Brought to Ruin – Zelemer: Remnants of Gothic Greatness (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #13)

Going home to Hungary, means going to Debrecen. My wife and I often travel back to her hometown so we can spend time with her family. These visits offer the opportunity to relax. Debrecen is the very definition of laid back. Hungary’s second largest city is the equivalent of urban valium. The traffic is light, the sidewalks uncrowded and the locals quietly go about their business. The only problem with Debrecen is that it can drive a restlessness man to madness. After a couple of days, I begin to feel an innate sense of restlessness. This means it is time to travel. My restlessness has spawned a series of day trips from Debrecen to places both near (Hortobagy National Park, Nyirbator, Tokaj) and far (Gyula, Sarospatak, Regec Castle).

Anywhere we can go by car and return to Debrecen on the same day is fair game. This has led to an exhaustive series of adventures to sites of mild historical interest. I have now begun to worry that one day we will run out of places in the area to visit. This fear manifested itself to the point that we journeyed to the village of Zelemer and an obscure, but important piece of Hungarian history. According to what little I could find online, Zelemer had once been the home of a large medieval church. The only thing left of that church today was a partial ruin. That was good enough for me. On a fine late summer day, we went to see what was left in Zelemer. It was certainly worth the effort.

That lonesome whistle – Train Schedule in Zelemer

Spectacular & Mundane – Worth Waiting On
I had never heard of Zelemer before, but it was surprisingly close to Debrecen, requiring only a twenty minute drive north of the city. Locating the Zelemer church ruin proved more difficult than I imagined. After leaving the main highway, we took another road that led to the village. There was only one problem with this, the church ruin was not in the village of Zelemer, but on its outskirts. I did not realize this until we drove around the entire village several times. We finally found the church ruin by the railway station. The term “railway station” only loosely defined the one at Zelemer. The station looked like it had not been open since the 20th century. The door was locked, and windows sealed shut. Anyone wanting to take the train waited at a nearby siding where a schedule was conveniently posted. Twelve different trains stopped here each day, many of which went onward to Debrecen. While villagers waited on the train, they could look up at the ruined church which stood on the other side of the tracks.

The setting for the Zelemer church ruin was both spectacular and mundane. The railway line was within a stone’s throw of the church. At any moment, a train might come roaring by. By way of contrast, there was a large corn field on the other side of the ruin. A similar rural landscape must have existed here during the Middle Ages. What little was left of the Zelemer church stood high up on an artificial mound. Once I saw the ruin, it was almost impossible to take my eyes off it. Part of the tower was still intact. It rose 18 meters above the surrounding area. At one time, it would have soared as high as 30 meters. The church would have been an impressive sight for those traveling through the area. It would not have been the only one. The first church at Zelemer was constructed in accordance with a decree from Hungary’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen, who ordered that one church should be constructed at every tenth village. The initial iteration of the church at Zelemer was a Romanesque structure that would have been destroyed when the Mongols swept through the area in 1241.

Standing tall – Zelemer Gothic church ruins

Staying Power – A Thousand of Years of Christianity
The ruin that stands at Zelemer today was built in 1310. It was a sizable Gothic styled structure. There was enough left of the church to imagine the awe that it must have inspired. It would have been the centerpiece of not only the village, but the entire area. It was a sign of permanence in a world filled with conflict and caprice. The church was formidable enough that something of it managed to withstand destructive acts in the centuries to come. During the latter half of the 16th century, the Ottoman Turks pillaged and burned the church. This started a period of progressive decline. Once the church fell into disuse, the locals found that many of the stones could be put to other uses. There is no telling how much of the Zelemer Church is now part of the foundations for houses and rock walls in the area.

One modern addition has been added to the Zelemer Church ruins. A 3 meter tall statue of Saint Stephen stands nearby. It is a reminder of his decisive role in turning Hungary towards western Christianity. If not for Stephen, it is almost certain that Zelemer would never have been graced with a large church. Western Christianity was a unifying force for Hungary and Hungarians. Though over a thousand years have passed since Stephen’s time, Christianity is still a unifying force in Hungary. Zelemer is a prime example of how ruins offer a connection between the past and present. There have been incredible political, economic, and cultural changes in Hungary over the past thousand years, but Christianity remains a marker of Hungarian identity.

The Christian King – Saint Stephen at Zelemer

A Rapturous Effect – Deep Into The Imagination
For me, the most powerful aspect of the Zelemer Church ruins was how much it left to the imagination. Besides the tower, a portion of the northern wall and outlines of the floor plan there was little to go on. The missing pieces sent me deep into the imagination. What must the interior have looked like during the late Middle Ages? I imagined a cool, quiet nave with light streaming through Gothic windows. The sound of chants and a chorus of song emanating among the recesses. The voice of a priest booming from behind a pulpit. Whispers of prayer echoing across the aisles. The overall effect would have been rapturous. Seven hundred years later, without anything to go on other than my imagination, I could still catch a faint whiff of this most distant past. For a moment, the ruin of Zelemer Church was made whole and so was I.

Click here for: Journey Into The Unknown – Arpad Era Church At Karcsa: Mapquest (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #14)


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