Leaving home for Sandor Korosi Csoma, meant first leaving Transylvania. He had spent the first thirty years of his life in one of three places, either his home village of Koros, at college in Nagyenled or teaching at Szaszvaros. By this point in his life he had traveled very little, but when compared to his fellow Szekelys, Csoma was a world traveler. In early 19th century Transylvanian society, traveling far from home, other than for military duty, was virtually unheard of. Education had afforded Csoma opportunities that his ethnic kinsmen could scarcely dream of. This would once again be the case as he procured a stipend to study at the University of Gottingen in Lower Saxony. It was there that he would move closer towards realizing his destiny in the Orient, becoming increasingly fascinated with theories and historical evidence concerning the original home of the Hungarians. What he learned at Gottingen led Csoma to devote his life to searching for that place.
Speaking A Different Language – In The Pursuit Of Destiny
The University of Gottingen was dedicated to academic freedom and promoting Enlightenment ideals. To this end, Csoma would be given wide latitude to pursue his interests. He was fortunate to study under the tutelage of famed Oriental scholar Johann Gotfried Eichorn. It was a seemingly random remark of Eichorn’s that had stimulated Csoma’s interest in learning Arabic. In one of his lectures, Eichorn mentioned that certain Arabic manuscripts contained important information on the history of the Middle Ages and the origin of the Hungarians in Asia. That was enough to set Csoma’s curiosity alight. He would learn Arabic in order to read manuscripts that might offer clues on the true home of the Hungarians. Arabic would also be essential if he was to travel across the Middle East and Central Asia. He soon mastered it, along with Turkish. Both would prove invaluable to him in the future.
Csoma’s linguistic skills were unsurpassed. By the end of his life, he would master eighteen languages, among which were Greek, Hebrew, Slavonic, Persian and Tibetan, in addition to his native Hungarian. Csoma possessed skills for acquiring, retaining and interpreting knowledge that placed him at a near genius level. Add to that, an iron will with a single minded focus. Csoma’s mentality would lead him to feats that no one could have ever imagined for the son of a Szekely border guard. After three years in Gottingen, Csoma returned to Nagyenled (Aiud Romania). He told friends and colleagues of his intention to journey across the Middle East and Central Asia to find the original Hungarian homeland. His idea was met with a negative reception. To the majority of his acquaintances it sounded quite ridiculous. Csoma did not have the financing for such a trip, while his only travel experiences had been within Europe. He would have to cross numerous hostile territories with nothing more than his wits for protection. All this in pursuit of what many regarded as a fantasy.
From One World To Another – From Transylvania To Tehran
A few of Csoma’s friends were a bit more optimistic, one of whom convinced him to first learn Old Slavic, which he proceeded to do in Romania and Croatia over the next year. In the late autumn of 1819 he decided to set off from Hungary for his journey to the Far East. He was thirty-five years old at the time and unmarried. Neither of his parents were still alive. For what was about to turn into a lifelong journey, Csoma had very little money and possessed a temporary Hungarian passport. He was never to return to Hungary, but the fame he acquired would long outlive him. One story concerning the day of his departure from Transylvania illuminates Csoma’s mindset. A Count Teleki met Csoma walking down the road and inquired about his destination. Csoma replied, “I am going to Asia in search of our relatives.” Such an understated, matter of fact answer belied the dogged determination with which Csoma would pursue his dream.
Csoma’s initial plan was to make his way to Constantinople, then north to Moscow. From there he would drop down into Central Asia with the eventual goal of reaching East Turkestan (western China). An outbreak of the plague in Constantinople caused a change of plans. He instead took a ship to Alexandria in Egypt, from there he made his way to Cairo, sailed onto Lebanon and then into the heart of the Middle East. By October 1820 he was in Persia. For the next six months, Csoma would wait out the winter in Tehran. It was here that he penned the reasoning and ambitions behind his journey in a letter. “Both to satisfy my desire, and to prove my gratitude and love for my nation, I have set off, and must search for the origin of my nation…avoiding neither dangers that may perhaps occur, nor the distance I may have to travel.” Back in Hungary he was now considered a missing person, who was most likely dead. Far from it, Csoma was preparing to continue his journey the next spring into what would prove to be even more challenging territory.
Danger, Distance & A Detour – Toward A New Passion
Danger and distance were two themes that would recur in his travels over the coming year as he made his way along the ancient Silk Road. Csoma took to dressing in local garb to keep from being robbed or worse. After over a year of travel through such exotic locales as Bukhara and Kabul, he made his way to Kashmir. At this point Csoma was forced to make a difficult decision. He had to decide whether to continue northward on an extremely dangerous route to East Turkestan. The region was crucial to his work since this was where he hoped to find the original homeland of the Hungarians. Unfortunately getting there meant having to cross mountain passes approaching 6,000 meters in elevation and braving bandits. The threat of being murdered was bad enough. That, coupled with the dangerous climatic conditions found in the rarified air of the Karakorum Mountains, made him reconsider this route. Instead Csoma found himself back in the walled fortress city of Leh. This led to a serendipitous meeting in a nearby village with William Moorcroft, a British explorer. It would also mean the stagnation of his dream to find the original Hungarian homeland and the beginning of a newer, more exotic passion.