One of the few things European and American cityscapes have in common seems to be the suburban outskirts of their large cities. Rarely are these the types of places tourists might find appealing. Suburbs in the United States bring to mind a seemingly endless succession of houses, office parks and strip shopping malls. They are largely safe, well kept areas known for good schools, better than average quality of life and excellent places to raise a family. American suburbs are a product of the last fifty years and have almost no intrinsic historic or cultural value to speak of. In Europe, suburbs have a mind numbing sameness. They are usually home to large blocks of high rise flats. Sometimes these are quite safe and prosperous, in other cases they are home to down at the heel housing projects and industrial zones. They hold little appeal for outsiders.
This pretty much holds true for Budapest as well. I rarely see tourists in the outer districts of the city or hear English spoken. Since I am married to a Hungarian, I have been able to spend a fair share of time in districts that are foreign to foreigners. I cannot say these areas are wholly without cultural value, but one has to work pretty hard to locate notable sights. Beyond Budapest’s outer districts are what might be termed village districts. Such areas are villages that have become attached to Budapest, by the slow, inexorable expansion of urban sprawl. Fortunately, some of these villages still retain aspects of their original existence. In one astonishing case southeast of Budapest, the tidy settlement of Ocsa is home to a true historic gem that has successfully resisted an endless litany of foreign invaders, wars and modernizing forces. Today, what is known as the Arpad Age Romanesque Church at the heart of Ocsa offers a rare architectural set piece from the early medieval age of Hungarian history.
This fine work of religious architecture is a rare treat in Hungary. Construction on what is today the church, began as a monastery in the year 1234. That’s 820 years ago! To put this length of time into its proper context, ask yourself this question: what physical legacy from our own world will be left for future generations to ponder some eight centuries from now? Even the most visionary futurist has little idea of what remnant of our modern world might survive us in the year 2834. A rather humbling best guess might just be nothing at all. With that in mind, I felt a reverence for what I saw in Ocsa. The church has not just stood the test of time, it has played a Houdiniesque escape act on Hungarian history. It first escaped the Mongols who came and went only seven years into the monastery’s construction. The Mongol hordes swept away an estimated half of the Hungarian population in their visceral yet fleeting conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1241-42. Yet they were unable sweep away the soon to be completed structure at Ocsa. The Mongols disappeared, while the monastery soon began an illustrious history. The Ottoman Turks three centuries later, turned the monastery into a mosque, covered the mosaics and converted it into an house of Islam. One hundred and fifty years later the Turks were done for. The mosque morphed into a church for Reformed Protestants. As for Hungary, it was now under the sway of the Habsburgs, fellow Christians, but also brutal reformers. They forced Catholicism on their Magyar subjects, yet their counter-reformation came and went. Protestantism remained, the House of Habsburg would not.
There is a moment when the spirit of the past proves much more powerful than the present. That spirit lives on in the cavernous spaces of the church in Ocsa. Outside the church’s thick, stony walls modernity marches on. The constructions of capitalism, while fleeting, make and remake the villagescape in an image that will be also soon be lost, swept away by tides of technological progress integral to an ideology based upon creative destruction. I look around at Ocsa, at Budapest, at the modern world and wonder what architectural or cultural legacy will be left behind by our modern world. The cynic in me says not much. Then again perhaps there is hope. That hope still stands in Ocsa, just as it has for over eight centuries. The Arpad Age Romanesque Church may not last forever, but it will most likely last a whole lot longer than the world around it.