How far would one person go to discover the origins of his people? In the case of Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Koros), a Szekely, the answer is halfway around the world and close to the top of it. Even if he had to walk, ride and sail thousands of miles through often treacherous physical and political terrain, overcoming a multitude of obstacles from climate to culture, Csoma was going to do everything he could to explore the theory that the Szekelys were direct descendants of the Huns and/or the Uighurs, an ethnic group inhabiting East Turkestan (western China). He was the proverbial man on a mission, risking his life to see whether the theory was true. In the process, Csoma crossed the near east and the entirety of central Asia. Though he did not find the answer he was looking for, Csoma did end up making history. He founded Tibetology, wrote the first Tibetan-English dictionary and became revered as one of the great Orientalists of all time.
This from a man who did not have wealth or privilege to assist him in his path breaking pursuits. Csoma came from a humble background, growing up on the frontiers of a kingdom where very few knew or cared about the Orient. He was forced to rely on a supreme intellect that infused him with a love of learning and an inexhaustible amount of curiosity. That intellect was almost always enough to see him through in a life filled with adventure and scholarly achievement that no one could have predicted for a Hungarian, especially a Szekely who grew up in a cloistered society remote from the great centers of learning in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though Csoma’s fame comes from his philological works and vast travels, his early years in Szekely Land followed by studies in Europe are also worthy of attention. If for no other reason than to try and understand how someone who was born into such humble circumstances could become a man of unmatched intellectual powers.
Out Of Obscurity – Setting A New Course
Just south of the spa resort town of Covasna in Transylvania, where legions of tourists enjoy the healing effects of mineral waters, lies the small village of Chirius. Turn off Highway 13E, onto one of the village’s backstreets and in a few hundred meters there is a bust of the villages’ most famous native, Sandor Csoma. Just below the bust, small wreaths festooned with ribbons with the colors of the Hungarian national flag are attached to the monument. Such recent evidence provides proof that Csoma has not been forgotten by Szekelys and ethnic Hungarians in the area. Chirius, was where Csoma was born into a relatively poor Szekely family. At that time, the village was known by its Hungarian name of Koros as it was then located on the Kingdom of Hungary’s southeastern frontier. Koros was shadowed on its western flank by the Penteleu Mountains. In these same mountains, just ten kilometers to the east, was where the Hungarian Kingdom’s southeastern border was historically located. By the late 18th century, Szekelys had been guarding this border for over five hundred years. Though the Szekelys, like the rest of the Hungarian Kingdom, were under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs at this time, they continued to perform their traditional (and compulsory) border guard duties, Sandor’s father was one of them.
Sandor Csoma was the sixth child in a large family. His brothers and sisters did little to distinguish themselves from others in the region. They were quintessential Szekelys, living according to the traditions and patterns which had proscribed their behavior for centuries. Sandor would turn out to be altogether different from his siblings. He would likely have followed in his father’s footsteps as a border guard since there were few other promising career paths available to Szekelys in the borderlands at this time, but Sandor showed himself to be highly intelligent. He excelled in the village school to such an extent that his father was successful in helping him gain admission to Transylvania’s most prestigious Protestant college, the Bethalinium in Nagyenyed (present day Aiud Romania). This would be a crucial turning point in Csoma’s life. It set him on a course that eventually led to his travels and studies in the Orient.
A Limitless Capacity – Following A Distant Dream
Boarding school taught Csoma more than academic subjects and course work. Discipline was rigorous, providing him with structure and focus that would be extremely useful in helping him cope with the hardships and setbacks that would occur during his travels later in life. The education he received was supposedly going to be provided free of charge, but there were strings attached. Csoma’s family did not have the means to pay for any part of his schooling. Thus, he was forced to earn his tuition by working. He did this by acting as a servant to fellow students. In addition, he taught summer courses at another school in Transylvania. Such experiences were invaluable, cultivating a tireless work ethic that when coupled with his insatiable curiosity and brilliant intellect led to academic achievement. Csoma did so well at college in Nagyenled that after passing his final exams that he was invited to continue his education with more advanced studies. During this time, he attained the highest honors from the college which resulted in a scholarship from the Prince of Transylvania. This allowed him to spend three years studying philosophy and another four years immersed in theological studies.
Csoma looked geared for a career in the priesthood, but during his advanced studies he became fascinated with theories concerning the origins of Hungarians. The theory that the Hungarians descended from the Avars and Huns had been growing in popularity. There were other professors who believed their most distant ancestors were the Uighurs. Csoma was determined to investigate these theories and find hard evidence confirming where the Hungarians had originally come from. This would mean travelling to the Orient sometime in the future. Such a dream would have seemed distant to most men, but Csoma was not like most men. His capacity for knowledge was limitless. He would soon realize that his capacity for travel was much the same. Though Csoma had yet to set foot in the Orient, his studies in Transylvania first showed him the way.