When the 1859 Union is celebrated, the focus usually turns to the eastern Romania city of Iaşi, the former capital of Moldavia, the province which elected Alexandru Ioan Cuza as its ruler on January 5, 1859. His election as ruler of Țara Românească (Wallachia), a few weeks later, on January 24, sealed the formal unification of the two principalities. But while Moldavia gave modern Romania its first leader, it did not offer its capital city.
Between 1859 and 1862, the united principalities had two capitals: Iaşi and Bucharest. The latter remained the only one beginning with 1862, while Iaşi had to contend with a new status, and all that it brought, or not, in the way of its development.
One of Romania’s oldest cities, Iaşi was the capital of Moldavia for three centuries, from 1564 to 1862. It became a capital after ruler Alexandru Lăpușneanu moved the seat from Suceava. After it became a capital, the city started to develop under its new role. In the 17th century, ruler Vasile Lupu built here the Golia and Trei Ierarhi monasteries, and a school for advanced studies, among others. In 1642, it hosted the Synod of Iași, another important moment in the city’s history. The Treaty of Iași, ending the Russian-Turkish War was signed here in 1792. When the 1848 Revolution broke in in Moldavia, Iași was a place gathering many of the personalities supporting social and political reforms, and the union of Moldavia with Țara Românească.
Among the reasons that weighed in favor of Bucharest as a capital, historians name the city’s size and its location closer to the Danube, an important transport route. It was also closer to the Ottoman Empire, and the two principalities were still under its domination at the time. As such, many of the public institutions that were active in Iaşi merged with the ones in Bucharest, while the representations of foreign powers had no reason to remain open in Iaşi.
Against the backdrop of the move, the commercial transactions in the city went down 70% in 1862 compared to 1861, while the value of residences also went down 72% between 1860 and 1862, historian Mihai Chiper explained for Ziarul de Iasi. Wealthy, boyar families left the city for the new capital and Iaşi stopped attracting talent: professors, public servants or business people. While the population of Bucharest grew five times between 1859 and 1930, from 121,734 to 639,040 (including the population of 12 sub-urban areas), that of Iaşi only went up from 65,745 to 102,872 during the same period.
Iaşi was promised various compensations for giving up the status of capital to Bucharest. Several tax deductions, the constructions of roads in the county, consolidation works for the University, and a railroad linking Iaşi to Bucharest were among the proposals of politician and historian Mihail Kogălniceanu. His plan, however, did not pass in the Parliament. Other plans for Iaşi included the moving of the Military School and the Court of Cassation to the city. In 1880, the Parliament voted a law granting more funds to the city and a donation of nine estates, 13 vineyards around the city and in Cotnari, and 85 buildings.
The city’s modernization accelerated towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The period, which coincided with the reign of Carol I, saw many of the city’s iconic buildings constructed, consolidated, finished or restored. Among them were the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Theater, the Palace of the University, the Military School, and the Administrative Palace.
The city rose again to a prominent status during the First World War, when it again became the capital, between 1916 and 1918. As Bucharest was under German occupation, the Romanian royal family, the administration and part of the civilian population took refuge in Iași, from where the efforts to defend the country were undertaken.
This year, on January 24, the city was officially named Historical Capital of Romania, a title that follows a draft law introduced last year to recognize the role it had in the country’s history. Last year, Iași was also named a Royal City, for the role it played during First World War. In the 2018 project, Alba Iulia is named a Capital of the Great Union. The project references a statement of Carol I who committed to “reward Iași, after a long wait, for the great sacrifices this noble city made to the cause of the Union.”
The promise echoes today, when the city and the region are working to make up for development disparities against other regions in the country. In sync with similar initiatives announced towards the end of last year, Iași joined other cities in Moldova to establish the association Moldavia Develops (Moldova se dezvoltă), meant to support the economic development of the area. The association said Moldavia needs a highway linking it to Transylvania, a fast road connection to Bucharest, and high speed rail links to the other regions of the country.
The city’s potential has been highlighted in a 2018 report of the World Bank, titled Rethinking Lagging Regions. It described Iași as “the most dynamic city” in the North East region, the poorest in Romania and one of the last in EU in terms of GDP per capita. The city has a GDP per capita significantly higher than the rest of the region (EUR 5,900 compared with EUR 4,600 for the region), although it is significantly lower than that of Romania as a whole (EUR 7,600). The average net monthly earning here is close to the national average (EUR 404 compared with EUR 418 nationally), and significantly above that of the region (EUR 351).
While the North East Region is one of the poorest in the country and in the EU, Iasi is “a bright spot”. It is a university center, the third-largest in the country after Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca, with a student population of about 55,000, the report notes. This means the city attracts a constant flow of young and well-educated people. At the same time, Iași is the fourth city in the country by the number of migrants it has managed to attract. The city also benefits from the development associated with companies in industries such as IT&C, pharmaceutical or consulting, among them Amazon and Oracle. Manufacturing companies also opened R&D centers in Iași, banking on the human resource in the city.
On the Hachman Index, which measures the complexity of a local economy, Iași ranks 3rd in Romania, after Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca, indicating "high economic dynamism despite relatively poor economic output overall." "Iași may well prove to be the economic engine that will boost the economy of the North East Region, and it may absorb a share of the excess labor force in rural areas," the World Bank report noted.
Landmark sites to visit in Iași
The Palace of Culture
The recently renovated Palace of Culture (pictured) is a symbol of the city. The Neo-Gothic style edifice was built between 1906 and 1925. It hosts four major museums: the Art Museum, Moldavia’s History Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, and Stefan Procopiu Science and Technology Museum.
The Metropolitan Cathedral
The cathedral carries three dedications: to Saint Parascheva, to the Presentation of Jesus and to Saint George. It was inaugurated in 1887, in the presence of King Carol I and Queen Elisabeth, who donated large sums for the project. The cathedral attracts a large number of pilgrims every October as it hosts the relics of Saint Parascheva, a patron saint of Moldavia.
Established in the 19th century, the Botanical Garden is the oldest and largest in the country, spreading on over 80 hectares of land, divided into various sections, including a Rose Garden gathering some 600 varieties of roses.
The city’s oldest public park, dating back to 1834, hosts the Mihai Eminescu Museum, dedicated to Romania’s great Romantic poet, as well as Eminescu's Linden Tree, a centuries-old tree said to have been a favorite of the poet while he lived in Iasi. The park is now also a popular destination for literature festivals, art exhibitions and fairs. The Palace of the University of Iași, inaugurated in 1897, dominates the Copou Hill. It is impressive both on the outside and the inside, where the library of the Gheorghe Asachi Technical University is hosted. In 2015, the library was included among the most majestic libraries in the world in a ranking by Boredpanda.com.
This 17th century Orthodox monastery is guarded by tall walls and a 30-meter high tower, where visitors can climb for panoramic views of the city. It also houses a museum dedicated to Ion Creangă, another canonical Romanian author. In 2012, the monastery received the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage for the way it was restored, contributing to the development of the area it is located in.
The Union Museum
Located inside the Catargiu House, an architectural monument built in the Neo-Classical style, the museum hosts various items linked to the 1848 Revolution and the 1859 Union, among them documents, objects, furniture and interior decoration items that belonged to Alexandru Ioan Cuza, Mihail Kogălniceanu, Vasile Alecsandri and other personalities of the time.
The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue of Iaşi, the oldest such place of worship standing in the country, is testimony to the city’s once large Jewish population. A monument located in front of the synagogue commemorates the victims of the Iaşi pogrom of June 1941.
Alex Andrei. 157 ani de la Unirea Principatelor Române. De ce a cedat Iaşul statutul de capitală at ziaruldeiasi.ro
Diego Ciobotaru. „Jos Cuza! Jos Bucureştiul!“ - Faţa nevăzută a Micii Uniri at ziaruldeiasi.ro
Rethinking Lagging Regions: Using Cohesion Policy to Deliver on the Potential of Europe’s Regions at worldbank.org