The Beginning & End Of Transylvania – Zsibo to Zilah By Rail: The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Eight)

Our English traveler was proceeding through the heart of northwest Transylvania at a leisurely pace. He would have probably checked his pocket watch somewhere past Aranymezos (Babeni), noticing that over two hours had elapsed thus far on what was shaping up to be a very pleasant journey. To his left, the sunlight created a cascade of sparkles on the Szamos River, a little further off in the distant a series of low hills were covered in verdant greenery. Here was a whole new world that only a few outsiders had ever seen. One of those had been a Baedeker guidebook author who had first blazed this itinerary a few years earlier. The journey had only become possible in 1890, the year that the Des-Zsibo-Zilah Railway opened. Two-thirds of the railway line followed the serpentine course of the Szamos. It was not until Zsibo (Jibou), where the Agrij River entered the Szamos, that the line broke away from the river.

A Chateau & A Park - Wesselenyi Kastely in the early 20th century

A Chateau & A Park – Wesselenyi Kastely in the early 20th century

The Hidden Opposition – Deep In The Countryside
Zsibo (Jibou) was an important town in the region, but Baedeker only hints at that in a description that refers to “a chateau and a park”. These were references to the Wesselenyi Castle and Botanical Garden, which can still be visited today. The castle was, as it still is, one of the largest Baroque structures in Transylvania. This branch of the powerful Wesselenyi family gained a fair amount of fame for their fervent opposition to Habsburg rule. Miklos Wesselenyi Sr. took up the fight, leading an army of nobles, peasants and outlaws in an attack on the local Austrian administrator. This resulted in Wesselenyi Sr. being throw into prison for several years. His son, Miklos continued the opposition, going so far as to support the liberation of serfs as leader of the liberal, reformist nobility. In an ironic coda to this lost cause, Zsibo (Jibou) also became the setting for the final surrender of a Hungarian Army in 1849 fighting for the Revolution that had begun the year before.

Zsibo (Jibou) was the turning point, quite literally, for the final stage of our Englishman’s journey to Zilah. The Szomas soon became a memory as the railway sliced south and then southwest along its new course. The low, forested hills periodically closed in either side of the railway. The Englishman may well have grown both excited and apprehensive by the thought of arrival which was now less than an hour away. It is doubtful he knew that prior to reaching Zilah, deep in the hills a few kilometers off to the south stood one of the great architectural antiquities of Transylvania. Porolissum had been the site of a Roman settlement which had begun as a military encampment during the Emperor Trajan’s conquest of the Dacians in 106. It eventually grew to become the capital of a province known as Dacis Porolissensis. Baedeker does not mention the ruins – which include three temples and an amphitheater – that can be found there. This is not surprising since most of these remnants were not excavated until the latter half of the 20th and early part of the 21st centuries. The hidden historical secrets of Transylvania did not give themselves up so easily to tourists or modernity.

Old Zilah - The Unseen Transylvania

Old Zilah – The Unseen Transylvania

Sights Unseen – Staying The Night In Zilah
After passing through one last narrow defile the train would suddenly arrive in Zilah. The town was situated in a valley of the same name at a crucial geological junction of the Apuseni Mountains with the Eastern Carpathians. In 1900, Zilah was growing rapidly in no small part due to the railroad which aided commerce. The population had grown to 7,000, three-quarters of whom were ethnic Hungarians. Baedeker gave Zilah only a single sentence in its narrative. This hardly did the town justice. Baedeker does mention that the railroad station has a restaurant. It also recommends one accommodation, known by the name Tiger. Let us imagine that our Englishman decided to avail himself of an overnight stay. He would have been one of the few foreigners to have ever walked the streets of Zilah. A clutch of sites would prove of interest.

The City Hall had only been completed in 1889, work that was over fifty years in the making. The building’s trapezoidal shape and prominence – centered on the Old Market square – were a fine expression of the role played by the town as administrative seat for Salaj County. The town also sported a museum, its first, which had been opened in 1880. Gifted by a former Minister of the Hungarian Parliament and art collector, Lajos Szikszai, the museum contained a wealth of archaeological objects. Our English traveler may well have availed himself of a visit to the theater in the evening. Located in the Transylvania Building, which was just five years old at the time, the theater showcased local and regional talent in an array of productions. This was the main form of entertainment of that era for urban dwellers.

Looking back - Panorama of Zilah in 1903

Looking back – Panorama of Zilah in 1903

The Other Side Of Twilight -A Land Distilled To Its Essence
Zilah was the end of the line for Baedeker’s mini-itinerary as well as for our fictional English traveler. The area has always been a good place to make a transition. This transitory role goes back over two millenniums, long before the town came into existence. In ancient times, the town site had been inhabited by the Free Dacians, members of the Dacian tribe that had not been conquered by Rome.  A mere five kilometers away stood the Roman border. In later centuries, Zilah had been a crossing point between Transylvania and Central Europe along the old Salt Route. In Austria-Hungary, it was either the beginning or the end of Transylvania depending on which way a traveler was going.

No matter which way one was traveling in 1900, a journey to Zilah was a trip to the periphery. A journey along the edge of a world just beginning to be discovered by foreigners. Few made that journey or the discovery, but those that did were able to see Transylvania distilled to is essence. Romanians and Hungarians living side by side among nature’s beauty, if not its bounty. The timeless traditions and quasi-mystical landscapes of the Land Beyond the Forest were now accessible to anyone. All they needed was a bit of courage, a train ticket and the good sense to let Baedeker be their guide.

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