Saturday 26 October 2013

A weekend in the Secklerland


No-one knows what these paintings on the church tower at Csikrakos (Racu) mean. The tower is said to have been built in 1080 though no-one is sure. The most recent theory is that the paintings derive from the pre-Christian religion of the Hungarians and their close cousins the Secklers. Without examining the evidence one just knows this explanation is
mistaken. But I find the mystery fascinating - I prefer not to know the truth and I am sure we shall not. 

There is a novel here though, probably a bad one, possibly by Peter Ackroyd. The symbols on the tower are unexplained. One is of the hanged man which reminded me of the tarot pack. Other symbols, such as one of the sun, seem to have no possible Christian
meaning. One pair of figures looked to me like a Turk fighting another man. 

The paintings were restored ten years ago, very badly indeed as can be seem by the photograph above. It smacks of the kind of shoddy workmanship you often find in Romania, which sometimes involves contracts won by by improper means. Romanians believe that ethnic Hungarians and Germans have more probity than Romanians but this is not necessarily true. I remember a headline in the Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei, above a story of corruption in the UDMR, the Romanian-Hungarian political party,
They may be Hungarians but they are our Hungarians!
I almost never leave Bucharest except to leave the country and I regret this very much now. Especially because the countryside of fifteen years ago where ploughs were very common and tractors very rare has changed a great deal. This weekend I am making up for lost time by exploring the churches of the Csik region of the Secklerland (in Hungarian Székelyföld) in Harghita, one of the two predominately Hungarian counties in Eastern Transylvania. In fact the population is not strictly Hungarian. Hungarians, properly so-called, live in other parts of Transylvania, as well as in the Banat and in Crisana, but here live the Secklers. Secklers speak Hungarian, look like Hungarians, sometimes refer to themselves as Hungarians but they have retained a separate identity perhaps since they first invaded Transylvania as pagans coming from Asia in the eighth century.

I hate to dignify that rubbishy potboiler by mentioning it in polite society but the eponymous Transylvanian count in Dracula is proud to be a Seckler. I read that much before I threw the book away in disgust. Carmilla by Sheridan le Fanu is a far, far better vampire novel, one of the few horror stories worth reading.

I was shown the Csik region by Bela, who came back to his home town from Germany because of local patriotism. He is a divorcee and confirmed bachelor (something I never met in fifteen years among ethnic Romanians), a happy teetotaller and a devout Catholic. I liked him a lot. 

He took me to several other churches including the famous Franciscan monastery of Şumuleu Ciuc, (Csíksomlyó) just outside Miercurea Ciuc. In the monastery is a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary,which is the largest miracle working statue in the world, according to Bela. It has been the object of a mass pilgrimage held since 1567 on the Saturday before Whitsun. It attracts several hundred thousand Secklers and Csángós, other Hungarian Catholics and even, according to Bela, some Protestants.The church is austere Hungarian neo-classical, reminiscent of many churches in Hungary like Esztergom Cathedral.

Bela promised to explain the Csangos to me. I have not understood who or what they are despite having read a book on the subject and knowing an Oxford man who wrote a Ph.D. thesis on them. Bela's explanation left me no wiser than before and not even much better informed. When I know more, dear reader, I shall tell you.

Bela agreed that the Secklers and Hungarians were less religious than the Romanians but they are much more religious than the English and they retain much of the folk religion that was swept away in England during the Reformation. Next Friday is the Day of the Dead for example, All Souls Eve, when people come to lay flowers on their relatives' graves, a big date in everyone's calendars.

Older Secklers, Bela says, would like the Secklerland to belong to Hungary as it did during the Second World War (with disastrous consequences for the local Jews, once the Germans overthrew the regime of Admiral Horthy) but most educated Secklers wanted only home rule. He and other Secklers, do not feel at home in Hungary. Transylvania is their country, not Hungary nor Romania.

The churches of this area are not comparable with the fortified Saxon churches further west but are very attractive nevertheless. They are Catholic. The Hungarians in Transylvania embraced Calvinism or Unitarianism, the Transylvanian Saxons (meaning ethnic Germans) became Lutherans, but the Secklers stayed loyal to Rome. By the time Transylvania was reconquered from the Turk at the end of the seventeenth century the wars of religion were over and the different Protestant sects were left in peace. The Romanian helots who were not one of the three legal nations continued to till the fields and hold to their Orthodox faith.

What charmed me most about the churches in this region is that the Bradt Guide to Transylvania passed over almost all of them. Csikrakos and its tower are scarcely mentioned even on the net. Terra incognita.

I am staying in a charming village a short taxi ride from Miercurea Ciuc called Delnita Ciuc (Delne in Hungarian), staying with a very remarkable and heroic woman called Barbara Knowles. To learn something of her work click here. She is a Cambridge-educated biologist who fell in love with Transylvania, and moved there after being diagnosed with a grave illness, motor-neurone disease, in order to do something positive with the years left to her. She and her fund have achieved much in five years to try to sustain the rural life of the region, at a time when the traditional rural way of life of Romania is in great danger of dying out

Like me she is a great admirer of the Prince of Wales and he and she share many similar ideas. He has visited her at Delnita.
File:Saint John Church in Delne.JPG

Delnita has the most interesting church in the region, St John's church which has a remarkable roof and a beautifully naive altar triptych painted by Saxon painters. It was once the church of three villages and stands in lonely isolation and is not used. The villagers of Delnita, lazier than their forbears in the 17th century, prefer a chapel built at the edge of the village which saves them a mile's walk. Change and decay in all around I see. 

Though some say that the church of St John was the church of a village that was wholly destroyed by the Turks and Tartars in the seventeenth century. Picking up an illustrated guide to Miercurea Ciuc I read the preface by the Mayor who says that the historic role of the Secklers was to protect the Eastern flank of Christendom from invasion by infidels. I read such things in various East European countries in guidebooks and on inscriptions for many years without taking much notice but since September 11 2001 it seems up-to-date, not mere antiquarianism. I wonder, were the Mayor of Miercurea Ciuc to repeat these remarks in a British paper, what reception they would have. I wonder if he would be accused of some offence or other.

Talking about crimes, I was criminally negligent in not going round the Romanian countryside at weekends. Romania is so much more interesting than exotic places like Iraq or Morocco or India. Romania is the most interesting and beautiful country in Europe. Only the Holy Land, Georgia and Armenia compare with Romania.  And Cuba. 


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  2. Excellent stuff, quite fascinating. I am only astonished that it has taken you twenty years of residence in Bucharest to appreciate the many wonders of the Romanian countryside: it is for these, much more than for what Bucharest has to offer, that I enjoy living in this country so much. Get out more often - and keep telling us about it!

  3. Am aflat aceasta pagina, dupa ce am cautat despre Blogger: A
    Political Refugee From the Global Village pe Google.
    Se pare ca informatia dvs e foarte valoroasa, mai ales ca am
    mai gasit aici si despre ora, ora exacta, lucruri interesante si folositoare.
    Mult succes in continuare!