The forgotten Saxon world that is part of Europe’s modern heritage

The careful conservation of pre-industrial villages in Transylvania is Europe at its best, guarding the relics of its diversity

by Simon Jenkins

First published in The Guardian Thursday 1 October 2009

Between the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989 and the spring of 1990, half a million indigenous so-called “Saxons” fled Romania for West Germany. It was the most astonishing, and little reported, ethnic migration in modern Europe. In the seven towns and 250 villages of Saxon Land in southern Transylvania, no less than 90% of the German-speaking population packed its bags and committed eight centuries of history to memory. They drove west to a country few of them knew, enticed by the notorious “return to the fatherland” speech of the German politician, Hans-Dietrich Genscher.

The exodus left behind a deserted landscape the size of Wales, hundreds of square miles of rolling beech woods, bears, lush pastures and wild flowers, once home to the Dracula legend. Across it are dotted medieval grid-planned villages, with Lutheran churches, schools, dignified houses, barns and smallholdings, their customs and exclusivity reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Dutch. For 800 years since being invited by the Magyar kings to form a bulwark against the infidel, the Transylvania Saxons guarded their Germanic tradition. They spoke a High German said to be similar to ancient Luxembourgish. They embraced the Reformation and resisted Ceausescu’s concrete communism. All this ended abruptly in 1990.

While the people have almost all gone, the villages remain, colonised mostly by Romania’sbooming Gypsies. It is estimated that as many as a million may now occupy this part of Transylvania, possibly rendering it one day the only majority-Gypsy province. The result is the most exciting and daunting cultural challenge in Europe.

The village of Archita is lost in a Carpathian valley near the 17th-century town of Sighisoara, whose medieval walls and nine towers lie at the heart of Dracula country. The village’s fortified church stands like a castle in its midst, encircled by not one but two high walls, with musket holes and archers’ galleries intact. It was built to protect the citizens against Tartar raids and still has its ham loft with hooks numbered for each house, an insurance against sudden siege. The interior displays its galleries, Protestant pulpit and baroque canopy. The churchyard is overgrown with unpicked plum and apple trees. From the rickety church tower the geometrical village plan reaches out into the surrounding woods. Wide streets and lime-washed, two-storeyed houses reflect the equal plots allotted to each Saxon family in the middle ages. Records show continuous family tenure from the 13th century to 1990. Just three Saxons remain.

The 18th-century town hall and school of Archita have fallen into dereliction. Since the families employed few servants there are no poor houses or suburbs. There is no water or sewerage and no tarmac roads. The village well and a few desultory horses and carts are attended by attractive Gypsy youths.

To the new inhabitants of these villages, the vanished Saxons represent an alien culture. But their ghosts flit round buildings that in most cases are unaltered since being converted from wood to stone in the 17th century. They are like the hill-station residences of British India, holding its genius loci in absentia.Ghosts linger too in the countryside round about, ironically preserved by Ceausescu’s order forbidding development beyond the confines of existing settlement. This yielded one of the most effective green policies in Europe, protecting miles of meadow and forest, now vulnerable to exploitation. The roads are already littered with loggers carting away loads of walnut, beech and oak.

Unesco has designated some of the Saxon churches as world heritage sites, as has the Romanian government, but not the villages. With no money for repairs and no enforcement, such designation carries little weight. There is thus a race to save the most endangered pre-industrial landscape in Europe from poverty-stricken newcomers understandably eager for modernity. One day these villages will be as treasured as those of the Cotswolds, Provence or Umbria, but until then they must pass through the valley of the shadow of possible death.

The response of the outside world to Saxon Land’s plight is uncertain. Money is seeping back. Some departed families have returned, some unhappy in exile, some as so-called “summer Saxons”, holidaying in their former homeland and hoping to capitalise on rising property prices.

I encountered one dedicated young German, Sebastian Bethge, in the dramatic hill village of Apold, labouring alone to restore the church interior with money raised in Berlin and elsewhere. A visiting pastor had just held a Lutheran service for a congregation of nine – four Romanians, three Hungarians and two Germans.

The EU is bringing infrastructure to some villages, even as it devastates their markets for milk and hops. Unesco has its designations. The Transylvania Trust has restored the castle home of the novelist, Miklos Banffy, whose Transylvanian Trilogy is so evocative of this region’s other, Hungarian, past. Britain’s Prince of Wales has bought and restored two Saxon village houses. But most international effort goes on hands-clean “awareness-raising”, on drawing up lists, holding conferences and restoring an occasional showcase palace. The most impressive venture is the London-based Mihai Eminescu Trust (Met), chiefly supported by the American Packard foundation. Its “whole village” concept is tailored to Saxon Land, yielding more than 600 projects in the past decade. A leading citizen is engaged in each village to glean what locals – now mostly Romanians and Gypsies – would like restored if money and expertise were available.

This is exemplary conservation practice. Work is carried out by local contractors, with some 130 craftsmen trained to restore Lutheran and Orthodox churches, schools, houses and barns. Nothing is too small, from patched barn roofs and re-plastered street facades to empty properties converted to guesthouses. Plastic bus shelters and concrete bridges have been replaced in wood.

A truly minimalist venture had a Gypsy in the village of Floresti asking for, and getting, a tiled roof over an appalling hovel shared with his wife, two horses and a mountain of manure. Virtually next door is a restored Evangelical church, its sun-bathed interior one of the most serene of any church I know.

In the 13th-century village of Viscri, the Met has undertaken 160 restorations led by its local leader, Caroline Fernolend, winning it the EU’s premier conservation award. Sewers were installed and a new kiln built to supply handmade tiles, operated by a local craftsman. The trust is even reinstating apple orchards and relaying a local narrow-gauge railway.

No such conservation can work against the grain of local consent or in the absence of local skills. Imported from outside, it will stir resentment and obstruction. The root cause of the Saxons’ exodus was starvation of the modern benefits of civilisation. These cannot be denied their successors.

Yet the conservation of town and village cultures across the sweep of Europe proves that ancient and modern can co-exist to the advantage of both. Such is the disregard of the past by other world continents that these survivors will one day be respected, valued and celebrated.

The Transylvanian Saxons ranked with the Mennonite Amish, the Patagonia Welsh and the Volga Germans among the dislocated tribes of Europe. They lasted a phenomenal eight centuries, leaving intact monuments of a culture distinct and yet integral to European history. If modern European union cannot guard such relics of its diversity it is not worth the name.


1 thought on “The forgotten Saxon world that is part of Europe’s modern heritage

  1. Pingback: Travel writing: Lost art in search of a lost world « Patrick Leigh Fermor

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