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.
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, “Poliția”, 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.
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.
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.