The Fortunes & Misfortunes Of Transylvania – Des to Bethlen via Baedeker The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Six)

Reading Baedeker on Transylvania one gets the sense that the town of Des (Dej, Romania) had a great deal going for it in 1900. It was a “Royal Free Town, capital of the county of Szolnok-Doboka.” The adage of location, location, location best explains Des’ prominence. In their first sentence describing Des, Baedeker makes this clear, stating that the town lies “at the confluence of the Great and Little Szamos”. The town was a meeting point in more than one way, as it was located where the Transylvanian Plateau and Transylvanian Plain meet. A confluence point for rivers, transition zone for land forms and junction on an important travel corridor, Des was always a highly strategic point.

The town also greatly benefited from its proximity to salt deposits. Its supply of “white gold” was one of the most coveted commodities throughout its history. Evidence suggests salt was being mined from the deposits as far back as Roman times. A Roman road and settlement were both located in the area. For centuries, the Szamos River acted as a natural highway for salt to sprinkle out from the area to larger markets. The river’s role in transporting trade goods brought many tradesmen and travelers to the town. Once the railroad arrived in the latter part of the 19th century, many more people arrived and departed throughout the day. Some of these would have been travelers brought by Baedeker to the town.

Snapshots of Des in 1902 - From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Snapshots of Des in 1902 – From the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Words and Pictures

Regime Change – The Harsh Hands Of Oppression
Many things have changed in Dej since Baedeker’s 1900 edition was published, one that has not is the paltry range of accommodation on offer. Baedeker lists two hotels worth staying at in the town, today TripAdvisor lists a grand total of three. Modern travelers have the additional drawback of not being able to dine at Des railway station restaurant which has long since disappeared. More substantial changes have taken place in the town’s population between then and now. The transformation of Des (Hungarian) to Dej (Romanian) is more than the superficial shuffling of a couple letters in the Latin alphabet. Baedeker remarks that Des population of 7,700 is “chiefly Magyar”. According to the 1910 census (the earliest one available online), 70% of the residents were Magyar and 26% were Romanian. In addition, there were over 400 Saxons. Today nearly nine out of ten people in Dej are Romanian, just 11% are Magyar while the Saxons have almost all vanished.

There is no mention of Des’ Jewish population in either Baedeker or the latest census (2011) for Dej. During the era of Austro-Hungarian administration, the Jews of Des were counted in with the rest of the Hungarians, because other than Yiddish, Magyar was their most common language. Thus, the Hungarian portion of the population was boosted by several thousand. There are only a handful of Jews left in Dej today. This is due to the catastrophic effects of the Holocaust followed by the resulting post-war immigration to Palestine by survivors. For good reason they no longer felt welcome in the town. It was Hungarian officials under German guidance that prosecuted the Holocaust in northern Transylvania (part of Hungary from 1940 – 1944) with such deadly malevolence. Ironically, Hungarians would soon feel the harsh hand of oppression during the Ceaucescu regime. In this way, the persecutor became the persecuted. The upshot is that Dej became a Romanian city, not only by nation, but also by ethnicity.

Rising Above All - The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

Rising Above All – The Calvary Reformed Church in Des

The Nature Of Transylvania – From Rural Idyll To Rural Disillusion
One thing that has not changed in Dej is the Calvary Reformed Church, an impressive work of Gothic architecture. Baedeker referred to it as a “Handsome Protestant Church of the 15th century”. This splendid edifice became a model for the many wooden churches found throughout Romania today. It was constructed over a seventy year period straddling the 15th and 16th centuries. A seventy-two meter tower was added in 1643. Since completion, it has become a soaring symbol that rises above everything else in the town. The church was well worth a stop in 1900 and still is today for any traveler interested in architecture. Baedeker’s text on Des also mentioned the nearby settlement of Decskana, a few kilometers to the southwest. The salt that brought Des most of its wealth derived from mines in this location.

As Des was the approximate midpoint of a journey between Klausenberg and Bistritz, it was also where the railway carriages were changed out. This made it a good place for the traveler to stretch their legs and enjoy a meal before embarking on the final half of their journey. When the train rolled back out of the station it began to head eastward. Now traveling along the Upper Szomas River Valley’s right bank, the scenery would have been lovely in the spring, summer and early autumn with cultivated fields in the surrounding countryside and low mountains hovering in the northern distance. Villages were a constant reminder of the rural nature of Transylvania. In 1900, the landscape between Des and Bistritz was much like it is today. The only major development in the countryside at that time and still today is agriculture. In 1900 this was a land only beginning to grapple with the demands of an industrial age. That age never really arrived, at least not in a sustainable sense. The railroad was possibly the greatest innovation to ever arrive in this area. It has carried and continues today to carry many locals away from rural Transylvania in search of greater prosperity elsewhere.

Renaissance Man - Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 - 1629)

Renaissance Man – Prince Of Transylvania Gabor Bethlen (1613 – 1629)

In The Beginning –  An Ancestral Residence
The latter half of the journey to Bistritz passed through many small villages and at least one larger town of note, Bethlen (Beclean, Romania), the “ancestral residence of the Bethlen family”. That surname denoted one of the most famous and powerful families in Transylvanian history. The Bethlen family provided Transylvania with its greatest leader, Gabor Bethlen, who ruled as Prince of Transylvania from 1613 – 1629. Prince Gabor reigned over an unlikely Renaissance in his homeland. Prince Bethlen’s Transylvania enjoyed nominal independence during a time when the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires were carving up what was left of the Hungarian Kingdom.  In 1900 the Bethlen name was still spoken with reverence and not just from a historical perspective. As the 20th century began, the Bethlen’s were still one of the most powerful and prestigious families in Hungary. In the coming years, Istvan Bethlen, would become Prime Minister of Hungary (1921 – 1931). He eventually died in a Soviet prison after World War II. His fate was not unlike that of so many other Transylvanian aristocrats. As for the town where his ancestors first realized their destiny, it is still there. Like so much in Transylvania it did not change very much, but the world around it certainly did.

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