A Short History of Transylvania:Definitive Guide for Travellers

A Short History of Transylvania Once a province of the Roman Empire, Romania has three historic principalities–Transylvania, Moldavia, and Wallachia–which were briefly reunited in the 16th century before splintering again when Transylvania was recaptured by…

13 Sep 19 · 9 mins read

A Short History of Transylvania

Once a province of the Roman Empire, Romania has three historic principalities–Transylvania, Moldavia, and Wallachia–which were briefly reunited in the 16th century before splintering again when Transylvania was recaptured by the Austrian Habsburgs, and Moldavia and Wallachia fell under Ottoman rule. Romania would regain a part of Transylvania after World War II under a peace treaty.

In the popular imagination, Transylvania is linked with the legend of Dracula. The dramatic Bran Castle, situated on a mountain pass between Transylvania and Wallachia, is commonly known as Dracula Castle and is believed to be the site of imprisonment of Vlad Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler. In this article, we will look at history and legend to tell the story of the historic region of Transylvania, Romania. At the end of the article we will also look at the must-visit sites in this region.

Transylvania in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

For more than a hundred years starting in the 2nd century, the region in what is now Romania–comprised of the Transylvanian Basin and the lands to the south–was the Roman province of Dacia. Prior to this, the region had been settled by Indo-Europeans, which the Greeks called the Getae, who then intermingled with other tribes that the Romans called the Dacians (hence the name of the province), before they were subsumed by the Roman Empire.

Emperor Aurelian withdrew his Roman troops around the year 300, unable to deal with the migratory peoples entering Dacia’s exposed borders. These migratory peoples included the Slavs, who were assimilated by the Daco-Romans, or the Romanised population of Dacia. The Magyars (Hungarians) entered Dacia in the 10th century, and in the 11th century built the territory called Transylvania. Transylvania’s earliest known reference in historical records is in a document dated 1075. It was referred to as ultra sylvan, “beyond the forest”, with ultra meaning “beyond” and sylvan meaning “woods” or “forest”, in reference to the wooded mountains surrounding it.

A depiction of the Magyars in Pest
A depiction of the Magyars in Pest, Budapest, Hungary

Present-day Hungarians refer to their country as Magyarország, “Land of Magyars”, after their Central Asian ancestors. The Magyars were led by Prince Árpád, who migrated from the Urals in 896 and settled in what is now Hungary. His great-grandson Stephen I ascended the throne in 1000 as the first King of Hungary, and his dynasty would rule the kingdom until 1301. (Read more about Hungary in our previous article.) Transylvania was part of the Hungarian kingdom, but evolved through the centuries as an autonomous unit, with its own military governor or prince (voivode) and constitution.

Roman Emperor Aurelian. Photo source.

In the 12th century, German Saxons arrived in the region after the Tatar raids. The Tatars were a Turkic-speaking people who were conquered by the Mongols and folded into the Mongolian army as the Mongols attacked Europe. The Saxons were offered free land and tax incentives by Bela I of Hungary, provided they help protect the realm from the Tatar-Mongolian raids. The Saxons built seven fortress towns known as the Siebenbürgen (“seven cities”), which was the historical German name for Transylvania. These seven cities were:

  • Nösen/Bistritz (Bistrița)
  • Hermannstadt (Sibiu)
  • Klausenburg (Cluj-Napoca)
  • Kronstadt (Brașov)
  • Mediasch (Mediaș)
  • Mühlbach (Sebeș)
  • Schässburg (Sighișoara)

Dracula in Transylvania

Scholars have suggested that Bram Stoker’s fictional vampire, Dracula, was based on the very real Transylvanian-born Vlad III Dracula or Vlad the Impaler, the voivode of Wallachia in the 15th century.

Vlad III Dracula
Vlad III Dracula, the Impaler, 15th century voivode of Wallachia. Photo source.

When he was born in Sighișoara, Transylvania in 1431, Hungary was already 65 years into an ongoing war with the Ottoman Empire. Vlad’s sobriquet Dracula means “son of the Dragon”; he was called as such as his father was known as Vlad Dracul (“Vlad the Dragon”). Dracul in turn was derived from the Latin draco or dragon, as his father was inducted into the Order of the Dragon, created by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to defend Christian Europe against the Ottomans.

Vlad moved to Wallachia when his father assumed leadership of the principality. Vlad and his younger brother were held hostage in 1442 by the Ottoman sultan Murad II to secure his father’s agreement to Ottoman policies. A few years later, Vlad’s father and older brother were assassinated by Wallachian nobles, and Vlad returned to Wallachia and struggled for several years to regain his father’s seat as voivode, even fighting his own younger brother at one point.

Bucharest (Romanian: București), the capital and largest city of present-day Romania, first appeared in historical records in a signed document in 1459 by Vlad, who also built the first fortress in Bucharest to hold back the invading Ottomans. During his rule, Vlad committed the atrocities that earned him the name “Impaler”; he would impale his enemies on stakes in the ground and leave them to die. In 1462, he left thousands of impaled enemies on the battlefield in order to deter the Ottoman army, led by the young sultan Mehmed (or Mehmet) II.

Portrait of Sultan Mehmed II. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Years before this, in 1453, Mehmed II had already breached the walls of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, making it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. (Read more in our previous article here.) Some scholars are saying that Vlad’s tactics “may not have been exceptionally cruel”, and that the impaling method was used as “psychological warfare” against a formidable enemy who had considerably more resources than he did.

He was able to evade the Ottomans that year, but he was later captured by the Hungarians and imprisoned by their king Matthias I (Mátyás Hunyadi). Vlad Dracula was later killed in battle, in 1476.

Ottomans vs Habsburgs

Meanwhile, the Ottoman-Hungarian war raged on.

Titusz Dugovics Sacrifices Himself
Titusz Dugovics Sacrifices Himself (1859) by Alexander von Wagner. Photo source.

It finally ended in 1526, with the Ottomans defeating Hungary at the Battle of Mohacs. In the ensuing chaos, the Hungarian nobles elected two kings simultaneously, dividing Hungary into three regions: the west, or “Royal Hungary”, ruled by the Austrian Ferdinand I of the Habsburgs; the east, including Transylvania, ruled by its voivode, John (János Zápolya); and the central region, including the capital Buda, firmly under Ottoman control. John and Ferdinand I fought for control of the region for 12 years.

In 1566, Transylvania was transformed into an semi-autonomous principality under the Ottomans. The Bathory dynasty ruled the principality for many years, playing off the Ottoman sultan against the Habsburg emperor so they could step back from the conflict and retain their independence. Transylvania became an important power during this period and a bastion of Protestantism in Eastern Europe.

Borders of the Principality of Transylvania in 1570. Map by OSeveno/Wikimedia Commons

Starting in the 1600s, the Ottoman Empire’s power began to wane and Europe began to rise, strengthened by the discoveries and innovations during the Renaissance and the start of the Industrial Revolution. The Ottomans, recognising Transylvania’s growing political dominance, stripped it of its western territory and installed an obedient voivode (Mihály Apafi) in 1662.

There were many Hungarians, especially non-Catholic minorities, who sided with the Ottomans, as they were rebelling against the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I’s Counter-Reformation principles and anti-Protestantism, an uncompromising religious policy that had guided the Habsburgs for the decades. When Mehmed IV declared war on Leopold I in March 1683 and besieged Vienna months later, he was supported by the Hungarian army.

But the siege of Vienna ended on September 12, 1683 with the Ottomans’ defeat and Vienna saved by her allies. (Read more here.) Transylvania recognised the rule of emperor Leopold I and became attached to Habsburg-ruled Hungary. In 1699, the Ottomans conceded their loss of Transylvania, and by 1711, even the anti-Habsburg elements within Transylvania submitted to the emperor.

King John III Sobieski sending Message of Victory to the Pope, after the Battle of Vienna. Painting by Jan Matejko. Photo source.

Transylvania with Romania

Even back in the Middle Ages, the Magyars overshadowed the indigenous Romanian population. By the 18th century, the Magyars were calling for Transylvania’s integration with Hungary. In the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, when the Hungarians revolted against the Habsburgs, the Transylvanian Magyars sided with the revolution while the Romanian peasantry sided with the Habsburgs, hoping to fight for their own political and religious freedoms.

Transylvania was eventually reabsorbed into Hungary in 1867. After Austro-Hungary’s defeat in World War I, the Romanians of Transylvania demanded the principality’s union with Romania. The union was completed in 1947, the same year a communist regime overthrew the Romanian monarchy. In 1989, a national uprising replaced this regime with a democratic style of governance.

Travelling to Transylvania

Andrew Eames writes on the Financial Times that Transylvania may just be the new Tuscany, attracting the British aristocracy, notably Prince Charles (who owns properties in Transylvania), the same way Tuscany became a favourite holiday destination of British travellers.

Prince Charles loved Transylvania so much that he kept coming back on private visits after his initial trip in 1998. Not even the British royal can resist the region’s bucolic forests, beautiful architecture, and incredible centuries-long history, while other curious travellers may want to investigate the truth behind its icons that were the stuff of dark fairy tales and spooky legends. Bordered by the Carpathian Mountains and still relatively “undiscovered” compared to other (often more expensive) tourist destinations in Europe, Transylvania is like a step back in time.

The “Dracula Castle” in Bran is arguably Transylvania’s most famous monument. The dramatic Bran Castle, situated on a mountain pass between Transylvania and Wallachia, is believed to be the site of imprisonment of Vlad the Impaler.

Bran Castle in Romania

The town of Braşov has a very attractive central old-town area and is a great introduction to the Transylvanian region.

Brasov, Romania

View the Biserica Neagră or Black Church, originally a Roman Catholic structure that is now the largest Lutheran place of worship in the region. It was set ablaze during the Great Turkish War of the 1680s, and its soot-covered walls earned it its name.

Black Church in Brasov Romania
Black Church in Brasov, Romania

To enjoy a beautiful view of Braşov, ascend Mount Tampa via cable car.

Brasov Romania with Mount Tampa
A view of Brasov, Romania, with Mount Tampa in the background. Note the BRASOV sign resting on the mountain.

In nearby Prejmer, see the Prejmer Fortified Church, one of the many fortified churches in Transylvania collectively inscribed on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. It was originally founded in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights, a German Roman Catholic religious and military order, before it was taken over by the local Saxon community who had settled in the region. Its 15th century Gothic triptych altarpiece is one of the most valuable and oldest in Romania.

Prejmer Fortified Church Romania
Prejmer Fortified Church in Transylvania, Romania
Organ and detail of the Gothic ceiling in fortified church of Prejmer, Transylvania, Romania
Organ and detail of the Gothic ceiling in the fortified church of Prejmer, Transylvania, Romania

The UNESCO-protected Sighişoara Citadel (listed as “the Historic Centre of Sighişoara”) was built in the 12th century by Saxon settlers and is still inhabited to this day. This fortification allowed the survival of medieval German architecture within its walls. The History Museum of Sighişoara also gives access to the 65-metre-tall Clock Tower, an important observation point in the city. At the foot of the Clock Tower is the Torture Room, used in the Middle Ages to extract confessions from hapless prisoners. View the collections inside the Medieval Weapons Museum, located on the first floor of the house where Vlad the Impaler was said to have been born.

Sighisoara, Romania

Cluj Napoca was once considered the capital of the historical province of Transylvania. One of the highlights of the city is the beautiful St Michael’s Church. Built in the Gothic style, it is the second highest church in Romania, after the Black Church in Braşov.

St Michael's Church in Cluj-Napoca in Romania
St Michael’s Church in Cluj-Napoca in Romania

Go on an underground guided tour of the enormous Salt Mine at Turda, in use since antiquity and modernised and reopened to tourism as a subterranean salt therapy centre and amusement park in 2010.

Turda Salt Mine or Salina Turda in Romania

In the charming city of Sibiu, see the Lutheran Cathedral of Saint Mary (Sibiu Lutheran Cathedral), the 13th century Council Tower of Sibiu, and the Brukenthal National Museum, housed in the palace of Samuel von Brukenthal, the Habsburg governor of Transylvania in the 18th century.

City hall and Brukenthal palace in Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania
City hall and Brukenthal Palace in Sibiu, Transylvania, Romania

Nature-lovers who would rather spend their time outdoors in Transylvania will not be disappointed. Transylvania has three of Romania’s five natural parks, as well as mountains and hiking trails to delight active travellers. Poiana Brașov, located at the foot of Mount Postăvaru, is a mountain resort where visitors can go hiking or mountain biking during the summer, and go skiing during the winter. Spot wildlife such as brown bear, wolves, lynx, and foxes while hiking in Retezat National Park or Piatra Craiului National Park, bordered by spectacular glacial lakes and the breathtaking Carpathian Mountains.

Retezat National Park in Romania
Retezat National Park in Romania

This is only a brief overview of Transylvania’s history. If you want to learn more about Transylvania, Odyssey Traveller is organising several departures to Romania, a fully escorted small group tour especially designed for the mature-aged or senior traveller.

On our Discover Romania tour, we will start in Bucharest, Romania’s capital and largest city, and weave through this Eastern European nation, visiting museums and strolling through old towns to learn more about Romania’s roots and to see the traces of its monarchic past and the influences of years of foreign rule.

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