Transylvania - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Transylvania: the Bradt Travel Guide

The name Transylvania derives from the Latin, meaning ‘beyond the forest’. The earliest known documentary reference to this name comes from a medieval Latin document in 1075, which refers to the region as Ultra Silvam, ‘ultra’ being an alternative Latin prepositional prefix to ‘trans’. The region has the distinction of being the only part of modern-day Romania referenced by Shakespeare: there is a passing reference to a recently deceased ‘poor Transylvanian’ in Pericles. The Hungarian name for the region, Erdély, also highlights the region’s forested nature (Erdő is the Hungarian for ‘forest’).

The German name for the region, Siebenbürgen, meaning ‘seven fortresses’, has an entirely different root, and refers, it is usually argued, to seven Saxon-built cities in Transylvania. It is remarkably difficult to establish an agreed list of exactly which seven cities the term refers to. Pope Pius II set out the following list, which is the one most frequently quoted nowadays: Braşov (Kronstadt), Sighişoara (Schassburg), Mediaş (Mediasch), Sibiu (Hermannstadt), Sebeş (Mühlbach), Bistriţa (Bistritz) and Cluj-Napoca (Klausenburg). But many scholars argue that he was simply setting out the seven most important Saxon cities of the region at the time, not at the earlier point at which the term Siebenbürgen originated. And some even argue that the name may not originally have referred to seven cities at all, but was derived from an earlier name for Sibiu: Cibinium. Cibinium, the argument goes, was also sometimes referred to as Cibinburg, and from Cibinburg it is not so very far to Siebenbürgen.

In Romanian the region is known both as Transilvania and Ardeal, whose first known written mention is as ‘Ardeliu’ in a 1432 document. The history of Transylvania is a complex interplay of peoples, some settled, some migratory, some invading, of the territorial ambitions of large empires, whether Roman, Habsburg or Ottoman, as well as the rival scheming of local princes, and of the gradual development of political consciousness among the Romanian people, who were for several centuries excluded from major decisions affecting the region, which now forms a part of the state of Romania.

Dacian ruins, Sarmizegetusa Regia, Transylvania, Romania by Paul BrummellThe ruins of the Dacian capital can be found at Sarmizegetusa Regia © Paul Brummell

Transylvania was part of the Kingdom of Dacia in Antiquity, conquered by the Romans, crossed and settled by various migratory tribes, before being conquered by Hungary, and then a semi-independent state, the Principality of Transylvania, under the Ottoman Empire. In 1711, it fell under the control of the Habsburgs, and then in 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Following the peace settlement at the end of World War I it became part of Romania. Cluj-Napoca is considered by many to be the region’s capital, although various other places have some claim to that title, with princely rulers, Habsburg governors and meetings of the Transylvanian Diet all having been associated with various cities. Alba Iulia is a city particularly close to the heart of ethnic Romanians, as the place where, in 1599, Michael the Brave became Voievode of Transylvania. Following his securing control of Moldavia the following year, he brought together the three principalities of Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania for a brief period. They would not be together again until the end of World War I, and it was again at Alba Iulia, on 1 December 1918, that the union of Transylvania with Romania was proclaimed. 

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Transylvania: the Bradt Travel Guide

Flora 

Dr John Akeroyd: botanist, conservationist and specialist on European flora.

Transylvania’s botanical richness echoes its historical, cultural and ethnic diversity. The plateau (Podişul Transilvaniei), locally hilly and dissected by rivers, is bordered to the south by the Transylvanian Alps, with the high Făgăraş Mountains reaching 2,544m on Mt Moldoveanu, to the west by the lower Apuseni Mountains, and to the east by the Eastern Carpathians. Because of its location within the Carpathians and rich traditional farming culture, Transylvania retains high biodiversity and intact ecological systems. The cool dark forests and the colourful and often plentiful wild flowers are among the many pleasures for the visitor to this unspoiled region.

The forests of Transylvania are a mixture of oak, beech, hornbeam, spruce, fir and pine. They are particularly lovely in autumn. Romanian forests have the highest regeneration rate in Europe, although they are ever at threat from logging. Woodland along streams and rivers is dominated by alders, willows and black poplar (Populus nigra), sometimes festooned with wild hops. Wood margins often have scrub dominated by blackthorn (Prunus spinosa), with hawthorn, wild pear, privet, dogwood, spindle, elder and Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas).

Lime-rich rocks support special plants. The great ridge of Piatra Craiului National Park, southwest of Braşov, has woods, scrub and meadows, and an important gorge and rock flora. This includes narrowly distributed endemic plants such as two showy pinks, Dianthus spiculifolius, endemic to the Romanian Carpathians, and Dianthus callizonus, found only on Piatra Craiului. The mountain hay-meadows, a mixture of dry and damp grassland, around adjacent villages have beautiful wild flowers such as rosy vanilla orchid (Nigritella rubra) and globe orchid (Traunsteinera globosa), globeflower (Trollius europaeus), blue bellflowers and gentians, purple knapweeds and the famous medicinal herb arnica (Arnica montana).

Retezat, Romania’s first national park (1935), in far southeast Transylvania, has a similar range of habitats to Craiului and holds over 650 flowering plants, the richest flora on limestone. This is one of several Transylvanian sites for lady’s slipperorchid (Cypripedium calceolus), the over exploited medicinal herb yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea) and rare alpines.

Retezat National Park, Transylvania, Romania by Gaspar Janos, ShutterstockRetezat National Park holds over 650 flowering plants © Gaspar Janos, Shutterstock

Traditionally managed wild flower-rich grassland is the jewel in Transylvania’s floral crown, a manifestation of the sheer richness of plant diversity – and perhaps the best hay-meadows in Europe. These meadows are a living link with the past, and show how plant and animal diversity can thrive alongside agriculture. Their conservation requires sensitive farming, employing modern techniques but maintaining the careful traditional husbandry that nurtured the landscape for centuries.

June and July are the best months for flowers, although plenty persist into autumn. September produces crowds of lilac-coloured autumn crocus or meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale) in somewhat damper or overgrazed grasslands, and late gentians, especially fringed gentian (Gentianopsis ciliata) of dry pastures. On higher ground, lilac-mauve Banat Crocus (Crocus banaticus) colours woodland margins and sheltered meadows.

Fauna

Dan Marin: wildlife guide who runs Transylvanian Wolf in Zărneşti.

A combination of good forest management, traditional and wildlife-friendly farming activities makes Transylvania one of the best places in the whole of Europe for wildlife. Large numbers of wolf, bear and lynx still inhabit the forests that surround this place. Natural selection has ensured that there is a very good and healthy population of red and roe deer and wild boar. The variety of habitats – flood plains, river margins, hay-meadows, forested hills and high mountains – are good homes for an impressive number of species of butterflies, birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

Wild plants and animals have always been very important in the traditional life of Transylvania. The folklore (traditions, stories, beliefs, superstitions) related to them is fascinating, with national festivities dedicated, for instance, to one flower, Our Lady’s bedstraw. There are also folk tales that give the wolf a positive significance, which is something unique throughout Europe.

People and culture

Abridged from the Culture section in Transylvania: the Bradt Travel Guide

Locals, Alba County, Transylvania, Romania by Adriana Mitsue Ivama Brummell Local people in Alba County © Adriana Mitsue Ivama Brummell 

The complex history of Transylvania has produced a complex cultural life, in which the cultures of its ethnic Romanian, Hungarian and German communities are both highly distinctive and constituent elements of a Transylvanian regional culture. Many festivals across the region celebrate individual communities, whether the Saxon Kronenfest at Mălâncrav, the Székely Festival of 1,000 Székely Maidens just outside Miercurea-Ciuc, or the Romanian Junii Parade in Braşov. The ‘town days’ held in many communities also fall into this category of celebrations of local community: while visitors are welcome to join in, the events are not designed with outside visitors in mind. Other events in Transylvania are increasingly international in outlook, like the Transylvania International Film Festival and Untold music festival in Cluj-Napoca, or the International Theatre Festival in Sibiu. These are events of European renown, reflecting a Transylvania which is increasingly confident of its place on a wider stage.

Cinema

Romanian cinema has enjoyed considerable success on the international film festival circuit in recent years, with a series of impressive, often low-key productions, in some cases exploring the legacy of Romania’s Communist past, and in others focusing on the challenges of post-revolution Romanian society.

Art and craft

Religion formed a central driver for artistic development in Transylvania, from the frescoes enlivening church walls to the painted panelled ceilings and galleries found in many Reformed churches, often using simple floral decoration. The painting of icons on wood and glass is a notable artistic tradition of Transylvania, and at Sibiel in Sibiu County there is a whole museum dedicated to the painting of icons on glass, a technique that developed in the 18th century. The elaborately painted eggs found throughout Romania, though particularly associated with the Bucovina region in the northeast of the country, are another fine craft tradition with a clearly religious inspiration.

Music 

Music, Bucegi Mountains, Transylvania, Romania by Photosebia, Shutterstock A group of women performing in the Bucegi Mountains © Photosebia, Shutterstock 

Transylvania has a particularly rich folk music tradition. In most places, the musical performances at weddings and other social events are typically in the hands of bands of Roma musicians, members of the lăutari, or musicians’, clan. The typical line-up of instruments in a folk band involves two violins or fiddles, two contras (a form of viola) and one double bass. Some more traditional bands, such as the Palatka Band, stick to this line-up, but others have added further instruments. These might include a cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, an accordion, and various brass and wind instruments. Clarinets are quite popular in Transylvanian bands, and guitars, drums and keyboards are increasingly so. The bands usually take the name either of the village they hail from, or the name of the band leader, who is typically the lead fiddle player. A Roma band is usually called a taraf. The lead fiddle plays the melody, with the contras and double bass providing the rhythm. 

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