National, International, Armenia, and Community News and Opinion

National, International, Armenia, and Community News and Opinion

14 The Armenian Reporter | February 28, 2009


The road that led to Hayakaghak

How Armenians

ended up in


by Nyree Abrahamian

No, you didn’t misread that and it’s

not a typo. Believe it or not, Armenians

have been living in Transylvania

for over 300 years. They migrated

there mostly from the historical

region of Moldavia, where

they had been living for at least

700 years prior, and built a city that

they aptly named Hayakaghak (“Armenian


Outside of Romania and Hungary,

few people know much about

Transylvania except that it’s the

setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

But aside from an orientalist fascination

generated by Stoker and

other Victorian authors, who associated

the region with all that is

mysterious and exotic because of

its Muslim Turkish influence and

late industrialization, Transylvania

is known for the scenic beauty of

its Carpathian landscape and its

rich history. Located in presentday

central Romania, the ancient

land of Transylvania was once the

nucleus of the powerful Kingdom

of Dacia, and has passed through

the hands of the Romans, the

Huns, the Visigoths, the Kingdom

of Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire,

to name a few.

How Armenians ended up in

Transylvania, and how they were

at one point numerous, organized

and powerful enough to build an

exclusively Armenian city there, is,

like any other story of Armenian

migration, a long and winding one,

swiftly changing its course each

time conditions became unfavorable

or tragedy struck.

The origins of the Armenian community

in Romania and its neighboring

regions are connected with

a devastating series of events that

affected Armenia over the centuries.

The fall of the Bagratuni kingdom

in 1045, the conquest of Ani

by Seljuk Turks in 1064, the Tatar

invasions of the 13th century, the

earthquake and famine of 1319 and

the Mongol invasion in 1342, all led

to waves of Armenian migration

into Poland, Crimea (currently an

autonomous republic in Ukraine),

and the Principality of Moldavia

(a territory now divided between

Moldova, Ukraine and Romania).

In Moldavia, Armenians flourished

for centuries. They settled

there before the actual foundation

of the principality in 1352. They

came mostly from Crimea, Galicia

and Podolia, regions that already

had significant Armenian populations

and trade centers, moving

along established trade routes. Armenians

upheld their reputation as

skilled craftsmen and merchants.

In fact, for centuries, Moldavian

trade was dominated by Armenians.

They used their knowledge

of a wide range of Oriental and

European languages to develop

their trade networks. The great Romanian

historian, Nicolae Iorga

wrote, “Since the principality of

Moldavia was actually created by

way of trade, those who followed

this way became participants in the

creation of the nation state of Moldavia.

Therefore Armenians are in a

way the parents of Moldavia.”

By the 15th century, the Armenians

had built churches and developed

towns across the principality.

In 1401, before a Romanian

Orthodox hierarchy had even been

established, Bishop Ohannes was

appointed the first bishop of Armenians

in Moldavia.

The Armenian Catholic Cathedral. Photos: left, Cristina Popa; right,

Hayakaghak, late 19th century. Photo:

Gherla today, a residential street. Photo: Cristina Popa.

Armenians were highly regarded

by Moldavian princes and rulers

because they brought a great deal

of wealth through trade. They were

given special privileges, following

the model that was in place in

Armenian communities in Poland,

such as tax exemptions and special

property rights. They even had their

own legal system. Conflicts among

Armenians were tried by Armenian

judges following the code of Mkhitar

Gosh (the father of Armenian

law), and conflicts between Armenians

and non-Armenians could

only be tried by the prince and his


Armenians went on to hold positions

of power and privilege in

Moldavia, forming an important

part of the administrative structure

of towns and of the upper nobility.

They became military commanders

and even princes. They

were well-regarded, upper-class

members of society who enjoyed

a prosperous and relatively peaceful

existence well into the 17th


In 1672, the Ottoman Empire

staged a massive invasion in Moldavia,

and in the coming years, the

principality suffered devastating

losses when it became a battleground

for the wars between Poland

and the Ottoman Empire. In

1683, the Armenian monastery

of Zamca was seized and used as

a fortress by the army of the Polish

king Jan Sobieski. With their

communities in ruins, many of the

Armenians of Moldavia fled across

the Carpathians to take refuge in


Though there was a continual

presence of Armenians in Transylvania

from as far back as the 11th

century, it wasn’t until the mass

exodus from Moldavia in the 17th

century that a strong and stable

community was established there.

In 1672, 3000 Armenians from

Moldavia, led by their bishop,

Minas Zilihtar, fled to Transylvania.

At first, the migration was

thought to be temporary, but eventually

as the politics of the region

became more unstable, they realized

they had to settle there. Prince

Michael Apafi allowed the Armenians

to settle in several Transylvanian

towns and issued a charter

allowing them a certain degree of

autonomy, the right to trade freely,

and to elect their own judges.

An important Armenian community

settled initially in Bistrita,

where they built a church, but

conflicts with the local Saxons (a

confederation of Old Germanic

tribes, the ascendants of modern

Germans), who did not like the

prospect of new competition in the

marketplace, forced Armenians to

leave the town.

Around the same time, some

of the members of the old Armenian

community in Poland fled

to Transylvania to escape forced

conversion to Catholicism, but it

soon became apparent that, despite

Michael Apafi’s protection,

they would have to convert even in

Transylvania, which became part of

Cristina Popa in traditional Armenian costume with local children at a Christmas


Solomon Church, built in 1723, is Hayakaghak’s oldest church. Photos: left,

Cristina Popa; right,

the Habsburg Monarchy (the predecessor

of the Austrian Empire) in

1699.This created a divide between

those who agreed to convert and

those who resisted. But eventually,

after a two-year campaign by the

Armenian Catholic bishop Oxendius

Varzarescu/Varzarian, the

majority of the population converted

to Catholicism.

With an ever-sprawling population

and ebbing unity, it became

apparent to Bishop Varzarescu and

the leaders of the Armenian community

that they would need to

settle in a centralized hub, where

they could continue to propagate

Armenian culture and traditions.

In 1700, the Austrian emperor Leopold

sold Transylvanian Armenians

a large plot of land on the Somes

River, where they were allowed to

build their own town.

The first inhabitants were 70 Armenian

families who came from

Bistrita, and eventually, thousands

settled in the almost exclusively

Armenian town. They named the

town Hayakaghak, “Armenian city”,

which was Latinized as Armenopolis.

The Hungarians later renamed

the town Szamosújvár, and once it

joined Romania, it was given the

name Gherla, which is its current

official name.

While several other Transylvanian

towns had significant Armenian

populations and of course,

churches, Armenopolis became the

main administrative and cultural

center of Transylvanian Armenians.

Designed by the architect Alexanian,

who was trained in Rome,

the town had four perpendicular

main streets and was the first town

in the Austrian Empire to be built

according to an official plan. The architecture,

positioning and prices

of the houses were highly regulated.

By imperial decree, strangers

were forbidden entry to Armenopolis

without a written pass issued

by the mayor or the city council.

Armenians played a major role

in the development of the local

economy. Using their traditional

networks and skills, they acted as

intermediaries between the East

and Western Europe. In their main

towns, Armenians had their own

guilds. They were locksmiths, furriers,

silversmiths and goldsmiths,

carpet makers, brewers, lace makers.

Armenians also organized

some of the first factories in Transylvania

– one producing leather, in

Armenopolis (a tradition that remained

well into the 20th century),

and another producing candles, in

Elisabethopolis, a town that was

not exclusively Armenian, but considered

Transylvanian Armenians’

“second city”.

But despite their positive impact

on the local economy, as the Austrian

Empire gained more clout,

the Armenian community lost its

rights and privileges. In 1801, use

of the Armenian language was forbidden

in all legal matters. In 1811,

Armenian was replaced with Hungarian

and Latin in the local public

Continued on page 15 m

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