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The city consists of two parts: the upper town (the citadel) was constructed by the Charles VI of the Holy Roman Empire between 1716 and 1735 and the lower town, which contains the gothic Catholic cathedral and the Batthyaneum , a museum that was founded in 1794. The tomb of John Hunyadi is also located in Alba Iulia.
The city is historically important for both the Hungarians and Romanians.
The city was an important Dacian political, economic and social centre named Apulon, mentioned by the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy. After the southern part of Dacia became a province of the Roman Empire, the capital of the Dacia Apulensis district was established here, and the city was known as Apulum. Apulum was one of the largest centers in Roman Dacia and the seat of the XIII Gemina Legion.
In the 9th century, the city was mentioned under the name of Bălgrad ("White Citadel"), and a Byzantine source from the mid-10th century mentions Gyula, a chieftain from Transylvania, who was baptised in Constantinople and on his return he brought a Greek missionary monk named Hierotheus, who had been ordained as bishop of the diocese of Turkia (Hungary), and built a church in the city. There is also a reference to the "White castle of Geula" in Gesta Hungarorum, a chronicle dating from the mid-12th century. Following the establishment of the catholic Transylvanian episcopacy after Stephen I of Hungary adopted catholicism, the first cathedral was built in the 11th century. The present (catholic) cathedral was built in the 12th or 13th century. In 1442 John Hunyadi, Voivod of Transylvania, used the citadel to make his preparations for a major battle against the Turks. During his reign, the cathedral was enlarged and after his death he was entombed there.
In 1541, Gyulafehérvár ("White Castle of Gyula") became the capital of the principality of Transylvania, a status it was to retain until 1690. It was during the reign of prince Gabriel Bethlen that the city reached a high point in its cultural history, with the establishment of an academy. Further important milestones in the city's development include the creation of the Batthyanaeum Library in the 18th century, and the arrival of the railway in the 19th century.
Two events in particular give Alba Iulia an importance in Romanian history. In November 1599, Michael the Brave, Voivod of Wallachia, entered Alba Iulia following his victory in the battle of Şelimbăr and became governor of the province, and in 1600 Michael the Brave gained control of Moldavia uniting the three principalities under his rule, until he was killed in 1601 by Giorgio Basta's agents. This event had a historic significance for the Romanians, representing the first act of unification of the three principalities, Wallachia, Moldavia and Transylvania.
On December 1, 1918 tens of thousands of Romanians (the exact number is disputed between Romanian and Hungarian historians) gathered in Alba Iulia, to hear the proclamation of the union of Transylvania with the Kingdom of Romania. In 1922, Ferdinand of Romania was symbolically crowned King of Romania in Alba Iulia, mirroring the act of Michael the Brave.
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