Without the great courage and patriotism of Mircea the Elder, grandfather to Vlad the Impaler, ‘Vlad Dracul‘, Vlad Draculea in Romanian or Dracula the nickname may not have existed.
Sometimes history whispers, and the tales it tells are worth listening to and passing on.
It was in 1395 on this day, March 7, when Mircea the Elder, or Mircea I of Walachia, (Mircea cel Batran in Romanian) signed a coalition treaty with Holy Roman Emperor Sigmund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary and Croatia, king of Germany from 1411, king of Bohemia from 1419 and king of Italy from 1431. The treaty was signed in the beautiful city of Brasov (then Kronstadt) and initiated a military coalition against the Ottoman Empire.
Historical conjunctures during the 14th century Europe
Try to conjure your knowledge of Medieval Europe. Around the 14th century, when The Black Death claimed million of lives, when the Kingdoms of England and France were tormented by the Hundred Years’ War, but also when chivalry was reaching its peak and knights rode in shinning armors, ready to die for an ideal.
At the very same time, Eastern Europe was facing the Ottoman Empire’s increase in power. And the one land that stood in the way of the Turkish countless invasions, fighting them off and acting as a buffer for the Western Europe was Romania, back then still split into Walachia (Tara Romaneasca), Moldavia and Transylvania (incorporated in Hungary, later Holy Roman Empire).
It was imperative for King Sigismund to strike a military alliance with the rulers of Wallachia, Mircea I at that time, if he wanted to keep his empire intact. Don’t you think so? Good planning…
Sigismund of Luxembourg and the Order of the Dragon
Inspired by the military orders of the Crusades , the Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum, Society of the Dragonists) was a monarchical chivalry founded in 1408 by King Sigismund of Luxembourg. Its members were expected to defend Christianity against all enemies, especially the Muslim Ottoman Empire, and the order was awarded only to few selected members of the nobility.
One such exemplary warrior was Vlad II, the second son of Mircea the Elder. King Sigismund of Luxembourg held Vlad II in highest regard and awarded him the Order of the Dragon on the 8th of February 1431 in Nuremberg for ultimate services in the gruesome fight against the Ottoman Empire.
Vlad II was later known as Vlad Dracul II, Prince of Wallachia, as in Romanian language dragon had close connotations and resonance with dracul, the Romanian word for devil.
Mircea the Elder was Prince of Wallachia from 1386 until his death in 1418.
Vlad II, his son, was Prince of Wallachia from 1436 to 1442 and again from 1443 to 1447.
Vlad III Dracula, Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, born in 1431 in Sighisoara (some sources state 1429), was the middle son of Vlad Dracul II and grandson of Mircea the Elder (from the Basarab Dynasty).
History whispers to us today. Mircea the Elder, through his military campaigns and political ties with King Sigismund of Luxembourg, paved the road for Vlad II to join the military coalition against the Ottoman Empire (did he even had a say?) and be awarded the Order of the Dragon later inherited by Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, and the nickname the Dragon, Dracul, was passed on.
Perhaps without Mircea the Elder we would not have Dracula, Vlad Dracul, after all…
What turns a house into a home? Is it the light that peeks inside through its windows? The scents rising from the kitchen? Or is it the people, the mingle of generations, of shared laughter and tears? While we visited the house where Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, was born, I asked myself: what was the light like inside? What street noises reached every morning to little Vlad’s room and woke him up? What childhood memories he kept locked in his heart that reminded him of his mother and home – while imprisoned by the Turks? Or when he was fighting them, surrounded by the sights and the stench of war?
Imagining the medieval Sighisoara fortress at the time Vlad Tepes was born
Imagine 164 houses and thirteen public buildings up on a hill, within the protective walls of a fortress. Tall or short, stone or wood, depending on the wealth of their owners, the houses have one floor, some two. But not more.
Well worth looking up, their roofs have sharp slopes to reduce the weight of the snow in winter, as well as a small window acting as a watchtower, for protection. One can see far away from the tiny, dark attic as well as keep an eye on whoever approaches the house. Friend or foe?
The doors are narrow and so are the windows – functionality and safety are paramount. If the house has an extra floor, then the inner stairway is narrow and most probably dark. The homes are built close together, often sharing a wall, making for narrow, dark streets and passageways. Comfort, as we know it and understand it today, meant a shelter overhead and safe, strong walls during the Middle Ages. Yet shiny stones pave the streets and there are gutters too, aiding to the drainage of rain-water, melted snow, and – how else – the household’s gray water.
The city has only eight wells for drinking water, not enough for the increasing number of inhabitants or siege or fire hazard situations. But it is fresh, clean water, and it is almost enough for their families’ usage during peaceful days, when they can also up the supply from the river.
Let’s meet little Vlad, his family and the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
The house where Vlad Tepes was born
As you leave the Clock Tower behind, just ahead and on your left, on the corner of Cositorilor Street (Tin-makers Street) stands a tall terracotta house with clean lines. Today it rises with two levels above the ground floor plus a dark attic. You will want to have a good look at it as, although not supported by plenty of historical documents but letters signed by Vlad II and written from Sighisoara , so not impossible, it is the house where Vlad Tepes was born, also known as House Paulinus after its 18th-century owner.
But when it was just built in the vicinity of the Clock Tower, out of river stones and with only one level, this house belonged to the guards protecting the main entrance into the fortress.
Vlad’s family was well-off, his father, Vlad II, a first-class member of the Order of the Dragon and lawful prince of Wallachia but without a kingdom at this stage. They settled in Sighisoara and rented guestrooms in a house of stone, awaiting the right moment to raise an army of trusted boyars and reclaim his land.
This is the house, the oldest one in the fortress and still standing because it was built of stones thus withstanding the big fire of 1676. The round vault on the ground floor is the original one, constructed with the stones picked from the nearby rivers, Tarnava Mare especially. Its second floor rose much later, during the 18th century.
It appears that in the basement of this house there was a coin mint at that time – when the coinage was only the monopoly of the Hungarian Kings ruling the Kingdom of Hungary. This is another proof of Sigismund’s trust and respect towards Vlad Dracul II as Vlad II minted his own silver ducats, the “new ducat”. He did this in preparation for his expected ruling. These coins were first used in Transylvania, then in Wallachia too (yay!). They had the eagle on the head side and a winged dragon on the coin’s tail.
It was now, during the time Vlad Dracul II spent in exile in Sighisoara preparing for his rule over Wallachia, that the Romanian name of the fortress appears in writing for the first time. Double yay!
Vlad Tepes was born in 1431 (or some sources state 1429), the middle son of Vlad Dracul II, Prince of Wallachia and son of Mircea cel Batran (Mircea the Eldest) from the Basarab Dynasty. King Sigismund of Luxembourg held Vlad Dracul II in high regard, awarding him, as mentioned before, the Order of the Dragon on the 8th of February 1431 in Nuremberg, for ultimate services in the gruesome fight against the Ottoman Empire.
The Order of the Dragon (Societas Draconistarum, Society of the Dragonists) was a monarchical chivalry order awarded only to selected members of the nobility. Founded in 1408 by the Hungarian King Sigismund von Luxembourg (later Holy Roman Emperor), it was similar to the military orders of the Crusades. Its members were expected to defend Christianity against all enemies, especially the Ottoman Empire.
I liked the dragon featured on the sign above the door, I thought it is a great reference to the Order of the Dragon.
The symbol of the Order was a dragon with the tip of its tail coiled around his neck and a red cross on his back, the Red Cross of Saint George.
Calling him Vlad Dracul, correct or not?
Before 1475 Vlad III signed his name simply Vlad. But from 1475, before his third ruling as Prince of Wallachia, he signs as Ladislaus Dragwlya (or Dragkwlya, Drakulya) which appears on his seal too.
Hence Vlad the Impaler’s nickname Dracul (and identical with the Romanian word for devil) or Draculea, his ancestors named Draculesti, from dragon, or Drachen in German.
Vlad’s mother was also of Romanian royal blood, Chiajna Musatin, a Moldavian Princess and the eldest daughter of Alexandru cel Bun as well as aunt of Stefan cel Mare (Stefan the Great), of the Musatin Dynasty.
So, Vlad Tepes and his parents hopefully lived in Sighisoara until 1436. Just imagine, young Vlad might have used one of these cups to drink fresh milk.
Vlad would have been five or seven years old when his parents moved to Targoviste when his father took over Wallachia (the principality located south of Transylvania) and was – finally – crowned the rightful Prince of Wallachia.
In the middle of the 20th century, a hidden mural was discovered in the house where Vlad the Impaler was born, that of a man resembling his father, Vlad II.
A Sad Reality
Without saying too much, here are some pictures from the upper level of Vlad’s house as it looked when we visited. No skulls here, just misunderstood advertisement.
A Secret Entrance into Vlad the Impaler’s House
Most tourists are familiar with the front entrance of the house where Vlad the Impaler was born.
Yet if you play “what if” and follow the narrow street on the left, walking underneath the arch connecting the two buildings and feeling tiny compared to their height…
You will soon discover the back entrance, through a small, walled yard:
We took this way in.
Sighisoara City: Coat of Arms and blazon symbology
Sighisoara’s coat of arms is so fitting for its rich medieval ancestry. It depicts a rampant golden lion and a silver fortress with three towers on a red shield topped with a silver crown with five crenelated towers. The lion, facing right, dexter (with respect to the person carrying the shield), wears a gold crown, his tongue sticks out and holds a gold sword.
The fortress on the shield symbolizes the medieval Sighisoara and its crucial economical and military strengths as well as the cultural and religious roles it played. The lion, through the way it is depicted on the shield, symbolizes the judicial autonomy Sighisoara held, having the right to decree the death penalty, the right of the sword, jus gladii. The lion also symbolizes strength, generosity, and beauty. The crown shows that today, Sighisoara is a municipality. It is worth noticing that the lion’s hind legs are apart, symbolizing stability.
Medieval Sighisoara has much more to reveal besides the house where Vlad the Impaler was born, with its history and secrets.
Moving on from it, our eyes fell upon a beautiful building with clean lines and… a pair of horns.
If you journey through Transylvania, ‘the land across the forest’, (searching for Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler or Dracula) and head towards Brasov along the banks of the Big Tarnava River, you will surely spot from quite afar the pointy towers of medieval Sighisoara City, with its centuries old fortress and churches. We traveled there by train one winter.
I give you the ‘Pearl‘ and the ‘Nürnberg‘ of Transylvania, Sighisoara!
A brief history of Sighisoara
Nearly two millennia ago here rose a Roman castrum, a military fortified camp for guarding the roads. But more proof of local human settlements dates back to the Bronze Age.
Sighisoara as we know it took shape during the 12th century when Saxon merchants and craftsmen settled here for a few reasons…
First, to defend against Tatar invasions the eastern and southern borders of the Hungarian Kingdom, formed at the beginning of the Middle Ages on the Pannonian Plain. This border was none other but the line of River Târnava Mare.
Second, in search of a better life. These settlers, who chose the banks of the slower Saes river to build their homes, were soon known as the Transylvanian Saxons. By the 14th century, Sighișoara was a well known royal center with the status of an urban settlement, Civitas de Segusvar, and by the 15th century its guilds had received the sole right to its administration.
As it was the custom during the Middle Ages, captains ruled such territories, or royal citadels, and these captains obeyed the Prince of Transylvania which, in turn, was a vassal of the King of Hungary.
Yet there was a third, less known reason. As the people already living in this land were Christians and the Pope loved converting new territories to Catholicism, the plan of populating this area with Saxons emerged. So, over the centuries, in Transylvania arrived first the military contingents, then the Saxon merchant settlers.
Dominican monks also settled here at the end of the 13th century, followed by the Franciscans.
Today, a journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara is time-travel at its best, as this is one of the few preserved medieval cities still found in Europe and the only one fully inhabited found in Romania.
Sighisoara – the etymology of a town’s name
Castrum Sex, Castle Six, was the name of the fortress that existed here prior to the apparition of the first Hungarian military contingents. This fortress was first attested at the beginning of the 13th century, before being almost completely destroyed by Tatars. Later we hear the name Castrum Sches, from Hungarian seges, or citadel, although it makes more sense to connect the fortress’ name with that of one of the rivers that run through it, river Şaeş.
Other names used for Sighisoara during the Middle Ages were Segusvar and Segeswar, as well as the German Schägesburh.
Vlad Dracul, Prince of Wallachia, was the first one to use the Romanian transcription of the town’s name, Schegischone, in a document from July 1st, 1435.
Sighisoara City – a layout with a purpose
One of the things I enjoyed about our journey around the medieval city of Sighisoara was that everything is within walking distance. Although the train station’s location is in the Lower City, Sighisoara’s modern area, it is easy to spot the walled fortress, atop a hill in the Upper City. The medieval citadel rises, colossal and gray, yet within close range, accessible through a bridge spanning across Tarnava Mare River.
Encircling Sighisoara fortress, one can very well admire the original defensive wall with its towers and bastions.
To recognize the craftsmen’s importance, each guild – and there were ten such associations in Sighisoara – received a tower of the citadel’s fortification. Thus, each guild was responsible for its own administration and it is still easy to guess which guilds were the most productive ones, as their towers are the best-preserved ones, and the biggest: Tailors’ Tower, Tin-makers’ Tower, and Goldsmiths’ Tower. But, above all, stands the 14th century Clock Tower and through here we made our entrance into the Sighisoara fortress.
The guilds were important as they fought against those who practiced the profession illegally. Also, their members enjoyed privileges with the Wallachian rulers.
The story of the fortresses’ ramparts and towers
Apart from its 164 houses, what we admired the most during our journey through the medieval city Sighisoara were its 930 meters long defense wall and towers. Why so many – for such a small fortress?
During the Late Middle Ages, sadly, the danger of the Ottoman Empire escalated. Therefore, the first mention of a wall around Sighisoara fortress dates back to 1490. The very first wall elevation showcased crenelations and rose only 3-4 meters in height, principally intended for arbalesters (crossbowmen).
16th century came and the bastion rose by two extra meters. Meurtrieres were now built in the wall, either as floor-holes (for dropping hot substances onto the attackers) or as loopholes (arrow slits or cannoniers). After the big fire of 1676, the fortress’ wall was 8 – 10 meters in height.
Let’s make our way inside this incredible medieval fortress.
The Clock Tower
Placed on the eastern side of Sighisoara’s defense system of walls and towers, closer to sunrise, to mark its value, the Clock Tower was the first to welcome us on our journey. On a follow-up blog post we’ll have a detailed look at the other towers, each one with its own incredible history, but for now let’s start here.
The Clock Tower is the main entrance in the fortress and the first spot we visited during our journey through the medieval city of Sighisoara. The Tailors’ Tower, on the opposing wall of the fortress, is the second way into the citadel.
Yet it is the Clock Tower that hides a few symbols.
Massive and everlasting, the Saxons built their Clock Tower out of a myriad of humble river stones handpicked from the banks of the nearby rivers. Each stone is insignificant on its own, their strengths coming from their number, much as a king’s army. Erected with the intention of being the main entrance in the fortress the Clock Tower, fortified accordingly, had only two levels. Its walls are 2.3 meters thick and three gates defend it, while its belly protects the stairway connecting the Upper City with the Lower City.
Only a handful of visitors know that the Clock Tower is a symbol of Transylvanian Saxons’ pride and craftsmanship. They desired to build the biggest, tallest clock tower in the principality – as horology had a long tradition here, since the 14th century.
The only path into the fortress takes you underneath the tower itself. It is the Front Gate ensemble and part of the tower’s barbicane, a fortified outpost.
In 1844, inside the barbicane a courtyard appeared, the Old Ladies’ Corridor that you can see here. This is a wooden passage meant to ease the aged peasants’ access into the fortress, during heavy winters.
Into the fortress we go, underneath the Clock Tower, through the belly of the beast:
And emerging into the fortress. The visitors’ entrance in the Clock Tower is immediately on the right-hand side. The ground level of the tower dates back to the 14th century.
Similar to the second gate tower, the Tailor’s Tower, the Clock Tower has a rectangular floor plan and a ground floor with two vaulted gates over the passageway.
Hard to guess, but the Clock Tower, or the Big Tower of the Front Gate, reaches a height of 64 meters, of which 34 meters is the roof alone!
I admired the central, pointy roof with its baroque embellishments and its own main tower surrounded by four smaller ones, each rising at 12.5 meters. These four towers are a symbol of the city’s own judicial autonomy, right of the sword, meaning that back in the Middle Ages the Sighisoara City Council could give the death sentence and executions were also performed in the City Square.
Unlike the other wall towers, each belonging to a guild, the Clock Tower belonged to the public authorities serving as headquarter for the City Council. Master builders added the upper levels during the 15th and 16th centuries and when the great fire of 1676 destroyed the roof, Austrian craftsmen built a new one in 1677.
At the very top is a golden sphere, atop which a wind vane in the shape of a rooster still stands. The bulb-shaped roof stands as the oldest proof of Baroque influence in Transylvania. The golden sphere is a symbol of local power and has a diameter of 1 meter. Why? Because it is a time capsule hidden in plain sight. Inside you would find a copy of the Chronicles of the Clock Tower by Georgius Krauss as well as documents pertaining to the history of Sighisoara and that of the Transylvanian Saxons.
The Sphere, the Crescent and the Double-headed Eagle of Sighisoara
At the very top of the Clock Tower is a rooster weather-vane. But underneath, between the rooster and the golden sphere, now this is an entirely different story. We now see the double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Austrian Empire between 1867 and 1915. During the tower’s refurbishing from 1677 the three builder masters placed here a Turkish crescent, surely under political orders, meant to remind the people of Sighisoara of the Ottoman Empire’s ruling. The crescent got damaged in 1704 by local insurgents or curuti, from Hungarian kuruc. New work on the Clock Tower was only possible in 1776. Then the double-headed eagle, in a nod towards the Austrian Empire’s authority, replaced the crescent.
The roof, as we see it today, dates back to the 19th century. It uses hexagonal, glazed shingle tiles in shades of red, yellow, blue, green, and white. Mostly birds, able to fly this high, can enjoy such intricate details.
Yes, we climbed to the very top, to the balcony you see above – the sixth level of the Clock Tower.
Imagine living here in the late Middle Ages. The Tower, the tallest structure for miles, protecting you, and beside the sun, the keeper of time and your only measure for the time of day and the day of the week. Yet the tower was much more than that, for during important celebrations an orchestra would climb to the balcony placed at its very top and perform music that reached every corner of the fortress as well as those living outside its walls, in the Lower City.
And looking up at this medieval giant you will want to watch out, as the slits and murder holes are still visible:
The two faces of Sighisoara’s Clock Tower
Well worth noticing as you journey towards and through the medieval city of Sighisoara are the two faces of the Clock Tower, on its fifth level.
The best feature of the Clock Tower is on the fifth level, its 17th-century clock mechanism. In 1648 craftsman Johann Kirtschel even improved its system. He included a minute hand, added quarter-hour chimes and the one-meter tall wooden statues representing the days of the week.
Facing the Upper City or the inner fortress we can see a niche carved in the tower, holding statues and located to the left side of the 2,4-meter diameter clock dial. Here, Peace holds a trumpet and an olive branch, near a Drummer who marks quarter hours and full hours. Also, two statues in blue dresses symbolize Righteousness, with her eyes covered, holding a raised wooden sword and Justice, with laurels on her head, holding a scale. Yes, here Righteousness has her eyes covered and not Justice.
Later, two more statues appeared here, placed right at the top, two angels. At 6 AM the Angel of Day shows up, with flames above his head, holding a burning heart, replaced at 6 PM by the Angel of the Night, holding a torch in each hand.
On the clock’s side facing the Lower City, we can admire a horse and a drummer as well as seven 80 cm tall statues depicting seven Roman gods, symbols of weekdays: Diana / Artemis, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, and the Sun.
The Seven Statues of Sighisoara’s Clock Tower
Diana / Artemis, the goddess of hunting, depicted in a blue dress holding a bow and arrow; she has a half-moon over her head, the alchemist’s symbol for silver. Mars / Ares god of war, holds a spear and wears a helmet with a feather, and above is the chemical symbol for iron, also a symbol for the star sign Ares. Mercury / Hermes, the god of commerce, holds a caduceus in his right hand and a bag with money in his left and has a pair of wings at his helmet and another pair at his heels. Above his head is the symbol for mercury or quicksilver – just like his temper.
Jupiter / Zeus, the god of sky and the King of gods, depicted with his right foot resting on a globe, holds a lightning rod in his right hand and a thunder in his left. Above his head we find the alchemy symbol for tin, looking like a 24. Venus / Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, has the alchemy’s symbol for copper, passion, above her head and a winged cupid. Saturn, the god of agriculture and abundance, has the symbol for lead above his head. Sun / Sol / Helios, depicted as a female goddess with a crown of golden rays, the symbol for gold.
The Warning Statue, a Vestige of Sighisoara’s Medieval Past
But the traveler is also warned on his journey, long before he approaches the medieval city of Sighisoara. Can you read the signs? Two lone statues are easily spotted underneath the seven peaceful ones, depicting days of the week and crafty symbols. One of these two statues is a drummer, matching the one on the other side of the clock tower, and hammering away as the bells chime. Lo and behold for next to him stands an executioner, who once held in his hands a whip and a hatchet…
Going up into the medieval Clock Tower of Sighisoara
220 years old, the Clock Tower’s museum is a place worth visiting. One can admire coins, weapons, medieval pharmacy equipment and a detailed layout of the fortress.
Up until 1566, the rooms located on the tower’s first floor accommodated the Council’s City Hall.
But what you do want to visit is the roofed gallery at the very top, hugging the clock tower all around.
Up here a 360 degrees panoramic view of Sighisoara unfolds in front of your eyes.
If you dare count, you will see over 150 medieval houses clustered in the old town, their red roofs and the stone-paved streets where once kings, artisans, and even Vlad Tepes strolled.
There, on the left, below, is the house where Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, was born. We’ll go there soon. Meanwhile, have you noticed the slanted roofs powdered with snow?
From the top of the Clock Tower, we even had a glimpse back in time, through the history of Sighisoara. The Church on the Hill, dating back to the beginning of the 14th century, was one of the first constructions the Transylvanian Saxons built:
From the Clock Tower’s top balcony one can get a panoramic view of the world as well. How good is your eyesight? Can you see as far as Moscow?
Measuring from the Clock Tower, Vienna is 656 km away, Rome 1.096 km, Paris 1.680 km, London 1.872 km, New York 7.431 km, Tokyo 8.890 km, and Sydney 15.438 km away.
It looks like someone has left a secret message for us. Can you decipher it?
As a child, Vlad would have played hide-and-seek through this passageway when he was a lad of five. Lucky times as later, during the 18th century, this small space became a prison. For when the Clock Tower was first built there were two dark passageways running through it – what better place for children to play?
After the great fire of 1676, when the tower was rebuilt, one of these passageways became a torture chamber / jail. In this very space the convicts had their hands and feet tied in chains. As a way of torture the convicts were tied to the infamy pole, in the city square, with 6 kilograms river stone hanging around their necks, for all to see.
Go ahead, take a peek:
I am sure that, as a child, Vlad would have engaged in snowball fights and even built animals out of snow. On the patch of snow you see above, we built a dragon to honor Vlad’s name derived from the Order of the Dragon awarded to his father:
I hope you enjoyed our journey through the medieval city Sighisoara thus far.