Photo: Kiki Vasilescu

Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia, Karlsburg) is in Romania but it used to be the capital of the Principality of Transylvania, the seat of the Hungarian princes between 1542/1572 and 1690/1711. It had also been the administrative center of Transylvania in the medieval period of the Hungarian Kingdom. Its name derived from the Slavic word that stood for “white castle”, allegedly they called the place after the white Roman ruins that they found there.

Photo: Dana T

The Gesta Hungarorum mentions a Hungarian regent named Gyula—the maternal grandfather of  King István of Hungary and lord [regent] of Transylvania—who built the capital of his dukedom there during the 10th century. Gyula was baptized in the Byzantine Empire and built around 950 in Gyulafehérvár the first church of Transylvania. The ruins of a church were discovered in 2011 where Hierotheos the first bishop of Transylvania lived. He accompanied Gyula back to Hungary after Gyula had been baptized in Constantinople in 953.

Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

The Bishopric was established in 1009 by King István (Saint Stephen), and the town became the center of Fehér County. The first cathedral was built in the 11th century or possibly before. The present Catholic cathedral was built in the 12th or 13th century. The Mongolians utterly destroyed it in 1241. Also, the cathedral and the town were burned by Alárdi János in 1277 who was the son of the Saxon Judge of Vízakna. We know that King András III summoned a Diet in Gyulafehérvár in 1291.

Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

Governor Hunyadi János defeated his legendary adversary, Bey Mezid, and his fifteen thousand-strong armies next to the city in a three-day-long battle in 1442. Then, he used the citadel to prepare for a major battle against the Ottomans. The cathedral was enlarged during his reign and he was entombed there after his death. Unfortunately, his tombstone was seriously damaged when the mercenaries of General Basta and Voivode Michael were plundering the place.

Photo: Szegedi Szabolcs

King Ulászló II had the fort improved in 1516. Queen Isabella settled in the city in 1542, after fleeing from Buda. She died there in 1559. Her son, the last freely elected Hungarian national king who was also the first Prince of Transylvania, János Zsigmond, died in the city in 1571. He, his queen, and his son are buried in the city’s Saint Istvan (Stephen) Basilica. It was the age when Gyulafehérvár became the capital of Eastern Hungary that soon turned into the Principality of Transylvania.

Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

It is very interesting to read the report of the French Pierre Lescalopier who visited the city in 1574. He said that most of the people in Transylvania and in Gyulafehérvár spoke in the Hungarian language at that time. The city saw the short rule of the Wallachian Voivode Michael in 1599-1600 and suffered the burnings and sacking of General Basta in 1602. However, Székely Mózes and his troops managed to liberate the town in 1603 where he was soon elected as Prince of Transylvania. According to the contemporary notes taken in 1602, the majority of the inhabitants were Hungarians at that time.

Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

The judges of the Principality’s capital were Gyógy Péter (1583), Mészáros Gergely, (1590), and Mészáros György (1590). In 1602 they were Baroniai Szabó István, and in 1603 Mészáros Gergely. Its Reformed college was established in the city’s heydays by Prince Bethlen Gábor who died in the city in 1629. The Diet of Gyulafehérvár in 1630 re-confirmed the union of the historical three nations of Transylvania: the Hungarian, the Saxon, and the Székely. Prince Rákóczi György I died in the city in 1648 and after the unfortunate Polish campaign of his son, Prince Rákóczi György II, the Crimean Tatar troops burned the city in 1657. The famous Reformed school had to be moved to Nagyenyed in 1658 because of the wars.

Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

The Ottomans also set the city on fire in 1661. Gyulafehérvár became part of the Habsburg Monarchy in 1690. Prince Rákóczi Ferenc was elected as ruler of Transylvania in the city in 1704. When the Habsburgs put down Prince Rákóczi Ferenc’s War of Independence in 1711, the number of German inhabitants increased in Gyulafehérvár. The new castle of the city was completed in 1738. The leaders of the Romanian peasant uprising, Horea and Closca were executed in the town in 1785.

Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

The rate of Hungarians in 1910 was 45 %, while 44.5% were Romanians, 6.81% were Germans and 2.47% were Gypsies (Roma) people. Gyulafehérvár was the place where the Romanian Assembly decided the unification of Transylvania and Romania in 1918. Today (2002), the rate of Hungarians is 2.67% while there are 94.45% Romanians and 2.22% Roma people.

The Palace of the Princes of Transylvania opened its doors to the public, in 2024

The palace in Gyulafehérvár, which will open its doors to the public for the first time in February, will be open to the public free of charge, the museum said in a statement. 

Gyulafehérvár, palace

The Museum of the Principality of Transylvania is housed in one of the most important historical buildings of Transylvania and Gyulafehérvár, by its current owner, the Municipality of Gyulafehérvár. The institution, which was established last year and is housed in the Mayor’s Office, will open its doors to visitors on Monday, although it is usually closed on the first day of the week. It will be open to the public free of charge in February, they said.

Photo: MTI Kiss Gábor

The permanent exhibition presents the historical periods and key events of the Gyulafehérvár Castle and Palace, illustrating its transformation in each period. It also introduces some of the historical personalities who act as “virtual curators” guiding visitors through the rooms. Among them is the Hungarian Queen Izabella Jagelló, who is buried in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Gyulafehervár, and who built a Renaissance center in the palace during her stay.

The tombstone of Queen Isabella

Two other exhibitions will be opened later, focusing on important figures in Transylvanian history – princes, princesses, and governors. The renovation of the Prince’s Palace began in 2018 with EU funding, and although it was scheduled to be completed in 2021, the work was only completed last December. Of the initial investment, estimated at €5 million, €4 million was provided by the EU, with the local government covering the significant additional costs.

Photo: MTI Kiss Gábor

According to earlier reports in the local press, 16th-century Rococo murals were also found in the rooms during the renovation. The valuable monument in the castle has been owned by the city since 2009 and was previously used by the Romanian army. 


“It goes without saying that the residence of the princes played an important role in the political life of Transylvania. In order to understand the historical importance of this period, it is necessary to remember that the palace at that time included the three inner courtyards and the building of the present Bishop’s Palace. During the reigns of Prince Báthory Zsigmond, Prince Bethlen Gábor and Prince Rákóczi György I, the buildings of the palace were extensively enlarged and decorated. Queen Isabella, Prince Báthory Zsigmond, Mihály Vitéz, who united Transylvania, Moldavia and Wallachia, Prince Bethlen Gábor, during whose reign Gyulafehérvár reached its golden age of prosperity,” says historian Dr. Roșu Tudor.

Source: Építésfórum

Next to the main entrance, on the northern side, there is a large relief of Vitéz Mihály sitting on a throne and receiving bread and salt from the people. The relief was made by Horia Flamîndu and was unveiled in 1975, the 375th anniversary of the unification of Romania by Vitéz Mihály. At the beginning of the 18th century, the palace became Austrian property.


The Austrians returned the western part to the Catholic bishopric, and the eastern part was taken over by the Austrian army. Most of the building was converted into barracks and used by the army for more than three centuries, while the eastern wing of the complex, which was returned to the Catholic Church, is still the seat of the Archdiocese of Gyulafehervár. It was renovated with the support of the Romanian state between 2008 and 2011.

Gyulafehérvár (Drawing: Kelemen Albert)

After the Romanian takeover in 1918, the building became the property of the Romanian Army. Today, the palace is only two thirds of the former princely residence. This monument, even dismantled, is unique in Transylvania and served as a model for late Renaissance buildings. It is a proposed World Heritage Site as part of the historic center of Gyulafehérvár. The building is currently under protection and experts are constantly searching for hidden traces of its original grandeur.

Photo: Veres Steilan

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Photo: Andrei Kokelburg

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