Shaky Foundations – Bridging The Tisza In Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 37)

Szeged was as much an illusion as it was a reality. The beautifully elegant Belvaros (downtown) was perfectly configured, filled with historicist, eclectic and art nouveau buildings lining its pristine streets. Every one of the squares had been swept clean, the sidewalks were immaculate, the cafes and restaurants pictures of upscale propriety. There was no hint that anything had ever been amiss here. The swarthy, seething river city that existed prior to the Great Flood of 1879 with its noxious humidity, mud slicked streets, and the scent of decay had vanished beneath structures laden with stone, plaster and an eye popping array of pastel colors. The Austro-Hungarian architectural makeover was a complete success. Szeged had been transformed into the super model of Hungarian provincial cities, right sized with voluptuous charm. The city felt both romantic and ecstatic, a fantasy born out from a belle epoque that continued right up through today.

My only problem with Szeged was that it reminded me of what might have been. Other Hungarian cities that had suffered destruction from catastrophic disasters could not compete with Szeged’s beauty. I suddenly imagined the treasure trove of architecture that had been stolen away from Hungary by the harsh hand of war. What might have been in other Hungarian cities was a depressingly glorious thought. Paradoxically, Szeged was an outlier among Hungarian cities. Its “historic” architecture was intact or at least that was what I wanted to believe. In 1879 Szeged experienced catastrophe, during Hungary’s nightmarish 20th century it managed to largely avoid it. The harsh hand of war did touch the city, destroying one of its most impressive and important structures.

Bridge Over The Tisza - The old Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged

Bridge Over The Tisza – The old Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged (Credit:

Spanning The Tisza – An Economic Lifeline
Every Hungarian and many a tourist knows that the Chain Bridge was the first bridge built over the Danube. Except for local historians and a handful of history buffs, few are probably aware that the first bridge spanning the Tisza, Hungary’s second largest river, opened nine years after the Chain Bridge’s completion. This one was a railway bridge at Szeged completed in 1858. Unlike its more famous predecessor, the bridge no longer exists because it was washed away with the rest of Szeged during the Flood of 1879. It would not be long before the planning of a replacement bridge was in the works. A total of twenty-nine separate proposals were submitted. The winning one bore that most famous of 19th century European architectural names, the Eiffel Company.

The man who created the winning design for Gustave Eiffel’s firm was Janos Feketehazy, a Hungarian engineer. Feketehazy had learned his craft on the design of such works as the Bosphorus Canal in the Ottoman Empire and the Vienna Stadiu Bridge over the Danube. In 1873 he gained a position with the Hungarian State Railways which led to his involvement in the design of all railway bridges in Hungary up through 1912. Feketehazy was also involved in the design and construction of such famous spans as the Franz Josef Bridge in Budapest and the Maria Valeria Bridge between Esztergom and Parkany (present day Sturovo, Slovakia).

Feketehazy’s bridge in Szeged was no less important than his more famous works. It almost came to naught during its first year of construction when swamped by one of the Tisza’s perennial floods in 1880. The final and most difficult stretch to construct was over the riverbed. This part of the bridge was not completed until 1883. The bridge which would be known as the Belavrosi-hid (Downtown bridge) finally opened to traffic that autumn. The sturdy structure was capable of bearing loads that would later make it fit for future innovations such as tram traffic. Most importantly, it reopened an avenue of transport that was much more reliable than crossing by dangerous watercraft. The bridge was more than a connection from riverbank to riverbank, it was an economic lifeline that helped facilitate interaction between different parts of the growing city.

Spanning the Tisza - The Old Downtown (Belvarosi-hid) Bridge in the distance

Spanning the Tisza – The Old Downtown (Belvarosi-hid) Bridge in the distance (Credit:

Seismic Shockwaves – On The Verge of Collapse
The Belvarosi-hid managed to stand longer than anyone might have expected. By the 1920’s, problems with movement of the pillars due to the swift current of the Tisza meant the bridge was living on borrowed time. Stabilization and renovation work extended the bridge’s lifespan right up into the Second World War. A year before the war arrived on the shoreline of Szeged more work was done to stabilize the riverbed pier. The bridge was suffering from wear and tear, but it might just as well have been jolted by the seismic shock waves from the mass of men, armaments and military equipment moving with rapid speed across the Great Hungarian Plain toward Szeged.

By the autumn of 1944 eastern Hungary had become a battleground between the German and Soviet Armies. The skies above the steppe resounded with the roar of Allied aircraft that targeted strategic points across the region. At the beginning of September, the Belvarosi-hid was damaged by an Allied airstrike. Then with the Red Army closing in on Szeged, retreating German forces sounded the bridge’s death knell when they detonated explosive charges on October 8th. The bridge became another casualty of a total war. The demolition did little to slow the Red Army. Three days after the bridge was blown up, Soviet forces occupied Szeged. As for a new bridge, it would be four years before a replacement could be designed and built.

A New Look - The Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged

A New Look – The Downtown Bridge (Belvarosi-hid) in Szeged

An Enduring Presence – Function Over Style
The bridge that spans the Tisza today is basically the same steel structured edifice that was completed in 1948 with a few revisions. It is not as elegant or striking as Feketehazy’s previous work. Nor does it have the revered Eiffel name for cachet. What it does have is a design that values function over style. This is the main reason that it has lasted longer than any bridge over the Tisza in Szeged. The bridge is not especially photogenic or noticeable, but it helps transport thousands to and from Szeged’s beautiful Belvaros every day. Most of the commuters who use the bridge probably do not give it a second thought. In the grand scheme of bridge construction and destruction in Szeged that is probably a good thing.

The Invisible Women of Hungary – A “National” Pantheon In Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 36)

The architecture and design of Dom ter was exhilarating to the point of distraction. One that almost caused me to forget the first thing I noticed after entering the square. Inside the arcades that surrounded Dom ter were a series of 80 mounted busts. They featured a wide range of famous Hungarians in what was termed the National Pantheon. These included everything from physicians to musicians, poets and politicians. At first glance, the National Pantheon was a seemingly exhaustive one with the likes of Kodaly, Kos and Keleman, Bercsenyi, Bathhyany and Bathory, Ady, Arany and Attila (the poet not the warrior). As I walked from bust to bust, a troubling feeling began to creep over me. While these Hungarians came from an array of backgrounds and disparate occupations, they all had one thing in common, each person represented was male.

The Old Boys Club - The National Pantheon in Szeged

The Old Boys Club – The National Pantheon in Szeged (Credit: Wikipedia)

Willful Ignorance – A Celebration Of Chauvinism
Finding a female in the National Pantheon was an exercise in futility. I searched in vain for a famous Hungarian woman. If the idea of the pantheon was to bring together the greatest contributors to Hungarian history, politics and culture than a large percentage of the population had been left with no representation. Not a single female was to be found among the eighty. The National Pantheon was a closed shop. A men’s only club, that oddly enough was not totally limited to Hungarian men. In a couple of cases there were even foreign men, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef and engineer of the Chain Bridge, Scotsman Adam Clark.

There was no room in the exhibit for Franz Josef’s much more famous wife Queen Elisabeth (Empress Elisabeth of Austria or Sisi), a beloved figure for Hungarians. I have heard Elisabeth referred to as “our Queen” by more than a few Hungarians. She is rightfully exalted in Hungarian circles for her love of the people. She would have been a much better choice than her husband who imposed martial law on Hungary after the 1848 Revolution. While this was but one example, it was a particularly glaring omission. The fact that Elisabeth had been overlooked was a symptom of the overall problem, the National Pantheon was as much a celebration of chauvinism as it was of the nation’s favorite sons. Favorite daughters were nowhere to be found.

The fact that not a single woman was represented made the exhibit both alarming and irritating. It meant that half the population had been willfully ignored. From what I would later learn, the National Pantheon had been installed at the behest of Hungarian Culture Minister Kuno Klebelsburg in 1930. Klebelsburg was a virulent nationalist and anti-semite, who most have had little to no regard for the achievements of Hungarian women. Considering the time period when Klebelsburg held office, his views were not that surprising. More alarming was the fact that in the past eighty years not a single woman had been added to the Pantheon. This was an astonishing oversight, one that was either deliberate or more likely revealing. It was a not so subtle expression of the power of men and the anonymity of women in Hungary.

The Arcaded Way - Dom ter in Szeged

The Arcaded Way – Dom ter in Szeged (Credit: Berosz)

Femme Fatale – Heroines Are Hard To Find
If the National Pantheon was meant to be symbolic than the message was clear, no females need apply. I must grudgingly admit that the exhibit was effective on at least one level, it caused me to think back across my travels in the country, searching my memory for the famous females either in statuary, sculpture or naming conventions. I was struck by how few I could recall. If love is blindness than my romantic view of Hungary was blind to the reality that women were marginalized to the point of invisibility. Heroines rather than heroes were hard to find in Hungary. I had stumbled upon the original sin of omission in the country, one that left me searching for signs of famous females while asking myself exactly who should join the feted figures to round out the National Pantheon.

Right off hand, I could name only three famous Hungarian women. The folk singer Marta Sebestyen, the author Magda Szabo and the most famous Hungarian woman of all time, the infamous “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory. The latter is a litmus test for power and controversy when it comes to Hungarian women. Anytime, a reputed serial killer is a nation’s most famous woman that says something about the way powerful females are viewed in that country. What many have overlooked in the hysteria surrounding Bathory’s exploits (which were grossly exaggerated) was her role as one of the most powerful people in Hungarian history, male or female. She held fortunes in land, villages and other property that were greater than that of the Habsburg emperor.

After Lady Bathory’s husband, the vaunted military commander Ferenc Nadasdy died, Bathory was left widowed and at the less than tender mercies of the male powers that be. The Habsburg King Matthias and Hungarian Palatine Gyorgy Thurzo had a vested interest in having her scandalous behavior brought to light. That is just what happened, with Bathory spending the rest of her life imprisoned and losing all of her property in the process. Did Bathory contribute enough to Hungary that she should be included in a national pantheon? Due to her murderous crimes the answer must be no. Nonetheless, she was resolutely opposed to the Turks and supported Hungarian interests at a time that they were threatened from both within and without. Not to mention the fact that Bathory had more effect on Hungary’s direction than any number of figures represented in the National Pantheon.

Invisible Woman - Rosika Schwimmer

Invisible Woman – Rosika Schwimmer (Credit: Lackner,Vienna)

Silent Voices – A Study In The Exclusionary
No other female comes close to Bathory’s fame or infamy, but other women have certainly left a lasting mark on Hungary. Take for instance, the noted feminist, suffragette and internationalist Rosika Schiwmmer. The daughter of a Budapest produce merchant, she was a pacifist at a time when war was all the rage. Schwimmer was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Switzerland following World War I. Her efforts helped Hungarian women gain limited suffrage in 1918. The communists and fascists vehemently disagreed on just about everything, except for their universal loathing of Schwimmer, which says something remarkable about her principles. She was forced into exile, but continued to fight for various causes. In 1947 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not so much surprising as it is sad that Schwimmer is not a member of the National Pantheon.

The irony of the National Pantheon is that much of it is attached to buildings that belong to the University of Szeged, an institution whose student body is majority female. Do the women studying at the University realize their marginalization is being openly presented to the public right in front of them? What are their thoughts about the impact that famous Hungarian women have had on the nation’s history, politics and culture? What females would they recommend for inclusion in the Pantheon? These questions have never been answered, let alone asked. The voices that need to speak the loudest continue to remain silent.

Feeling Like Forever – The Sublime Spirituality of Szeged’s Dom Ter (For The Love of Hungary Part 35)

If first impressions are everything, then Szeged did not take long to make a good one. Leaving the train station, I turned north heading towards the city center. In a few minutes I found myself walking through an arched entranceway where I was confronted with an awesome sight. The huge open square of Dom ter (Cathedral Square) suddenly spread out in front of me. A space made magnificent by what lay at its northern end. My eyes were drawn upward to the twin towers of the neo-Romanesque Votive Church. Its spires soared, these skyscrapers of spirituality reaching 81 meters into a brilliantly blue and cloudless sky. The church was as much spectacle as it was spiritual, towering over the square. Its sheer verticality meant that wherever I walked in the square, the church always loomed.

The Votive Church’s exquisite architecture was made that much more impressive by its immediate surroundings. While these were on a much smaller scale, they were no less regal due to their own unique splendor. Around three sides of Dom ter stood a series of like designed, low rise buildings that were part of the University of Szeged, Bishop’s Palace and a theological school. Below these buildings, arcade after arcade were aligned in great arched rows. Within these arcades, attached to the walls, were a series of busts. There were eighty of them in all. This was National Pantheon of great Hungarians on display. The arcades added an astonishing element of symmetry to the square’s design, creating a mesmerizing aesthetical geometry.

The open space of the square felt larger even than its 12,000 square meter size, an optical and architectural illusion of spatial infinity. The day of my visit to Dom ter there were very few people about. This made the square’s emptiness feel like forever. I would only later learn that Dom ter is almost the same size as St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I never would have guessed that, since Dom ter’s expansiveness was not disguised by hordes of tourists. Another thing the square did not hide, was the feeling that everything within it, other than Domotor’s Tower, was rather recent in its construction.

First Impression - View of the Votive Church from arched entranceway into Dom ter

First Impression – View of the Votive Church from arched entranceway into Dom ter

The Votive Church – A Symbol Of Divine Intercession
When Szeged was being rebuilt after the flood of 1879, the citizenry wanted to make amends spiritually in the hope that it would be spared any future calamities. To some this mindset might seem superstitious, after all it was a natural rather than a metaphysical calamity which had brought the city to the point of complete destruction. Yet it is understandable when one considers that the city was almost extinguished overnight with little warning by the high tide of the Tisza. The fear of God must have been prominent in those who were lucky to survive and see the city reconstructed from scratch. To pay penance or perhaps to offer up a symbol of divine intercession, a great work of religious architecture would be commissioned, its role as a symbol of penitence creating an added amount of significance. The city council decreed that such a work would be constructed, but it would take much longer than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Finding a suitable piece of property in the city to build what was to be a massive structure proved difficult. An entire neighborhood of small streets would have to be demolished in the process. This delayed the beginning of construction until 1913, unfortunately a year before the outbreak of World War I would cause further delays. The plans for the Votive Church could not have been prepared by a finer architect, Frigyes Schulek, the same man who had remodeled the Matthias Church on Castle Hill in Buda. To carry out Schulek’s original plans would have cost a mint, thus these were altered by another architect, Erno Foerk. The final product was not completed until 1930. It would be well worth the wait. While the church’s overarching style is neo-Romanesque, it would be more appropriate to refer the church as neo-Middle Ages due to its Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque elements. For instance, between the soaring spires stands a smaller dome, which recalls the beloved churches from the late Middle Ages which are still to be found in the western Hungarian villages of Lebeny and Jak. Whether this was done by accident or design hardly matters, the effect is touching.

Symbol of Penitence = The Votive Church in Szeged

Symbol of Penitence = The Votive Church in Szeged

The Votive Church’s darkened, clinker brick exterior gives the church a more refined look, making it stand out against the sky. Inside, there is a very Hungarian twist on a fresco behind the main altar. There the Madonna is portrayed wearing the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king. On her shoulder is the coronation mantle. In addition to the main altar, there are also altarpieces found in both the right and left transepts of the church. No dramatic detail is overlooked. That is why the experience of any service held in the church cannot be complete without the worshipers hearing the forceful sounds of music emitted by the 9,040 pipes of its organ. In sum, the Votive Church was built to impress and achieves that goal in every way.

Antiquity & Simplicity – Domotor Tower
Ironically, the most intriguing structure in Dom ter is also something of an antithesis to the Votive Church. This is the free standing Domotor Tower, which is located just to the front and west of the church. The singular structure stands out from everything else in Dom ter, both historically and architecturally. It is a product of the Middle Ages with a foundation from the 11th century, lower half 12th century Romanesque and topped by a 13th century, octagonal shaped Gothic tower. Once part of St. Domotor’s Church, the structure has somehow managed to survive a multiplicity of conquests, natural catastrophes and plans for demolition to remain as an austere reminder of the antecedents to today’s splendor.

Standing On Its Own - Domotor Tower in Dom ter

Standing On Its Own – Domotor Tower in Dom ter

The tower is dwarfed by the Votive Church, its proximity a quixotic presence that represents the deepest history to be found in Szeged. The fact that so little of Old Szeged remains, makes Domotor Tower of inestimable historical value. The comparatively ancient tower has its back turned to the Votive Church as if to ignore its modern successor. I found myself spending more fascinated by the the Tower than the church. There were hints of an inscrutable megalomania about the church. By comparison, the tower seemed to me a miniature that could be studied up close and internalized. Here was an apt example of how bigger is not always better. The outsized splendor of the Votive Church was mighty and impressive, but the antiquity and simplicity of Domotor Tower was beyond compare.

Tisza Fever – Portraits Of Old Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 34)

An English language traveler is at the mercy of guidebooks when acquiring knowledge about Szeged before traveling to the city. My decision to visit was almost entirely based upon what I read beforehand. How could it be otherwise? Hungarian is an extremely difficult language to learn and I was not about to acquire any degree of proficiency in a fortnight. Thus, I relied upon my trusty Rough Guide and Bradt Guide to Hungary. Each had glowing things to say about Szeged. From the Rough Guide I learned that Szeged was “a provincial Budapest, as cosmopolitan a city as you’ll find on the Great Plain”. Bradt called the city “a thriving rebuttal to those who view the Great Plain as an architectural and cultural wasteland.” Both went on to offer up large dollops of praise about the city’s many attractions.

Such words proved magnetic, drawing me across the Great Plain in search of the source of those glowing words. The guidebooks proved correct. Szeged was spectacular, more so because it was unexpected. For me it was Vienna on the Puszta, its inner city a sparkling jewel box of buried treasures awaiting discovery amid an ocean of grass. It was one of the few places I visited that lived up to its reputation. Later I came to wonder what earlier guidebooks and travelers had said about the city, both before and after the Flood of 1879 that brought transformative architectural changes to the city. I wondered what earlier English language travelers and guidebooks had to say about Szeged. I could not imagine that it had always been so lauded and I was right.

A Classic Account - Hungary and Transylvania by John Paget

A Classic Account – Hungary and Transylvania by John Paget

The Teeming Backwater – A Disagreeable & Desolate Town
The British traveler John Paget passed through Szeged while crossing the Great Hungarian Plain on his way to the Banat region (present day western Romania) in 1839. Paget left only a page of his impressions, but they were revealing. He found Szeged “one of the most disagreeable towns in Hungary”. Much of this had to do with its muddy streets and squalid houses that gave little hint of habitation. He also remarked upon the castle ruins which he termed the “old fortress”. Commenting that they “add to the desolation, without increasing the beauty of the place.” Paget did have enough self-awareness to note that his impressions may have been as much the product of his disposition on that Sunday evening when he arrived, as of the town itself. In truth, Szeged was a marginal city on a vast and lonely frontier that was at mercy of the Tisza River and its annual inundations.

While Paget is rightfully known for his two-volume work on his travels throughout Hungary and Transylvania, another British journalist who traveled through Szeged a decade later rendered a much more thorough account of the city during a melancholic period in Hungarian history. Edinburgh born writer A.A. Paton came to Szeged a year after the failure of the 1848-49 Hungarian Revolution. Arriving in the city after a 17 hour trip by steamer down the Tisza, Paton was taken aback by the ankle deep mud, standing water (ducks had been spotted in the middle of town!) and insipid humidity that permeated the city. Paton feared that he might catch “Tisza Fever” from the fetid climate. He spent a fair amount of time in Szeged, enough to fill up six pages of his book The Goth and The Hun, with a fascinating variety of impressions.

Written Into History - The Goth and The Hun by A.A. Paton

Written Into History – The Goth and The Hun by A.A. Paton

The Haughty & Humbling – A Writer’s View Of Szegedin
Paton spent a great deal of his time in “Szegedin” as he refers to it, observing the commerce and industry of the city. He offers fascinating snapshots of the city’s four main districts. The first of these and most advanced was the Palanka. This was the inner city district, given its name by the wooden planks which were used to fortify it against the Turks during the 16th century. Though these planks had since rotted away, the area was still delineated in the minds of locals by their former presence. In this area lived wealthy merchants and tradesmen in a wide variety of homes, from stylish to nondescript. Nearby is the old fortress which Paton scales for a view across the Theiss (Tisza) to New Szegedin, most of which had been burned out due to the explosion of a powder magazine during the Hungarian Revolution.

Further afield, but on the same side of the river as the Palanka stood the lower town (Also-varos), where the homes were more spaced out with gardens and pools of water between many of them. This area was a quasi-urban/quasi-rural backwater, a downtrodden part of town. It was also home to the city’s shipbuilding and watermill construction industry. Finally, there was the upper town (Felso-varos) where no less than twenty small scale enterprises were engaged in the manufacture of soap using alkali from the region’s surrounding wastelands that was combined with tallow brought down the Maros River from Transylvania. Paton, like so many of the British of that era, was focused on commerce and the commercial aspects of the town.

The Fight For Supremacy - Austrian and Hungarian troops fighting at Szeged in 1849

The Fight For Supremacy – Austrian and Hungarian troops fighting at Szeged in 1849

The Great Divide – Austrian Administration & Magyar Nationalism
Paton did spend some time getting to know both sides of the Austrian/Hungarian divide in the city. At the time of his visit, Hungary was under martial law that had been imposed by the victorious Austrians following the Revolution. He had much in common with the city’s Austrian commander, General Ramperg, who had spent a great deal of time in London. The general provided him with advice regarding his travel onward to Transylvania. Speaking of ethnic Germans, Paton also remarked on how Szeged’s town burghers had affected pro-Magyar fervor during the revolution in order to curry favor with the Hungarian majority. He looks askance at this self-serving about face, comparing it unfavorably with the stout ethnic pride shown by the Croats, Serbs and Slovaks during the same period.

Only a couple of years earlier Lajos Kossuth had given his last speech on Hungarian soil in Szeged. The city was still a hotbed of Magyar nationalism when Paton visited. He spent time in shadowy conversations with the city’s pro-revolutionary denizens. Paton was impressed with the sincerity of their arguments, but he could never be quite persuaded to support their cause. He mentions them in his narrative, but not by name sparing them possible reprisals. Whether he realized it or not, Paton’s words would live well beyond his visit. He provided one of the most valuable English language traveler’s accounts of the city at a crucial moment in its existence. One that would last much longer than Old Szeged, which was soon to be carried away by the flood tide of history.

History Without The Ruins To Show For It – Szeged: Before The Flood Of 1879 (For The Love of Hungary Part 33)

Upon arrival in Szeged I walked into the city’s main train station which I found much to my liking. It was a multi-storied affair that I found to be of an engaging design with its pre-World War I styled festive façade and large windows overlooking the entrance. These elements were the hallmarks of architect Ferenc Pfaff, many of whose 29 palaces of rail transport can still be found placed throughout the provincial cities of what was once the Kingdom of Hungary.  The station had been recently restored to its former grandeur using Pfaff’s original plans. The grandeur it evoked was in harmony with greater architectural wonders to come in the city. For Szeged was a provincial city par excellence whose architecture, history and culture punched far above its weight.

Standing outside the station looking back at the façade it was easy to imagine that time had been turned back by over a century. It would not have been surprising to see men in bowler hats and dark suits checking their timepieces while they escorted ladies with parasols on to carriages or horse drawn trams that would transport them to the inner city. Starting with the train station, Szeged was a place that was the ultimate throwback to the halcyon days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A whiff of the imperial pervaded the city. This made it beloved by many who looked with adoration on what many consider to the glory days of modern Hungary. Conversely, it also serves to hide a deeper, more troubled history that was hidden behind the immaculate eclecticism of its Golden Age architecture.

The Triumphal Procession - Segedin in 1686

The Triumphal Procession – Segedin in 1686 (Credit: Jacob Peeters)

Swept Away– The Flood Tide Of History
The key event in Szeged’s modern history occurred on March 12, 1879. During the night a massive wall of water came surging into the city. The Tisza River turned into a veritable tsunami, causing a flood of biblical proportions. Estimates of the damage were cataclysmic with just 3% of the city’s structures still standing and hundreds of lives washed away literally overnight. When this massive inundation receded hardly anything was left of the once thriving city. It was not just that all hope was lost, so was most of the city. In the immediate aftermath, Szeged’s future looked bleak. A plan was soon hatched to rebuild Szeged in a style befitting a great city rather than a provincial riverside one.

The plan was first laid out in overwhelmingly ambitious terms by the words of none other than Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef who had come to see the damage for himself. Franz Josef stated that Szeged would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. He pledged to put the entire empire’s resources behind the rebuilding. The emperor’s words were soon backed by action. What followed was the construction of beautiful squares and spacious boulevards for an inner city stuffed with eclectic and art nouveau architectural confections. This reinvention of Szeged was so successful that it is now hard to imagine that another, distinctly different Szeged existed for many centuries before the rebuilding. Pre-1879 Szeged was physically obliterated by the great flood, while the memory of it was also washed away.

The pre-flood version of the city might as well be ancient history without the ruins to show for it. The beauty of modern Szeged has all but obscured this deeper past, one that was devastated by the Turks long before it was drowned by the Tisza. Nonetheless, this invisible past was worth a look, but I would have to find it in the pages of history books rather than on my stroll through the city. Finding old Szeged was the equivalent of chasing the ghosts of a city’s invisible past. For instance, little more than a few insubstantial remnants of Szeged’s old castle still exist. That does not leave much to go on. Turning back time, means looking to the written record and finding illustrations of the old city to make up for a woeful lack of physical evidence. I began to search for the most important date in Szeged’s history prior to the flood. This brought me to 1686, a year of historical paradoxes. On one hand there was liberation, on the other was the start of another occupation.

Ottoman Endgame - The Siege of Szeged in 1686

Ottoman Endgame – The Siege of Szeged in 1686

Capturing History At A Crucial Moment – Szeged: Version 1686
In 1686 a woodcut of Segedin (Szeged’s German name) was created in Antwerp by a Flemish artist named Jacob Peeters. It provides an image of old Szeged at a moment of sweeping change while also offering a less than authentic rendering of the city at a crucial point in its history. In the autumn of 1686, following a siege of many months, 143 years of Ottoman Turkish occupation came to an end.  The woodcut from Peeters shows this in rather tidy fashion with some trampled Turks in the foreground while Habsburg forces proceed to fight off a few others. Further back sits a beautiful walled city, looking as though it has been untouched by conflict.  A bit of homage is paid to its century and a half of Muslim rule, with a mosque and couple of minarets conspicuously rising above most of the stone structures. Beyond flows the Theis (Tisza) and Marosch (Maros) Rivers delineated in their Germanic spellings. The woodcut offers a romanticized image of Szeged as a place of triumph and idyllic beauty. What it does not show is the squalor and ruin that weeks of fighting would have inflicted upon the castle and its surroundings.

Up In Flames - 1950's Matchbook Cover of Old Szeged

Up In Flames – 1950’s Matchbook Cover of Old Szeged (Credit: Takk)

Whatever Szeged may have looked like in 1686, it was certainly nowhere close to what it had been when the Turks took it in 1543. Back then, Szeged had 7,000 inhabitants with an economy centered around the Transylvanian salt trade. By 1686 the population was down to just 2,000. The ethnic Hungarian population had largely vanished. Getting the city back to a semblance of what it had been before the Turks arrived would take decades. The first step was liberation, the second would be reconstruction and resettlement. The expulsion of the Ottoman Turks was a seminal event in Szeged’s history. Ironically, it would never have happened without Habsburg military prowess. One occupation was replaced by another. Austrian and Hungarian interests were more similar, but certainly not the same. For Szeged to become a Hungarian provincial city par excellence was still far off in the future. As for this history, there was hardly anything more important and more invisible. The irony was that without the Turkish expulsion and Austrian inspired rule, Szeged would never have realized its ultimate destiny.

More Than Anyone Can Imagine – The Seduction of Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 32)

One of the most appealing aspects of travel in Hungary is the ability to make day trips to the far corners of the country from Budapest. Almost any point is accessible by rail in less than three hours. This includes all the major cities. Fancy taking a day trip to climb Sopron’s Firewatch Tower, it is a straight shot by rail only two hours and twenty-two minutes away. Want to see a magnificent example of a fin de siècle train station, hop on a train from Budapest to Miskolc and in one minute less than the time it takes to travel to Sopron you can arrive at Ferenc Pfaff’s confectionary creation. Or what about viewing the famed Reformed Church in Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome”? All it takes is an affordable train ticket to glide across the Great Hungarian Plain for two hours and thirty-five minutes on the railway to Debrecen. I found every one of these options appealing, to the point that I found myself staring at the Hungarian National Railways map in a state of barely contained rapture imagining all the dreams that could soon become a reality.

A five hour round trip train ride through the Hungarian countryside may not be for everyone, but it is my idea of travel at its finest. Passenger trains are nothing more than a novelty in the United States, but in Hungary they are the preferred mode of public transit. As such they link up every point of the compass, shuttling Hungarians across the countryside hundreds of time each day. Train travel is a way of life for many as they shuttle from city to city, village to city and village to village. For the masses in Hungary this is a necessity, whereas for me it was an opportunity to go anywhere I chose. That is how I ended up riding the rails to Szeged on a Saturday morning in late September.

On The Border - Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

On The Border – Szeged is located in southeastern Hungary

Paved With Grass – The Path To Conquest
Traveling by train to Szeged offered me the opportunity to see the landscape of southeastern Hungary, which I soon learned was a yawning extension of the Great Hungarian Plain. If not for Szeged, there would be very little reason for foreign tourists to set foot in this region of sublime expanses, limitless horizons and pastoral landscapes. This is a land with no natural borders, a fact which proved of great detriment to its history. Marauding armies found little to stop them other than Hungarian forces which were dutifully cut to pieces. Once they were dispatched, these grasslands were thoroughly overrun, occupied and starved of Hungarian development for a century and a half while under the cruel administrative thumb of the Ottoman Turks.

One of the great revelations regarding the region occurred when I came across a map of Hungarian castles. Southeastern Hungary, with only one exception – Gyula Castle – showed nothing of note when it came to castles. Those that once rose from the Great Plain have long since been reduced to ruin. Their dusty residue blew away centuries ago. Rather than defend a defenseless land it was better for Hungarians to head north and west for the hills. Hundreds of settlements and tens of thousands of people disappeared from southeastern Hungary. The population density has never really recovered. This makes the city of Szeged an outlier in the region, a city of the plain that improbably sprung from the flatlands. It is an urban outpost on an otherwise unknown frontier that offers more than anyone can imagine.

Always On Time - The Szeged Train Station

Always On Time – The Szeged Train Station

Sealing The Borders – A Treaty of Transformation
A few of the things I learned about Szeged before arriving in the city were not that surprising until I considered its location. Hungarian to its core, home of the famous Pick Salami and one of the nation’s leading universities, the city’s population is 93.5% ethnic Hungarian. Nonetheless, it is located close to foreign soil. The point at which the borders of Hungary, Romania and Serbia meet is just 20 kilometers from Szeged. In terms of Hungary, Szeged is the most isolated of its largest cities. Taking a more expansive view of the area’s geography by incorporating the old Kingdom of Hungary’s borders, Szeged happens to be not nearly as isolated. The city of Subotica, which is now located in the northern extremity of Serbia, was only 50 kilometers away. The cities of Arad and Timisoara now in Romania were only a little over a hundred kilometers to the east. Like everything else in post-World War I Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon caused massive upheaval. Today a train to any of those nearby cities from Szeged can take up to six hours since none of them go there directly.

In the time it would take a passenger to ride one way to Timisoara, they could ride from Budapest to Szeged and back with time to spare. It was a good thing I was going to Szeged on this day, because trying to cross the Romanian or Serbian borders by train from Szeged is a tedious task. Szeged’s political, economic and cultural life was unmade and then transformed by Trianon. The world class university that Szeged is so proud of today, moved from Transylvania after that region became part of Romania. It also became the regional powerhouse now that all its nearby competitors were in other nations. Its geographic situation just inside the new national borders also brought about an influx of ethnic Hungarians from lands that had been lost due to Trianon. Thus, it became what it is today, the powerhouse of southeastern Hungary.

Upon Arrival - Szeged is a banner city

Upon Arrival – Szeged is a banner city

Extreme Makeover – From Flood To Flourishing
Szeged’s post-World War I makeover pales in comparison to its radical transformation due to the calamitous flooding of the Tisza River in 1879. The cityscape of Szeged that stands today, is part and parcel of a massive rebuild that occurred after the flood waters receded. The reason I had chosen Szeged for a day trip was almost entirely due to the flood of 1879. The city’s rebuilding provided a staging ground for Austro-Hungarian architectural styles. This construction took place in a period without precedent in Hungarian history. Economic growth flourished throughout the land and most prominently came to an apogee on the reconstructed streets and structures of Szeged. As the train pulled into the city’s main station, I could barely contain my excitement to see the many wonders that awaited me.


A Future That Never Arrives – The Road From Esztergom (For The Love of Hungary Part 31)

I arrived at the Esztergom train station to take a bus that would only get me halfway back to Budapest. This was a fitting finale to a daytrip that did not work out as planned. Esztergom had been strangely disappointing for me. It had not lived up to my grandiose imaginings of a sparkling riverside city that would serve as the setting for arguably the most important spiritual structure in all of Hungary. Everywhere I visited in the city turned out to be less than I could have ever imagined. The Basilica was too big and empty, the Castle Museum lacked anything of more than mild interest and the Maria Valeria Bridge was a replica rather than an original. The sky was gray, the river brown and the town all but dead.

It was one of those anonymous weekdays that make up much of life and so little of memory. My trip’s less than ideal beginning, with a public transport transfer and detour, turned out to be indicative of all that was to come. I spent almost the entire visit disconcerted, discombobulated and disenchanted. My opinion of the town owed much to my mindset. I went there thinking that Esztergom was so filled with greatness, that greatness would visit with me. Rather than discovering magic, I suffered the ordinary. Little did I know that my most lasting memory of Esztergom would be made just before boarding the bus taking me out of town. And it would not be a good one.

The Forever Wait - Esztergom Train Station

The Forever Wait – Esztergom Train Station (Credit: Sandor Antal)

The Life Of A Stranger – A Little Closer To Reality
His name was Robert and he was dressed quite nicely for a man about to take a short bus ride. He wore a dark dress jacket, a nice pair of slacks and button up shirt that in America would be viewed as appropriate attire for a dinner date.  He was standing close to me as we waited to board. I noticed him because he made eye contact. This was not unusual in Hungary, but to make continued eye contact was. We nodded in acknowledgment to one another as we stood among a small crowd. He came a bit closer and introduced himself. I was surprised when he began speaking to me in English. We made a bit of small talk about the inconvenience of having to take a bus rather than a train. His English was much better than that of many Hungarians.

I should not have been surprised since he could not have been much older than thirty, part of a newer, more outward looking generation. Usually I am guarded at public transport stations, but in this case the day had been such a letdown that I was willing to converse with almost anyone. It was not long before Robert was sharing his story. He tried to emigrate to Canada while searching for work. He had some family connections, but neither the education nor job skills necessary to be allowed anything more than a short-term stay. Since he was Roma, the asylum angle was worth a try. He had claimed discrimination on account of his ethnicity, stating that he could not find work in Hungary. According to him, Hungarians were not going to employ someone of Roma descent. It was nearly impossible to find a decent paying job. A career position was out of the question.

The Outsider’s Perspective – A Slight Hint Of Resignation
I was taken aback by his nonchalance when he stated this while standing among a crowd of Hungarians. I am certain that none of them understood, let alone cared, what he had to say. Nonetheless, it was more than a little bizarre to hear him say all this while keeping his emotions in check. He stated it with such calm, dispassionate reason that I was a bit shocked. There was no anger in his tone. If anything, there was only a slight hint of resignation. My only real issue with Robert was that he stood too close for comfort when talking to me. This would not have been a problem except for the putrid smell of his breath. It caused me on more than one occasion to step out of the direct line of his conversation. I was relieved when just before boarding the bus our conversation ended.

Onboard we sat several rows away from each other. Midway between Esztergom and Vac, the bus stopped. Robert got out of his seat and prepared to get off. He suddenly paused, turned around and looked me straight in the eye for a couple of seconds. He then got off the bus and disappeared forever. I still wonder to this day what has happened to him. I have a strange feeling that he is still getting off and on that same bus, standing outside trains stations or bus stops always waiting for a future that never arrives. That is what I imagine, because it is what I fear most. Not just for him, but also for me. Constantly traveling and still going nowhere, much like my trip to Esztergom.

Nowhere In Particular - Bus picking up passengers in Esztergom

Nowhere In Particular – Bus picking up passengers in Esztergom

The Drizzle & The Deluge – Into The Future
Once on the train back to Budapest, the grey skies which had threatened a downpour all day finally let loose. In a matter of minutes, a drizzle turned into a deluge. I stared out of water streaked windows, barely able to make anything out beyond the rivulets which coursed in trails of watery tears down the glass. Ironically my mood began to brighten. The weather may have been miserable, but I was surrounded by teenagers, at times rambunctious, at other times gossipy.

They were taking the train home from school. I had never seen a single school bus in Hungary. This was a much more accommodating substitute. I looked at all those kids oblivious to the world around them and I suddenly wished their experience had been mine. They were on their way to the outskirts of a great European capital city. These lively Magyars in miniature were enjoying an experience they could only know as normal. To be young and Hungarian, with the future in front of them. It was the opposite of Robert’s experience, one that these kids would never know. Sometimes the future is not what you make of it, but what it makes of you.

History In The Making – Esztergom Castle Museum: The Long Turkish War (For The Love of Hungary Part 30)

The most incredible aspect of Esztergom’s Royal Palace ruins had little to do with its most noticeable traits, specifically its location and architecture. Sure, the former palace inhabits a prominent place on Castle Hill where the walls offer tremendous vistas across Esztergom’s Vizivaros (water town) and to the Danube far below. The palace ruins also still contain portions of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. For me, these fragments were appealing, but hardly revealing. Instead, it was the palace’s history between 1526 and 1686 that were both astonishing and alarming. To say that time span was fraught with violence is a massive understatement. Hungarian forces, most of the time aligned with, but at times also against the Habsburgs, fought lethal battles on innumerable occasions at Esztergom with the Ottoman Turks. What is left of the royal palace today somehow managed to survive this cataclysmic period of warfare. Knowing what I did about that period of Hungarian history it amazed me that anything had survived at all.

The Bells That No Longer Toll - Esztergom Castle

The Bells That No Longer Toll – Esztergom Castle

The Human Toll – Lost In Interpretation
The constant warfare that fell upon Esztergom was inaugurated down the Danube in 1526 at the Battle of Mohacs. Among the many Hungarian casualties of that decisive defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks was the Archbishop of Esztergom. The most powerful religious figure in the land was one of several thousand, most notably the Hungarian king, who lost their lives. The battle did more then leave Hungary open to a full-scale Ottoman invasion, it also opened the way to internecine warfare between Hungarian and Habsburg claimants to the throne. While infighting accelerated, the Ottomans ravaged the southern and central parts of Hungary, eventually occupying these regions with predictably disastrous consequences for the inhabitants. At the same time, the Ottoman Turks were moving further north into Hungary.

Between 1526 and 1543 Esztergom suffered six different sieges. The final siege during that period proved decisive when Suleiman the Magnificent took the castle (where the old Royal Palace was located) after 16 days. This was just the start of a period of on again, off again warfare that would last for a century and a half. Much of old Esztergom was lost during the prolonged violence, but astonishingly parts of the Royal Palace managed to survive. All this rather depressing history foreshadowed my final stop in Esztergom which included the Royal Palace’s remnants. They can now be visited as part of the Esztergom Castle Museum.

Depending upon the century, the complex was either a castle, fortress or palace. Usually a combination of all three. Unfortunately, the museum and what was left of the complex left much to be desired. I wandered around the museum, puzzling over exactly what was built when. The main drawing point from a historical perspective was less what was inside and more the fact that such luminaries of Hungarian history as Hungary’s first king, Stephen I and Matthias Corvinus’ Neapolitan wife, Queen Beatrix, spent a great deal of time here. This was also where Hungarian King Bela III had played host to Frederick of Barbarossa who was traveling to join the Third Crusade. For such an important historical place the interpretation was certainly lacking.

The Fragmented Past - Written in stone at the Esztergom Castle courtyard

The Fragmented Past – Written in stone at the Esztergom Castle courtyard

Besieged By History – Nothing To See, Everything To Learn
The Castle Museum’s exhibits could be summed up as “there was even less to learn about than there was to see.” I do not recall a single item or detail from the interior. I failed to walk away with a single photo of the exhibits. Outside there were lots of bells and cannons that looked like they had been set in place for aesthetic purposes. Without any further explanation they were altogether useless. Upon reflection, my time at the Esztergom Castle Museum was not unlike my other visits to castles and fortresses in Hungary. There was the beguiling lure of unique architecture and history, coupled with a scenic setting on a hilltop with amazing vistas in every direction. Only after arriving did I discover that all the human drama had been drained from these places.

It is no secret that Hungarian castles and palaces have suffered more than those in many other western European countries. They have been ransacked by Turks, blown apart by the Habsburgs, pillaged by Nazis and become playthings in the hands of Soviet troops. The upshot is that interior furnishings are scarce, while many of the architectural elements have been defiled. Besides those larger features able to withstand the destruction wrought by a conquering force, there is not that much to see in many of these places. Nonetheless, a great opportunity has been lost to interpret these historical events in a more compelling manner.

Forgotten But Not Gone - Siege of Esztergom 1543

Forgotten But Not Gone – Siege of Esztergom 1543 (Credit: Sebastiaen Vrancx)

An Escape From The Past– Truth & Consequences
I found myself wishing that the museum had spent more time on one particular aspect of the castle’s history. It would have been fascinating to see information and interpretation focusing on the extraordinary level of violence and warfare during the 16th and 17th centuries that took place on and around Castle Hill. This violence affected much more than palaces, castle walls and places of worship. It meant the subjugation, enslavement and/or murder (sometimes all three) of those living in Esztergom. Thousands were left homeless, famished, prone to deadly epidemics and poverty stricken. To make matters much worse, the violence continued unabated for decades at a time.

One of the most lethal military conflicts was the so-called Long Turkish War that took place from 1593-1606. Entire areas were depopulated, including those in and around Esztergom. This had long lasting demographic consequences for Hungary. That has all but been forgotten in the recounting of a few facts and dates. The Turkish victory at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and the Siege of Buda in 1686 by Habsburg forces are neat bookends that mask the in between years of ultraviolent warfare. This insidious horror was reenacted all over Hungary for eight consecutive generations. I am no scholar of Hungarian history, but it seems to me that this history would be worth recounting, if for no other reason than how it stunted the growth of Hungary for centuries to come and left the country under foreign – i.e. Habsburg – rule.

Perhaps those in charge of the museum’s exhibits do not find this interesting or relevant to Hungarian history. They might feel that the public would not consider this to be proper history or more to the point those in charge do not feel this to be proper history. Yet this was the fate of Esztergom and by extension the fate of Hungary. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was no way to escape this harsh reality, but visitors to the Castle Museum in Esztergom can easily escape this history because it does not exist there. An opportunity has been lost. The only thing for me to do was walk away unsatisfied. If only those citizens of 16th and 17th century Esztergom had been so lucky.

Power Without Glory – Esztergom Basilica: A Matter of Perspective (For The Love of Hungary Part 29)

I climbed all the way to the top of Castle Hill in Esztergom only to suffer a massive let down. My expectation that the Esztergom Basilica would live up to the incredible history that had occurred on Castle Hill was to end in disappointment. Scarcely had so much effort been put into a structure that turned out to be so unimpressive. The Basilica left everything to the imagination. Perhaps it was the gray weather or my weary mindset that made me loath the Basilica, but for me it was a stylistic dud of gargantuan proportions. The first thought that crossed my mind while facing it was of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. The eight gigantic Corinthian Columns which commanded the portico were similar. It looked administrative and “official” to the point of sterility. I asked myself how a nation as cultured and creative as Hungary could have fallen for such oversized neo-classicism permeating one of its most important structures. The Basilica was the antithesis of such styles as eclecticism and vernacular architecture. The structure looked like something that belonged anywhere but on this hill. Its iron dome loomed large, always hovering in the background. This was its most noticeable characteristic, more a point of novelty than fascination.

Monumentally Massive - Esztergom Basilica

Monumentally Massive – Esztergom Basilica (Credit:

Monumental Monstrosity – Lost In Space
The one thing that the Basilica had going for it was girth. Its list of superlatives was impressive or depressive depending upon one’s point of view. It was the largest church in Hungary which was hardly surprising. I did find it shocking to learn that the Basilica was also the nation’s tallest building. The organ inside was also Hungary’s largest and once a major reconstruction is complete, will be the third largest in Europe. I supposed that all this size was a disguise for the lack of aesthetics. The Basilica felt more like an imposition than anything else. Here before me stood power without glory, a temple of rigidity. Even those architectural elements which could have been sized up on a more human scale were bafflingly large. A pair of bronze doors at the entrance towered above me. They were heavy and uninviting. I felt like a miniature figure entering a house built for giants.

The Basilica’s interior was not much better. Looking up at the dome was vertigo inducing, a dizzying experience that left me reeling. This only added to the lack of charm. There was space everywhere I looked. A feeling of hollowness and vacancy pervaded the interior. A massive altarpiece with the largest single canvas painting in the world tried to compensate. It was designed to inspire awe, but the overall effect was one where scale got in the way of substance.  The building might be interpreted as the architectural manifestation of Hungarian Catholicism, distant, remote and lacking in humanity. Anything personal was lost in space, buried beneath tons of marble and covered by an iron dome. I felt like it was built to intimidate and evoke power, but ironically it left me with a feeling of indifference. The spacious interior swallowed everything and everyone.

The Bronze Doors - There Might Be Giants

The Bronze Doors – There Might Be Giants

The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be – Regression To The Mediocre
I was not surprised to learn that the building took almost fifty years to complete. To put that time period into the proper historical perspective, consider that construction began in 1822 when Hungary was completely under the thumb of the Habsburgs, continued with starts and stops despite a failed revolution. Work was finally completed two years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed. It took the combined efforts of three architects, though strangely enough they did manage to synchronize their designs. Unfortunately, the outcome was unappealing. The lone exception was a single chapel that gave an approximation of what might have been.

Prior to the Esztergom Basilica’s construction, St. Adalbert’s Cathedral had stood on the site in one form or another since the late Middle Ages. It was ravaged by fire and the Ottoman Turks, but part of it remained until the 18th century. Before demolition, the spectacular red and white marble 16th century Bakocz Chapel was taken apart and salvaged. Sixteen hundred pieces of it were numbered and saved so it could be later reconstructed within the Basilica. It remains the premier work of Renaissance art in Hungary. No finer example of master craftsmanship from that time period exists anywhere else in the country. It is a reminder that art and architecture, even in the most exalted places, has sometimes regressed rather than progressed over the centuries since the Renaissance. The Basilica as it stands today cannot compete with the Bakocz Chapel. In a clever ruse, the chapel was incorporated within the Basilica. Without it, the Basilica would be known for little more then its massiveness. The Bakocz Chapel alone is worth the visit.

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Shadowy Moods – A Lack Of Compromise
Before long I found my way down to the crypt. Its quiet, sequestered chambers haunted by the contrasting moods cast by shadows and light. I had come here, like so many others, to see the burial place of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the famously uncompromising primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church who had opposed everything from social democracy to fascism and communism. Mindszenty spent many years in prison and an even longer period living as an internal exile at the American Embassy in Budapest. A man of iron clad principles who suffered more than others because he was the kind of true believer whose actions matched his words. This made him feared by enemies and sometimes loathed by allies. He was a great, but flawed man. Steadfast in his beliefs, Mindszenty’s release was negotiated by the Vatican. He died in Austria, embittered by the Catholic Church’s political machinations which had led to his removal from the embassy and Hungary. Mindszenty was not exactly likable, but that was never his concern. He was more than a man, Mindszenty was a way of life.

Mindszenty finally came home in 1991 when he was reburied in the Basilica’s crypt. The morning I saw the tomb it was covered in ribbons representing colors of the Hungarian flag. All around was silence, a place of quiet contemplation. Hungary’s most famous and feared primate was now finally able to rest in peace. A life that had been marked by seemingly endless tumult was now part of history. The fury and fight, the principles and priesthood were all gone. The only thing left was a final resting place beneath the great weight of Esztergom’s Basilica.

The Coronation Of Christianity – Esztergom & Stephen I: Searching For The Footsteps (For The Love of Hungary Part 28)

For those who are enthralled with Hungarian history and believe that there is nothing better than visiting the actual places where historical events occurred, there can be no better place to visit than Castle Hill in Esztergom where both the castle and basilica stand today. It was here that arguably the single most important event in Hungarian history, as well as one of the most important events in European history, took place. This hill was the setting for the coronation of Stephen I, Hungary’s first king and the one who transformed it into a Christian Kingdom. The coronation was much more than the crowning of a monarch. It also reoriented Hungary towards central and western Europe, an event that has had tremendous historical implications.

The coronation decisively pulled the Hungarians into the orbit of Rome. This has meant that ever since the coronation, Hungary has been a bastion of western Christianity rather than under the influence of Byzantium and the Eastern Orthodox religious tradition. There is no overstating the importance of the coronation. Its magnitude drew me to Esztergom. I had to see and feel this place for myself. Without a visit, I believed that a trip to Hungary would not be complete. Failing to visit Esztergom would be akin to skipping the most important chapter of a Hungarian history book. It would render my travels to historic sites throughout the country incomplete. If I wanted to understand what Hungary has meant to the western world and its place as a bridge between East and West I had no other choice, but to scale that towering hill in Esztergom.

Castle Hill in Esztergom - The Coronation statue can be seen on the far left wall of the castle walls

Castle Hill in Esztergom – The Coronation statue can be seen on the far left wall of the castle walls (Credit: Kriccs)

From Pagans To Christians – Prince Geza’s Vision
The guidebook description of Hungarian history I read before arriving in Esztergom made it a point to mention that Stephen I had been crowned as a Christian king of Hungary on Christmas Day in the year 1000. This date was remarkably easy for me to remember since it coincided with the most popular holiday in the western world. Later, I would discover that other scholars believe the coronation occurred on January 1st. Whatever the case, my guidebook description failed to mention any of the historical events which led to Esztergom becoming the coronation site. This process had been set in motion forty years earlier. That was when in 960 Prince Geza, ruler of the Hungarians, set up a palatial residence in Esztergom. This, in effect, made Esztergom the capital of Hungary. It was also where his son Vajk (later baptized as Stephen I) would be born. The boy was placed under the tutelage of Adalbert of Prague who immersed him in the ways of Catholicism. It was also during this time that Geza sent out a call for Christian missionaries from Bavaria to come proselytize among the Hungarians.

If not for Geza’s decisions to reside in Esztergom and slowly turn toward Christianity, Stephen may never have realized his destiny. Geza himself never quite did. He would adhere to both Christian and pagan beliefs until the end of his life. Three years before the turn of the first millennium, Geza died. Before his death he had arranged for the most powerful Hungarian leaders to declare their loyalty to Stephen. This ensured that his son would be heir to the throne. After his ascension to power, Stephen set about eliminating his most powerful pagan rival, Koppany. To say that Stephen was ruthless, would be an understatement. When Koppany was killed, Stephen had his body quartered and the four limbs were hung on gates at each of the entrances to Hungary’s most important cities. Stephen believed in the power of fear as much as he did in the power of faith to reconcile the Hungarian populace to Christian beliefs. The severed limbs mounted in highly public places were a warning to all. The message was clear, convert or else.

Nation Builder - Portrayal of Stephen I King of Hungary on the coronation pall

Nation Builder – Portrayal of Stephen I King of Hungary on the coronation pall

Superimposition -– The Most Important Historical Place In Hungary
Stephen’s coronation was a matter of politics as well as religious faith. Though he had been baptized at a very young age and was undoubtedly a true believer, at the same time he sought international recognition for himself and Hungary. Becoming a Christian king would confer the highest degree of legitimacy upon him. Before the coronation could take place, Stephen needed approval from the most powerful foreign ruler in the region, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. In addition, he would need Pope Sylvester II to give his approval. Stephen’s earlier marriage to Gisella of Bavaria proved helpful in this matter. Her brother Henry (who would later become Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 -1024) helped facilitate the Emperor’s approval. Pope Sylvester II sent an emissary with a crown and the coronation was performed on Castle Hill.

Legend states that it took place in the St. Adalbert Church in Esztergom. Soon thereafter, Stephen set about establishing bishoprics around the country with Esztergom as the most powerful.  The institution of Catholicism was now superimposed on Hungary. It has remained the majority religion ever since that time. Finding the exact place where the coronation took place proved difficult for me. The Basilica which cover part of the hilltop today is a nineteenth century creation. It is overlaid on the spot where St. Adalbert’s Basilica once stood. This version of St. Adalbert’s was under construction when the coronation took place. The coronation site was at yet another St. Adalbert’s Church which was reputedly located in the original castle. An impressive coronation statue stands today on the eastern side of the castle walls. Whether this is the actual coronation site is anyone’s guess.

Coronation Statue on Castle Hill in Esztergom

Coronation Statue on Castle Hill in Esztergom (Credit: Miklos Melocco)

The actual spot of the coronation did not really matter that much to me for two reasons. Trying to mark the specific spot where something happened a thousand years before is next to impossible since the original structures that existed at that time are missing. Archaeology is useful in such cases, but hardly foolproof. Furthermore, does it really matter where the coronation happened? The more important fact is that it did. The coronation changed Hungary’s geo-strategic situation forever. Aligning it with the western world which continues to influence it right up through today. No other historical event in Hungarian history can compare. That was the reason I made my way to the top of Castle Hill in Esztergom. I will never know if I stood in the actual footsteps of history in Esztergom, but I was close enough.