The Saxon fortified churches (in the mid 15th century there were 250, today we still have approximately 38) are typical monuments of Transylvanian Saxon architecture. There are seven villages (six Saxon and one Szekler), with fortified churches, founded by the Transylvanian Saxons, listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site:
- In Szeben (Sibiu) County: Nagybaromlak (In Romanian Valea Viilor or Vorumloc, in German Wurmloch, in Saxon German Wurmbach) and Berethalom (In Romanian Biertan or Ghiertan, in German Birthälm);
- In Fehér (Alba) County: Kelnek (in Romanian Câlnic, in German Kelling, in Saxon German Kellenk);
- In Brassó (Brașov) County: Prázsmár (in Romanian Prejmer, in German Tartlau, in Saxon German Tuartlen) and Szászfehéregyháza (in Romanian Viscri, in German Deutsch-Weisskirch). The 15th century Githig fortifird church of Szászfehéregyháza is the most famous in Romania.
- In Maros (Mureş) County: Szászkézd (in Romanian Saschiz, in German Keisd, in Saxon German Kisd);
- In Hargita (Harghita) County: Székelyderzs (in Romanian Dârjiu or Dârj).
Some of the fortified churches are relatively well preserved (such as Kőhalom/Räppes/Rupea, Prasmar/Tartlau/Prejmer and Rádos/Raddeln/Roadeş in Brassó County), others, on the other hand, are neglected or almost destroyed (Doborka/Dobrenk/Dobârca from Szeben County or Szászveresmart/Rotbav/Roth Bach from Brassó County).
In 1224 King Andrew II of Hungary, in order to win the Saxons’ favour against the Teutonic Knights, granted the Saxons a wide range of privileges, through the Diploma Andreanum. In this way the Saxons were united as one (quasi) autonomous nation under the leadership of a crown lieutenant. They were guaranteed free elections for priests and local leaders, together with exemption from customs duties and taxes, except for an annual payment to the king for the lands they had received.
Saxon communities were strictly organized, run by rich Patrician families. The villages were split in smaller settlements called neighborhoods (“Nachbarschaft”) – several families living close by formed an ancestral neighborhood. Each Nachbarschaft was symbolized through an engraved piece of wood, known as the Nachbarschaftszeichen. The leader of each Nachbarschaft was called Nachbarvater (“neighbourhood-father”), his wife being the Nachbarmutter (“neighbourhood-mother”). The neighbours called each other “brothers” and the assistance offered to any member of the small group was called “brotherly help”. The “fraternal” relationships and the hierarchy between the brothers were strictly defined by the Nachbarschaft’s laws. When anyone required help, for example to fix a roof, they would go to the Nachbarschaftsvater and ask for aid from the neighbourhood. It was compulsory for every member of the small community to aid the “brother” in need. In case of any threat the population of the villages would seek refuge in the fortress. In the the towers the members deposited the provisions and their most valuable assets. (Farkas-Zoltán, Hajdú. Székelyek és szászok. A kölcsönös segítség és intézményei a székelyeknél és az erdélyi szászoknál. Mentor Kiadó, 2001)
The 15th century fortified churches are not just simply characteristic Gothic architectural structures, but they carry the cultural heritage of a “nation” while having a strong community-shaping role even today. The fortress was designed is such a way to be able to host and protect the entire population of the village, including the food provisions and valuables at any moment (in case of a threat). The village was governed through a strict code of behavior, so even the usage of personal property was controlled and limited by the rulers and superiors of the community.