Only to pray that Ladislaus not kill her Cuman kidnapper. Despite her misgivings, the Hungarian girl is shown in the frescoes as killing the warrior.

Saint Ladislaus apprehending a Cuman Warrior

Saint Ladislaus apprehending a Cuman Warrior (Credit: Vargatamas)

On an interior wall of the fortified church several scenes from this legendary tale were expertly rendered. These include, Ladislaus in hot pursuit on horseback with spear in hand ready to do battle with the Cuman. He is then shown grasping the warrior, followed by the actual killing. There is an almost Byzantine nature to this artwork, as though one could be viewing it in a medieval church in Constantinople, rather than the remote recesses of Szekely Land. Ancient legends such as these are still very much a part of Szekely life. The same can be said for age old customs, the most enthralling of which is enacted every Wednesday morning, At sunrise, the bells of the Fortified Church call forth to the villagers. They make their way to the church’s protective walls where they still store grain and meat inside of them. Each villager then cuts a side of bacon or a chunk of lard which they will consume over the next week. At Szekelyderzs’ fortified church, the Szekelys siege mentality has not been lost to history.

Click here: A Stubborn Resistance To Time – Stand Alone: The Fortified Church At Szekelyderzs (Part Two)

Szekely Land – An Inexplicable Urge: A Trip To Transylvania’s Remotest Frontier

The future came to me one night for no apparent reason. While sitting at home in the evening one thought suddenly came into my mind, “I must go to Transylvania and visit an abandoned manor house.” From time to time these ideas come to me. They start with an uncontrollable urge to leave everything behind and go visit a place I have never been before in Eastern Europe. The urge is greater than any worry about the unknown. The unknown often acts as a motivator, pulling me towards a hidden fear that must be confronted and overcome. Such a thought is usually followed by hours of research which is almost as enjoyable as the coming trip. When planning for one of these trips there are no limits on time, bad roads are nothing more than neat lines on a map and the only barriers are the limits of imagination.

Deep in the heart - Gyimes-Valley in Szekely Land

Deep in the heart – Gyimes-Valley in Szekely Land (Credit: Rokarudi)

A Land Apart – Where Shadows Fall
The idea of Transylvania is enough to set pulses racing for obvious reasons. Most famously for its connection with Dracula, both real (Vlad Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler) and legendary (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The idea of a trip to Transylvania excited me for very different reasons, namely the opportunity to visit the land made famous by the Szekelys, an obscure group of Hungarian speakers. To go in an abandoned manor house deep in the wilderness of Szekely Land (Szekelyfold in Hungarian) is a dream that I impulsively planned on making into reality. While I have visited Transylvania on a couple of occasions, I have never ventured into Szekely Land, an exceedingly remote part of Romania, located in southeastern Transylvania. It is full of wild mountain landscapes, pristine lakes and secluded valleys with quaint villages tucked into the folds of earth. Szekely Land has commanded my attention from time to time, but never enough to warrant a specific trip. Then for some unexplainable reason I felt that surge of emotion the other night. This was no passing sensation, instead it was an idea that compelled me to take immediate action. And that is just what I did.

Following my impulses, I soon hatched a plan. First, I booked flights for both me and my wife in the late summer. The plan calling for arrival in Hungary, then traveling to Debrecen. After overnighting there, it would be on to Miercurea-Ciuc (Csikszereda), in what was sure to be a long day’s journey into the half-light, judging by a seven-hour travel time on less than smooth roads. I expect to be spending an entire day in the car, hoping to make the western outskirts of Szekely Land before darkness falls.  From that point we could journey outward into the dark forests, sparkling lakes and tiny villages which dot the region. In true contrarian fashion, my Hungarian wife informed me that we had been in the area once before. She referred to the time we visited Brasov a little over three years ago. I retorted that Brasov might be in the same general area, but that city is historically Saxon and ethnically Romanian today. Thus, it did not count as part of Szekely Land. She returned my disfavor by reminding me that she had been to Szekely Land several times before she met me. A shadow fell over the room.

A Transylvanian Frontier - Szekely Land in Romania

A Transylvanian Frontier – Szekely Land in Romania (Credit: Sie)

One Step Closer –Satisfying A Desire
Visiting a place for several days, as opposed to passing close to or through it, was my idea of travel in Szekely Land. With my purist sensibilities, gazing at some distant peaks on the highway from Brasov to Sibiu could never be termed a visit to Szekely Land. If anything, the closeness with which we had come to the area on that trip, made the failure to visit at that time even more painful. Conversely, this failure may have had something to with the inexplicable urge that had struck me. The closest we came on that trip was Sighisoara, which is west of Szekely Land. Sighisoara had been so many things, birthplace of Vlad Tepes, home to a stunningly medieval Old Town with an immaculately preserved clock tower, but it was not and never would be part of Szekely Land. My mind was set on Szekely Land to the point that only the real thing could satisfy my desire.

The difficulty of getting to Szekely Land need not hold me or anyone else back. Its remote location could be overcome with a train or automobile. More problematic from a research standpoint was a lack of information about it in the English language. I could not find a single English language guidebook dedicated to this sub-region of Transylvania. In the age of Amazon, as well as other used book sites, I found this rather surprising. The guidebooks that do exist are written in Hungarian, the lingua franca of Szekelys and where most of its visitors come from. Hungarian (Magyar) is an impenetrable language for all except native speakers and the most linguistically inclined. I have spent a great deal of time around Hungarians and in Hungary proper, but trying to decipher or translate Hungarian word by word is akin to trying to do trigonometry with a rudimentary knowledge of addition and subtraction.

Beauty and mystery - Szekely Land in winter

Beauty and mystery – Szekely Land in winter (Credit: Albertistvan)

The Land Beyond Knowledge – A Gap In The Literature
The lack of dedicated guidebooks sent me to sub-sections of other guidebooks. I found sections on Szekely Land in the Bradt Guide to Transylvania as well as the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Romania. This left me to disseminate what information I could from a wide range of sources or at least the ones I could find. The obscurity of Szekely Land to English speaking reader was hard to fathom. I could not find any 18th, 19th or 20th century English language travelogues or ethnographic accounts of Szekely Land. It was terra incognita as far as in-depth information was concerned, especially in comparison with the rest of Transylvania where foreigners had benefited from the popular focus on it.

I did manage to stumble upon the greatest work ever done on the Szekelys by the historian, ethnographer and politician by the name of Balazs Orban. His encyclopedia work, “Szekelyfold leirasa” was published way back in 1868. I was thrilled to find it available for download on the Project Gutenberg website. I was less thrilled to find that it was only in Hungarian. This false hope made me dig ever deeper to expand my knowledge of Szekely Land. If the literal meaning of Transylvania is “the land beyond the forest”, I was discovering that Szekely Land meant “the land beyond westerner’s knowledge.”