Buried Beneath The Tisza: Huns, Magyars & the Mystery of Attila’s The Huns Tomb

The town of Tiszafured is located just a few kilometers east of Lake Tisza in eastern Hungary. The lake was created over a half century ago when the Tisza River was dammed for flood control. A very different type of dam was created on the Tisza in the mid-5th century. This first damming of the river has become legendary. The event and the location where it took place will always be shrouded in mystery. It has yet to be discovered and likely never will be. It is the story of a treasure that may or may not still exist somewhere in or close to the Tisza River. This treasure goes back to a time before the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin, when the most famous warrior to ever grace the grasslands of the Great Hungarian Plain left a lasting mark on European history. His short lived empire and his people vanished not long after he did into a watery grave. Modern Hungary has largely inherited the legacy of Attila and the Huns, it may have inherited even more than that if a certain discovery can ever be made.

Attila the Hun - 19th century artistic depiction

Attila the Hun – 19th century artistic depiction (Credit Eugene Delacroix)

Huns Are Not Magyars & Magyars Are Not Huns
A newcomer to Hungary will likely notice the popularity of the male name, Attila. Innumerable Hungarian men have it as their first name. It is also commonly used for street names. Budapest has many different Attila utcas (streets), as does almost every village in Hungary. The assumption that the name’s popularity comes from the famed nomadic warrior Attila the Hun is correct. Conversely, an assumption is often made that Attila was an early forebear of the Hungarians and that the Hungarians are direct ancestors of the Huns.  This is incorrect. The two peoples arrived in the Carpathian Basin over four hundred years apart. What both had in common is that they originated in the eastern steppe grasslands of Asia.

The Magyars were given the misnomer of Hungarians because the Germanic peoples that they raided and plundered considered them to be relations of the rapacious Huns. This might be expected, since the Huns left scars on European history that even centuries later were still recalled. The Huns appeared in Europe during the latter part of the 4th century, rampaging across the late Roman Empire. They were the prototypical ferocious, nomadic warriors from the east. By the time Attila’s reign began in 434 AD the Huns were on the verge of overrunning all of civilized Europe. Hun incursions into Western Europe were finally put to a halt in 451 AD at the Battle of Chalons in northeastern France. Attila died just three years later and the Hunnic Empire crumbled a mere decade and a half after his death. It is believed that the tribe was then absorbed by the Bulgars.

Hungarian (Magyar) Conquest of the Carpathian Basin - the Magyars arrived 450 years after the Huns

Hungarian (Magyar) Conquest of the Carpathian Basin – the Magyars arrived 450 years after the Huns (Credit: Chronicon Pictum)

Magyars & Hungarians: The Same, But By A Different Name
The Hungarians, much like the Huns four and a half centuries before them, suddenly appeared in the Carpathian Basin. They were also fierce, nomadic warriors on horseback raiding into the heart of Europe, but they did not share kinship with the Huns. The Hungarians were actually Magyars, a name they gave to themselves. Even today they refer to their country as Magyarorszag. Orszag means country in the Hungarian language, thus Magyarorszag means Magyar country.

So how did Magyarorszag come to be called Hungary by the rest of the world? Before the Magyars arrived in the Carpathian Basin the dominant group in that area was an alliance of Bulgarian tribes. They referred to their land as On-ogur. The Magyars took over On-ogur, becoming the dominant ethnic group. Even so, neighboring peoples, especially Germanic ones, continued to refer to the area as On-ogur. This was translated into Latin as Ungarus, from which we get the word Hungary. This is a lot more confusing than false conflations of Magyars with Huns. Keep in mind that even though the Huns were not Hungarians, the heart of their short-lived empire was located in what is today the modern nation of Hungary. Besides archaeological finds, the Hunnic Empire’s legacy has been obscured by legend and myth.

The death of Attila the Hun

The death of Attila the Hun – an artistic depiction

A Marriage Sealed By Blood
Popular history’s perception of the Huns might well change if one of the most coveted hidden treasures in all of Europe, the burial tomb of Attila the Hun is ever unearthed. In 454 AD Attila had just married a beautiful young German princess by the name of Ildico. During the evening following their wedding, Attila feasted and some believe drank to excess. The next morning he was found dead with his face covered in blood. Ildico was cowering in the corner of their bedroom. It was believed that she had committed treachery, murdering her husband on their wedding night. She was promptly killed. Strangely there was no wound found on Attila. It is believed that either he had suffered one of the all-time worst nose bleeds or that his esophagus had ruptured. One way or another he had bled to death.

The deceased king of the Huns was prepared for one of history’s grandest funerals. He was buried in a triple coffin encased in first gold (to show his wealth and glory), then silver (to show his kinship with the moon and river) and finally iron (to show his strength). Myth and historical fact mix from this point forward. Suffice to say that Hun engineers are said to have diverted the Tisza River long enough to dry up the main river bed. Attila was entombed there in his magnificent sarcophagus. The Tisza was then released with the grave site quickly inundated. To ensure that no one tried to desecrate their great leader’s body or excavate the untold treasures the pallbearers were slain. No details have ever emerged concerning the specific location of the burial site.

The waters of Lake Tisza

The waters of Lake Tisza may conceal a deeper understanding of Attila the Hun (Credit: Nixalsverdrus)

What Legends Are Made Of
Since the Tisza has undergone both natural and manmade changes over the last sixteen hundred years there is no telling where Attila’s tomb could be located. It could be somewhere deep beneath a farm field, since in many areas the hand of man has reshaped the river’s ancient course. Or it could be hundreds of feet beneath the glistening blue waters of Lake Tisza. That is if it survives at all. How much of it is left or in what condition it might have survived is open to speculation. What seems certain is that the burial site of Attila the Hun and its accompanying treasure will continue to exercise a powerful hold on the imagination. This is the stuff that both history and legends are made of.

3 thoughts on “Buried Beneath The Tisza: Huns, Magyars & the Mystery of Attila’s The Huns Tomb

  1. The book A Concise History of Hungary by Miklós Molnár, provides considerable evidence to support that the word ‘Hungary’ comes from the Turkish word ‘Ongur’ which is said to loosely translate to ‘Ten Arrows’ and is thought to represent the 7 Magyar tribes and 3 Turkish tribes that invaded the Carpathian basin together. This is just from memory as it has been some time since I studied this, but I did study with interest as I am Hungarian :). Derivations of ‘Ongur’ are used in other languages such as Ukrainian to refer to Hungary and Hungarians which suggests commonality in origin. EA Thompson’s (1948-1994) text on the Huns (I believe he was considered to be one of the foremost scholars (University of Nottingham, UK) on this subject) goes into considerable detail into Hunnic culture. The Huns were more of a confederation of tribes, one of which was referred to as ‘Megyer’ and may have been related to what historians refer to as ‘proto-Magyar.’ It also provides evidence to the possibility that the Magyar had already migrated to the west side of the Urals by the time the Hun empire was at it’s height, which would place them within the far eastern portions of the Hunnic empire at the same time and were considered to be allies. Roman historians wrote that the Huns spoke of their ‘brethren to the east’ and would occasionally ride east for gatherings. It is also important to remember that historians are interested in a scientific process to determine fact from fiction and therefore may not want to make connections where there is little or no evidence. Unfortunately both the Huns and the proto-Magyars left very little evidence to study let alone build theories from. There are however a number of things that some historians have mentioned in various texts including the commonality of culture, the similarities with culturally perceived history (such as the proto-Magyar belief that they were migrating to a land that was their ‘ancestral’ birth-right even though linguistically their language can be traced to the Ugrian region of Siberia). ‘Something’ tied them to the Danube area where the Huns had occupied so long before. So to me while there may not be enough “physical” evidence from historians to agree on, this doesn’t necessarily preclude that there is still a lot of circumstantial, linguistic (from the very little that is known of Hunnic language but thought to be similar to Turkic – Altaic) and cultural evidence to support a connection. Sure there is going to be similarities in people that live the same way, but to say it is not related at all may not be correct either. I think the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. Just thought I’d add my 2-cents!

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