Pannonhalma Abbey – Back to the Beginning

Pannonhalma Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwestern Hungary, is one of the premier ecclesiastical sites in all of Europe. I visited it with my wife, on a hot Indian summer day this past October. We did not have a vehicle so we were forced to hoof it all the way to the top. It turned out to be a little over a mile trek from the railway station in the nearby town which also is called Pannonhalma. The abbey crowns the top of one hill among a cluster of three, floating above the Kisafold (Little Plain) where verdant, rolling farmland spreads out in all directions. The so called hill was much more than that, as we found ourselves stopping to catch our breath on the way to the top. The abbey is known for its beautiful, some might say fantastical setting. After the lung bursting, sweat inducing hike to the top we found ourselves having fantasies as well, mainly of cold water.

Pannonhalma Abbey - from a distance

Pannonhalma Abbey – from a distance

The panoply of architectural styles, featured by the abbey complex is both spectacular and strangely confusing. There are 18th century baroque buildings, a 19th century Neo-classical tower, a Gothic inspired 13th century portal, the monastery dates from the 15th century and there is even 1940’s era school buildings.  Reading through an old Blue Guide to Hungary (the best English language guidebook on Hungarian architecture) entry on Pannonhalma, the most noticeable part of the text are the numerous dates given with the abbey’s review. The list includes the years, 996, 1001, 1137, 1217, 1225, 1486, 1820’s, 1907, 1867, 1940’s, 1950’s and 1055. It’s enough to make the eyes glaze over and induce a migraine of historic proportions.  Where does one start? The operative word in that question is the last word: start. We have to go back to the start of Pannonhalma to make sense of its importance to Hungarian history. Ironically, going back to the very beginnings of the abbey also causes every one of the structures standing at the site today totally vanish. The first Pannonhalma Abbey no longer exists physically, but spiritually it is omnipresent, giving Pannonhalma its historical resonance.

Geza - Prince of the Hungarians as depicted in a 14th century illuminated chronicle

Geza – Prince of the Hungarians as depicted in a 14th century illuminated chronicle

The year 996 seems far, far away from today. It was a time now known as the Dark Ages, when life was precarious, borders were fluid and Europe was fragmented in a way that is almost inconceivable. The nation-state as we know it today did not exist, kingdoms rose and fell with alarming frequency and whole peoples migrated nomadically. In the midst of this upheaval, the Hungarians had conquered the Carpathian basin a century before and finally settled down. Their first contact with Western Europe had been in warfare. After finally meeting their match in the Germans, their next period of contact with the west was via Christianity. Geza, Grand Prince of the Hungarians from 972 to 997 decided to make peace with the Holy Roman Empire. This brought monastic legates from the empire into Hungary, where they helped negotiate peace. At the same time, they began to baptize Hungarians and spread Christianity. Geza who throughout his life was known for his ferocity (this was a man who “purged” his own family), showed these proselytizers a unique degree of tolerance. A contemporary of Geza, Thietmar of Merseburg recorded the astounding transformation, “[Géza] was very cruel and killed many people because of his quick temper. When he became a Christian, however, he turned his rage against his reluctant subjects, in order to strengthen this faith. Thus, glowing with zeal for God, he washed away his old crimes. This did not mean that Geza gave up his worship of pagan rituals, on the contrary, he continued to practice these as well, rationalizing that they had brought him greatness.

A year before his death, Geza established Pannonhalma Abbey in 996. Its setting was not by chance. Legend has it that somewhere near the foot of the hill on which the abbey stands is the place where Saint Martin of Tours was born into the Roman world during the early 4th century. Martin became a soldier, but then converted to Christianity, stating, “I am a soldier of Christ, I cannot fight.” From this auspicious start, he went on to become the famed Bishop of Tours. Even today, he is still one of the most revered saints.

Statue of Saint Astrik

Statue of Saint Astrik

Pannonhalma became the first Benedictine Monastery in Hungary. It grew rapidly, as it enjoyed a privileged existence under Geza’s son, Istvan (Stephen). Surrounding estates were donated to the abbey giving it an extensive land base. Looking out from the 282 meter high hill on which the abbey is set, one can see lush agricultural land expanding to the horizon. As fate or perhaps history would have it, the first abbot of Pannonhalma, Astrik played a large role in Hungary becoming a Christian Kingdom. Known today as Saint Astrik of Pannonhalma, he was appointed ambassador to Pope Sylvester II for Istvan. Sylvester II made the historic decision that Stephen should be crowned as a Christian King of the Hungarians. This was a crucial moment not only in the history of Hungary, but also Europe. It made Hungary, the Central European bulwark against Eastern Orthodoxy, a role it has played now for over a thousand years. Astrik brought the Holy Crown from the pope back to Hungary where he placed it upon Istvan at Esztergom in 1001. Thus, in just a five year period (996 -1001), Pannonhalma had played an out-sized role in setting Hungary on its historic course as a Christian Kingdom.

Is there really any need at this point to give a recitation of the facts and figures regarding the abbey and its associated structures since that time? It is enough to say that despite fires, conquest and co-option by the Ottomans, Habsburgs and Communists or for that matter the effects of the Reformation, the abbey has managed to transcend the fortunes of history. It retains an exalted place in both the past and present of Hungary.  Can we not best understand its thousand plus years of history through the prism of that first historic five year period? Has any other place in Hungary been able to sustain such prominence for such a lengthy amount of time? Pannonhalma may be off the beaten path of Hungary today, but it’s the epicenter and soul of the nation.

Stained glass window in the basilica at Pannonhalma

Stained glass window in the basilica at Pannonhalma

Pannonhalma was worth the hike to the top. It taught my wife and I just how alive history is in Hungary still today. The past of Hungary lives and breathes at Pannonhalma. It is a spiritual link to the great founders of the Kingdom, Geza and his son Istvan, to the missionary zeal of Astrik, to the Christianizing power of Catholicism, to an ideal that took hold of a people and made them a part of a kingdom, once and for all time.

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