Half an hour west from Budapest, beyond the hills of Buda, where the landscape of Transdanubia rolls off towards the horizon stands the village of Zsambek. Like many other Hungarian villages west of the Danube, Zsambek is neat and well kept. Behind row after row of wooden fencing and iron gates the ubiquitous bark of dogs echoes forth, the piercing call of a rooster intermittently adds a quixotic note to this symphony of village life. In courtyards, women who look as though they live in their pajamas sweep the entrances to their homes clean. Small and medium sized houses of every shape, size and color imaginable line the tidy streets and clamor onto the hillsides. The houses, surrounded by gardens and orchards, make it seem as though the entire village is in bloom. A full spectrum of vanilla and purple blossoms cover the trees lining Zsambek’s sidewalks. And above it all, looms the thirteenth century Rom Templom (Ruin Church). Its gigantic stone walls and gothic archways appear stoic, silent and spectacular.
Shadows Over the Village & Against the Sky
A small visitor station with requisite attendant can be found at the entryway. A fee of 700 forints ($3.50) is charged for admission to the ruins and the grassy park surrounding them. A small exhibition can be found in what must have been for centuries a stone storage vault. Inside their pieces of stone on display, arranged not so much for comprehension, but instead to make an impression of reverence and awe. The effect is rather lost on the visitor, at a loss in trying to make a coherent whole out of random parts. Nonetheless, this is nothing more than a sideshow to the magnificent remnants looming above ground. As the visitor approaches the towering walls, they may feel a touch of fear, hoping that the massive remnants do not suddenly collapse upon them.
The aesthetics of what is left of Rom Templom are enough to completely humble the visitor. There is just enough left that one can imagine the enormous size and scale of the church centuries ago, when it stood above all. There are bigger churches in Hungary, but given the quaint nature of the village townscape surrounding it, the Rom Templom inspires awe. Wherever one stands on the grounds or even in the town, it as though the Rom Templom is forever looking over ones shoulder, casting shadows over the villages and against the sky. In its fragmented and crumbling state, it is in a word magnificent.
Bastions of Faith
The exceptional aesthetics of the Rom Templom should not obscure the historically minded visitor from learning about the ecclesiastical order which created it. The miraculous fact that remnants of the Rom Templom still exist over seven hundred and fifty years after its initial construction is only matched by the improbable survival of the Premonstratensians, the canonical order responsible for its construction. The Premonstratensians take their name from Premontre in northeastern France, where they first arose in the early 12th century guided in their founding by Saint Norbert. He believed in a life of common prayer and austerity. The order flourished over the next two-hundred and fifty years, extending to points all across western and central Europe.
In Hungary, the Premonstratensians founded at least twelve abbeys including ones on Margit Island in the Danube and on the western shores of Lake Balaton at Keszthely. Another magnificent legacy of the order still exists today just to the east of Budapest, at the 13th century church at Ocsa. Hundreds of similar works were built as bastions of the order’s faith. By the mid-14th century the Premonstratensians had over 1,700 monasteries, including 400 for women, spread all across Europe. This proved to be the pinnacle of Premonstratensian influence. Historic upheavals in the succeeding centuries, including the Reformation and the French Revolution severely weakened their influence. This led to a steady decline. By the 19th century they had been reduced to a mere eight monasteries, all located in Austria. It looked as though the order was in fatal decline. Yet from the edge of oblivion it enjoyed a resurgence over the next two hundred years.
The Test of Time – The Test of Faith
During the 20th century alone, Premonstratensian monasteries increased fivefold to number almost one hundred, including at least one on every continent. The Premonstratensians may only be part of a very remote past in Hungary today, but they are thriving in more places than Saint Norbert could have ever imagined. Even in Hungary despite the physical carnage wrought upon the landscape by World War II and the spiritual vacuum of enforced atheism by the communists, the Rom Templom has entered the 21st century as a testament to the abiding legacy of the Order.
It has withstood the invasions, conquests and occupations of the Mongols, Turks and Soviets, not to mention a devastating 18th century earthquake. All the while, the Rom Templom managed to outlive the vestiges of civilizational, societal and architectural change. It has not only stood the test of time, but most importantly it has stood the test of faith. Perhaps that is because the Rom Templom like the Premonstratensian Order was built to last.