Ahh, the Hungarians. I lived here a long time before I even began to gain the slightest understanding about them and I don’t think I ever will fully understand them all the way.
To understand the Hungarians in Romania, it’s essential to travel back through time to the beginning of the Hungarians as a separate race or ethnicity of people.
At around the end of the 9th century, there emerged seven tribes (Hun: hetmagyar) of Magyars amidst the pan-Asian slash Turkish peoples living in what would be the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia today.
In both Romanian and the Hungarian language, the original name, magyar is still used but the English version of “Hungarian” comes from the name Hun, as in Attila the Hun, although the Huns are ethnically unrelated and came at a much earlier time into Europe (about 500 years earlier), albeit from the same direction and in a similar manner (on horseback).
Through a wide variety of circumstances, these semi-Asian people, the seven tribes of Magyars, pushed their way west into an area comprising what is now modern day Hungary as well as some other nearby areas (including a large portion of what is now Romania) around the year 950 AD.
It is due to this Asian origin that the Hungarian language is completely unrelated to all other European languages, with the exception of a remote link to Finnish and Estonian. I can tell you that just from the little bit I’ve learned of Hungarian, the grammar is absolutely and completely different and even the vowel sounds are quite different for me to properly get a handle on.
In fact, the only two Hungarian words that made it to English are “biro” (more of a British usage, meaning ink pen, from the name of the guy who invented it) and the word “coach”, especially the old meaning of an enclosed carriage drawn by a horse, from the town of Kocs (pronounced roughly “coach”) where they were first made.
This territory settled by the Hungarians in Europe became known to the Hungarians as the Honfoglalás, literally meaning “the conquest”. I mention this because this is still the term many modern-day Hungarian politicians use to refer to Transylvania.
By the year 1000 AD (or possibly 1001), Saint Stephen (Hun: Szent Istvan) was crowned king of all the Hungarians and had all of the various tribal factions united under his rule. Stephen is the most important Hungarian in their history and it’s easy to see why – not only did he convert a people long-accustomed to nomadic pastoralism to a life of farming but he was also the first ruler to convert to Christianity – in this case, Catholicism, which became very important later on as most of the neighbors (and subjugated peoples) were Orthodox Christians. The Hungarian symbols of state (including the flag) also still carry his unique double-armed cross.
Although not given much credit now, the Kingdom of Hungary lasted from 1000 to the end of World War 1 as a very large and influential player in Europe.
The kingdom included what is now the nation of Hungary as well as what the magyars called the military frontier (Hun: Határőrvidék), which includes parts of Ukraine, Croatia, Serbia and Slovakia (today) as well as Transylvania (Hun: Erdély).
Most of the medieval period was spent uniting and allying with various other Catholic nations and fighting off the Turks up until the late 17th century, when the much better known Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed, which was formally defeated and broken up at the end of World War 1.
So that is the simple and unedited version of Hungarian history but I’ve left out both the mystical “pre-history” of the Hungarians as well as some of the more controversial bits, especially concerning Transylvania.
Finding information in English on the mystical origins of Hungarians is almost impossible but I’ve spent enough time talking to Hungarians (esp those born and raised in Hungary proper) to know that they’re still being taught about it and and I can’t properly do it justice here. It does involve a story of a spirit deer leading the way and a kind of special rune alphabet that the Hungarians invented to communicate with each other. All I can really tell you on that is to ask a Hungarian and then hold onto your hat as it’s quite a complicated story.
The controversial bits, especially concerning Transylvania, involves whether or not anyone of note was living in the various regions before the Magyars got here, and whether or not that included Romanians, and whether or not who brought civilization to whom. I’ll just leave it at that.
What isn’t controversial however is the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, which broke up the Hungarian Kingdom and left huge swathes of ethnic Hungarians living in countries where they were no longer the majority – including the (modern state of) Romania.
The Hungarians left inside the new borders of Romania (comprising about 10% of the population in the country) fall into two groups – one is the “regular” Hungarians (magyars), who mostly live in Crisana, along a belt of ethnic Hungarians that goes from modern day Serbia through southwest Ukraine and the rest in Transylvania (including Cluj, where I live).
In Romania there’s also ANOTHER group of Hungarians, called the Szekely (pronounced “sek-elly approximately), who live in a contiguous zone in central Romania known as “Szekely land”. I’ve asked about 50 Hungarians to explain to me who the Szekely are and gotten about 50 different answers.
What I can tell you is that 1) they speak Hungarian and are considered ethnically Hungarian, 2) they’re a separate ethnicity of “warrior” Hungarians and 3) they’re often the least-integrated into Romanian society in the present day. They often tend to live in villages or towns that are homogeneous ethnically and keep to the “old ways”. It’s confusing enough that in 1438 the Union of Three Nations (in Transylvania) meant the three “nations” of Germans, (regular) Hungarians and Szekely.
There is a heck of a lot of Hungarian history and culture still tied to Transylvania, including in Cluj, where one of the most famous and influential kings of their history was born, Mattias Corvinus (Hun: Hunyadi Mátyás). His birthplace and large statue in the central square are still big tourist draws in Cluj today. Matthias is most famously known (to the outside world) as being one of the princes who variously allied with, controlled or fought against Vlad the Impaler, aka “Dracula”.
It is extremely difficult understanding Hungarians and their situation in Romania, even when you live here. On one hand, you’ve got cities like Cluj, where I know lots of Hungarians who speak fairly good Romanian, sometimes marry Romanians, go and work with Romanians and are otherwise as integrated as can be. Likewise I know many Transylvanian Romanians (and from Crisana) who get along just fine with Hungarians, work with them, go to school with them, sometimes date or marry them, occasionally even speak their language and everything is just peachy.
And then at times you have extreme anti-Hungarian sentiment, such as Corneliu Vadim Tudor and his goons over at PRM, including the former mayor of Cluj.
And from the other direction, I’ve met plenty of Hungarians who keep their children in separate schools (including up to university level), never learn Romanian and exist in almost a parallel, separate world. I’ve also noticed that it seems the Hungarians born and raised in Hungary (the modern day nation) tend to be a little more “ultra patriotic” than do the Transylvanian born and raised Hungarians.
So it’s very confusing and is easy to get lost in the morass of all the various loyalties and cultural identities. Years ago, I was in Budapest (the capital of Hungary, but you know that!) and was flying to Cluj. The guy at the airport gently chided me and wrote the word “Kolozsvár” on my baggage tickets, because that is the Hungarian name for the city. Likewise, there is a Hungarian name and “way of doing things” for just about everything in the parts of Romania they used to control and to the uneducated eye, it’s easy to be completely unaware of the boundaries between them.
Perhaps due to their minority status, the Hungarians (not Szekely) in Romania tend to often be quite multi-lingual and I’ve noticed lately they tend to use a lot of English outside their bars, pubs, restaurants and the like – perhaps to avoid confrontation with choosing either Hungarian signage (pissing off some Romanians) or else Romanian (so as to not submit to that either). I’m not quite sure, but chances are if you see a public place with all-English signs, it’s likely owned and/or largely frequented by Hungarians.
I can tell you, as a completely uninterested party to the proceedings (so to speak), Hungarians tend to be very welcoming and friendly to strangers and perhaps more generous (at first) than Romanians. They are, however, a far less emotional people and far, far quieter than Romanians and about a million times quieter than the Gypsies.
Romanian food is also very “bland” so if you like spicy food, try out a Hungarian restaurant for some truly fiery food – I’ve tasted some sauces that would melt the paint off the walls, which isn’t something you’d normally expect from such a calm people. Hungarian cuisine is also famous for its use of paprika and huge sacks of the spice are sold in the market here.
The most famous of all Hungarian foods is goulash (Hun: gulyás, pronounced roughly the same), a kind of thick and hearty stew, often referred to by the longer name of gulyásleves. Another super tasty treat is kürtőskalács, which if you click on the link you’ll see a picture. It’s a kind of hollowed out tube of pastry and is super delicious.
And now you know (a little!) about the Hungarians in Romania!