A Lace Covered Woman Dancing In the Moonlight – Szeged: Hungary’s Finest

Szeged, the largest city in southeastern Hungary and one of the largest in the nation will be forever linked with the Tisza River. This watercourse led to everything from the city’s name, its development, destruction and finally a reconstruction of eye popping grandeur. The city’s inseparability from the Tisza goes all the way back to its very beginnings and continues to this very day.

The Naming of Szeged – A River Flows Through It
There is some question as to how Szeged received its name. Up to three different versions are given. What is not in question is that the Tisza plays a prominent role in each of these. The name may first have come from an old Hungarian word for corner – szeg – referring to the bend in the Tisza where Szeged is situated. Another theory is that Szeged’s name derived from the Hungarian word for island, sziget. Since islands are surrounded by water and the Tisza often flooded the land on which Szeged stands, undoubtedly the river played a large role in this derivation. A third theory is that the name derived from that same Hungarian word – szeg – which can also mean dark blonde. This might possibly be a reference to the color of the Tisza’s waters after its confluence with the Maros River just upstream from Szeged. Whatever the truth, Szeged’s linkage to the Tisza has the deepest of roots.

The Tisza River at Szeged - calm for now

The Tisza River at Szeged – calm for now

Controlling Chaos – Man & the Attempt To Master The Tisza
These roots are apparent not only on the city’s riverfront, but also in Szeged’s main square, Szechenyi ter. The square, like so many in Hungarian cities, contains several statues of famous Hungarians. These include such luminaries as the first King of Hungary, Stephen and his wife, Gisella who was Hungary’s first queen. Another is of Ferenc Deak, the man most responsible for the historic compromise agreement with Austria that created the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. This pantheon continues on the southern end of the square where its namesake is located, Istvan Szechenyi. Called by many “the greatest Hungarian” due to his highly successful efforts in developing the country, he brought steamships to the Tisza and by extension Szeged. The other statues on the square are not easily recognizable, even to most Hungarians, yet the people they portray were vital to the development of both the Tisza and Szeged.

Statue of Pal Vasarhelyi in Szeged - the engineer who tried to tame the Tisza

Statue of Pal Vasarhelyi in Szeged – the engineer who tried to tame the Tisza

One statue is of Pal Vasarhelyi, an engineer who in the 1840’s was the mastermind behind plans to finally tame the chaotic waters of the flood prone Tisza. The river was to be straightened by cutting off over one hundred of its bends. This could shorten the Tisza by a good 250 miles. A seemingly endless series of dikes would also be built, which could reclaim millions of acres of land from submersion. Getting the mighty Tisza under control was highly controversial project. Landowners adjacent to its banks were either big winners or losers. They might gain land, but also lose access. As for Vasarhelyi, he never saw his plans come to fruition as he succumbed to a massive heart attack even before the restructuring of the river began. Just the strain from planning the project was enough to do him in. Nonetheless it went forward. The power of the Tisza was harnessed for industry and commerce, but only temporarily.

Szeged and the devastation of the 1879 flood - painting by Pal Vágó (Ferenc Mora Museum)

Szeged and the devastation of the 1879 flood – painting by Pal Vágó (Ferenc Mora Museum)

Devastation & Recreation – Imagination Unshackled By History
The other statue on the square is of Lajos Tisza, a man who shared the river’s name and would make another name for himself following the Tisza’s return to its flood prone ways. Even though the river had been relatively benign since its confinement in the mid-19th century, this period would turn out to be the proverbial calm before the storm. In the spring of 1879, the river reasserted itself with a ferocity that had never before been experienced. In March, a catastrophic flood occurred which destroyed 6,600 structures in Szeged, approximately 97% of the city’s structures. No other Hungarian city in modern times has ever suffered such a disaster. Even the damage wrought upon Budapest during the World War II siege of the city pales in relative comparison. Incredibly this was not the end of Szeged. Instead it almost immediately led to a new and astonishingly vibrant beginning for the city.

Szeged would become the ultimate proof that a city can not only survive a natural disaster, but thrive in its wake. Within a week of the flood, the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef arrived in the city to view the damage. He proclaimed that Szeged would not only be rebuilt, but it would be even more beautiful than it was before. He wasn’t kidding! The point man for the city’s reconstruction was none other than Lajos Tisza who had been the Minister of Labor and Transport. He led a rebuilding effort of historic proportions, both then and now. The city sported a dazzling array of buildings in the architectural style known as eclecticism. Brightly colored buildings, broad streets and grand squares came to define the new Szeged. It became one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Even today it seems to be eternally set in the Belle Epoque (Golden Age) of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A burst of intellectual, artistic and architectural creativity was the upshot of this age. Szeged provides the ultimate eye candy for imperial architecture buffs. Its historic buildings bear witness to what the Hungarian creative imagination can accomplish when unleashed from the shackles of history.

Szeged's Varoshaza (Town Hall) - one of numerous architectural beauties in the city

Szeged’s Varoshaza (Town Hall) – one of numerous architectural beauties in the city

Illuminated & Reunited – The Tisza & Szeged
Among Szeged’s most striking buildings is the Varoshaza (Town Hall). On an early autumn day, set beneath a deep blue sky, its creamy exterior literally glows. Multiple stories of windows are framed by fiery red flowers. Atop the hall sits a small tasteful tower, a crown of neo-Baroque stylishness. The Varoshaza is one of many such buildings that are representative of Szeged’s enchanting beauty. Years after the rebuilding, a writer remarked that Szeged was like “a lace covered woman dancing in the moonlight.” When that moonlight reflects off the waters of the Tisza and Szeged is illuminated in the half light, the river and the city are reunited once and for all time.


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