Székelyzsombor or Szász-Zsombor (Jimbor, Sommerburg) can be found in Transylvania, Romania. It is famous for its so-called “peasant castle” or “shelter castle”. Its name derives from the name of the Hungarian Zsombor Clan. You can find it on My Google Map:
The place was first mentioned in writing in 1488 as Sumerburch. According to tradition, the village was originally settled by Saxons, but after a plague epidemic, Hungarian Székelys from Homoródalmás and Homoródszentmárton settled in the village, and in 1502 another 16 serf families settled there. As a result of the Turkish-Tatar invasions, the Saxon population died out completely and was replaced by Székelys. The stone castle was built in the 15th century on the hill of Várhegy, first mentioned in 1692. Losing its importance in the 18th century, the outer wall ring was demolished in 1818. Today it stands in a neglected state.
Its Evangelical church is of medieval origin, restored after a fire in 1746 and rebuilt in 1788. Its tower was built in 1908. There is a winged altar in it, built between 1540 and 1550, it can be seen in the Transylvanian Museum in Kolozsvár (Cluj, Klausenburg). The Roman Catholic church was built in 1782 but probably dates from the 13th century. On the church hill stands a bust of Nyirő József, a writer born in Székelyzsombor, it was unveiled in 2004.
The castle lies in a rectangular area about 25×40 m long, bordered by an irregular pentagonal defensive wall. At the southeast corner of this is the L-shaped, 2-story residential building with a hipped gable roof, and opposite it a square defensive bastion. The courtyard side of the wall probably had a machicolation running around it, but this has now completely disappeared, as has the slab between the floors of the dwelling, of which only a few beams remained. The deck is also badly damaged, with only a fragment of the roof tiles intact. Traces of painted decoration can be found on the façade, but the complete pattern is hardly reconstructible. Even today, an accurate reconstruction of the drawing is a difficult but not impossible task.
According to the book published by Gaali Zoltán in 1938, the castle was described like this, relying heavily on Orbán Balázs’ report from 1864:
“Zsombor is the border village of Kőhalom Szék, where Hungarian hearts still beat. The village is inhabited by Hungarian Lutherans, who, although they have mastered the Saxon costume and building methods, have faithfully preserved their nationality and patriotic feelings. The castle of Zsombor is crowned by the top of a stand-alone hill to the north of the village. The small plateau of this hill, rounded on all sides and steeply sloping downwards, is completely occupied by the ancient castle, which can be seen in the distance.”
“This castle, which is still in a fairly intact state, has an insignificant 50 paces diameter pentagonal courtyard surrounded by high walls with crenellations and battlements. On the north side, a small open bastion emerges from the line of the walls. At the southwest angle rises a high rectangular bastion, much older in appearance than the other walls of the castle. Supported by this main bastion is the castle’s two-story building, the lower section of which has a narrow iron gate as the only entrance to the castle, which is strong because of its position. From the southeastern corner of the castle, a beautiful panorama opens up. We have no information about this castle, nor can we be sure of its date of construction.”
Orbán Balázs (1864), the great describer of the Székely Land added a few more things, namely that the inhabitants of the village are Lutheran Hungarians, and the beauty of the women is unmatched. He mentioned that although the locals wear Saxon attire and build their homes in the Saxon manner but remained Hungarian. We can learn that there were more than 20,000 Hungarians living in the Saxon Seats who were under the Saxon hierarchy and control but their priests could save them from the forced Germanization of the Saxon authorities.
Orbán Balázs regarded these lands as parts of the Székely Land. He recorded the following legend of the castle:
The legend of Székelyzsombor castle: “The reward of faithfulness”
“According to the local Lutheran priest, the story goes back to the old history of Transylvania, and it was recorded on a document found in the archives of Zsombor. At the eastern end of Kőhalomszék lies the village of Zsombor, which is quite populous, and whose inhabitants in former times were Saxons, but when they died out, their places were largely taken by Hungarians from the surrounding villages during the terrible plague of 1454, especially from the village of the Count Bethlen family called Alsó-Rákos in Upper Fejérvár County, finding freedom and fertile fields in the land of the Saxons, whereby the few Saxons who remained after the plague also took over the Hungarian language.
To the north of the village rises a hill of considerable size, the base of which was the sacred resting place (cemetery) of the Protestant pilgrims who came here. It is a solemn reminder of the end of our earthly run; and the head of the hill is crowned with the remains of an old German castle, where the villagers now keep grain, bacon, and other goods. The castle as it now stands has almost completely lost its previous appearance, since the only remaining wall of the fence, which is 3 or 4 fathoms high, was cut down and defaced with chalk when it was demolished some 20 years ago. In the old days, it was surrounded by a double wall and a rampart, of which only the foundation stones found in the ground are evidence. In its original state, the castle was strong enough to serve in those unhappy old days as a spacious refuge and a brave shelter for our unfortunate ancestors.
In the year 1421, when the unhappy country was again overrun by a horde of bloodthirsty predators, destroying and burning everywhere, the frightened inhabitants of the neighborhood fled to this old castle, seeking shelter and protection from the fury of the approaching heathen hordes. Among the crowd of unfortunates seeking help, a young Hungarian nobleman was found, as the story goes, together with his beloved and recently betrothed wife, he was a count of Homoródszentmárton, named Lebei János, who had more than one reason to fear the approach of the barbarians.
His wife, Elizabeth was a beautiful and caring woman, and her husband loved her so much that took the courage of volunteering to lead the garrison of the small castle. Finally, the dreadful day has come, from which they trembled for a long time; the fierce hordes rushed upon the castle with countless multitudes and wild fury, making themselves known with great noise and tumult. With desperation and determination, the defenders fought against the assailants on the old rocky walls, the young leader fought like a lioness, not counting the blood that flowed from his body. But in vain, the multitude triumphed, the herd of Murad Bey broke down part of the defensive walls, and they were not giving mercy even to the sucking infants, and continued to kill them at their mothers’ breast, with a fierce thirst for blood for their own pleasure.
It was a terrible sight, it is said, that the cold Christian blood was almost up to their knees in the corridors of the castle; few survived who had the good fortune to escape in the confusion, and others were dragged away in slave chains. Among the first was the young countess, and among the last the valiant leader himself. Understanding the wretched fate of her lord, she sold her possessions and traveled to the East, in order to free his beloved companion, who was in the captivity of the Saracens, in the grip of misery and ignominy, but she wanted to free him by the very risk of her life.
Upon arriving at Jerusalem, she went on from thence with her faithful servant, who was carrying her treasures. The frail fair countess wandered through the burning deserts of Syria, burnt by the heat of the sun by day, and by night drenched with cold dew. She came to the castle by the waters of the river Euphrates, where her husband was in chains. The lord of the castle, when he saw the fair Hungarian woman, desired to keep her. But with unquestioning loyalty, she clung to her lord and resisted all temptations, all threats, all torments. At last, the barbarian was impressed by this great faithfulness and promised to release her companion, but under three difficult conditions.
She had to go first to ask for the Saracen’s brother who was kept as a captive beyond the Euphrates: he was doomed to death, at the hands of a savage heathen people. So she crossed the great river, appealed to the heart of the savage folks with her supplications, and brought the Saracen’s brother to her husband’s cruel master.
The second condition was that she had to descend in a shaky boat from a high and terrible waterfall. Praying, she entered the boat, thousands stood on the shore, marveling at the noble woman’s courage and lamenting her inevitable death; when the boat slowly came to a crash, she covered her eyes with her tear-soaked veil, fell on her knees in prayer, and fell like that into the draughty foam. And the angels of God, bearing the boat on their wings, and without harm, she stepped out of the bank. Amid the shouts of joy of the assembled multitude, she returned to the castle, where the dark dungeon had enclosed her dear lord.
“Go,” said the Saracen now, “and free him yourself,” and with great pride, he handed him the keys to her husband’s prison and chains. Then he took her to the hard iron grate which surrounded the tower of the dungeon, and which was guarded by hungry lions, the keepers of the entrance, seizing it with their hungry nails, biting with their teeth. She opened the door without fear, and the beasts of prey, ferocious beasts, rushed at once; But she stooped down, and, praying fervently, fell on her knees, and the lions lay beside him in prayer, quietly and peacefully flocking like lambs, and leaning with her weak hand on one of them, she rose up, opened the dungeon, unlocked the chains of her dear lord, and brought him whom she has delivered out into the light of day, which he has not seen for five years.
On the way home, she wandered the desolate wastes with him, and she had courage when her husband was in despair. She sought roots for him to eat, and she put her veil in the spring they found to ease his pain against the burning heat with a few drops of water to soothe it. At last, she reached Jerusalem with him, and then the city of Ptolemy, and there she took a ship, and the two of them arrived again in safety at home.
What was the reward of her faithfulness? Unfaithfulness. The reward of her pain? More pain. The hot climate burned the young dame’s weak face. The many fears have burnt her fair roses, the tears have weakened the fire of her eyes. At home, her young niece, a young and beautiful lady, stayed with her. The house was a happy one, and the members of it agreed among themselves.
Every day the Count saw Mary – his wife’s niece, as she was called – whose vigorous looks, cheerful and pretty manner, and kind smiles, inspired love in his heart. He fought his passion, but every day more faintly, when Elizabeth told him how she stood among the savages, how she glided, lost in the fearful waters, he always mourned himself for his infidelity, and shed tears of sorrow.
But his grief was useless. He should have gone away rather than struggle with his sins. Mary, seeing his looks, perceived how fearfully he sought to hide his anguish from his wife, and begged him earnestly for his confidence, thinking that she might soothe and quiet his pains. The count withdrew into his solitude. But the good damsel would not give up her hope of comforting him and would go to him every day, until at last she could wring the dreadful secret from him. “I love thee, Mary,” he cried, with wildly excited senses, “and let me die now.”
They both ran away from each other, one in wild despair, the other in terrible fright, and it was days before the unhappy couple saw each other again; each with the black cloud of an evil conscience hanging over their brow. Mary was still strong to conceal from the count, not her bitterness, but her love. The count was silent, but every day his heart grew sorer and sorer, and Mary’s strength grew weaker, and at length, the count was nailed to the bottom of his bed by the hardest pain and sickness of heart. Poor Mary could not leave him, lest her aunt should take care of him, which she would gladly do in spite of her great weakness. The Count would hang his pale eyes on Mary, and say at last, “Mary, press thy lips once upon my lips, and then I shall die.” “Oh live!” cried Mary, as if beside herself, “I love you.” Then she fell on his chest and fainted.
Countess Elizabeth, having heard all these things at the open door, staggered back weakly to her room, took the chains from which she had freed her master, and shedding bitter tears upon them, a great discontent came over her noble soul; but love soon convinced her, and made her keep silence. The next morning she received tidings that his lord was better. She knew well that it was the fortunate love that would have healed him. She made a feast to celebrate his recovery. On the first of that feast day, she led him to her most secret room, and there he encircled his body, mocking him with the chains of his captivity, and then she embraced him with her weak arms, and asked him, “Are these chains will bind your heart to me, forever?” The count fell on one knee, and with a terrible look, he took a dagger, saying, “I can die for thee, as thou wouldst die for me.”
Then he swore to the Countess to his own death, making an oath of eternal faithfulness. He continued. “I must go and fight for a friend.” The Countess begged him to stay at home a few days longer, as she was very weak and feeble, and nearer death than she thought. She offered him Mary, and bent her cold face to his breast, to hide the color and tears of death.
She was already asking him to accompany her to a cloister where she had lived in her youth, where she would like to spend a few days in the arms of her friend, the abbess. The Count accompanied her thither, but he would not return to his home because he didn’t want to be alone with Mary. After eight days the abbess reported the death of his wife and sent her last letters, which contained a request that she should not leave her niece and that she should remember her wish and her recommendation. Yet, the Countess was not dead. She had a chapel built beside her prepared tomb, and there she lived there until bitterness soon ended her noble life.
The abbess had a reminder sign raised for her, on which she engraved these words:
“Love is stronger than death, stronger than gratitude, no chains can bind it.”
This manuscript gives a faithful account of a historical tale that lived on the lips of the people, written down at the beginning of this century by a pastor of Zsombor, as an old farmer of Zsombor told him, and under the manuscript is the letter T. M., which is the prefix of the name of the said pastor, and in fact, he has done a great service to our national literature by rescuing this beautiful tale, this gem of folk poetry, from oblivion. We present it to our esteemed readers without making any changes to its text.”
In 1910 it had 1189 inhabitants, predominantly Hungarian. Until the Treaty of Trianon in 1918, it was part of the Homoródi district of Udvarhely County. In the 21st century, the iron gate of the castle was stolen, and the whole castle is on the fringe of collapse.
Sources: Wikipedia, Fülöp Károly, Gaali Zoltán, Orbán Balázs
Here is a nice video of Székelyzsombor:
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Here are a few pictures of Székelyzsombor: