Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Who are the Szekely?

Posted by Andy Hockley on 19 March, 2006

I was searching through Google News to see whether any English language media had reported anything about the whole March 15th thing here, and there really wasn’t a great deal, but I did notice a repeated misconception about who the Szekely are. At least two reports essentially equated the Szekely with the Hungarian population of Romania, which is definitely not my understanding of the situation. And given that I’m married to a Hungarian Romanian who is not a Szekely, I reckon my understanding is correct. So anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of research and try and fill in the gaps in my knowledge about who the Szekely are and let you know what I found out. After all, I did choose a Szekely themed URL for this site when I set it up, so I really ought to have a clue who they are.

The origins of the “Szeklers” (this is the German word for the group, and apparently seems to be the official English language version too, though I reckon outside of Hungary, Romania and ethnographic faculties of universities, there are about 3 native English speakers who have even heard of the Szekely) are not certain. Some say there are basically a subset of the Magyars who came to Europe from Central Asia however many hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Others that they are not originally Magyar, but from other places – they could be Turkish, Scythian or Hittite, for example. One thing that aids the Turkish theory is the fact that ancient Szekely writing is runic.

Anyway, what ended up happening is that the Szekelys, warriors like the Saxons, were assigned to the border regions of the Hungarian empire, with them basically lining the Eastern Carpathians (the Saxons took the Southern Carpathians). Transylvania for many years was known as the “union of three nations” – three areas ruled by the Saxons, the Szekely, and the Hungarian nobility. Anyway, what this means is that while there’s no obvious ethnic difference between the Szekely and the Hungarians, and they both speak the same language, and both are predominantly Roman Catholic, it is more or less considered these days that the Hungarian speakers of Harghita, Cavasna and part of Mures counties are the Szekely, and the Hungarian speakers in the rest of Transylvania – Cluj, Targu Mures, Maramures, Oradea, Timisoara etc are Hungarians (and not Szekely). The Szekelys in general seem much more traditional and have held on to their folk culture very successfully.

I also discovered that there is another group known as the “Szekelys of Bucovina” who were descended from a group of around 1000 Szekelys who fled Szekelyföld in 1764 after the Austrians massacred around 400 Szekelys at Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) a village about 5 km north of here. They ended up in Bucovina (the other side of the mountains from here). One of the villages there they named “Istensegíts” (God Help Us), which gives you a sense of their flight. Their population grew to about 13,000, but after Bucovina became Romania they felt increasingly isolated, and eventually under some deal between Hungary and Romania (in 1941? This isn’t clear to me) they were all evacuated and used by the Hungarians in an attempt to Magyarise the area of Vojvodina (now in Serbia) (ie they were settled there to change the demographics of the area). This was fairly shortlived as Hungary ceded control of the area in the Second World War, and they were once again forced to flee. They eventually settled in Tolna county in Hungary where they live to this day.

So there you go, some background and information about the Szekely, so that if ever you encounter an article like this one, you can feel informed enough to think to yourself “Actually it’s not true to say Romania’s ethnic Hungarians, also known as Szeklers,” and feel all smug.

6 Responses to “Who are the Szekely?”

  1. dumneazu said

    Here in Hungary Szekely orgins are one of those fascinationg historical topics that get swamped in romantic nationalism. Some of the saner theories are that they were a Turkic tribe allied to the Hungarians (which managed to maintain a runic script but oddly, no other linguistic eveidence in their vocabulary.) Some Hungarian historians opine (which is basically what many of them prefer to footnoting) that the Szekely may have been remnants of Attila’s Huns (who were mostly Turkic) who stayed behind. Another claim is that they were a part of the Huns that already spoke Hungarian (in which case they would have preserved radically different dialect lacking Alanic/Iranic terms such as “hid” and “vám” “kard”. A possible etymology for the ethnic name is Eskil, which is an ancient name for the Dneister river.

    Whatever the case, they make some fine pálinka and know what to do with wild mushrooms in the kitchen. I was married to one.

    The Bukovina Szekelys still strongly maintain their identity in Tolna and also in the Budapest suburb of Erd. They are about the only folks in Hungary who still openly consume mamaliga.

  2. Soj said

    There’s even a Szekely newspaper which you can find here.

    Fantastic post!

  3. Romerican said

    And why did it have to be characterized as a demonstration? Why not a rally?

    I was glad to read your post as I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject lately… and apparently my basic understanding is not entirely insane. That’s reassuring.

    According to Columbia Encyclopedia, the Szekelers had a bit of trouble with the Austrians trying to wipe them out during the 18xx’s which I thought my merit a sidenote.

    Incidentally (as well), I ran across a nice little piece on autonomy that helped me swallow the idea differently. Not that I’m a convert, necessarily, but the historical bias I alluded to earlier has been pointed out to me more directly.

    I hope you continue the occassional post on this topic and its related ensnarements as I find it most interesting (as evidenced by my proclivity to post far too frequently).

  4. John Emerson said

    I have read that many Szekely are members of the old Unitarian (Socinian) church, and that most Hungarian / Rumanian Unitarians are Szekely.

    Please tell me I’ve heard right.

    I’ve also heard that the Szekely are regarded as a rough crowd.

    My plan is to put together a Unitarian goon squad and go around doing anti-Trinitarian pogroms, in case you didn’t guess.

  5. Andy H said

    I know the Unitarian church originated in Koloszvar/Cluj, John, so it seems unlikely that it would be a Szekely thing – more likely a non-Szekely Transylvanian Hungarian thing. Szekelys are mostly RC it seems, with a few Hungarian Reformed.

  6. Imre said

    Just a single footnote …
    Hungarians int Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely) are szekelys too, however most of them doesn’t identify himself as szekely. Targu Mures was called as Szekelyvasarhely, and was the largest szekely city, not the center of Szeklerland but the largest one.

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