Southern Transylvania was the Saxon heartland, and the landscape is still marked by the vestiges of their culture. In 1143, King Géza II of Hungary invited Germans to colonize strategic regions of Transylvania, their name for which was Siebenbürgen, from their original “seven towns”, of which Hermannstadt (Sibiu to the Romanians) became the most powerful.

Around them, hundreds of villages developed a distinctive culture and vernacular style of architecture. Although the Székely, just north, put low walls about their churches and the Moldavians raised higher ones about their monasteries, it was the Saxons who perfected this type of building; their churches were initially strengthened to give refuge from raiding Tatars, with high walls and towers then added to resist the more militarily sophisticated Turks. Some also had warrens of storerooms to hold sufficient food to survive a siege.

Alas for the Saxons, their citadels were no protection against the tide of history, which steadily eroded their influence from the eighteenth century on and put them in a difficult position during World War II. Although many bitterly resented Hitler’s giving Northern Transylvania to Hungary in 1940, others embraced Nazism and joined the German army. As collective punishment after the war, all fit Saxon men between 17 and 45, and women between 18 and 30 (thirty thousand in all), were deported to the Soviet Union for between three and seven years of slave labour; many did not return, and those who did mostly found their property confiscated.

Most Saxons left the area for Germany after 1989, but most of their villages still have fortified churches and rows of houses presenting a solid wall to the street – hallmarks of their Saxon origins. They’re now largely populated by Romanians and Gypsies, but church restoration and cultural projects are gathering pace.

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