24 feb. 2015

The Harghita County commune of Satu Mare earned European fame for its Szekler gates preserved for over one century and a half, true masterpieces of folk art.

Tourists who take the National Road DN 13A running between Miercurea Ciuc and Odorheiu Secuiesc have the opportunity to admire in Satu Mare an impressive range of Szekler gates which guard the entrance to almost every second household. As soon as you get to the Village Hall you realize that this here is the home of the "Szekler gates" because, fixed to the building of the institution, are elements of traditional old gates that were rescued from a major fire that hit the village in 1952.

According to data made available by representatives of the Satu Mare Tourism Office, the village is home to about 250 traditional wooden Szekler gates, of which 120 are carved, engraved and painted. Eleven are historic monuments listed as national heritage, with the oldest of them — dating from 1858 — standing in front of the Roman Catholic parish church.

The responsibility for saving and protecting the Szekler gates was taken up, more than 40 years ago, by former teacher Kovacs Piroska, now aged 82. A woman with a petite frame, discreet and shy, she has devoted her entire life to promoting folk values from the commune and the region, and thanks to her diligence, the Szekler gates were included in a county rescue and conservation program. In over 40 years of activity, Kovacs Piroska collected folk art, becoming an extraordinary connoisseur of the Satu Mare cultural values; she opened a museum, collected an impressive amount of popular designs, conducted the mapping of the Szekler gates in the region of Odorhei and called for their restoration. This is how a project funded by the County Council kicked off, which saw tens of gates of inestimable value restored in the entire county.

Photo credit: (c) Gina STEFAN / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

Kovacs Piroska's efforts were rewarded in 2012 with the European Commission's Europa Nostra Award, "Outstanding achievement" category, and the fame of the Szekler gates spread beyond county and national boundaries, becoming known throughout Europe.

Kovacs Piroska never misses the occasion to credit for her earning this award the dozens of people who stood by her side and helped her in her work, in the few decades devoted to saving the cultural heritage.

"It's an extraordinary feeling and a great honor. I am happy. In the special moments when I was presented the award I felt it would be great if the owners of the Szekler gates, the gate carvers, the members of the communities back home would feel along with me that the traditional values specific for the area where we live have a place of their own in the traditional culture of Europe. This time Europe's attention turned to us, the Szekler gate received its deserved place on Europe's cultural palette. This should give us an impulse to work even harder," said Kovacs Piroska after the award ceremony held in Lisbon.

Harghita County Council President, Borboly Csaba, who agreed with the financing of a Szekler gates restoration program, says that this cultural icon needs to be handled with particular attention and calls Piroska Kovacs "the keeper of Szekler gates."

"We have great cultural values, the Szeckler gate, as a symbol, is one of Europe's precious treasures we cannot protect otherwise but by cooperating and by giving them greatest attention. Beginning with 2009, the Harghita County Council is a member of the KOLIK Cultural Association, whose activity of maintaining and protecting the Szekler gates covers the entire county. Association founder, Kovács Piroska of Satu Mare, is known as the 'keeper of the Szekler gates'; it's at the proposal of the Harghita County Council that her exceptional work was acknowledged with the Europa Nostra prize in 2012. Thanks to Kovács Piroska, the Szeklers and the Harghita County came into the spotlight of Europe," said Borboly Csaba.

Satu Mare, also called the 'village of the Szekler gates', is home to most such traditional gates that feature a dovecot on top; they are also called "carved","ornate" or "inscribed" gates because of the multiple motifs featured on them, carved with the curved blade chisel.

According to ethnographers, the traditional Szekler gate has three supporting pillars, and three major components: the big slatted door, sized so as to allow a cart loaded with hay to pass, while the small door is for the passage of persons. The three pillars are held together by a transverse beam that has a pigeon loft or dovecot covered with a shingles roof on top of it. 

Photo credit: (c) Gina STEFAN / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

Ethnographer Portik Iren says the name of 'dovecot' is just symbolic, because it was never used for really breeding pigeons, as the birds symbolize the souls of the former household owners.

"This is the symbolism of the upper part of the gate, with the bird seen as an allegory of the soul. This is where the souls of the former household owners are being sheltered. And what place could be better and more home-like for these souls than the lodge where they have been toiling their lifelong," explains Portik Iren, telling us that the gate elements have bird-related names true to the popular belief that everything has a soul.

Many of the Satu Mare gates are painted, and ethnographers point out that the patterns usually adorn the entrance to "precious institutions" such as churches and schools, but also to the household of well-regarded members of the community.

The Szekler gates feature geometric stylized floral motifs, but also the major luminaries — the Sun and the Moon, the tree of life and various birds. The top beam is usually decorated with inscriptions such as the year of construction and the names of the honorable host and of his wife. Also, according to ethnographer Portik Iren, odd numbers are popular among the Szeklers and therefore, the flowers or fruit on the gates are in odd numbers.

Among others, the gate shows the wealth of the host, and is also a bequest to leave to the next generations.

Portik Iren says that the old symbols featured on the gates were meant to keep evil spells, all diseases that could affect man and animals, and all troubles away from the house. In time, written good omen stanzas to be inscribed on the gates gained ground, but according to ethnographers, their significance is far poorer than that of the old symbols. 

Photo credit: (c) Gina STEFAN / AGERPRES ARCHIVE

"When symbol reading was forgotten, the written stanzas grew in popularity, but their scope is narrower because they only refer to humans. For instance, one such message reads 'Let the good man step in, the evil-hearted stay out.' But the ancient symbols were not related only to good or the bad people. They were meant to fend off all evils, animal or human diseases and stop all harm at the gate. The gate, the threshold, the door is neither outside nor inside, it is neutral ground where spells can be performed or stopped," explains Portik Iren.

Regardless of their appearance, the traditional gates of Harghita and of Satu Mare in particular, are an attraction for tourists. Head of the Satu Mare Tourism Office Madaras Csilla Hajnal says that tourists can travel a short guided circuit of the commune's gates — historic monuments.

The authorities continue their work for the rescue and conservation of these values of traditional folk art, so that the image of the village does not go lost.

"Under partnership activities, many Szekler gates have been restored, the existing gates in the county are being inventoried, and work is done to preserve the traditional image of the village. I believe that the protection of cultural treasures, buildings, of all objects and structures that convey the values and beliefs of our ancestors must be a priority goal that doesn't admit money-shortage as a reason for not fulfilling it. Only thus can we say that we did everything in our powers to leave to our children a welcoming habitable village, and this is the reason why our program for the rescue of the Szekler gates is so important," said Borboly Csaba. AGERPRES