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Where Vlad once impaled

20 November 2004

12:00 AM

20 November 2004

12:00 AM

Winds of Sorrow Alan Ogden

Orchid Press, pp.359, 12.99

If the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, is one of those world events that many people remember very vividly, it may be because of its inherent drama, or it may be because it happened at Christmas, when we were all at home and ready to enjoy the heady voyeurism it offered on television. Since 1989, international attention has moved along a bit. Dimly, perhaps, we recall in our self-righteous, warmongering times that this monster was toppled without outside intervention. Our masters in Washington and Downing Street would probably regard this as irrelevant, but then no foreign power ever had much of an interest in Ceausescu’s fall. There is one man, however, who has kept his eye on Romania in the last few years, and we should raise a glass of tsuica to him.

In 2000, under the auspices of the Center for Romanian Studies, Alan Ogden produced Romania Revisited: On the Trail of English Travellers 1602-1941. This is an account of his own journeys in 1998 woven together with narratives from previous generations. Subsequently he published two excellent illustrated books: Revelations of Byzantium: The Monasteries and Painted Churches of Northern Moldavia, and Fortresses of Faith: A Pictorial History of the Fortified Saxon Churches of Romania. Ogden’s new book overlaps with the first and last of these, but is distinct. After a useful potted history of Transylvania, he shows how the country is divided. There is the large Saxon community, centred on Sibiu, which began arriving in 1143 and lasted until after the second world war. It is now largely dispersed, thanks to Hitler, Stalin and Ceaus- escu, but Ogden has located some stalwart survivors in Viscri, whom he visits on several occasions. He writes also about the Székelys on the eastern borders of the Carpathians; the remote villages of Maramures; the gypsies; and above all the Hungarians and Romanians and the historical forces that have kept these peoples at loggerheads.

Ogden demonstrates with tremendous enthusiasm that, far from being an irrelevant backwater, Transylvania is crucial to a true understanding of Europe. For 500 years it was the vital buffer zone between the Christian West and the Ottoman East. Considering the number of armies that have passed through — Mongols, Huns, Turks, Germans, Russians, quite apart from Vlad the Impaler — it seems miraculous that anything has survived at all. But, apart from Ceausescu, the modern world has ignored Transylvania and the result is that it is remarkably untouched.

Besides his description of the various regions of Transylvania, Ogden gives an account of the ‘nationalist storm’ created by the R

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