One of the more remarkable experiences of my Eastern European travels came in Pecs, the second largest city in southern Hungary. On an early spring Sunday afternoon I disembarked at the eclectic masterpiece which has acted as the city’s railway station since 1900. My objective was an overnight stay in the city’s Belvaros (inner city). It was early afternoon and the wind was blowing hard. I walked up the Jokai Mor utca (Mor Jokai Street) dragging my luggage behind me while trying to shield my eyes from swirls of dust. My only knowledge of the city was what little I had read. Pecs was known for its jewel box of a Belvaros, a magnificent cathedral and an early Christian Necropolis that had been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The mid-sized city certainly sounded like a nice stopover to break up a train trip between Sarajevo and Budapest. At least that is what I thought until I entered Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square). My expectations were immediately exceeded.
It was right then and there that the magic of Pecs materialized before my very eyes. To my right was the baroque façade of Saint Sebastian’s Church, in front of which stood the pyrogranite, Art Nouveau Zsolnay Well. Further up was the neo-baroque Town Hall with its grand tower surging into a clear blue sky. Next I saw the colorful confectionary façade of the Nandor Hotel. Further up there was a brass statue of the great Hungarian leader Janos Hunyadi on horseback, adding an element of glorious pageantry. Could this really be just a provincial city, there was something positively royal about it. The square slanted upward as it proceeded to the north where a large column of the Holy Trinity was situated. Behind it was the most stunning sight of all, at the highest point of the square stood what had formerly been the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim and now is the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The structure was positively magnetic to the eyes. It looked like it had come from another world and truth be told it had.
If You Build It, They Will Come – The Conquest Of The Conquerors
Most miracles are created by the imagination and based on a belief system, but there are other miracles that can be seen and touched, these are the miracles of history. The fact that there is anything left of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim can rightly be considered a miracle of history. Following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Pecs, Pasha (Governor) Gazi Kasim ordered the building of the mosque. It took four years to construct and used stones from what had been the Gothic Saint Bartholomew Church which had stood on the city’s main square.
As impressive as the structure looks today, it was even more stunning during the era of Ottoman rule. The famous Ottoman traveler and literary scribe Evilya Celebi commented on the majestic view of the mosque. He compared its size and grandeur to the mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul. Celebi was lucky to visit Pecs right before Turkish rule in Hungary suffered a series of devastating setbacks.
The threats to the mosque’s existence began even before the Turks were forced out of Pecs. In 1664 an army under the command of nobleman Miklos Zrinyi besieged and then occupied Pecs. They carried out acts of wanton destruction, pillaging and burning for several days. Yet the Mosque of Pasha Qasim was one of three in the city that survived this rampage. A little over two decades later the Turks were cast out of the city for good. They burnt much of the city, but left the mosque untouched before the conquering Habsburg Army entered Pecs on October 14, 1686. After the Habsburgs took control they held a Thanksgiving dinner inside the mosque to celebrate their conquest. Their initial plan for the city, as well as the mosque, was to destroy it. The Habsburg court in Vienna changed its mind after deciding they needed Pecs to act as a rival to nearby Ottoman held Szigetvar.
Conversions – Spiritual & Physical
The peace and prosperity that Habsburg rule brought to southern Hungary meant something quite different for the mosque. It would survive, but undergo a major transformation in the process. Six years after the Habsburg conquest it was converted into a church. The mosque’s minaret was struck by lightning in the 18th century, before finally being pulled down by the Jesuits in 1766. Then in the 19th century the interior was rebuilt. After 1868 only Christian worship services could be held there. This spiritual conversion was done in parallel with an overhaul of the interior. Such features as the containers for holy water that today stand beside the vestries were taken from the Turkish baths which were once adjacent to the mosque.
A few Islamic details did escape the transformation, such as verses of poetry from the Koran that can still be seen on the interior walls. The exterior, with the exception of the minaret, stayed almost exactly the same as it looked during Ottoman rule. The building that stands today is still the most impressive example of Turkish architecture in Hungary. It consists of an octagonal drum crowned with a dome. On top of the dome is a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, connected to a Christian cross. The duality of the symbolism is not lost on the historically minded viewer.
The Will To Change – Pattern Of The Past
I was lucky enough to be one of those viewers on that beautiful sunlit, spring day. Walking up to and then around the church/mosque I felt as though I were in an outdoor museum studying an artifact from the past that had been shaped by centuries of spiritual history. A steady succession of beliefs had produced this synthesis of Christian and Islamic sacred architecture, fused together as one now, but still with distinct patterns of the past, imposed one atop another. Here was a lasting remnant of how the world was built, from foundations and fusions, changes and challenges. The will to create and restore, defeating the will to destroy. Only a miracle of history could have created such a structure.