Upon arrival in Szeged I walked into the city’s main train station which I found much to my liking. It was a multi-storied affair that I found to be of an engaging design with its pre-World War I styled festive façade and large windows overlooking the entrance. These elements were the hallmarks of architect Ferenc Pfaff, many of whose 29 palaces of rail transport can still be found placed throughout the provincial cities of what was once the Kingdom of Hungary. The station had been recently restored to its former grandeur using Pfaff’s original plans. The grandeur it evoked was in harmony with greater architectural wonders to come in the city. For Szeged was a provincial city par excellence whose architecture, history and culture punched far above its weight.
Standing outside the station looking back at the façade it was easy to imagine that time had been turned back by over a century. It would not have been surprising to see men in bowler hats and dark suits checking their timepieces while they escorted ladies with parasols on to carriages or horse drawn trams that would transport them to the inner city. Starting with the train station, Szeged was a place that was the ultimate throwback to the halcyon days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A whiff of the imperial pervaded the city. This made it beloved by many who looked with adoration on what many consider to the glory days of modern Hungary. Conversely, it also serves to hide a deeper, more troubled history that was hidden behind the immaculate eclecticism of its Golden Age architecture.
Swept Away– The Flood Tide Of History
The key event in Szeged’s modern history occurred on March 12, 1879. During the night a massive wall of water came surging into the city. The Tisza River turned into a veritable tsunami, causing a flood of biblical proportions. Estimates of the damage were cataclysmic with just 3% of the city’s structures still standing and hundreds of lives washed away literally overnight. When this massive inundation receded hardly anything was left of the once thriving city. It was not just that all hope was lost, so was most of the city. In the immediate aftermath, Szeged’s future looked bleak. A plan was soon hatched to rebuild Szeged in a style befitting a great city rather than a provincial riverside one.
The plan was first laid out in overwhelmingly ambitious terms by the words of none other than Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef who had come to see the damage for himself. Franz Josef stated that Szeged would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. He pledged to put the entire empire’s resources behind the rebuilding. The emperor’s words were soon backed by action. What followed was the construction of beautiful squares and spacious boulevards for an inner city stuffed with eclectic and art nouveau architectural confections. This reinvention of Szeged was so successful that it is now hard to imagine that another, distinctly different Szeged existed for many centuries before the rebuilding. Pre-1879 Szeged was physically obliterated by the great flood, while the memory of it was also washed away.
The pre-flood version of the city might as well be ancient history without the ruins to show for it. The beauty of modern Szeged has all but obscured this deeper past, one that was devastated by the Turks long before it was drowned by the Tisza. Nonetheless, this invisible past was worth a look, but I would have to find it in the pages of history books rather than on my stroll through the city. Finding old Szeged was the equivalent of chasing the ghosts of a city’s invisible past. For instance, little more than a few insubstantial remnants of Szeged’s old castle still exist. That does not leave much to go on. Turning back time, means looking to the written record and finding illustrations of the old city to make up for a woeful lack of physical evidence. I began to search for the most important date in Szeged’s history prior to the flood. This brought me to 1686, a year of historical paradoxes. On one hand there was liberation, on the other was the start of another occupation.
Capturing History At A Crucial Moment – Szeged: Version 1686
In 1686 a woodcut of Segedin (Szeged’s German name) was created in Antwerp by a Flemish artist named Jacob Peeters. It provides an image of old Szeged at a moment of sweeping change while also offering a less than authentic rendering of the city at a crucial point in its history. In the autumn of 1686, following a siege of many months, 143 years of Ottoman Turkish occupation came to an end. The woodcut from Peeters shows this in rather tidy fashion with some trampled Turks in the foreground while Habsburg forces proceed to fight off a few others. Further back sits a beautiful walled city, looking as though it has been untouched by conflict. A bit of homage is paid to its century and a half of Muslim rule, with a mosque and couple of minarets conspicuously rising above most of the stone structures. Beyond flows the Theis (Tisza) and Marosch (Maros) Rivers delineated in their Germanic spellings. The woodcut offers a romanticized image of Szeged as a place of triumph and idyllic beauty. What it does not show is the squalor and ruin that weeks of fighting would have inflicted upon the castle and its surroundings.
Whatever Szeged may have looked like in 1686, it was certainly nowhere close to what it had been when the Turks took it in 1543. Back then, Szeged had 7,000 inhabitants with an economy centered around the Transylvanian salt trade. By 1686 the population was down to just 2,000. The ethnic Hungarian population had largely vanished. Getting the city back to a semblance of what it had been before the Turks arrived would take decades. The first step was liberation, the second would be reconstruction and resettlement. The expulsion of the Ottoman Turks was a seminal event in Szeged’s history. Ironically, it would never have happened without Habsburg military prowess. One occupation was replaced by another. Austrian and Hungarian interests were more similar, but certainly not the same. For Szeged to become a Hungarian provincial city par excellence was still far off in the future. As for this history, there was hardly anything more important and more invisible. The irony was that without the Turkish expulsion and Austrian inspired rule, Szeged would never have realized its ultimate destiny.