poza-mica-cetate3The Oradea Fortress is indubitably one of the most important late-medieval architectural monuments in Transylvania and in the country. It became, in the 16th and 17th Centuries, one of the key pieces of the defensive system conceived and realized by the Habsburg Empire and the Transylvanian Principality against the Ottoman Empire, and thus a redoubtable bastion of Christian Europe faced with Muslim expansion, a position it held for two centuries, unanimously recognized by its contemporaries.

detaliu-cronica-de-la-viena Legends have surrounded the Fortress since the most distant eras. Even the founding of the fortification, sometime at the end of the 11th Century, is shrouded in their aura: according to Mark of Kált’s chronicle (known in historiography as Chronicon pictum Vindobonensae – the Viennese Illuminated Chronicle), King Ladislaus I (1077 – 1095), while hunting in Bihor County, „found, (…) between the Rivers Criș (…), a place where, beckoned by angels, he decided to erect a monastery to the Virgin Mary, place which he named Varad”. Built on the left bank of the Crișul Repede River, in a marshland between multiple waterways, the monastery will soon become the headquarters of the Chapter (college), comprised of 24 canons, and later of the diocese which the same king will establish here. In order to ensure the best security, because it is assumed it held precious objects, the monastery was surrounded by a rampart and a defensive moat.

detaliu-cronica-de-la-viena-2The entombment of King Ladisalus the Holy within the Fortress is also shrouded in legendary mystery. According to the contents of one chronicle, he had expressed during his life the desire to be entombed in Oradea: “While alive, he commanded that he be brought to Oradea of Bihor and that his body be entombed there, after his passing. But the Hungarian leaders, seeing that the weather was foul and the way was too long, were afraid that, due to the great heat, the devoutly body of the holy king would start to rot, and thus, holding council, they decided to head towards Royal Alba, being closer by, as the place where the bodies of holy kings were laid to rest. And when, during a halt, they closed their eyes, God and the blithe saint did not sleep. At dawn, when they roused to continue on their way, they saw that neither the carriage, nor the holy body were there any longer. They were saddened and began to run to and fro, asking if anyone had seen the body. But when they headed towards Oradea, they saw that, without any help, the holy body was traveling towards the city, carriage in tow. And seeing the great Godly miracle, they praised the Lord.”
In reality though, his death came in Zvolen (Zólyom), on the 25th of July 1095, and the bringing of his earthly remains to his foundation in Oradea came a long while later, sometime after the year 1134. His entombment here would turn his grave into an important pilgrimage spot (he was canonized on the 27th of June 1192), which had an exceptional importance in the evolution of the settlements which were eventually established in the area, and on the future fortress.

carmne-miserabileThe certain beginnings of a fortification on Oradea’s territory are closely tied to the great Tartar invasion, which affected a large part of the European continent, including the city on the banks of the Crișul Repede River. Legend concedes the stage, this time, to precise, direct information. According to the Italian monk Rogerius, eye witness to these events, under imminent Tartar danger, the fortress’ defenders began to make rushed repair. “The Tartars”, wrote Rogerius, “quickly reached the Oradea fortress, through forests and groves, climbing rocks and detritus. And because in Hungary, this fortress was very famous, countless noble women had gathered here, ladies and folk women alike. And although the bishop (Benedict) had retreated from here along with a few canons, I was still here, with those who had remained. And when we saw that the fortress was crumbling on one side, we set out to repair it with a thick wall…” Along with the monastery, the fortification walls were also defending an episcopal palace, placed somewhere south of the monastery, as well as other buildings afferent to a monachal complex. The impact of the tartar siege was devastating, as Rogerius related: “…they conquered the fortress quickly, set fire to most of it. Eventually, they left nothing, generally, but the fortress walls, and after looting, they murdered the men and women alike, great, small, in the houses and in the fields (…) They spared nor sex, nor age.”

wardein-catedralaWithin the fortress, between the years 1342 and 1370, a Gothic cathedral of impressive size was built (approximately 72 meters in length), flanked by two massive towers. In front of it, between 1360 and 1370, the brothers Martin and George of Cluj made the statues of three Hungarian kings, completed in 1390 with a bronze equestrian statue of Ladislaus I. On the 25th of August, Pope Boniface IX granted it a privilege through which he raised it to the rank of the Santa Maria Portiuncula of Assisi Church, and of the San Marco Church, in Venice, which led to a great number of pilgrims travelling there, even from areas neighboring Transylvania.

patrimoniu-13The fortress’ image was kept in many contemporary descriptions and a few prints, those made by Joris Hoefnagel in 1598 and Cesare Porta, one year later, standing out as some of the oldest. They show that the old fortress had a southern oriented entrance, near the current Crăişorul Bastion, leading to the episcopal palace yard and, from there, to the great yard housing the cathedral.

Until the half of the 16th Century, the citadel had an irregular shape, slightly oval, surrounded by a stone wall over a meter thick. We even have a description of this, belonging to Giovan-Andrea Gromo, an Italian mercenary born in 1518, in Bergamo, who, after serving as captain to various European princes, will arrive to the court of John Sigismund Zápolya, in the spring of 1564. His recount is generally correct; the information relayed by him being eventually confirmed by other documents, impressions and travel notes, or archeological research. The fortress seems to G.A. Gromo as excellently positioned, kept safe from the danger of artillery fire, in an age when progress in this field was gaining momentum. The fortress is set “near a rise from which only the houses can be hit, but not the walls”. As for the city, it is “surrounded by a strong rampart and bathed by the Criș River, known in old times as Chriso, which flows, to the city’s great use, right through the middle of it, the source of many tasty fish.”


The major events which took place in Central Europe in the first part of this century, culminating with the battle of Mohács (1526) and with the establishing of the Buda Pashalic (1541), strengthened the belief, amongst those who administered the Fortress, that the times required a modern fortification, to which end Italian craftsmen and architects were hired, the most proficient in their field at that time.

From the point of view of Oradea Fortress’ history, the visit of Giovan-Andrea Gromo took place right before the start of extensive work, with the purpose of replacing the old fortress – whose construction had begun after the great Mongol invasion, surrounded by a stone wall of almost a meter in thickness and of approximately oval shape – with another, whose shape is still apparent today – pentagonal, with bastions on its corners, modern, capable of withstanding the new ways of waging war. Led by Italian architects, the work began between 1569 and 1570, when the Crăişorul Bastion was erected and, probably, a part of the Blunt Bastion, continuing with the building of the Golden one (starting in 1572). The strengthening of Transylvania with such a fortification, an important point of support and resistance against any oppressors, was not seen with kind eyes by the Ottomans, who felt it jeopardized their position in Hungary.

pierre-lescalopierProof of this comes to us via the recounts of another foreign traveler through Transylvania, a Frenchman named Pierre Lescalopier (after 1550 – after 1597). Born in a family of magistrates in the Parliament of Paris, he undertook, throughout 1574, a long journey through Europe, which brought him through Transylvania, where he rested for two months (16 June – 16 August). In the journal he wrote during this time, named Voyage fait par moi, Pierre Lescalopier, l’an 1574 de Venise à Constantinople par mer jusque à Raguse et le reste par terre et retour par Thrace, Bulgarie, Walach, Transilvanie ou Dace, Hongarie, Allemagne, Friul et Marche jusque à Venise, he recounts, amongst other things, arriving in Brașov, where he was greeted by Judge Lucas Hirscher, treated well and lodged in a private home.

Here he will meet Ioan Milesvár, the chief of some Transylvanian and Hungarian envoys, on whose delegation Lescalopier would say that “he was headed towards Oradea Mare, to find the Prince’s brother (he means Cristofor Báthory, captain of the Fortress between 1572 and 1577, and Prince of Transylvania between 1576 and 1581 – ed. n.), with an express order from the Sultan, commanding him to stop the fortification work he was doing there (the construction of the Golden Bastion – ed. n.), a work which the Sultan said was «aimed» at harming and frightening the Ottoman garrisons in Hungary and in that area. The Transylvanian Voivode (Stephan Báthory, former captain of the Fortress between 1562 and 1564, and then Transylvanian Prince between 1571 and 1583), knowing of the grievance the Sultan nurtured, had sent envoys to Brașov in order to command his ambassadors to await him in Oradea, where he was going to travel to, and that he would do nothing else until they themselves will have brought the fortress to the state in which – through Mehmed-Pacha’s words (grand vizier – ed. n.) – his master wanted it, and that he would speak to the Buda sanjakbeg and take from him evidence that the fortress had been restored to its original state. Right at dawn, said the French traveler, the sir Milesvár had sent one of his companions, in great haste, with the letter to the Prince in Alba Iulia.”

antonio-possevinoImportant and also interesting information about Oradea, its fortress and its captain are also found in Antonio Possevino’s (1553 – 1611) writings. Italian in origin, he held various ecclesiastical functions, becoming the secretary of the Company of Jesus in 1573, function which led him to undertake many diplomatic missions. His recounts from the time spent in Transylvania were carefully gathered, with the intent of publishing in a work called Transylvania, but his plan would only take shape after his death. Visiting the city, it appears to him as “proud, although lacking walls (external, ed. n.), with a famous and great fortress, surrounded by walls”. Useful data is then given on the fortress’ captain, one who would hold, from the establishment of the function at the half of the 16th Century and until the Fortress fell to the Ottomans in 1660, the functions equivalent to the Second Man in the state. The high priest wrote – “He usually has around 800 mounted men and as many foot soldiers; he commands all those living in the land and have goods, be they nobles, land owners or regular folk.” The strategic importance of the citadel situated right at the confluence of Habsburg and Ottoman interest areas, as well as the necessity of adopting an appropriate political stance, capable of successfully opposing any external interference appears clearly and strongly affirmed. Thus, speaking of the captain again, Possevino wrote “he fights either the Turks or the Imperials if they cross the borders on looting expeditions with their soldiers, and that’s why he sends horsemen to defend the country and stand guard in both directions.” As for the way the defenders were paid, he recounts that a good part of the income came from the wares of the Roman-Catholic diocese of Oradea, “from which the bishop no longer collects even an ounce, because the things were twisted so (…) that church were hoarded under the pretext which they deem just, «judging» it is righteous to spend them for the fortification of this citadel and for keeping it well armed, as a border point of great importance against the Turks.”

evliya-celebiDuring the reign of George Rákóczi I (1630 – 1648), the moat surrounding the Fortress was widened and made deeper, bringing it to a lower level than the bed of the Crișul Repede River, and also paving the counterscarp. Referring to the water canal defensive system, Evlia Celebri wrote in 1660: “The fortress canals are one hundred and twenty steps wide. Filled with the water of the Crișul Repede River, they resemble a sea and are forty seven arsines  deep, so that one can sail galleys on them. In the midst of these large and flooded moats, there also exists a narrow moat, which surrounds the citadel, seventeen arsines deep. The water in this moat is still; even if the water of the two great moats will be cut off from the river, the water in the middle, narrow moat, will endure. This moat hosts many kinds of water critters.”

The external fortress will be doubled within by a pentagonal castle, erected between 1618 and 1650, with entrances on all sides. Replacing the old episcopal palace, the new castle will become one of the favorite places of the Transylvanian Princes, for a long time, which will be lodged mostly in the south-east part of the building, near the Red Bastion. Due to its height, which was higher than that of the external walls, it suffered from repeated sieges.
Throughout the centuries, the fortress was lain siege to multiple times. The first major attempt to which it was subjected after the Tartar attack happened at the beginning of 1474, when the armies of Ali Oglu Malcovici, the chieftain of Semendria, attacked the city on the 7th of February. Chronicon Dubnicense, the source which informs us on the way the events unfolded, mentions that, taking advantage of Matthias Corvinus being away on an expedition in southern Poland, the attackers destroyed the opulent city (civitatem illam opulentissimam Waradiensem), enslaving the “citizens and inhabitants of that land”, however failing to conquer the fortress.

cetatea-sec-XVIThe next Ottoman siege happened in 1598, the fortress benefiting from great support from Michael the Brave, the Lord of Walachia. On the 25th of September, the Ottomans were already right next to the fortress, but the full-fledged siege began on the 1st of October. Numbering approximately 20.000, they set camp as a semi-circle, on the north-eastern side of the fortress. An expeditionary crops sent by the Wallachian Lord also fought on the besieged side, led by chieftain Leca, numbering 1500 soldiers. Due to the relentless autumn rain and the disease which took root in the Turkish ranks, the siege was lifted on the 3rd of November. Although short, it led to the near-complete destruction of the city, as well as some parts of the fortress (the Blunt and Crăişorul bastions were blown up) and the south of the Bihor County.

In 1658, the Ottomans focused their attention on Oradea again, under the guise of punishing Prince George Rákóczi II who, in 1657, following some older ambitions of his family, undertook a campaign in Poland, in order to obtain the throne. As a retaliation, and because Oradea refused to swear fealty to the new Prince imposed by the Ottomans, Rhédei Ferenc, they headed towards the fortress and surrounded it.

miron-costinThey were aided by significant Tartar forces, as well as some Moldavian corps, accompanied by the Moldavian Lord himself, along with chronicler Miron Costin. The siege, started in mid-September, was short, lifting at the end of the same month, without reaching its objective. Again under the rule of Rákóczi, the fortress became the detention area of all Transylvanian Principality nobles which did not conform to central politics.

The Ottoman intentions of conquering the fortress will resume two years later, in 1660, this time with greatly increased military might (approximately 45.000 people, while the defenders numbered only around 850). The aid requests to the Transylvanian Principality remained unanswered, because the Prince Acaţiu Barcsai himself had been captured and was being imprisoned by the sieging forces. The aid request sent to Vienna was also ignored after the 27th of June Imperial Council in Graz, where it was decided that the Empire would not intervene. The situation of those within became more and more difficult as time passed. Vice-chief magistrate Kürti István’s negligence contributed to this – on the 14th of August he produced a spark in the gunpowder storage, which blew up the entire arsenal and provoked grave damage to the court on the eastern side of the fortress. Meanwhile, the Ottomans had succeeded, apparently due to betrayal, to evacuate the water in the moat and to blow up the Golden and Red Bastions. Concerning the evacuation of the water in the defensive moat, almost all existing sources say it was because of a woman who revealed the secret in exchange of the release of her son, who had fallen prisoner to the siege-layers.

evlia-celebiEvlia Celebi describes the event as follows: „But, as the saying goes -  When Allah wants something, he provides one with the means to obtain it, one night Sirdar Ali-Pacha received the visit of a Hungarian woman, who spoke thusly: «Lord, if you set free my son, fallen into the hands of the Tartars (who were participating in the siege along with the Ottomans – ed. n.), I will show you the place where the water in the moat can be drained, and if you drain the water in the moat and leave the fortress high and dry, you will conquer it without mercy; otherwise, this fortress does not fear cannon fire »”. The episode is told, with some differences, by the chronicler Georg Kraus in his Chronicle of Transylvania, between 1608 and 1665: „At this time, an arrested Hungarian woman (…) let it be known that, would she be released, she would point out the place in which the water can be drained to the bottom, because when the Bethlen Bastion was being erected, in Gabriel Bethlen’s time, she had been the Court Judge’s servant and thus knew all about the moat (…). She led the Turks to a creek named Peța and instructed them to dig a ditch all the way to the Bathlen Bastion, which would make the water drain completely.”

Eventually, tired, lacking supplies and with severely diminished numbers, the defenders decided to capitulate, not before presenting grievances and requesting guarantees for their lives. For three decades, the fortress would be under Ottoman rule, during which it would benefit, due to its great importance, from special attention, people being brought in right after the completion of the siege in the underlying villages, to rebuild broken walls and to clean the moat. Evlia Celebi, the Turkish chronicler, direct participant to the siege, would describe the fortress as follows: “The Oradea Fortress is the strongest rampart of Transylvania (…). It is situated at the foot of the Olosig Mountain (…) and is pentagonal in shape. It is a sturdy construction, built from bricks, with five bastions, which makes it a strongly fortified fortress, on par with Famagusta Citadel. It has stout fortifications and walls.”

The rejection of the Ottomans under Vienna’s walls in 1683 was followed by a series of other victories which Christian forces (especially Austrian forces) would obtain over Ottoman troops. In this context, in the summer of 1691, the Austrians will reach the edge of Oradea, will surround the city, and after conquering Olosig (and using 12 companies to this end), would set out to siege the fortress, not before installing two batteries with 10 cannons and two mortars on the surrounding hills. The siege was long and it drove the civilian population away from the city.asediu-1691

donath-heisslerWeakening in the winter between 1691 and 1692, the siege was redoubled in the month of May of 1692, with the imperial armies being led by General Donath Heissler. Using incendiary cannon balls, the Austrians managed to set fire to most of the roofs of the buildings within the fortress, while the cannons on the hill caused great damage to the bastions. On the 28th of May 1692, with severely diminished troops, without hope of aid from any side, the Ottoman garrison of the fortress capitulated. The entrance, at the beginning of June, of Austrian forces within the Fortress would usher in a new era in the life of the city and, at the same time, the administrative restoration to European Christianity.

The importance of the fortress from a strategic and political stand point would bring more difficulty during the anti-Habsburg movement led by Francisc Rákóczi II. The rebel troops focused on it from the very first moments of combat, as Captain Paul Gödényi received orders from Rákóczi, on the 17th of April 1703, to surround the fortress. Its obstruction continued, with small intermittences, until 1706, when general Rabutin will manage to lift the pressure by clearing the Kuruc camp in Olosig. However, in 1708, the siege is resumed, ending only in 1710, due to a strong plague epidemic which affected attackers and besieged forces alike.

Due to the development of firearms and artillery, it was found that buildings around the fortress had become perilous to its security, being useful for potential attackers; in 1714, the Captain issued an order prohibiting any construction within 500 meters of the external walls. The measure will lead to the immediate demolition of 162 buildings. Only after 1780, when the Fortress will lose part of its importance, the constructible area of the city will extend to right next to the moat, thus founding the Subcetate borough.

During the 1848 Revolution, the Fortress’ garrison, led by general Gläser, switched to the side of the Revolution. In the night between the 21st and the 22nd of March, national badges were displayed as a sign of joining the revolution, the danger of forced intervention against the revolutionaries thus being removed. At the end of the year, the Diet of Hungary decided that, due to the degenerating situation, all revolutionary institutions must be moved from Pest to Debrecen, thus turning Oradea into an important military base, with a nucleus in the Fortress deserted by the Imperial garrison. As a result, in January 1849, the armament workshops which produced rifles, bayonets and swords were moved here, and a great amount of munitions was stored within the Fortress. Around 250.000 bullets were being made in these workshops, on a daily basis. cetatea-sec-XIX

Through a decree emitted on the 16th of May 1857, the Emperor Franz-Josef definitively canceled the military aspect of the Oradea Fortress, which continued to serve, until 1918, as a mere auxiliary space for military activity. Between 1883 and 1887, multiple repairs were carried out within, as well as consolidating and design work, preceded between 1881 and 1883 by the first archaeological research to be undertaken within the Fortress, which led to the discovery of the traces of the Gothic cathedral of the 14th Century.


After 1918, during the interwar years, the fortress would be the headquarters of the dragoon school, and after 1945 it will return to military objective status, used both by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defense. It seems that between 1947 and 1952, the Security (communist secret service) had a transit camp in the northern wing of the princely castle. Starting from the mid-70s the fortress started hosting economic establishments, which fully contributed to its severe degradation, due to completely inappropriate exploitation in disregard of its uniqueness and age.