“Midnight – I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvanian history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all….We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
I keep getting this picture in my head. It’s of Count Dracula at passport control. He has handed over his documents in order to be allowed entry to Great Britain. The officer takes a look at the papers and then at the moon light pale face before him. The count’s funereal gaze is offset by his gaunt, angular features. The officer lowers his voice unconsciously and begins to ask questions. The documents say that Dracula is from Romania, the officer asks him to confirm that. The count says, “I’m from Transylvania.” The officer replies, “That’s in Romania, right?” The count nods solemnly. “What is your native tongue?” “Hungarian, the count utters in a cryptic voice.” So you are ethnic Hungarian and live in Romania.” The count gives an eerie grin, at the corners of his mouth fangs protrude slightly. He says, “I’m a Szekely from Transylvania.” The officer looks baffled. Should he call his supervisor or just try to straighten out this confusion on his own. He looks deep into Dracula’s eyes. They stare trance like, portals to an empty universe. The officer has never seen a case or a man like this. He shudders, than catches himself. Quickly he stamps the documents and shouts, “Next.” He does not look up, but instead senses a mass of gray shadow. The gray mass sweeps the documents from his hand and vanishes from sight.
Who is this Dracula? Dracula of course is a fictional man. He is a figment of Bram Stoker’s fervid imagination, only existing in the pages of Stoker’s novel. Yet Dracula is also a real man, Vlad Dracula III better known as Vlad the Impaler, a 15th century Vlach prince from what is today Romania. He was known for his terrifying cruelty, which left even the dreaded Ottoman Turks cowering in fear. Stoker’s Dracula is based on the real, historical one from the pages of history, but with some interesting twists. One of these twists is that Dracula says he is a Szekely. Perhaps Stoker wanted to give the Count’s background an added ingredient of exoticism. Interestingly, millions of people have read the book or at the very least know the outlines of this famous tale. Yet they have hardly given a second thought to the ethnicity Dracula claims for himself. Stoker’s novel is the one time in history that the Szekely entered into the much larger world’s consciousness. This fame was fleeting, a mere detail hidden in the shadow cast by Transylvania, a place that has become synonymous with the story. A reader of the novel might just feel that the Szekely are wholly fictional, another figment of Stoker’s imagination. Fortunately they are real, more real than Dracula and knowing a little bit more about them is well worth the effort. After all, the truth really is stranger than fiction.
The Szekely are the mystery child of Transylvania. No one is quite sure where they came from, though there are numerous theories. Some of the more reputable ones state that: a) they descended from a Hungarian speaking late Avar population. The Avars were one of the many Turkic tribes that came roaring in from the east during the 6th century. They would eventually merge with Slavic tribes and subsequently disappear through the magic act of amalgamation; b) they descended from Hungarian groups who settled in the borderlands of medieval Hungary and over time developed their own unique culture; c) they were part of the Hungarians who settled the Carpathian Basin, but then were deliberately resettled to protect the Kingdom’s frontiers; or d) they descended from a Turkic population that joined up with the Magyars prior to their invasion of the Carpathian basin. The fun really begins with some of the other theories, such as the one where distant ancestors of the Szekely were supposedly Roman soldiers from Sicily. Another theory states that they are remnants of Attila’s Huns. This one was preferred by the Szekely themselves until scholars debunked it. And still another says they came from a group known as the Jasz people who are of Ossetian (Sarmatian Iranian) origin. Who knows? The fun comes as much from the speculation as it does from any search for the truth. One thing is for certain, the Szekely were not “from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them” as Stoker so fantastically stated.
“And when the Hungarian flood swept eastward, the Szekelys were claimed as kindred by the victorious Magyars, and to us for centuries was trusted the guarding of the frontier.“ – Bram Stoker, Dracula
Since the first written records of their existence, the Szekely have been on the fringes. Isolated, distant and remote from the main centers of power, they were marshaled to play one specific role while under the rule of various kingdoms and empires. They were frontier guardians. The literal meaning of the word Szekely is “border guards.” This may account for their fiercely independent streak along with an uncanny ability to sustain their culture. Records of Szekely settlement first place them in southern Transylvania, but due to an influx of German Saxons who were also brought into guard the southern frontier, the Szekely were moved to their present location. Due to their skill as light cavalry, they would be better utilized against nomadic eastern tribes. In the ensuing centuries, they fought Bulgars, Tatars, Cumens, Ottomans and Vlachs among others. For their services, they were given freedom, noble titles and exemption from taxes. These perks lasted until the late Middle Ages. They were then incorporated into a quasi-feudal system, but owing to their ferocious independence they won back concessions on multiple occasions. When Stoker’s Dracula says, “” he isn’t kidding
By the late 18th century, the Habsburgs had taken control of Transylvania. The Szekely were slowly subsumed by the empire. They did not give up without a fight though. Even when they were pressed into service once again as border guards they rebelled, only agreeing to serve at either the point of a barrel or if they could fight on their own terms. They did manage to keep local customs alive in the villages. Unlike in other areas of Transylvania where nobles made all the crucial decisions for their serfs, the Szekely set forth their own rules and regulations. These guided everything from justice to the building of infrastructure. Of course, the Szekely supported the rebellion during the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, freedom runs in their blood. At one point due to their lack of artillery it was thought they would have to surrender to the Austrians. Within a couple of weeks they had created their own cannon manufacturing works. They singly managed to keep a large Austrian force occupies, aiding the Hungarian effort immeasurably. Unfortunately, the Szekely once again found themselves on the losing side. Yet somehow they managed to survive and keep their culture intact. By the time of Stoker’s Dracula, the Szekely were little more than a unique cultural afterthought of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They were a mystery in a mysterious land, surrounded by wild, dramatically beautiful nature, given to insular, obscure customs and beholden only to their traditions. The Szekely and Stoker’s fictional Dracula seem to have much in common.
“The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious of a thing in these days of dishonorable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
Today, the majority of Szekely live in the eastern Carpathians, nearly 80% of their approximately 700,000 strong population inhabit three counties in Transylvania – Hargita, Covasna and Mures. The first two counties are the only ones in Romania with a Hungarian majority. It should be noted that the Szekely only make up 38% of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. How does one tell a Szekely from a non-Szekely, not by language, but instead through geography and culture. The hill and valley area of the eastern Carpathians which they have inhabited now at least nine centuries is known as Szekely Land (in Hungarian: Szekelyfold).
Just last month, thousands of Szekely and ethnic Hungarians in Romania joined hands to form a human chain that stretched from Brasov to the three counties that make up Szekely Land in a show of support for territorial autonomy. Ethnic Hungarians in Romania already have the right to Hungarian language education and local governance in areas where they are predominant. Is that not enough? No, the Szekely are always fighting, wanting more.
The newest push for autonomy has arisen for two reasons. First, in resistance to a proposed reorganization of the Romanian county system that would place the Szekely in a new administrative unit where they would no longer be in the majority. This would dilute their small, but steady base of power. Secondly, there is historical precedent for autonomy. The term Szekely Land comes from an autonomous region that existed in the eastern Carpathians from the Middle Ages until the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867. Ironically, the entity was revived under the communists from 1952 until 1968 when it was abolished by the Ceausescu regime. It should also be noted that the latest push for autonomy is just as much an ethnic Hungarian effort as it is a Szekely one. After all, in the 2011 census a grand total of only 532 people listed themselves as Szekely, the other 99% of ethnic Hungarians listed themselves as just that, Hungarian. Perhaps some of Dracula’s ancestors were part of those 532 Szekely. No Szekely were identified as vampires. Then again that question wasn’t asked!
“You may go anywhere you wish in the castle, except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not wish to go. There is reason that all things are as they are, and did you see with my eyes and know with my knowledge, you would perhaps better understand.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
The Szekely kapu (Szekely gate) is an astounding piece of folk art. Two separate entrances are contained in this wooden gate, one for horse and carriage, the other for pedestrians. They are decorated with woodcarvings that denote the social status and identity of the owners beyond the gate. Only the Szekely or someone immersed deep in their culture will know the meanings of these carvings. The gates have a strange allure. There is a primeval exoticism to them. The visitor stands outside the gate and ponders questions: Who are these people? What secrets do they keep?
Stoker’s Dracula knew how to keep the prying eyes of strangers away from the secrets hidden in the deepest recesses of his home. He offered only thinly veiled warnings about what lay beyond those doors. Oddly, the warnings serve to fascinate as much as scare. They whisper come forth, the strange allure of a dark exoticism. The stranger is pulled ever closer. Searching for answers to the questions: Who is this man? What secrets does he keep?