The possibilities seemed endless because they were. We left Sarospatak in northeastern Hungary on a dreary winter day. Snow was falling, but not sticking on the roads. Visibility was down to a half mile before it blended into an all consuming grayness. The sky was hidden beneath a cloak of perpetual gloom. This was not the most auspicious beginning for a journey eastward. We had no idea where to go or what we were looking for. Thankfully, my wife was up for an adventure. I was restless after our successful visit to the famous Library at the Sarospatak Reformed College. We still had part of a morning and all the afternoon to travel around the countryside. The weather was problematic, but this did nothing to defeat my ambition to see something of historical value.
Mysterious Days – Plotting A New Dream
To plan our journey into the unknown, I was armed with a trusty Magyarorszag (Hungary) Classic map by Cartagraphia purchased earlier at a MOL (Hungarian Oil and Gas Public Limited Company) gas station. Every MOL station has racks filled with Cartagraphia maps for sale. The choices on offer include not only maps of Hungary, but also many of the surrounding countries. I have purchased a number of these through the years. They are invaluable aids for dreaming up new travel adventures across Eastern Europe. The Magyarorszag Classic covered the basics in four languages (Hungarian, English, German and French). Looking over the map was a stimulating experience as I could plot out potential discoveries or retrace old travel routes. I was especially enthralled with the small symbols shaped like castles. These denoted famous castles, as well as minor ruins for those who wanted to seek out more obscure sites.
I also could not help but notice the small red stars scattered across the map. These denoted other “tourist sites.” One site in the general vicinity of Saraspatok caught my attention. Just off Highway 381, beside the town of Karcsa, was a red star. This would be easy for us to access by taking a nearby rural highway. While I had never heard of Karcsa, I found the idea of visiting the mysterious, red starred site marked on the map intriguing. Besides the red star, there was no hint of what exactly could be found there. For all I knew, it could be a misprint. Nevertheless, Karcsa was worth an investigative journey. This was a mystery we would have to solve for ourselves.
Depending upon one’s perspective, the internet’s vast database of information either illuminates or spoils. A search for Karcsa on my phone revealed that there was an Arpad era (1000 – 1301) church still standing in the town. Most Romanesque churches in Hungary were either destroyed or sustained irreparable damage during the Mongol invasion of 1241. Most of these were not rebuilt and those that were morphed into styles quite different from their previous selves. The Romanesque churches that I had visited in Hungary were all quite famous and could be found in the western part of the country at Jak, Lebeny and Zsambek. Each of these had managed to escape the Arpad era relatively unscathed. To find a Romanesque church still standing in northeastern Hungary was a rare find, one well worth exploring.
Outlier – The Knights of St. John in Hungary
The snow did not let up during the half hour drive to Karcsa. The landscape was covered in a wet whiteness that left everything sodden from the half melting snow. As soon as we arrived in Karcsa, we saw a sign on the highway that directed us to the church. My first impression of Karcsa was a lasting one, an oversized village with modest homes lining quiet streets. I got the distinct feeling that change was something that happened only gradually in Karcsa and sometimes not at all. The latter was true of the Reformed Church at Karcsa, which we found amid the town. It was an outlier, a structure that was literally ancient in comparison to everything around it. It was built of brick and stone, materials that were made to last. How else to explain that the church had survived for over nine hundred years in one form or another. Its first iteration, dating all the way back to the 11th century, consisted of a brick rotunda which still stands today. Round churches were common during the Romanesque period in Hungary and the rotunda of the church at Karcsa was a perfect circle. Unlike most other examples in Hungary, this one was constructed entirely of brick.
Architectural historians have pondered whether the church at Karcsa has more in common with similar examples in the Caucasus (Armenia and Georgia) or those found in western Europe, such as France. Oddly enough, the church at Karcsa is an outlier that may not be related to churches in either region. One scholar has stated that its antecedents may lie in the Balkan region of the Byzantine Empire during the High Middle Ages. The church later underwent two major revisions that added on to the existing structure. These give the church much of its current configuration. The renovations kept the rotunda as a sanctuary, but extended the church with a stone nave, quadrangular chambers, and chapels. These alterations have a great deal in common with French and Italian sacral architecture during this time. It is likely that French and Italian craftsmen were working in the area. They were employed by the Knights of St. John who research has shown were responsible for the two later versions of the church. I was astonished to learn about their involvement. What I found even more fascinating was that this is the only structure left in Hungary associated with the Knights.
Obscure Wonder – An Incredible Find
Because the church was closed, we were unable to go inside of it to view the interior spaces. Instead, we inspected the church’s architectural and aesthetic merits while walking all the way around it. What I found most fascinating about the church had little to do with its structural history. Instead, it was the fact that the church had managed to survive for so long in a region that had experienced wave after wave of transformative change. While the town of Karcsa slowly modernized over the centuries, the church was frozen in time from the late Middle Ages right up through today.
Survival and preservation of the church at Karcsa is an achievement in and of itself, serving as an important reminder of the role that chance and fate play in historic preservation. It was also chance and fate that had brought us to the church. We traveled to Karcsa to solve a mystery through the act of discovery. We discovered not only the church, but a tangible connection to an age in Hungarian history that is all too often obscured by a lack of physical evidence. The church at Karcsa was an incredible find. One that sent me back to the Classic Magyarorzseg map in search of other obscure wonders awaiting discovery in rural Hungary.
Click here for: Beyond The Point of Exhaustion – Deva: A Transylvanian Lassitude (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #15)