Brasov may be a Romanian city today, but its old town is Saxon down to the very foundations. In the early 13th century, Teutonic Knights began constructing what would become Brasov. It was known to the Saxons as Kronstadt. Over the years it acquired a remarkable set of walls and bastions, some of which still stand today. The Saxon legacy is one built in stone, from the incredible Black Church, one of the largest Gothic houses of worship in the world, to the magnificent Catherine’s Gate, the Saxons left a formidable architectural legacy behind.
The Saxons were an exclusionary society. They were part of the Union of Three Nations (the Hungarians and Szekely the others) which enjoyed preferential treatment – such as tax breaks – at the expense of the Romanian majority that lived outside the city walls. The Romanians were only allowed into the city on a limited basis, to sell their produce. They were even made to pay a fee for this limited privilege. Some of the Saxons wealth came from exploiting the Romanians. today the Romanians have reversed that situation. They are promoting a burgeoning tourist trade in the city by exploiting its Saxon legacy and by even exploiting a national hero who hated the Saxons. It is said that in life you can’t have it both ways, but in tourism the Romanians are doing just that.
Revered & Despised
The Saxons were one of the most successful minorities in all of history. This success made them revered as well as despised. The Saxon buildings that still stand in Brasov today attest to their affluence, but the history books also attest to the hatred their privileged position engendered at times. They suffered many historical setbacks. One of the most notable is worth recalling since its legacy is quite useful for Brasovians today. It occurred in the mid-15th century, during the reign of the legendary Wallachian voivode (governor) Vlad Tepes.
The conflict with Vlad Tepes is most notable for the brutality that Tepes displayed towards the heretofore favored Saxons. Tepes was a powerful voivode of Wallachia, the province which lies just south of Transylvania. He did not look kindly upon the Saxon merchants who refused to pay taxes to him despite repeated warnings. The man who today is best known as the original model for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” exacted a terrible revenge. He attacked the city, destroying one of its suburbs while burning it to the ground. This was just a precursor to his ultimate revenge. Vlad had the prisoners he had captured, hauled up to Mt. Tampa which looms over the city. There within full sight of fortified Brasov, wooden stakes were driven through the Saxon prisoners. This was done in the cruelest manner possible. The unfortunate merchants and nobles would eventually die of impalement, but only after several days of suffering.
While this was occurring, Tepes enjoyed dinner as a forest of screaming, moaning, suffering prisoners suffered agonizing torture and an excruciatingly slow death. Incidents such as this were one of the main reasons Tepes became nicknamed Vlad the Impaler. Despite a streak of horrific sadism, today Vlad Tepes is a national hero in Romania. After all, he fought against the powerful nobility who kept the majority of the population impoverished. Furthermore, he held the Ottoman Turks at bay for much of his reign. His bloodthirsty acts of impalement caused even the Ottoman Turkish Sultan to retreat in horror. Tepes left his mark on history and specifically Brasov.
The Selling Points of History
It is ironic that Tepes legacy and image in Brasov today is benign. The memory of him is either matter of fact or used as tourist kitsch. There is a street named for Tepes. One wonders what the Saxons might have thought of this. Perhaps they would have been fearful of lodging a protest, the memory of his actions still terrifying after all these years. One shudders to imagine, the grisly image Tepes seared into the Saxon’s memory. Such an image is in marked contrast to a bland street sign, the only monument to the man that can be seen today in Brasov. Though he is revered by Romanian nationalists, they might even feel a bit of ambivalence since Tepes treated his Wallachian subjects, ancestors of today’s Romanians with unjustified cruelty as well. On one occasion he invited poverty stricken Wallachs to a great feast in a church. Just after they finished probably the greatest meal of their lives, Tepes has the church burnt to the ground with these poor and unsuspecting trapped inside. Tepes not only fought the nobility, but also the irresolute, the lazy and the helpless as well.
Tepes image as a cruel and fierce warrior is one that does sell, though only after being moderated. His visage can be found on a variety of tourist trinkets, such as coffee cups. Since one of his crueler pursuits was boiling people alive, this is something the historically unaware might need to consider before partaking of a steaming cup of hot coffee. Of course, the real ruler of post-communist Romania is no longer a sadistic voivode, it is capitalism. If Vlad Tepes image will bring in a buck or two, than so be it. Speaking of bringing in a buck, it is the legacy of fortification, of ecclesiastical architecture sculpted in stone by the Saxons which is Brasov’s chief selling point. These legacies and images, no longer oppose, but instead are complimentary to one another. The Saxons, canny merchants that they were, would likely have marveled or even approved of this.