The Beauty, Power & Unreality of Reconstructed Ruins – Visegrad: Dual Perspectives (For The Love of Hungary Part 53)

A foreign visitor to medieval Visegrad once described it as a paradise on earth. I did not have quite that same feeling during my visit to modern Visegrad. Almost five hundred years of wear, tear and warfare has done a great deal of damage to the once formidable citadel. What I saw while visiting the upper castle (citadel) was a rough approximation of the magnificent fortifications that made Visegrad impregnable to medieval conquerors. The idea of Visegrad’s impregnability has long since passed into history. Nevertheless, those remnants left standing today are still impressive. One look at the citadel, surpassed only by the sky which its reconstructed ruins seemed to reach out and touch, must have defeated many an army. Unfortunately for Visegrad some foreign visitors did not hold it in high regard. The ruined condition of the citadel is due to those who saw it as a massive obstacle. As such, they decided to lay this island in the sky low. In 1544, the Ottoman Turks brought unprecedented military resources to bear upon the citadel. They soon found themselves standing within its battered walls. Keeping what they had conquered managed to be more difficult than they could have possibly imagined.

Possession of Visegrad was fluid, if not ephemeral over the period of Ottoman Turkish occupation in Hungary. The citadel changed hands several times during the wars which raged along a continually fluctuating border between Ottoman and Royal Hungary. In what amounted to a prolonged state of siege, the mighty citadel’s defensive works were eroded. By the time the Turks were driven out in 1685, the citadel had been rendered nearly useless for military purposes. Ironically, the Austrian Habsburgs who spearheaded the reconquest of Hungary decided to finish what the Turks had started. Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711) against Habsburg rule sounded the death knell for any idea of the citadel’s reconstruction for martial affairs. The Austrians carried out a demolition to ensure that Hungarians who opposed their rule could not rebuild or refortify Visegrad. From that point forward, Visegrad’s history was frozen in time. Only at some undetermined point in the future would archaeologists, curators, preservationists and historians recreate Visegrad for those who would come out of curiosity or fascination with its conflicted past. This would be when the afterlife of Visegrad began.

Riverview - Visegrad as seen from the Danube

River view – Visegrad as seen from the Danube (Credit: Horvabe)

A Commanding Presence – From Ideas & Insecurities
For me, the power of Visegrad’s citadel had little do with the ruins that still stand as silent witnesses or the interpretation of its history in museum exhibits. Instead, the true power of the citadel came from first looking up at it from the river below, then an hour later looking down from it back towards the Danube. Viewing the citadel from below makes it appear almost unattainable. There is a certain unreality to its presence. It is so perfectly situated atop Sibrik Hill that one must remind themselves that the citadel is not the product of fantasy or an overactive imagination. The citadel was born from deep rooted insecurities that fed into military strategy. It was placed high atop the hill as the most formidable line of defense. Visegrad, along with other hilltop fortresses, was King Bela IV’s response to the Mongol Invasion of 1241-1242 that had exposed the country’s paltry defenses. The idea behind medieval Visegrad was to save Hungary from another all-consuming cataclysm. Yet it is hard not to look up at Visegrad and think that it existed as much for aesthetic as defensive purposes such is the commanding position it holds over the entire area.

Getting to the top of the Citadel took an effort that expanded my lung capacity. The stairs inside the citadel were ultra-steep. Before long, beads of sweat began to form upon my brow as I ascended toward the highest possible point. There was nothing easy about scaling the heights of Visegrad. This physical exertion did more to communicate the difficult task would be conquerors must have faced. At the same time, it helped me realize just how powerful the Ottoman War machine was in its prime. Just to place the Citadel under siege, would have been a monumental military task involving logistics, weaponry and manpower that only one of the world’s great imperial forces could muster. The defenders seemed to have all the advantages, but I knew better. Visegrad was not the first or last citadel the Ottomans faced, but it was one of the most formidable.

Unreconstructed - Visegrad Citadel

Unreconstructed – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: fortepan.hu)

That Much Closer To Heaven – An Idea of Reality
Once atop the Citadel, the effect was spectacular. The beauty and scale of the scenery was more dramatic than I could have ever imagined. The Danube sliced through the heavily forested, sloping hillsides until they reached the quicksilver surface of the water. The late afternoon sunlight transformed the ribbon of river into liquid fire, gleaming and glowing with a blinding light. It was like staring at a sun emanating out of the earth. I walked to the edge of the walls overlooking the rock face falling away to the river far below. Here was an opportunity to stand in the same place where Hungarian warriors had awaited the enemy half a millennium earlier. Their perspective would have been in complete contrast to the same setting today. The peace and prosperity of the modern world makes the view from Visegrad’s citadel for tourists one of beauty and serenity. This is a highly deceptive, ahistorical perspective.

Crowning Achievement - Visegrad & the Danube

Crowning Achievement – Visegrad & the Danube (Credit: Civertan)

In 1544, those warriors would have been fighting for their lives. The citadel may have offered protection, but it was also a trap. For its defenders, there was nowhere to go except for down. Either to their graves or by falling into Turkish hands. Breaking a siege would have meant holding out for an indefinite period. That proved impossible. The defender’s final days would have been filled with fear and courage, terror and drama. These were the outstanding characteristics of a battle fought just below an impenetrable sky. The only saving grace for the defenders was that they were much closer to heaven when they met their final fate. This historically decisive moment was lost on me as I stared out from the citadel at the beautiful surroundings. The scene was so unlike the history that attended and ended this place that I found it hard to believe. Such was the power of Visegrad that imagination could not quite conquer reality.

A Search For Recognition – Visegrad: Hungary’s True Golden Age (For The Love of Hungary Part 52)

Identifying a “Golden Age” in eleven hundred years of Hungarian history can seem like a thankless task. That is because Hungarians have come to define their country’s history by an elusive greatness that seems tantalizing within reach only for it to be suddenly snatched away. This state of historical affairs is often blamed on foreign invaders and occupiers that managed to crop up with alarming regularity. The Mongol Invasion nearly destroyed the Arpad Dynasty, the Ottoman Turkish occupation during the 16th and 17th centuries weakened Hungary so severely that an argument can be made that it never recovered a place among the great powers of Europe. Hungary can be defined in the annals of European History as either “almost great” or “stolen glory”. The Austrians, with great assistance from the Russian Empire, put an end to the dreams of a free Hungary in the 1848 Revolution. The same can said about the Soviets forces the crushed the 1956 uprising.

Hungarian history can seem like one tragic tale after another. Perhaps this was why I was both surprised and heartened to discover the truest Golden Age in Hungarian history presented at the once mighty citadel of Visegrad, an epoque that often gets overlooked. This Golden Age began after the Arpad Dynasty of indigenous Hungarian kings came ended at the close of the 13th century.  It was the first, but certainly not the last time that foreigners would rule Hungary. The difference was that those who came to rule Hungary in the 14th century happened to be astonishingly successful, to the point that they made Hungary one of the most powerful states in Europe.

Primeval Morning - The View From Visegrad

Primeval Morning – The View From Visegrad (Credit: Juri Kowski)

Centralizing Power – The Rise of Charles I
I found it rather surprising to learn that the famed French House of Anjou once ruled over Hungary. Their achievements were just as towering as the citadel of Visegrad which called attention to that glorious era. The Angevin kings’ glorious tenure in Hungary did not start out that way. Charles Robert (Charles I of Hungary), great grandson of the House of Anjou’s founder, laid claim to the Hungarian throne a decade after the final Arpad king died. His claim met with major resistance. Most of the great land magnates refused to recognize Charles as heir to the throne. Charles and the forces supporting him were forced to fight their way past a host of usurpers in a search for recognition. Two other foreign kings, one Bohemian, the other German, were placed on the throne. Between the two of them they lasted a total of three years. Hungary in the late 13th and early 14th century was a land riven by infighting, as rival factions divided and subdivided the kingdom among themselves.

Charles’ perseverance and strategic brilliance eventually won out, as did his military forces who dealt the magnates a crucial defeat at the Battle of Rozsgony in 1312. And still Charles’ campaign of consolidation continued for another ten years. Finally, after being crowned no less than three times and a full twenty years after his campaign for the throne had begun, Charles fully controlled the Kingdom by 1323. His reign would improbably turn into one of the greatest in Hungarian history. Two years after Charles gained control over the Kingdom of Hungary he made the decision to move the seat of Royal Power from Temesvar to Visegrad, which was centrally located in the land he ruled. This decision set in motion the expansion and transformation of the Citadel with the addition of what became the first version of the Royal Palace. Charles’ successors would expand on his original vision making Visegrad into a showpiece for the Kingdom as well as the nexus of power for Hungary’s Angevin rulers.

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Going Medieval- Charles I of Hungary

Mining A Mint – The Glitter of Hungarian Gold

Exercising centralized control from Visegrad, Charles set about introducing reforms that consequently led to an economic boom and a resulting Golden Age. Stating that the 14th century in Hungary was a Golden Age is not historical hyperbole. One of the most telling bits of historical trivia from that era is just how much gold Hungary managed to produce during this time. The great mines of Transylvania and Upper Hungary (present day Slovakia) were making a mint. The mining boom was stimulated by a reform whereby Charles allowed the owner of the land on which a mine stood to take a sizable portion of the production revenues. This incentivized greater excavation of minerals, to the point that Hungary was responsible for one-third of the gold production in the world by the 1330’s. Hungary produced five times as much gold as any other European state. In conjunction with a series of administrative reforms, Charles’ reign  brought prosperity and stability to Hungary. The legacy of the mining boom can still be seen right up to the present. Every time Hungarians use forints – the current Hungarian currency- to pay for a transaction, it is a callback to Charles basing his gold coinage after the Florentine florin.

Possibly the greatest effect of Charles’ long and prosperous reign (1308 – 1342) was how it set the standard for similarly long reigns by the kings who followed him. His successor, Louis the Great (1342 – 1382), held the throne for forty years, an incredible amount of time considering the chaos and upheaval that had occurred less than a half century before he took power. Sigismond from the House of Luxembourg came next. He came to power in 1387 (his wife Mary kept the throne warm for her much younger husband from 1382 -1387) and managed to outlast his predecessor’s time on the throne by ruling for fifty years. Charles I, Louis the Great and Sigismund account for three of the ten longest reigns by kings in the history of Hungary. These three enlightened medieval rulers, with 124 years on the throne between them, set Hungary up for a true Golden Age. This is much more remarkable when one considers that the 14th century was also when the Black Death sent Europe reeling.

Lasting Remnants - Visegrad Citadel

Lasting Remnants – Visegrad Citadel (Credit: Sasimunoz)

A Way of Life – The Glory of Their Times
Visegrad was the center of power for much of this time, acting as a secure base from which royal affairs were conducted. As each king’s power grew, so did their buildup of Visegrad. What had started out as a fortress became more than that. A place where diplomatic affairs were conducted, where king’s enacted reforms that brought about security and stability that became the envy of medieval Europe. Hungary’s truest Golden Age was the product of three visionary kings from the Houses of Anjou and Luxembourg. The citadel and its surroundings at Visegrad evoke an age when glory, chivalry and power were more than words, they were a way of life.

The Towering Citadel – Visegrad: Hungary’s High (For The Love of Hungary Part 51)

Getting to Visegrad is not easy. That has been precisely the point since the citadel was occupied by Hungarians atop a slab of rock in the early 11th century. The fortress was on the same spot where a Roman castrum stood seven centuries before. Its defenses incorporated what was behind from antiquity. Whomever initially had the idea of a citadel commanding the Danube River must have known that the location would be impregnable for all but the most powerful of armies. That proved to be the case with the notable exceptions of the Mongols and Ottoman Turks. I found that trying to get to the heights of Visegrad can be almost as difficult. For an independent traveler it is akin to mounting a major expedition to surmount the eminence on which the remnants of the citadel still stand today.

Castle In The Sky - Visegrad in the late 15th century

Castle In The Sky – Visegrad in the late 15th century

Close To Impossible – A Travelers’ Transport
As I soon discovered, traveling from Budapest to Visegrad presented multiple challenges mainly involving transport. This was not what I expected since Visegrad is quite famous. The citadel is only 45 kilometers to the north of Budapest. I figured getting up there and back would be relatively easy, I was wrong. The trip consisted of three distinct parts, each with a different form of transport. It is rare, if not close to impossible in the United States to travel by train, boat and car all in the space of three hours. A trip to Visegrad offers all these options for the independent traveler. My journey began at Nyugati station with an hourlong train ride to the north. By the end of it, the train was skirting the left bank of the Danube until it arrived at the Nagymaros-Visegrad station. The station’s name was deceptive because Visegrad is located on the Danube’s opposite bank.

To travel from Nagymaros to Visegrad required taking a ferry that seemed to inch from one side of the riverbank to the other. Crossing the mighty Danube by ferry was a throwback to earlier times. In a sense, I was following the same watery course that others have for the past two millennia. When the ferry arrived on the opposite bank, I felt a bit letdown. The citadel seemed more distant than ever from the riverbank. Rising above me was the imposing Sibrik Hill upon which the citadel stands. I could not imagine what it must have been like for a would be conquering army to marshal the reserves of energy and force necessary to successfully scale the hill, then overtake the stout Hungarian defenses. The fact that the Ottoman Turks were able to achieve this feat when the citadel was at its most formidable was testament to their martial skill.

Across the Wide Danube - Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry

Across the Wide Danube – Nagymaros-Visegrád Ferry (Credit: VargaA)

Medieval Designs – Put On The Defensive
The area close to the riverbank and along the lower hillside had once been part of a much more sizable Visegrad complex. The Lower Castle as it has been termed, contained the remnants of King Matthias Corvinus’ magnificent renaissance palace. Surprisingly, Hungary was the second place in Europe after Italy to welcome the Renaissance. This occurred after King Matthias married Queen Beatrix of Naples who helped bring art, architecture and humanist culture to the area. After the palace was ruined by the Turks, it was buried by run off from centuries worth of rains and only rediscovered in the 1930’s. Excavations since that time have managed to uncover a great deal of the original works. Since it was already late afternoon, I regretted having to skip the palace ruins. Instead I took a bit of time to inspect the reconstructed Solomon’s Tower, which had been part of a fortification system that had once stretched all the way up the hillside. This mimicked earlier Roman defenses, the ancient defenses informing and reinforcing the medieval design.

The tower’s name has turned out to be a misnomer. It was named after Solomon, a rebellious relative of King Ladislaus. Solomon was believed to have been imprisoned within its walls. The only problem is that Solomon was held captive during the 11th century. The first documentation of the tower’s existence is not until the mid-13th century when fortifications were built along what became the Lower Castle area to avoid another catastrophe like the Mongol Invasion of 1241. The upshot is that Solomon may have been imprisoned by Ladislaus, but it was certainly not in the tower that has been given his name. Solomon would be rather surprised to discover that he had a tower named after him at a place where he experienced a great deal of misery. Nonetheless, myth can be a much more powerful force than the truth, especially the further one goes back into history.  Myth often fills in gaps for what has been forgotten.

History Rising - Solomon's Tower from the Danube

History Rising – Solomon’s Tower from the Danube (Credit: VargaA)

A Palpable Power – The Loftiest Stage
Getting from Solomon’s Tower to the citadel required either a strenuous hike which I did not fancy or paying for a private minibus that took less than 10 minutes to reach the top parking lot. Opting for the latter, I soon found myself standing at the entrance to one of the great historic sites in Hungary. The only thing left for me was either to visit the fortress or touch the sky, perhaps both. The former was plausible and the latter seemed possible from where I stood. The power of Visegrad was palpable the moment I began to climb the steep stairs to what was left of the fortress. Here was a case where natural history and geology conspired over tens of thousands of years to create one of the more perfect locations for human drama to play out on the loftiest stage imaginable.

Standing inside the fortress, looking up at the sky and down at the Danube, I realized once again how location informs everything when it comes to history. Visegrad was the epicenter of so many important events in Hungarian history because of where it was located. It guarded the road between Esztergom and Buda. It stood above the midpoint of the Danube Bend which meant that it would come to play a central role in medieval Hungary. The citadel’s setting demanded respect. In that regard, Visegrad would not disappoint.

Versions of Vac: An Obscure King & The Missing Centuries (For The Love of Hungary Part 42)

Where does history begin in Hungary? For Hungarians it begins in the 890’s when they came storming into the Carpathian Basin to take what they consider to be their rightful place in the European family of nations. For many western historians, the human history of the land that is now Hungary begins with the arrival of the Romans. Other historians whose focus is on the Hungarians, begin history before their arrival during the Dark Ages. This was when barbarian tribes that have long since vanished occupied the area. The answer to the question of when history began in Hungary will always be subjective. That same question can be asked on a micro scale in the town of Vac, a half hour north of Budapest on the eastern side of the Danube.

Invisible Man - King Geza I

Invisible Man – King Geza I

The Age Of Baroque – Triumphal Architecture
In a physical sense, the history of Vac begins during the Baroque era. The oldest structures that I saw during my visit were all from that time period. To name but a few, the bridge to Budapest which crosses the Gombas stream south of the city center was completed in the 1750’s, the Dominican Church in 1741, the Franciscan Church in 1765, and the Assumption Cathedral in 1777. Though the Baroque period left the most lasting mark upon Vac, the first three decades of that period (1700 – 1730) were destroyed overnight. Each of the churches were built or finished after a cataclysmic fire in 1731 left only one out of every ten buildings in the town intact. The famous crypt which has become the Memento Mori museum – discovered in 1994 below the Dominican Church – dates from the Baroque period. It only came into use in the years after the fire. The first burial took place in 1738.

The most Important administrative structure, the Town Hall, was also completed in 1764. This was just in time for a visit to the town from Empress Maria Theresa.  A Triumphal Arch, the only one in Hungary, that can be found on the northern end of the old town was raised in honor of the Empress at that same time. Even the infamous building which would become and still acts today as a state prison was completed in 1777. All this gives the impression that the history of Vac is an 18th century construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the versions of Vac which have completely vanished. These include the Ottoman, Renaissance and Romanesque. If Vac could regain all the architecture that was swept away during the first 600 years of its existence, the town would be one of Europe’s greatest tourist destinations. Working backwards through Vac’s history reveals the riches which can only be recalled by history books and the most fantastical of imaginations.

An Old View - Vac (Weitzen in German)

An Old View – Vac (Weitzen in German)

Removing The Evidence – Searching For Clues
Eastern style exoticism marked Vac for nearly a century and a half. It was once home to a thousand wooden houses and seven mosques. Bosnian soldiers walked the streets and its inhabitants spent their leisure time at a Turkish bath. These structures were quite an achievement for a town that changed hands 40 times during the border wars which raged in the area between Ottoman, Hungarian and Habsburg forces. The fact that not a hint of that Vac still exists is a depressing thought, that paradoxically manages to exhilarate the imagination. What would it have been like to sail down the Danube then suddenly spy a skyline studded with minarets and domes while the muezzin sounds a sonorous call to prayer? We will never know. There is almost nothing left of Ottoman Vac, not even the ashes. History may have happened here, but we must rely on the written word rather than physical evidence. The effect is akin to visiting the scene of a crime where all the evidence has been removed.

The Vac that existed before the Ottoman Turks occupied the town is even more distant and remote. Next to nothing is left of the Renaissance buildings constructed during the enlightened period when the famous humanist Bishop Miklos Bathori was the most powerful person in the town. A few physical remnants of an earlier time period can be found on display in Marcius 15 ter (March 15 square). These are the traces of St. Michael’s Church outlined in the square. Only those well versed in Hungarian history would have any idea of another clue to the earliest history of Vac. On maps as well as on the ground there is a singular callback to the High Middle Ages in the name Geza Kiraly ter (King Geza Square). King Geza ruled for just three years, 1074 – 1077, as part of the Arpad Dynasty of Hungarian Kings. Hungarians might know this, but it is doubtful that anyone else does. After stumbling across the name while looking at a map of modern Vac, I became fascinated.

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls (Credit: Mister No)

Memory Marker – The Legacy of A Forgotten King
Hungary has innumerable squares named after Szechenyi, Kossuth and Petofi among a multitude of other famous sons. The name Geza is not used with the frequency of other names unless it refers to Prince Geza, father of Hungary’s first Christian king, Stephen I (Istvan I). Geza Kiraly is a rarity, specific to Vac for historical reasons. Geza was in line for the Hungarian throne until usurped by his cousin Solomon who had support from powerful German forces. After Geza’s father died, he was forced to travel to Poland and recruit military assistance. He ended up traveling back to Hungary with Polish help and fought his cousin to a draw. Geza was able to secure a small area under his direct rule that is now part of western Slovakia.

Eventually Geza and Solomon turned upon each other again. This led to a battle for the throne that took place close to present day Vac. Geza, with the help of his brother Laszlo, won a decisive victory. As King of Hungary his reign was rather short lived. During his reign, Geza managed to have a Romanesque Cathedral constructed at Vac in honor of the Virgin Mary. This was where Geza was buried when he died a natural death in 1077. A century and a half later, the Mongols destroyed the Cathedral. Geza, warrior, king and patron of Vac was little more than a memory by the mid-13th century. Today King Geza I’s legacy in the town is Geza Kiraly ter and a statue of him standing atop the walls of Vac Castle, a structure he would never have had any idea existed. The square and statue may not seem like much, but at the very least they are markers memorializing him. They also act as reminders that this is where the history of Vac really begins.

Feeling Like Forever – The Sublime Spirituality of Szeged’s Dom Ter (For The Love of Hungary Part 35)

If first impressions are everything, then Szeged did not take long to make a good one. Leaving the train station, I turned north heading towards the city center. In a few minutes I found myself walking through an arched entranceway where I was confronted with an awesome sight. The huge open square of Dom ter (Cathedral Square) suddenly spread out in front of me. A space made magnificent by what lay at its northern end. My eyes were drawn upward to the twin towers of the neo-Romanesque Votive Church. Its spires soared, these skyscrapers of spirituality reaching 81 meters into a brilliantly blue and cloudless sky. The church was as much spectacle as it was spiritual, towering over the square. Its sheer verticality meant that wherever I walked in the square, the church always loomed.

The Votive Church’s exquisite architecture was made that much more impressive by its immediate surroundings. While these were on a much smaller scale, they were no less regal due to their own unique splendor. Around three sides of Dom ter stood a series of like designed, low rise buildings that were part of the University of Szeged, Bishop’s Palace and a theological school. Below these buildings, arcade after arcade were aligned in great arched rows. Within these arcades, attached to the walls, were a series of busts. There were eighty of them in all. This was National Pantheon of great Hungarians on display. The arcades added an astonishing element of symmetry to the square’s design, creating a mesmerizing aesthetical geometry.

The open space of the square felt larger even than its 12,000 square meter size, an optical and architectural illusion of spatial infinity. The day of my visit to Dom ter there were very few people about. This made the square’s emptiness feel like forever. I would only later learn that Dom ter is almost the same size as St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I never would have guessed that, since Dom ter’s expansiveness was not disguised by hordes of tourists. Another thing the square did not hide, was the feeling that everything within it, other than Domotor’s Tower, was rather recent in its construction.

First Impression - View of the Votive Church from arched entranceway into Dom ter

First Impression – View of the Votive Church from arched entranceway into Dom ter

The Votive Church – A Symbol Of Divine Intercession
When Szeged was being rebuilt after the flood of 1879, the citizenry wanted to make amends spiritually in the hope that it would be spared any future calamities. To some this mindset might seem superstitious, after all it was a natural rather than a metaphysical calamity which had brought the city to the point of complete destruction. Yet it is understandable when one considers that the city was almost extinguished overnight with little warning by the high tide of the Tisza. The fear of God must have been prominent in those who were lucky to survive and see the city reconstructed from scratch. To pay penance or perhaps to offer up a symbol of divine intercession, a great work of religious architecture would be commissioned, its role as a symbol of penitence creating an added amount of significance. The city council decreed that such a work would be constructed, but it would take much longer than anyone could have possibly imagined.

Finding a suitable piece of property in the city to build what was to be a massive structure proved difficult. An entire neighborhood of small streets would have to be demolished in the process. This delayed the beginning of construction until 1913, unfortunately a year before the outbreak of World War I would cause further delays. The plans for the Votive Church could not have been prepared by a finer architect, Frigyes Schulek, the same man who had remodeled the Matthias Church on Castle Hill in Buda. To carry out Schulek’s original plans would have cost a mint, thus these were altered by another architect, Erno Foerk. The final product was not completed until 1930. It would be well worth the wait. While the church’s overarching style is neo-Romanesque, it would be more appropriate to refer the church as neo-Middle Ages due to its Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque elements. For instance, between the soaring spires stands a smaller dome, which recalls the beloved churches from the late Middle Ages which are still to be found in the western Hungarian villages of Lebeny and Jak. Whether this was done by accident or design hardly matters, the effect is touching.

Symbol of Penitence = The Votive Church in Szeged

Symbol of Penitence = The Votive Church in Szeged

The Votive Church’s darkened, clinker brick exterior gives the church a more refined look, making it stand out against the sky. Inside, there is a very Hungarian twist on a fresco behind the main altar. There the Madonna is portrayed wearing the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king. On her shoulder is the coronation mantle. In addition to the main altar, there are also altarpieces found in both the right and left transepts of the church. No dramatic detail is overlooked. That is why the experience of any service held in the church cannot be complete without the worshipers hearing the forceful sounds of music emitted by the 9,040 pipes of its organ. In sum, the Votive Church was built to impress and achieves that goal in every way.

Antiquity & Simplicity – Domotor Tower
Ironically, the most intriguing structure in Dom ter is also something of an antithesis to the Votive Church. This is the free standing Domotor Tower, which is located just to the front and west of the church. The singular structure stands out from everything else in Dom ter, both historically and architecturally. It is a product of the Middle Ages with a foundation from the 11th century, lower half 12th century Romanesque and topped by a 13th century, octagonal shaped Gothic tower. Once part of St. Domotor’s Church, the structure has somehow managed to survive a multiplicity of conquests, natural catastrophes and plans for demolition to remain as an austere reminder of the antecedents to today’s splendor.

Standing On Its Own - Domotor Tower in Dom ter

Standing On Its Own – Domotor Tower in Dom ter

The tower is dwarfed by the Votive Church, its proximity a quixotic presence that represents the deepest history to be found in Szeged. The fact that so little of Old Szeged remains, makes Domotor Tower of inestimable historical value. The comparatively ancient tower has its back turned to the Votive Church as if to ignore its modern successor. I found myself spending more fascinated by the the Tower than the church. There were hints of an inscrutable megalomania about the church. By comparison, the tower seemed to me a miniature that could be studied up close and internalized. Here was an apt example of how bigger is not always better. The outsized splendor of the Votive Church was mighty and impressive, but the antiquity and simplicity of Domotor Tower was beyond compare.

History Without The Ruins To Show For It – Szeged: Before The Flood Of 1879 (For The Love of Hungary Part 33)

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.

The Triumphal Procession - Segedin in 1686

The Triumphal Procession – Segedin in 1686 (Credit: Jacob Peeters)

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.

Ottoman Endgame - The Siege of Szeged in 1686

Ottoman Endgame – The Siege of Szeged in 1686

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.

Up In Flames - 1950's Matchbook Cover of Old Szeged

Up In Flames – 1950’s Matchbook Cover of Old Szeged (Credit: Takk)

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.

History In The Making – Esztergom Castle Museum: The Long Turkish War (For The Love of Hungary Part 30)

The most incredible aspect of Esztergom’s Royal Palace ruins had little to do with its most noticeable traits, specifically its location and architecture. Sure, the former palace inhabits a prominent place on Castle Hill where the walls offer tremendous vistas across Esztergom’s Vizivaros (water town) and to the Danube far below. The palace ruins also still contain portions of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. For me, these fragments were appealing, but hardly revealing. Instead, it was the palace’s history between 1526 and 1686 that were both astonishing and alarming. To say that time span was fraught with violence is a massive understatement. Hungarian forces, most of the time aligned with, but at times also against the Habsburgs, fought lethal battles on innumerable occasions at Esztergom with the Ottoman Turks. What is left of the royal palace today somehow managed to survive this cataclysmic period of warfare. Knowing what I did about that period of Hungarian history it amazed me that anything had survived at all.

The Bells That No Longer Toll - Esztergom Castle

The Bells That No Longer Toll – Esztergom Castle

The Human Toll – Lost In Interpretation
The constant warfare that fell upon Esztergom was inaugurated down the Danube in 1526 at the Battle of Mohacs. Among the many Hungarian casualties of that decisive defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks was the Archbishop of Esztergom. The most powerful religious figure in the land was one of several thousand, most notably the Hungarian king, who lost their lives. The battle did more then leave Hungary open to a full-scale Ottoman invasion, it also opened the way to internecine warfare between Hungarian and Habsburg claimants to the throne. While infighting accelerated, the Ottomans ravaged the southern and central parts of Hungary, eventually occupying these regions with predictably disastrous consequences for the inhabitants. At the same time, the Ottoman Turks were moving further north into Hungary.

Between 1526 and 1543 Esztergom suffered six different sieges. The final siege during that period proved decisive when Suleiman the Magnificent took the castle (where the old Royal Palace was located) after 16 days. This was just the start of a period of on again, off again warfare that would last for a century and a half. Much of old Esztergom was lost during the prolonged violence, but astonishingly parts of the Royal Palace managed to survive. All this rather depressing history foreshadowed my final stop in Esztergom which included the Royal Palace’s remnants. They can now be visited as part of the Esztergom Castle Museum.

Depending upon the century, the complex was either a castle, fortress or palace. Usually a combination of all three. Unfortunately, the museum and what was left of the complex left much to be desired. I wandered around the museum, puzzling over exactly what was built when. The main drawing point from a historical perspective was less what was inside and more the fact that such luminaries of Hungarian history as Hungary’s first king, Stephen I and Matthias Corvinus’ Neapolitan wife, Queen Beatrix, spent a great deal of time here. This was also where Hungarian King Bela III had played host to Frederick of Barbarossa who was traveling to join the Third Crusade. For such an important historical place the interpretation was certainly lacking.

The Fragmented Past - Written in stone at the Esztergom Castle courtyard

The Fragmented Past – Written in stone at the Esztergom Castle courtyard

Besieged By History – Nothing To See, Everything To Learn
The Castle Museum’s exhibits could be summed up as “there was even less to learn about than there was to see.” I do not recall a single item or detail from the interior. I failed to walk away with a single photo of the exhibits. Outside there were lots of bells and cannons that looked like they had been set in place for aesthetic purposes. Without any further explanation they were altogether useless. Upon reflection, my time at the Esztergom Castle Museum was not unlike my other visits to castles and fortresses in Hungary. There was the beguiling lure of unique architecture and history, coupled with a scenic setting on a hilltop with amazing vistas in every direction. Only after arriving did I discover that all the human drama had been drained from these places.

It is no secret that Hungarian castles and palaces have suffered more than those in many other western European countries. They have been ransacked by Turks, blown apart by the Habsburgs, pillaged by Nazis and become playthings in the hands of Soviet troops. The upshot is that interior furnishings are scarce, while many of the architectural elements have been defiled. Besides those larger features able to withstand the destruction wrought by a conquering force, there is not that much to see in many of these places. Nonetheless, a great opportunity has been lost to interpret these historical events in a more compelling manner.

Forgotten But Not Gone - Siege of Esztergom 1543

Forgotten But Not Gone – Siege of Esztergom 1543 (Credit: Sebastiaen Vrancx)

An Escape From The Past– Truth & Consequences
I found myself wishing that the museum had spent more time on one particular aspect of the castle’s history. It would have been fascinating to see information and interpretation focusing on the extraordinary level of violence and warfare during the 16th and 17th centuries that took place on and around Castle Hill. This violence affected much more than palaces, castle walls and places of worship. It meant the subjugation, enslavement and/or murder (sometimes all three) of those living in Esztergom. Thousands were left homeless, famished, prone to deadly epidemics and poverty stricken. To make matters much worse, the violence continued unabated for decades at a time.

One of the most lethal military conflicts was the so-called Long Turkish War that took place from 1593-1606. Entire areas were depopulated, including those in and around Esztergom. This had long lasting demographic consequences for Hungary. That has all but been forgotten in the recounting of a few facts and dates. The Turkish victory at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 and the Siege of Buda in 1686 by Habsburg forces are neat bookends that mask the in between years of ultraviolent warfare. This insidious horror was reenacted all over Hungary for eight consecutive generations. I am no scholar of Hungarian history, but it seems to me that this history would be worth recounting, if for no other reason than how it stunted the growth of Hungary for centuries to come and left the country under foreign – i.e. Habsburg – rule.

Perhaps those in charge of the museum’s exhibits do not find this interesting or relevant to Hungarian history. They might feel that the public would not consider this to be proper history or more to the point those in charge do not feel this to be proper history. Yet this was the fate of Esztergom and by extension the fate of Hungary. In the 16th and 17th centuries there was no way to escape this harsh reality, but visitors to the Castle Museum in Esztergom can easily escape this history because it does not exist there. An opportunity has been lost. The only thing for me to do was walk away unsatisfied. If only those citizens of 16th and 17th century Esztergom had been so lucky.

Power Without Glory – Esztergom Basilica: A Matter of Perspective (For The Love of Hungary Part 29)

I climbed all the way to the top of Castle Hill in Esztergom only to suffer a massive let down. My expectation that the Esztergom Basilica would live up to the incredible history that had occurred on Castle Hill was to end in disappointment. Scarcely had so much effort been put into a structure that turned out to be so unimpressive. The Basilica left everything to the imagination. Perhaps it was the gray weather or my weary mindset that made me loath the Basilica, but for me it was a stylistic dud of gargantuan proportions. The first thought that crossed my mind while facing it was of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. The eight gigantic Corinthian Columns which commanded the portico were similar. It looked administrative and “official” to the point of sterility. I asked myself how a nation as cultured and creative as Hungary could have fallen for such oversized neo-classicism permeating one of its most important structures. The Basilica was the antithesis of such styles as eclecticism and vernacular architecture. The structure looked like something that belonged anywhere but on this hill. Its iron dome loomed large, always hovering in the background. This was its most noticeable characteristic, more a point of novelty than fascination.

Monumentally Massive - Esztergom Basilica

Monumentally Massive – Esztergom Basilica (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Monumental Monstrosity – Lost In Space
The one thing that the Basilica had going for it was girth. Its list of superlatives was impressive or depressive depending upon one’s point of view. It was the largest church in Hungary which was hardly surprising. I did find it shocking to learn that the Basilica was also the nation’s tallest building. The organ inside was also Hungary’s largest and once a major reconstruction is complete, will be the third largest in Europe. I supposed that all this size was a disguise for the lack of aesthetics. The Basilica felt more like an imposition than anything else. Here before me stood power without glory, a temple of rigidity. Even those architectural elements which could have been sized up on a more human scale were bafflingly large. A pair of bronze doors at the entrance towered above me. They were heavy and uninviting. I felt like a miniature figure entering a house built for giants.

The Basilica’s interior was not much better. Looking up at the dome was vertigo inducing, a dizzying experience that left me reeling. This only added to the lack of charm. There was space everywhere I looked. A feeling of hollowness and vacancy pervaded the interior. A massive altarpiece with the largest single canvas painting in the world tried to compensate. It was designed to inspire awe, but the overall effect was one where scale got in the way of substance.  The building might be interpreted as the architectural manifestation of Hungarian Catholicism, distant, remote and lacking in humanity. Anything personal was lost in space, buried beneath tons of marble and covered by an iron dome. I felt like it was built to intimidate and evoke power, but ironically it left me with a feeling of indifference. The spacious interior swallowed everything and everyone.

The Bronze Doors - There Might Be Giants

The Bronze Doors – There Might Be Giants

The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be – Regression To The Mediocre
I was not surprised to learn that the building took almost fifty years to complete. To put that time period into the proper historical perspective, consider that construction began in 1822 when Hungary was completely under the thumb of the Habsburgs, continued with starts and stops despite a failed revolution. Work was finally completed two years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed. It took the combined efforts of three architects, though strangely enough they did manage to synchronize their designs. Unfortunately, the outcome was unappealing. The lone exception was a single chapel that gave an approximation of what might have been.

Prior to the Esztergom Basilica’s construction, St. Adalbert’s Cathedral had stood on the site in one form or another since the late Middle Ages. It was ravaged by fire and the Ottoman Turks, but part of it remained until the 18th century. Before demolition, the spectacular red and white marble 16th century Bakocz Chapel was taken apart and salvaged. Sixteen hundred pieces of it were numbered and saved so it could be later reconstructed within the Basilica. It remains the premier work of Renaissance art in Hungary. No finer example of master craftsmanship from that time period exists anywhere else in the country. It is a reminder that art and architecture, even in the most exalted places, has sometimes regressed rather than progressed over the centuries since the Renaissance. The Basilica as it stands today cannot compete with the Bakocz Chapel. In a clever ruse, the chapel was incorporated within the Basilica. Without it, the Basilica would be known for little more then its massiveness. The Bakocz Chapel alone is worth the visit.

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Shadowy Moods – A Lack Of Compromise
Before long I found my way down to the crypt. Its quiet, sequestered chambers haunted by the contrasting moods cast by shadows and light. I had come here, like so many others, to see the burial place of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the famously uncompromising primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church who had opposed everything from social democracy to fascism and communism. Mindszenty spent many years in prison and an even longer period living as an internal exile at the American Embassy in Budapest. A man of iron clad principles who suffered more than others because he was the kind of true believer whose actions matched his words. This made him feared by enemies and sometimes loathed by allies. He was a great, but flawed man. Steadfast in his beliefs, Mindszenty’s release was negotiated by the Vatican. He died in Austria, embittered by the Catholic Church’s political machinations which had led to his removal from the embassy and Hungary. Mindszenty was not exactly likable, but that was never his concern. He was more than a man, Mindszenty was a way of life.

Mindszenty finally came home in 1991 when he was reburied in the Basilica’s crypt. The morning I saw the tomb it was covered in ribbons representing colors of the Hungarian flag. All around was silence, a place of quiet contemplation. Hungary’s most famous and feared primate was now finally able to rest in peace. A life that had been marked by seemingly endless tumult was now part of history. The fury and fight, the principles and priesthood were all gone. The only thing left was a final resting place beneath the great weight of Esztergom’s Basilica.

A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.

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

In my travels around Hungary it became apparent to me that most Hungarian provincial cities had a great church at their core. Sopron has the Goat Church, Szeged the Votive Church, Szekesfehervar St. Stephen’s Cathedral. These are just a few of numerous examples. In this respect, Debrecen is no different. The spiritual and aesthetic heart of Debrecen can be found between Kossuth and Kalvin ters (Kossuth and Kalvin Squares) at the northern terminus of Piac utca, where the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom) stands today. This is the point upon which everything else in Debrecen’s Belvaros (Inner City) revolves. And it has been this way for over seven hundred years. Long before Debrecen became known as the Calvinist Rome and was more a muddy oversized village than modern metropolis, a church stood in the same area that the Great Reformed Church does today.

Frame of Reference - Saint Andras Church in the 16th century

Frame of Reference – Saint Andras Church in the 16th century (Credit: Lajos Zoltai)


A Spiritual Symbol – Frame Of Reference

Almost immediately, the Great Reformed Church and Debrecen became inseparable in my mind. When someone mentioned Debrecen, an image of the church was the first thing I thought of. It was hard for me to imagine that the massive, lemon colored edifice had not always been here. The modern iteration of the church is only a couple of hundred years old. Prior to the 19th century, other churches just as unique in their own way stood in the same spot. As a matter of fact, Debrecen has been defined by a church in the center going back to its earliest days. Knowledge of the first church in this location comes from archaeological excavations. It was likely a Romanesque structure, but since no records or drawings have been discovered, its layout is open to conjecture. The first documented church in the area was constructed in the early 14th century on the orders of a man who shared a last name with the town, the local Palatine Dozsa Debreceni. This large, single aisled Gothic style church sported an octagonal tower. It was dedicated to Saint Andras, thus giving it the name that the church would be known by for many centuries.

The best frame of reference for what the church looked like comes from a similar one that can still be visited today in the town of Csenger, located approximately 100 kilometers northeast of Debrecen, close to the Hungary-Romania border. The church in Csenger was built around the same time as the one in Debrecen. Unlike the church in Csenger, the one in Debrecen underwent a massive overhaul in the latter half of the 14th century, developing it into the most prominent Gothic Hall church on the Great Hungarian Plain. It was expanded to three aisles with six columns each and contained two altars. The church’s size and importance helped solidify Debrecen as the leading town in the region, known for its markets and trade fairs. It would stand as a testament to the power and wealth of the town for the next two hundred years.

Financing Faith – Transylvanian Assistance
One of the most consistent scourges in early modern European history was fire. It could sweep through a village, town or city in a matter of hours leaving its inhabitants destitute and turn buildings into charred ruins. Debrecen was not immune to this destructive phenomenon, nor were its churches, including Saint Andras (Saint Andrew). At the beginning of autumn in 1564, the church was torched by a conflagration that left it a smoldering ruin. Rebuilding went slowly due to the destruction. A decade after the fire, a new chapel was super imposed over what was left of the old one. This area of the church was one of the few that was salvageable. With war raging against the Ottoman Turks and Debrecen on the front line, a full scale rebuilding would not start until 62 years later. It took the leadership of Transylvania’s greatest leader, Prince Gabor Bethlen to provide financial assistance in getting the replacement church started. He donated an incredible sum of money, 1500 florins, for the project. Prince Bethlen also cancelled an annual estate tax on Debrecen so this sum could also be put toward the project.

In addition, to Bethlen’s help, the reconstruction also received valuable support from Gyorgy Rakoczi, yet another Prince of Transylvania. Work started in 1626 and continued for the next two years until it was completed in November 1628. What arose in the ruined church’s place was a substantial piece of ecclesiastical architecture. And reconstruction work did not stop there. Most famously, the church’s Tiled Tower was rebuilt in order to hold the weight of a massive bell that Rakoczi had procured from the Transylvanian city of Gyulafehervar (Alba Iulia). The bell was made from captured Austrian cannon that had been melted down. It was housed in what became known as the Brick Tower, which had been built to house it. The reconstructed church was a formidable structure, but on multiple occasions it came under threat. In the middle of Ferenc Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711) the church was occupied by Austrian troops who committed acts of vandalism against it. These included stealing or demolishing many of the furnishings, horses were quartered in areas of the church and fires were kindled inside. This left the church in need of many repairs.

Before the Great Fire - Debrecen in 1802

Before the Great Fire – Debrecen in 1802 (Credit: Karoly Szegedi)

An All Consuming Conflagration – The Great Destruction
The outbreak of fires in Debrecen were the biggest threat. Major conflagrations occurred in 1719, 1727 and 1759. The last one was barely extinguished in time to save the church from almost certain destruction. Most fires were the product of arson. As such, the city authorities passed laws that harshly punished those who purposely set them. The offender would be strapped to a cart and have their skin pierced by white hot pliers until they died. Such laws helped to forestall all-consuming conflagrations. That was until 1802 when the worst fire in Debrecen’s history broke out. One-third of the town was incinerated. Saint Andras Church was one of many buildings lost in the blaze. The fire burned with such ferocity that several bells in the tower melted. Fortunately, the one gifted by Rakoczi managed to survive. The church was left in such a charred state that there was no hope for reconstruction. Debrecen was left in the same position that it had been in 1564, the spiritual center of the city had been devastated. There was only one thing to do, clear away the residue and begin work on another church at the same location. One that could live up to the precedent set by its spectacular predecessors.