The Past Is A Different Country – Deva, Transylvania (Narratives of Nationalism)

The past is a different country or so it has been said. The city of Deva, Romania located in western Transylvania, is where the past is very much a different country, dependent on whose perspective one views it from. If a visitor views the past by monuments and statues than for all intents and purposes Deva has been shaped by Romanians. If a visitor views the past through the prism of the city’s most notable architectural relics, than Deva’s past was molded by Hungarians. Which version is correct? The answer is easy if you are Romanian or Hungarian, their own. It is much more complex and confusing for everyone else.

Decebalus Statue in Deva with Deva Fortress in background - detail from postcard

Decebalus Statue with Deva Fortress in background – detail from postcard

The Winners Rewrite History
It is said that the winners write history, to be more precise they rewrite history. In Deva also sculpted history. The majority populace in the city today is Romanian. They present a grand historical narrative of valor and achievement through a series of dynamic statues of historical figures. Among those portrayed are the Roman Emperor Trajan who conquered Dacia (what is today much of the modern nation of Romania) and Decebalus, the leader of the defeated Dacians. In addition, busts of the three leaders of an 18th century Transylvanian peasant revolt, Horea, Closca and Crisan are on offer. The final coup de grace is a statue of the famous Romanian nationalist poet Mihai Eminescu. What do all these personages have in common? They are the foundation upon which a Romanian national historical narrative has been constructed in Deva. Certainly they represent the majority point of view for Romanians. What they do not represent is those who ruled Transylvania for centuries – namely Hungarians.

What these figures also have in common was that they died less than ideal deaths, some more horrible than others. Quite paradoxical if one takes the time to think about the fact that in Deva they are portrayed heroically. The visitor to the city finds a parade of national icons, seemingly successful. Yet the truth is that in some form or fashion they all failed. Each figure is symbolic of the struggle Romanians had with the ruling elite for centuries on end. Horea, Closca and Crisan were all executed in the most horrible fashion possible, broken on the wheel. Decebalus committed suicide by slitting his own throat, rather than be dragged back to Rome and paraded through the streets as a war trophy. Eminescu suffered from bipolar disorder to the extent that he succumbed to mercury poisoning. The mercury used as an attempted antidote to treat his mental illness.

Horea, Closca and Crisan busts in Deva

Horea, Closca and Crisan busts in Deva

History Written in Bricks, Mortar & Stone
For all the national hero worship in Deva, it is the Hungarians – who today make up only 10% of the city’s population – that have left the most memorable and lasting historical legacy. This is strange since on the surface, the Hungarian presence is marginalized to the point of being invisible to the historically unaware. The Hungarian historical narrative has also been sculpted, but this time in bricks, mortar and stone. The center of Deva’s small tourist trade is the Magna Curia Palace. It was redesigned in Renaissance style by none other than Gabor Bethlen, the man who presided over Transylvania’s golden age. Ethnically Hungarian, Bethlen exploited the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict to gain relative independence for Transylvania, promote a cultural renaissance and entrench Protestantism in the region. He even went so far as to make Deva the capital of Transylvania for a short time. Transylvania came closer to being a separate nation during his reign than it ever was before or has been since that time. For that matter, it would never achieve such a prominent place in European politics again.

Magna Curia with Deva Fortress in the background

Magna Curia Palace with Deva Fortress in the background

Towering Above It All – Hungarian Historical Touchstones
Standing in front of the palace one cannot help, but notice the ruins of the Deva fortress crowning the hill in the background. Perched high above, the fragments of jagged stone stimulate the imagination. What remains of the fortress is all that’s left of its once formidable walls. The crumbling remnants of these walls and ramparts can be seen from miles away. They draw not only the eyes, but also the heart upwards to the citadel which sits atop a volcanic mountain. The fortress – first mentioned by Hungarians in mid-13th century documents – proved impregnable to the attacks of Cuman invaders. It continued to provide protection for the ruling Hungarians over succeeding centuries. It finally was blown up by the Habsburgs, in their bid to pacify the countryside and impose authority on their rebellious Hungarian subjects during the 17th century.

Today the fortress stops not invaders, but tourists heading to points farther east. It continues to undergo a slow, but steady reconstruction. The Romanians also constructed the first funicular railway in the nation to transport visitors to the fortress ruins. Ironically, visitors are starting and ending their journey at Hungarian historical touchstones, the Magna Curia and Deva Fortress.

Deva Fortress as it looks today

The ruins of Deva Fortress as it looks today

Same Differences – Romanians & Hungarians
Thus what we have in Deva is a situation where the basis of the city’s history was constructed by the Hungarians. The Romanians now inhabit this landscape of the past and have co-opted it as much out of economic interest as patriotic spirit. The Romanians were not allowed to be part of this history when it took place centuries ago. Today, the roles have been reversed. Hungarians have been left out of the cities past which they largely created and defined. The Hungarian presence is not so much invisible as it is unavoidable. The two, Romanian and Hungarian do not so much clash, as complement one another. Without one there could hardly be the other. These two peoples, historically at odds in Transylvania, are quite similar, especially in their differences.

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