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The Bastion of the Saxons: an episode in the history of Alba Iulia’s fortification.

The Bastion of the Saxons, which is today accessible on the Route of the Tree Fortifications administered by the Corint company, has an interesting history tied to the stages of development of Alba Iulia. It was constructed between 1614 and 1627 as an attempt to improve the defensive capability of the capital of the Principality of Transylvania following the damage suffered in 1603 and 1613. It was the most successful part of an ambitious plan by the prince and three politically important groups – the Hungarian nobility, the Saxons (of German ethnicity) and the Szeklers (of Hungarian extraction) – to consolidate the fortress of Alba Iulia with four bastions. Only two of the four planned bastions were erected, on the southern side of the fortress, namely that of the Saxons and the prince’s one.

Construction of the Bastion of the Saxons was undertaken after a critical stage in Alba Iulia’s history. Despite being strengthened by the walls of the Roman fortress and buttressed by defensive towers built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the capital of the Principality of Transylvania was, in fact, insufficiently fortified. Advances made in siege technology in that period meant the walls of medieval fortresses were vulnerable to artillery projectiles, so innovative developments in defensive capabilities were required. One solution involved building supplementary fortifications – called flanks or bastions – outside the walls of the fortress but connected to them. These had the role of supporting artillery and casements and allowed defenders to strike besiegers from the flanks. Early bastions were circular, with a polygonal design adopted later.

General Giovanni Batista Castaldo, serving Emperor Ferdinand I of Habsburg, was aware of the weakness of the walls of the Alba Iulia fortress and attempted to improve the situation by adding defensive ditches, four wood and earth bastions, and four artillery platforms emplaced at the four corners of the fortification. These new elements of the defensive system were constructed from 1551 to 1553 and the works were supervised by the Italian architects Pozzo of Milan, Antonio da Bufalo and Andrea of Treviso. In 1566-1567, Giovanadrea Gromo estimated that the fortress had been so strongly fortified that if it was properly supplied with reserves it could withstand the siege of any army for some time.

One persistent problem with the fortress’ defences was the difficulty of flooding the defensive ditches with water. Moats were an important element in the defence of medieval fortresses, impeding besiegers from digging tunnels underneath the walls in order to make them to collapse. For this reason, at the end of the reign of Prince John Sigismund Szapolyai (1540-1571), a proposal to build a new fortified capital in the neighbouring city of Sebeș was adopted by the Diet. The city’s location near the river of the same name offered suitable conditions for the erection of a properly defensible fortress. More important, perhaps, than the adoption of these plans by the Diet of Transylvania, and despite them never being carried out, was the fact that the estates of Transylvania promised to contribute to the construction of the new capital, providing a model for sustaining large scale public works in the future.

During Michael the Brave’s reign in Transylvania, 1599-1600, no work on the consolidation of the walls of the city were made. The vulnerability of the fortification was proved by the siege and destruction it suffered in 1603. Given the precarious condition of the Alba Iulia fortress, Prince Gabriel Báthory (1608-1613) chose to install his court, by ruse, in Sibiu, one of the best fortified cities of Transylvania. This incurred the hostility of Transylvania’s Saxon community, which perceived the act as a breach of their community’s privileges. In 1614, the newly elected Prince Gabriel Bethlen (1613-1629) promised to leave Sibiu and demanded the estates represented in the Diet contribute to the reconstruction of Alba Iulia. The estates promised to send workers and one carriage pulled by four oxen for each five fiscal gates, as well as to make financial contributions. The Saxons promised to cover one third of the cost of construction. For years, insufficient resources, along with military clashes in the west of the principality, delayed the construction works. At times the resources allocated had to be diverted to the consolidation of other strategic strongholds in western Transylvania. Some reports from the summer of 1619 recorded that construction work took place on two bastions. However, from 1619 to 1621, Prince Gabriel Bethlen was involved in military operations in Habsburg Hungary, which reduced efforts to build Alba Iulia’s bastions. In 1625, the privilege granted by the prince to the inhabitants of the city stipulated that they were exempt from all taxes except the obligation of contributing to the construction of the armoury (Kendervár in Hungarian) and the building of a new aqueduct system.

The Chronicon Fuchsio-Lupino-Oltardinum records that the southeastern bastion, called the Kendervár, was erected by the Saxons. It noted that the nobility, the Saxons and the Szeklers had agreed to surround Alba Iulia with strong walls and bastions. According to the plans, the prince was responsible for the consolidation of the southwestern corner, while the southeastern one was entrusted to the Saxon community. The construction works at the latter site were coordinated by Valentin Laurentii, called Pfaff, a senator from Sibiu. The same source mentions that an inscription was posted on the bastion indicating the year, 1627, and the coats of arms and names of Michael Lutsch, Mayor of Sibiu, and Coloman Gottmeister, Count of the Saxons.

According to the plans, the corners of the northern side of the fortress were to be consolidated by the nobility and the Szeklers but this task was never accomplished. The reasons for not completing the plans for the consolidation of the fortress at Alba Iulia were the precarious material possibilities of the country and the indecisiveness of the princes in accomplishing this goal. The fortress’ defensive capacity remained weak, even after the bastions were further strengthened by infilling with mud and pebbles in the seventeenth century. After the destruction of the fortress and city during the Ottoman and Tartar invasions of 1658 and 1661, the princes preferred to reside in the Făgăraș fortress, which provided better protection. With Transylvania’s incorporation into the Hapsburg Empire, the two bastions erected during the reign of Gabriel Bethlen were integrated as cavaliers – raised gun emplacements within larger fortifications – as a third line of defence in the new Vauban-type fortress. (C.P.-G.)