Capital Of The Great Hungarian Plain – Discovering Debrecen: Arrested Development (For The Love of Hungary Part 16)

The remarkable thing about my first visit to Debrecen was that I remembered anything about it at all. For many people, Debrecen can be an entirely forgettable experience. It is not a love at first sight city, more like a one-night stand with a harlot who offers the fleeting promise of passion. My problem with visiting Debrecen had to do with great expectations gone wrong. Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary. As such, those who come for a visit may be forgiven for expecting something more than a Belvaros (Inner city) largely lacking in memorable architecture or atmospherics, especially when compared to the elegant old towns of such Hungarian cities as Gyor, Pecs, Sopron, Szeged and Szekesfehervar. Since most foreign visitors to Debrecen have already been in the western part of Hungary, they probably visited one of those more attractive cities. This leaves an indelible impression upon the senses. Debrecen cannot help but pale in comparison.

The way it was meant to be - Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

The way it was meant to be – Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

Along A Fluid Frontier– At The Mercy Of Others
As a first-time visitor, I wrongly assumed that Debrecen would be much the same as all those other Hungarian cities that had left me starry eyed. I soon discovered that Debrecen is fundamentally different from other Hungarian cities, in many ways reflecting the difference between eastern and western Hungary. It has been my experience that cities tend to develop based on the topography that surrounds them. For instance, the confluence of the Raba, Rabca and Danube Rivers around the city of Gyor defined much of its early development.  Debrecen is not much different in this regard. The city is set out on the fertile featureless flatland of the Great Hungarian Plain. As such Debrecen has plenty of room to sprawl. On my first forays into the city, it seemed to go on in a multitude of directions without any discernible boundary. I felt as though the buildings had been scattered about with little regard for architectural symmetry. Much of this had to do, through no fault of Debrecen’s city administrators across the ages, with topography and history. The former influencing the latter. With no physical barriers anywhere near the city it could develop equally in any direction. Furthermore, the lack of obstacles meant it was also at the mercy of invaders, most prominently during the Ottoman era in Hungarian history from 1526 to 1686.

During those times, Debrecen was situated along a fluid frontier riven by an alarming amount of violence. Such venal activities as plundering, pillaging and slave raiding were commonplace. Low intensity warfare occurred for decades without end. This forced Debrecen into multifaceted deals to retain some degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. At one point, the city was forced to pay simultaneous financial tributes to the Ottoman Sultan, Habsburg Emperor and Prince of Transylvania. It was an unenviable position to be in. Consequently, this situation also affected the city’s spiritual and cultural development. During this period, Protestantism in the form of Calvinism sunk deep roots in the dark and dusty soil.  Roots that would eventually resist the counter-reformation. A visitor will search Debrecen largely in vain for those Baroque Catholic churches that can be found in other Hungarian cities further to the west. This is because for a 160-year period the building of Catholic churches was not permitted anywhere in the city.

Stock market - Horse market near Debrecen

Stock market – Horse market near Debrecen (Credit: Alexander von Bensa)

A Hungarian Frontier Town – In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
Besides Calvinism, the greatest influence on the city’s historical development was the cattle trade which enriched many of its most prominent merchants. These men held vast tracts of land out on the surrounding plain which they would lease to herdsmen and shepherds. Grazing spread across the plain, tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses were fattened up on the grasslands, then driven to market. Debrecen became the center for this trade, which boosted the city’s growth beyond what might have been expected for a city that lacked a river or any other defining topographic feature. In short, Debrecen grew into a large city because economic trade demanded and subsequently enriched it. By its very nature, the grazing industry is a largely nomadic and dispersed activity, thus it not surprising that Debrecen took on many of the qualities associated with a pastoral frontier. Imagine a Cowtown on the Great Plains of the United States such as Abilene or Dodge City, its streets beset with whirlwinds of dust in the summer and quagmires of mud in the spring and autumn. Reports from 19th century travelers, such as the Englishman John Paget, describe Debrecen in such a manner.

Debrecen has been as unlucky in its modern history, as it was in the early modern period. The reason that it lacks in historical architecture is due to warfare. Parts of the city were obliterated or badly damaged by both aerial bombardment and ground fighting during World War II. American bombers leveled its railroad marshalling yards and targeted other industrial infrastructure. A large tank battle on the city’s outskirts between German and Soviet forces occurred in the latter part of 1944. Structures that were rebuilt in its aftermath, the main train station being the most notable example, have no architectural qualities to recommend them other than stolidity, function over form and the use of a kazillion tons of concrete. Debrecen is pockmarked with such communist era monstrosities. Fortunately, it does have a few architectural calling cards that manage to draw tourists to the city, foremost among these is the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom).

Symbol of the city - The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground

Symbol of the city – The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground (Credit: gelledina)

An Architectural Illusion – A Portal Of Protestantism
To say the Great Reformed Church is the main draw for tourism in Debrecen does it a disservice. It is also the city’s most recognizable symbol. Anyone who has visited Debrecen is bound to have seen its classically inspired yellow façade, glowing brightly at the end of Piac Utca (Market Street). Due to its role as a hub of Protestantism in Hungary, Debrecen has been called the Calvinist Rome. This oxymoronic appendage weds together two disparate ideals. The stern rigidity of Calvinist doctrine with the grandeur of Rome. The same could be said for the Great Reformed Church, its splendid twin towered exterior could not possibly be a greater contrast to its austere interior. Upon entering, I questioned whether I had been transported through a portal of architectural illusion. To understand Debrecen, I would first have to understand the Great Reformed Church.

Click here for: Moments Of Creation – Debrecen’s Saint Andras Church: From Ruin To Reconstruction (For The Love of Hungary Part 17)

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