In the Transylvania region of Romania, the city of Cluj-Napoca offers a history of the centuries-long tug-of-war between Hungary and Romania that shaped its identity. In the densely built city center is the Canalul Morii, or Mill Canal that follows an ancient river course, carrying the natural flow of water to the city.
In this photo from a travel site, we see outdoor dining at
Where it Flows
The 1897 map of the city center from the Hungarian mapmaker Posner Karoly Lajos shows the medieval city on the Szamos River with a hilltop fortress overlooking it on the river’s north bank. The historic canal takes water from a tributary creek, then flows parallel to the river before joining into to the city’s northeast. The river is known in Romanian as Someșul Mic, or Little Somes.
The city’s origins date to the indigenous Dacian people for whom Napoca meant either “timbered valley” or a term relating to water and dampness. The Roman emperor Trajan conquered Dacia and transformed the village into a military camp. As with Bordeaux, it had a street grid and surrounded by defensive walls. Imperial rule here collapsed in 274, and Napoca was abandoned. The Dacians preserved their Romanized culture, becoming the ancestors of today’s Romanians, a Romance language nation surrounded by Slavic speakers.
The city was revived in the 9th century by Magyar settlers appearing on maps as Cluj, or clus, or Kolozs. Four centuries later, German-speaking Saxons arrived, calling the town Clausenburg. It was declared a city in 1316 with Kolozsvar gradually becoming the official Hungarian name. As the city grew, the Roman street pattern remained in its center. The above map from 1759 has the city’s German name, with the Hungarian name in smaller letters. At the time, the German-speaking Habsburg family ruled the kingdom. They occupied the Austro-Hungarian throne until 1918.
Along the Course
The canal’s story goes back to 1558 when the city council ordered the construction of a canal through the center of Cluj to ensure cleanliness and proper hygiene, so that the city would appear more attractive to visiting princes, dukes, and diplomats. An old course of the Little Someș that had silted up over the centuries was carved out as the canal. The section along Andrei Șaguna Street reminds Cluj residents of more famous European cities that have urban canals.
In the aftermath of World War One, Transylvania was annexed by Romania. The city’s majority at the time was Hungarian, with sizable German and Jewish minorities. This early 20th century postcard of the city’s Technical University is in Hungarian. During the communist period this section of Canalul Morii was covered to widen George Barițiu Street.
A short walk downstream along George Barițiu Street at Mihai Viteazu Plaza is the postmodern-style Transilvania Bank, whose back alley covers the canal. Three of the plaza’s four corners feature ornate Habsburg period architecture, while this bank represents the present century. The road in the above photo is King Ferdinand Street, named after the ruler who united Transylvania with Romania, greatly enlarging the kingdom. On the opposite side of King Ferdinand Street the canal emerges to the surface, following Andrei Șaguna Street for a couple of blocks.
After crossing Cuza Vodă Street, the stream again goes dark as it is hidden below Argeș Street and its line of market stalls. But all the driveways on this street have the appearance of bridges, including railings that suggest a time when the canal flowed here in daylight. The canal reemerges to the surface at Constanța Street, flowing uninterrupted from that point until it meets again with the Little Someș River to the east of the city.
Near the canal’s crossing by Bucharest Street is Farmer’s Park, a small green space whose only interaction with the stream is a concrete embankment. In May 2018, a team of young architects and local residents completed a project titled Green on the Morii Canal, (Verde pe Canalul Morii) which seeks to reconnect the public with this stream. The temporary footbridge connects the park with apartments on the other side of the canal. Within the park, wooden chairs, film screenings, and puppet shows, are making Farmers Park a neighborhood destination, while raising awareness of the city’s historic canal.
At Henri Barbusse Street, a modernist office with stretched pentagonal windows straddles the stream, but there’s enough light here to make the stream visible. This street’s namesake was a prewar French communist novelist. Following the 1989 revolution, most Romanian streets named for Marx, Lenin, and Ceausescu were renamed. Royal names were restored to the map. Barbusse was retained as he is not as well-known or notorious in history. The canal meets the Little Someș River near the Factory Street Bridge. Little Someș flows into the Someș some 30 miles downstream at Dej, which in turn flows towards Hungary, where it flows into the Tisza, then the great Danube, which sends this water into the Black Sea.
Upstream on the Canal
While the Transilvania Bank makes no accommodation for the stream, the post-modern style Dermavision Clinic on Cardinal Iuliu Hossu Street offers a courtyard with a view of the canal. It designed by Vlad Sebastian Rusu and completed in 2017. The namesake of this street was the Greek Catholic Bishop of Cluj-Gherla. He was arrested by communist authorities for refusing to merge his church with the country’s majority Orthodox church. Today he is regarded as a hero by his church and compatriots.
Further upstream on Cardinal Iuliu Hossu Street, the canal is lined by charming but time-worn mansions and the city’s Central Park that has its own manmade pond. It does not appear connected to the canal.
It is a contemporary of the New York park that shares the same name. Besides the forested look, this Central Park is European in its design, with long alleys running through the woods. Lake Chios inside the park has a bird sanctuary island and boat rentals for the public.
At the time of its construction the canal had its own tributary brooks, but most of its water comes from the Little Someș River, a short distance downstream from the December 1 1918 Bridge, named for the date when Romania annexed Transylvania. This divergence point had mills in the past, as evident by the milldams and cascades here. In July 2019, Mayor Emil Boc announced the city’s intention to develop the narrow green space along the canal here into a park. The proposal appears to answer the 2015 complaint by city residents that there is not enough public access to the canal.
Books on Cluj
My familiarity with Cluj goes back to college when I was considering (but ultimately rejected) getting a PhD in history.
The book that I randomly found at a bookstore on the city is Rogers Brubaker‘s 2008 work Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town which documents ethnic conflicts in the city between the Hungarians and Romanians. Most notably it offers photos from the 1990s, when nationalist mayor Gheorghe Funar festooned Romanian flags on everything possible- lampposts, park benches, buildings, etc. He was voted out in 2004.
The city’s hyphenated name Cluj-Napoca is also a product of nationalism. In 1974, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu sought to restore the city’s Roman name. The name is rarely used beyond official publications. Today the city’s website offers translation in English, Hungarian, and German, with the corresponding city name for each langauge.
Also in Romania:
If this photo essay inspires your interest in Romania, take a look at my earlier story on the Dâmbovița River in Bucharest.
In the News:
Washington Post reports on the health of turtles in the Bronx River as an indicator of the river’s condition.
WJCT News reports on Phase Two of the McCoy Creek restoration in Jacksonville, Florida. The project includes daylighting a covered section of this creek.
China’s official Xinhua News has a photo essay on the restoration of ponds in the Xiongan New Area, in north China’s Hebei Province.