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.

Apahid, Aristocrats & Armenians -Klausenberg To Szamosujvar The 1900 Baedeker Guide (Part Five)

A turn of the 20th century traveler going from Klausenberg to Bistritz* was in for quite a journey. The trip by train took seven hours, today that same journey has been reduced to a little over three. The train only averaged ten miles an hour over the entire route. Such a leisurely pace had all the stealth of a snail’s pace by the standards of today, but in the golden age of European railway travel that amount of time was nothing short of transformative. Consider that before the railway was constructed travel between the two cities would have taken several days across dusty, bone jarring roads at the best of times. Traveling by wagon carriage included the added drawback of possibly being robbed or held hostage by highwaymen.

Conversely, the comfort and security of a railway carriage offered travelers an opportunity to see the countryside while enjoying a fine meal in luxurious surroundings. With so much time on their hands, it was a good thing that these travelers would have their trusty Austria Including Hungary, Transylvania, Dalmatia And Bosnia Handbook For Traveller’s by their side to guide them the entire way. The Baedeker of that era may have been less than forthcoming with narratives and historical details, but unlike modern guidebooks of today, they provided a linear account of towns, villages and sites along the way. The itinerary would have been of great use in passing time. Today it is just as much a pleasure for the modern railway enthusiast or armchair traveler to follow along with to see what has and has not changed since 1900.

Illuminating The Gepids - Artifact discovered at Apahida

Illuminating The Gepids – Artifact discovered at Apahida (Credit: Sailko)

Missing History – The Remnants Of Kingdoms & Aristocrats
The railway route from Klausenberg to Bistritz first went west and then after twelve kilometers headed north toward the city of Dej. Then, as now, the line followed the Kis-Szamos River up its valley (Somesul Mic). Along the way it passed close to or through many villages. The first of these was Apahida. Due to its proximity to modern Cluj, the village of Apahida has now been incorporated in a commune with seven other villages. Baedeker only mentioned that it was “a Rumanian village with about 1000 inhabitants”, but in 1889 a major archaeological discovery had been made in the village. Since that time several digs have brought to light other artifacts that have caused some scholars to believe Apahid stands on the spot where the capital of the Gepid Kingdom was located. The Gepids were an East Germanic tribe that joined the Goths in their invasion of the Roman province of Dacia in the late 3rd century. This invasion would lead to the end of Roman rule in what is now Romania. If Apahida was indeed their seat of power the remains of any Gepid settlement have all but vanished, much like this mysterious tribe did only a few centuries after their arrival.

At Apahida, the route turns north, crosses the river and soon passes by Valasul-Bonczhida (Bontida). The guide does not mention that nearby was Banffy Kastely. At that time, it had not yet become part of history, it was in the process of still making it. A beautiful Baroque manor, the Kastely was residence of the aristocrat, politician, author and theatrical director Miklos Banffy de Losocnz. Banffy would go on to enshrine his name in Hungarian and later International literature with his Transylvania Trilogy, a set of novels that offers the best portrait of the Transylvanian aristocracy in its waning days. The Kastely was looted and large parts of it destroyed by retreating German forces in 1944 for Banffy’s role in attempting to unsuccessfully negotiate Hungary’s exit from the war. What is left of the Kastely today is a mere shell of its former splendor despite years of restoration work.

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida

Former Splendor- Banffy Kastely in Bonczhida (Credit: Karoly Cserna)

Armenopolis – Making Their Presence Felt
About a third of the way through the journey, Baedeker informed travelers they were arriving at a rather substantial town, Szamosujvar (present day Gherla). The town had a population of 5,800 in 1900 and it has increased more than threefold since that time. Baedeker mentions the two things for which Gherla still remains famous – and infamous – for today, its Armenian heritage and a state run prison. Lost among the notoriety of the disparate ethnic groups of Transylvania – Romanians, Hungarians, Jews, Saxons, Szekely and Roma – is the Armenians. Their history in Transylvania goes back to the mid-17th century when several hundred migrated to the area. Armenians were highly sought for their skill as merchants in trade endeavors. Transylvania was much more stable than other parts of Hungary during the 17th century, thus they gravitated to the area.

Szamos uj var became the largest Armenian community in Transylvania and was first known by its Latin name of Armenopolis. By the late 19th century the Armenian community had become in the words of Baedeker “now Magyarized”, causing them to lose touch with the language and culture of their homeland. Baedeker does point travelers to the Armenian-Catholic Church (one of the largest churches in present day Romania) with “an altarpiece attributed to Rubens” It can still be seen today. Baedeker also mentions a fortress on the northern side of town that had been converted into a prison. It had been the last home for Sandor Rosza, one of the most famous Hungarian highwaymen. Rosza was a sort of rogue Robin Hood type of character who made a career robbing travelers on the Great Hungarian Plain. Later, under the Romanian communists, the prison took a much more sinister turn.

Lasting Impression - Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla

Lasting Impression – Armenian Catholic Cathedral in Gherla (Credit: Aladar Klenner)

Drowned Out – The Prison At Gherla
During the imposition of Stalinism, Gherla held imprisoned enemies of the state. Their confinement included a horrific re-education program consisting of bestial types of physical and psychological torture. This program was ended in the early 1950’s, but the prison could not escape even greater infamy. In 1970 one of the most infamous events in the prison’s history occurred when a flood hit Gherla. The prison warden refused to evacuate the prisoners from their cells which were slowly submerged. It is estimated that 600 prisoners drowned in this malevolent act of indifference. Fortunately, travelers in 1900 had no idea of the tremendous tumult the future would bring to Transylvania. Instead they could enjoy views of the Kis-Szamos and low lying hills prescribing the valley as they neared Dej, the mid-point of their journey and the most sizable stopover between Klausenberg and Bistritz.

*Note: Klausenberg is now Cluj, Romania and Bistritz is Bistrita, Romania

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