Another Kind Of Memory – The Legacy of Tihany: History Stranger Than Truth

Perched on a hillside along the northern shore of central Europe’s largest lake, Balaton, is the picture perfect village of Tihany. The village stands on a peninsula that is home to an entire district that contains both literally and physically some of the deepest historic roots in Hungary.  This history is matched only by Tihany’s beautiful natural setting. In one direction, the greenish blue waters of Balaton expand outward until they blend into the horizon where water and sky meld into one. In the opposite direction, the volcanic Pecsely Basin is laced with vineyards and shimmering with greenery. Surrounded by this natural beauty, with a history that few places can match, it is easy to see why Tihany was designated Hungary’s first National park in 1952. This designation was a well-deserved recognition of Tihany’s beauty and importance, but the area in and around the village achieved its significance long before anyone knew or cared about national parks. Tihany predates modernity by almost a millennium. Its history is among the most ancient to be found concerning Hungary.

The Abbey Church in Tihany

The Abbey Church – occupies the most prominent setting in the village of Tihany

The Challenge of Paganism – Stephen I & Andrew I: Christianizing Hungary
Tihany is not subtle in its initial presentation to the visitor. The town’s most prominent architectural feature is also its tallest, the Baroque style Abbey Church. Its twin spired towers topped with gold crosses soar skyward. The church edifice stands upon one of the highest points of the peninsula. Its red roofed, blinding white facade commands an imposing position. The first time viewer immediately surmises that the church’s builders wanted to ensure that it was the focal point of the village. While the church itself only dates back to the 18th century, it is home to the remains of one of Hungary’s earliest monarchs, the 11th century ruler Andrew I (Andras I). He is the only Hungarian King still buried in the same place where he was first laid to rest. Considering the chaotic nature of Hungarian history the fact that the remains of Andrew I have remained in situ for over nine hundred years is a miracle in itself.

To understand the history of Andrew I’s reign is to understand the paradoxes of power politics that defined the early years of Christianity in the Hungarian Kingdom.  This story begins with the Arpad Dynasty and the successors of Hungary’s first King, Stephen I (Istvan I), who was crowned the first Christian King of Hungary in the year 1000. Stephen staked his reign and the future of the Hungarian Kingdom on western style Christianity. He had little tolerance for other beliefs or customs, which were based on pagan rituals. Paganism in 10th century was in effect, opposition to Stephen’s rule. Nonetheless, there were those who still disagreed with him.  One of those was Andrew I’s father Vazul, a Hungarian nobleman and cousin of Stephen. Vazul along with many Hungarians still paid homage to pagan customs. In 1037 he was caught plotting the murder of the Christian King.  Stephen for all his Christianizing ways was also a man of his time. He punished betrayal in the harshest manner possible. Stephen had Vazul’s eyes gouged out, hot molten lead poured in his ears and his three sons exiled. Andrew, the middle son, fled eastward into Kievan Rus.

The blinding of Vazul, father of King Andrew I

The blinding of Vazul, father of Andrew I

Luck, Strategy & Circumstance – Andrew I Takes The Throne
At this point, the question becomes how did a man of Andrew I’s lineage end up becoming the King of Hungary?  He was one of the least likely prospects to rule Hungary. The fact that he would build upon Stephen’s legacy of Christianization is nearly as improbable.  Several years after the death of Stephen, Hungarian clergymen arranged for Andrew to reenter the Kingdom. Stephen’s successor Peter was overthrown by a revolt of the pagans. The clergy were increasingly under attack. Andrew had credibility both with Christians and pagans. He successfully employed a strategy of playing both ends against the middle. Even though he was pro-Christian, Andrew was able to forge an agreement with the pagans. This led to his coronation in 1046. Paradoxically, once in power he continued the Christianizing ways of Stephen, the supreme ruler who had blinded Andrew’s father for among other things paganism.

Coronation of King Andrew I of Hungary

Coronation of King Andrew I of Hungary – from the Illuminated Chronicle

All this makes little sense unless one considers that history – not truth – is stranger than fiction and much more improbable. Almost anything is possible when it comes to human affairs. Innumerable examples from Hungarian history bear this out, including the reign of Andrew I. He came to the throne by luck, strategy and circumstance.  One of Andrew I’s most notable decrees was ordering an Abbey’s construction on the rocky promontory where the village of Tihany is located today. The first version of the Benedictine Abbey, was built here in 1055. The charter for construction of the abbey is just as important historically as the Abbey itself. It is the first historical document containing words written in Hungarian (the text is mostly in Latin). The Abbey was somehow able to survive the excesses of war and conquest in the ensuing centuries. It was even converted to a fortified stronghold during the Ottoman invasion. Amazingly it was never taken by the Turks. A new structure was built during the Baroque period. It was finished in 1754 and that is the church which stands on the site today.

Grave of King Andrew I

Grave of King Andrew I (1046 – 1060) at Tihany Abbey – still in its original placement (Credit: Andres Rus)

The Persistence of the Past– Tihany & Early Hungarian History
Tihany has gone from a place of meditation for monks to a modern tourist mecca for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The village’s spectacular setting is a magnetic draw. There is solace and solitude to be found in the remarkable beauty of the peninsula. Visitors to Tihany spend much of their time gazing over the waters of Lake Balaton and the bucolic wonder of the Pecsely Basin. It is these spectacular views which make the place so memorable, but another kind of memory is just as important here. This is the historical memory of early medieval Hungary and its effects on Tihany. The effects of which persist to this very day, most prominently at the Abbey Church.

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