Hungary Turns to the West – Esztergom & the Power of Place

The more Hungarian history you learn, the more certain dates rise to the fore, floating up from the pages of the past and seeping into the memory. The year 1526 and the fateful Battle of Mohacs, the 1848 revolt against the Habsburgs, the 1956 uprising attempting to overthrow the heavy hand of Soviet rule. These dates act as scars and signposts, scars of loss and hope, signposts guiding the way into the complex and often contradictory mentality of the Hungarian people. Any visitor wanting to know what Hungary has been through, how it arrived at where it is at today and what its future holds would do well to commit not only the dates, but also the details of these seminal events to their memory. Though these events and their respective dates are of the utmost importance they do seem a bit random. Perhaps because of this, they are a little harder to recall unless you’re a student of central or eastern European history. Yet there is one Hungarian historical date that can be easily remembered. It has a nice round number and occurred on the most important holiday in the western world. This date, Christmas Day in the year 1000, also happens to coincide with probably the most important event in Hungarian history.

The Esztergom Basilica as seen from the Slovakian side of the Danube

The Esztergom Basilica as seen from the Slovakian side of the Danube (Credit: toldym)

Between East & West – Facing the Future
The event was the crowning of Stephen I (Istvan) by Pope Sylvester II as the first King of Hungary. It resulted in Hungary turning toward western Christendom and by extension the western world. The importance of this event cannot be overstated. It was of great historical significance to not only the future of Hungary, but also central Europe. The Magyars (what Hungarians call themselves), now permanently settled in the Carpathian Basin would be influenced by the west. This crucial moment is the wellspring from which all Hungarian history (and much of central European history) flowed thereafter. The upshot, Hungary would become the frontier guardian of western Christianity. In the centuries that followed, the Kingdom would act as a buffer state where attempts to repel eastern invaders would meet with failure and success. Today the closest one can get physically and spiritually to Hungary’s western pivot, is exactly where it occurred, astride the Danube, in the small city of Esztergom.

While knowledge of the specific date when Hungary turned toward western Christianity is definitely of value – chronology and sequence help organize the past – the power of place is often overlooked. Visiting the actual place where a great event happened connects the past to a physical present, giving shape and form to events of long ago.  Esztergom has the power and presence to evoke this type of experience. The most striking piece of architecture in the city is the Esztergom Basilica, beautifully situated on a hill overlooking the old part of town, the Danube and Slovakia to the north. The basilica stands in the same spot as an earlier 11th century church, St. Adalbert’s. In turn, St. Adalbert’s was the first cathedral in Hungary, placed on the spot where it is said that Stephen was crowned King of Hungary. 

Artistic depiction of Stephen I being crowned King of Hungary by Pope Sylvester II

Artistic depiction of Stephen I being crowned King of Hungary by Pope Sylvester II

Architectural Ambiguity – The Basilica: Impressive, Interesting & Overbearing
Standing in the shadow of the gigantic neoclassical Basilica it is easy to see why Stephen’s father, Prince Geza, selected this spot for his seat of government. The hillside on which the Basilica is sited towers over the land far below. The Danube was a major artery of trade and commerce. It offered a natural defensive barrier to keep enemies at bay. A castle, the walls of which can still be seen on the walk up to the Basilica, was constructed in this area. While the natural setting that surrounds the Basilica is impressive, the building itself may leave the visitor with ambiguous feelings. It is done in the neoclassical style. This type of design was all the rage in the early 19th century when construction started. The central dome rises to over a hundred meters at its pinnacle. The building seems to be a form of structural intimidation. It is a little too awe inspiring.
The looming presence of the basilica dwarfs the visitor. One can easily imagine why it took almost forty years to complete. It feels important yet overbearing. A statement of grandiosity, that manages to detract from its immediate natural surroundings. Perhaps the building is trying to equal that pivotal historical event when Stephen I was crowned. That moment was for once and all time, it speaks across the ages and continues to influence Hungary today. Conversely, the Basilica is of a specific time and place. This is a structure that fails to escape the age and taste which informed its style. While it is impressive and interesting it says more about the era of its construction than it does about the event it loosely commemorates.

The Esztergom Basilica - Neo-Classicism writ large

The Esztergom Basilica – Neo-Classicism writ large

Becoming European – Esztergom & the Imagination
The power of Esztergom as a historical place is secure, no matter the less than desirable effect of the Basilica’s monumental neo-classicism. Living up to what occurred here high above the Danube over a thousand years ago may be too much to ask of any building. It is not too much to ask of the imagination though. Visitors to Esztergom can get a sense of the place and environment where Stephen I was crowned king. From that moment forward, the Hungarians were no longer a tribal collection of nomadic warriors. They were now a nation in the process of becoming European. The rest is history!

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