Cobbled streets, multi-pane windows with French shutters, eye-shaped windows in the red tile roofs, and the streets lined with traditional Saxon architecture may trick you into thinking you’ve dropped into the Middle Ages, but this is Nagyszeben (Sibiu) in Transylvania in 2018. Located in the southern part of the region, Nagyszeben played host to the world as cultural capital of Europe in 2007 alongside Luxembourg.
A German City in Eastern Europe
The Hungarian king, Géza II, founded the city and populated it with Saxons. In the first mention of the settlement, in 1191, it is referred to as Cipin and it would eventually become the center of Saxon, Catholic culture and commerce in Transylvania until the 15th century. Already by the end of the 14th century, Nagyszeben had 19 trade guilds listed in a register dating from 1376 and more than 40 by the end of the 1500s. The town was for much of the medieval period (and beyond) the easternmost ethnic German city in Europe. It was the largest of the seven Transylvanian cities and from the early 1400’s was home to the Universitas Saxorum, the assembly of Germans in Transylvania.
The city’s prominence grew when Transylvania became formally part of the Habsburg Empire and the city became capital of the region. While the King of Hungary was the nominal prince (and ruler) of Transylvania, he ruled via a governor who was based in Sibiu.
With the end of World War I, the wrenching experience of dividing up the territory of Hungary resulted in the fact that even Nagyszeben, like the rest of Transylvania, became part of Romania. The majority of the population remained ethnically German until 1941, the year when Romanians are first recorded as the largest ethnic group.
During the communist era, the German state made a deal with the Ceausescu regime to pay significant sums to Romania to allow ethnic Germans to emigrate to Germany. Putting it bluntly, the dictator Ceaucescu sold off the Saxons who had for centuries composed a significant part of the population of Transylvania. Today, roughly 2,000 Saxons have remained among the city’s current population of around 170,000. One of them is Klaus Johannis, who served as mayor from 2000 until 2014 before becoming president of Romania.
With the historic city center, a beautifully built castle wall, its German theatre, a few Hungarian churches, museums, the clock tower on the main square and traditional Saxon architecture, this city remains a vibrant center of culture and multiculturalism. Even if Saxons and Hungarians once formed the majority of the population and today it is Romanian, the monuments and architecture show multiculturalism and a wonderful mixture of past and present. This is always a good city to visit if one goes to Transylvania. An unforgettable experience!