The first record of Bucharest is a document dated 1459 six years after Constantinople fell signed by Prince Vlad III - Vlad the Impaler! –so named generations after his death for his characteristic and unspeakable method of impaling his victims on pikes. And yes alas much better and erroneously known to a wider world as Dracula. If we put aside Bucur, the improbable shepherd of legend (his name means joy) who is said to have founded Bucharest, even Bucharest’s very germ is dark, morbid, unwholesome.
“From the distinctly inadequate material at our disposal it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Vlad was a man of diseased and abnormal tendencies, the victim of acute moral insanity.”
This was the judgment of R.W Seton-Watson the great English historian of Romania writing in 1934 when it was still possible to believe in progress and enlightenment values. In fact Vlad did not invent this horrible method of killing his victims by insertion of a pike in and out of orifices. A wooden stake was carefully driven through the victim’s anus, to emerge from the body just below the shoulder in such a way as to not pierce any vital organs. This ensured at least 48 hours of unimaginable suffering before death. King Stephen the Great of Moldavia for example also impaled Ottoman prisoners, was acclaimed by Pope Sixtus IV as the athlete of Christ and was canonized several years ago by the Romanian Orthodox Church. (St. Stephen is also said to have fathered an illegitimate child at every town to which he lay siege). Impalement was used in Scotland and the Turks made more use of it than any other army. Nevertheless the history relates that the sight of an Ottoman army defeated by Vlad the previous year impaled on pikes in concentric circles, their leader’s modesty protected by his ceremonial robes and turban, moved to tears even Sultan Mahmud II the conqueror of Constantinople he who had lived all his life among abstruse and elaborate methods of killing.
Many brave men lived before Agamemnon; but all are overwhelmed in eternal night, unwept. What Homer accomplished for Agamemnon Gutenberg did for Vlad Tepes whose deeds were saved from oblivion by a squib printed there several years after his death.
It was Vlad who a few hundred dingy yards from my flat built the Old Court whose ground floor was brought to light in the 1950s, the only building in Bucharest old enough for an Englishman to consider truly old. The Impaler was a Wallachian ruler who swore allegiance but then fought against the Turk in the period immediately after the fall of Constantinople. A distant parallel can be drawn with Artorius a millennium earlier fighting English pagan invaders after the Roman legions left Britain. Both men obscure enough and scarcely recoverable for history became important myths: the one King Arthur and the Matter of Britain, the essence of chivalry which inspired Malory, the other by the grace of an Irish hack writer and the silent films Dracula.
Footnote stuff. American historian Kurt Treptow was sentenced to prison for much graver offences but his coining ‘Vlad III Dracula’ is also difficult to forgive. Patrick Leigh Fermor was stretching things as far as they could be stretched when he opined that Draculea was just allowable. (The Impaler’s father was Vlad Drac, Vlad the Dragon, and Dracul could be a diminutive, the little dragon).
That there is no link between Vlad and Dracula has finally been put beyond all doubt by the publication of the wretched Stoker’s notes. But in any case, Dracula is a fictional character in a cheap horror story who is a Szeckler (cousins to the Hungarians) vampire and resembles if any historical figure Elizabeth Báthory the beautiful Hungarian countess who bathed in the blood of the village virgins she sadistically murdered. (Another digression: the Countess Bathory always puts me in mind of a beautiful Romanian lady I once knew.) The Impaler was indeed born in Transylvania but he ruled Wallachia and waged war against the Ottoman Empire and Islam. He was a cruel and perverted killer of a very different kind. But the times were brutal. His father was assassinated on the orders of his uncle John Hunyadi, his elder brother, Mircea, was buried alive by the Saxons after they gouged out his eyes with red hot pokers. His wife (or mistress) committed suicide by defenestrating herself when she learnt that the Turks had surrounded his castle in Tirgoviste. Vlad had his illegitimate half–brother, Vlad the Monk, killed after he tried to seize the throne.
|Tepes's ruined palace in the Old Town in Bucharest|
What to make of the Impaler this bizarre if not very momentous figure of whom only a few facts are known, an exotic and terrifying figure to begin the line of rulers whose capital was Bucharest that leads through Greeks, Russians, fascists and communists to Mr Ion Iliescu and Mr Traian Basescu? He was considered a great man, a progressive force and national hero, in Communist Romania. (I recall my surprise in 1990 to find myself walking down Vlad Tepes Street in Brasov but I should not have been surprised. I already knew Attila the Hun was a Hungarian hero though he was not a Hungarian.) And indeed Romanian history is full of curious parallels. Legend says that Vlad forced the members of boyar (noble) families who were implicated in the deaths of his father and brother to build a castle for him with their bare hands a project in which many died. Four centuries later the new rulers in Bucharest in the early 1950s - the young Ion Iliescu the leader of the Communist students’ association among them? -sent many thousands of enemies of the people to build the never completed Danube-Black Sea canal, the canal of death. To admire murderers like the Impaler and Attila is shocking but then in what does greatness consist? And what was St. Constantine or Napoleon? Or Stalin?
King Stephen the Great also impaled many infidels and he is the greatest Romanian hero. Pope Sixtus IV called him 'the athlete of Christ' - popes in those days were less bothered about interfaith dialogue. Stephen was canonised a few years back by the Romanian Orthodox Church despite having been said to have fathered an illegitimate child in every town to which he laid siege. I mentioned this to an extremely, in fact passionately devout Romanian lady I know and she replied 'Well, he was a man.' As Eugene Ionescu said,
'Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in Catholic or Protestant countries'.
I picked up a couple of years ago in a second hand bookshop an essay by Mircea Eliade and idly opening it I had an odd experience. As I read Eliade say the historical destiny of Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians was to spill their blood to protect an ignorant and ungrateful Europe from the danger of Muslims I recognised that I had heard similar ideas many times in guide books and inscriptions in places as far apart as Poland and Greece. They were the kind of local patriotic white noise one shut out but now the words had a chilling clarity. The war that the Impaler fought for the religion of Jesus of Nazareth with a perverse savagery which moved even the infidel army to grudging respect is one that was fought by Charles Martel at Tours, by the Impaler’s patron John Hunyadi at Belgrade, by Jan Sobiesky at Vienna, by John Buchan and his colleagues in Milner’s kindergarten during the Great War and in Afghanistan today.
Adolf Hitler holding forth in Berlin as recorded by Martin Borman said:
“Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers — already, you see, the world had fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing is Christianity! — then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism, that cult which glorifies the heroism and which opens up the Seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so.”
And Gibbon in a simpler age in which Anglican divines knew nothing of comparative religion mused that had Martel lost,
“Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”