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.

Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

For me, statues in Hungary are about cultivating memory and encouraging motivation. Helping the viewer to recall past events while motivating them to learn more. On the north side of Castle Hill, within a stone’s throw of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, I found myself drawn to a charismatic statue. Written on the stone pedestal upon which the statue stood was the name Kapisztran. The name had obviously been Magyarized, the –sz being a dead giveaway. The statue portrayed Saint John of Capistrano (Giovanni de Capestrano in Italian) with both of his arms raised in the air. In one hand he held a flag. His head was turned as though he were looking back at invisible forces imploring them forward into combat. Beneath one of his feet lay a broken and defeated foe, trampled by the victorious saint. Another man, below Capistrano, blows a horn calling on the faithful warriors.

This was a highly emotional personification, an expression of zeal and fervor. There was nothing abstract or subliminal about the message portrayed. I knew hardly anything about Saint John, but the statue communicated that he was a man on a mission, possessed by a fiery faith. Prior to stumbling upon this statue, all I had known was the name. The statue stimulated curiosity in me. The best works of art often have this effect upon their observers. Viewing this portrayal in Bronze made me want to learn more about the man. My first question was what did this Italian priest have to do with Hungary? The answer was more than I could have ever imagined.

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District

Statue of János Kapisztran (Saint John Capistrano) in Castle District (Credit: Scolaire)

Preaching To The Choir – Combating Heresy In Hungary
The present state of Christianity in Hungary is one of stagnation and slow decline. Much of this can be attributed to four decades of atheistic communist rule. In addition, Hungarians by nature are an extremely critical, some might say cynical people. I cannot help but believe there is more than a fair amount of skepticism when it comes to the Hungarian attitude toward religion. It was not always this way in Hungary. Hungarians were a much more religious people prior to the 20th century. Religion and national identity were inextricably connected. Faith could flare when under threat, especially from external forces. Such was the case in the mid-15th century. In 1453 the bastion of eastern Christendom, Constantinople had fallen to the Ottoman Turks and was now under the banner of Islam. The Turks immediately began to make a push through the Balkans, toward Hungary with the eventual aim of invading the heart of Europe.

At the same time, a priest who would become known to history as Saint John of Capistrano, had been preaching throughout Central and Eastern Europe. John’s sermons were a vehement defense of Vatican orthodoxy. He fomented against heretics. More than a few times, his preaching led to violence, most famously against Jews. His oratorical skills were such that Pope Callixtus III chose him to preach a crusade against the Ottoman Turks in 1456. This would be done in the hopes of stopping Ottoman infiltration into Europe. John’s efforts to garner support were unsuccessful in Germany. The Vatican sent him onward to Hungary, where he found a much more fertile environment for his views. His words fell on attentive ears as peasants and smaller landlords were persuaded to gather into an armed force that would try to repel the Turks.

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano - Preaching to the faithful

Depiction of St. John of Capistrano – Preaching to the faithful

Peasants To The Rescue  –  An Element of Surprise
Much of John’s success in recruitment was helped by the fact that the Turks were now approaching the Kingdom of Hungary’s border. His force was something of a mixed bag, part rabble. Many of them were ill-armed with scythes or other primitive weaponry, but they were highly motivated. They benefited from John’s firebrand leadership as he proved himself a man of action as well as words. This force joined those led by John Hunyadi, the regent of Hungary. Hunyadi and Capistrano kept separate commands. They advanced to Nandorfehervar (Belgrade, Serbia), which at the time was under siege by Turkish forces, led by Sultan Mehmed II. When the two armies met in mid-July 1456, the Turks outnumbered the Hungarians by a ratio of three to one. The Hungarian force managed to fend off the Turks due to some astute command decisions made by Hunyadi. These included lobbing tarred wood into a moat the Turks had bridged with branches. This tactic trapped many of the Sultan’s elite Janissaries before the walls of the fortress. They were then massacred.

The tide of battle turned on July 22nd when the unruly force under Capistrano’s command baited the Turks into a pitched battle. When this largely peasant force’s efforts began to meet with success, defenders under Hunyadi’s command who had been ordered stay in the fortress, climbed over the ramparts and joined in the attack. At that point, Capistrano decided to lead his men in an all out attack. Hunyadi then led his men in doing the same. This surprised the Turks who were soon overrun. No less a figure than Mehmed was wounded in the fighting. Both sides retired to their camps after a day of ferocious fighting. Overnight the Turks abandoned their camp, retreating from Belgrade. It would be another 65 years before they would take the fortress. The battle was won, but the aftermath for both Hunyadi and Capistrano turned tragic Hunyadi caught plague in the immediate aftermath of the battle, less than three weeks after the greatest victory of his military career, he was dead. Capistrano lived a little bit longer, but not by much. He too would succumb to the plague that autumn. Unsanitary conditions, which caused the plague, proved lethal to Hungarian martial and spiritual leadership.

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) - Turkish miniature

Siege of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) – Turkish miniature

Historical Echo – The Ringing Of Bells
Capistrano’s actions at the Siege of Nandorfehervar (Siege of Belgrade) have become the stuff of legend, one that still resounds today. This is the result of an order given by Pope Calixtus III. Prior to the battle, Calixtus III issued a papal bull ordering bells to be rung at churches all over Europe to remind Christians to pray for the defenders at Nandorfehrevar. This order did not make it out in time and was not announced until after the battle’s conclusion. Thus, the bells were rung, but in celebration. The tradition is still upheld today. I have heard them on innumerable occasions while touring the Castle District, a musical reminder of Capistrano’s efforts. One that echoes through the corridors of time, all the way to the present. A man on a mission immortalized in statuary and sound, a daily presence whose fire and fervor demands to never be forgotten.

Click here for: Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)

The focal point of my visit to Castle Hill was the Hungarian National Military Museum. I had been looking forward to going there for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was out of luck on this day as the museum was closed. I was a bit discombobulated by the closure, but before I could come up with a new plan I stumbled upon a fascinating relic of architecture. On the backside of the museum I spotted an old Gothic Church tower. It loomed over Kaspistrzan Square, a battered reminder of the intertwined fate of Christianity and conflict in the Castle District. This was the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, an astonishing artifact out of all proportion and style to its surroundings. It immediately demanded my attention. I did not have any foreknowledge of its history or forewarning of its presence, but I immediately knew that it was much more impressive than anything I would have seen in the military museum. The Tower sent me on a journey that lasted long after my visit that day. A journey deep into its fascinating history. A history of conflict, combat and conquest. A history of invasion, occupation and regeneration.

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene - Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene – Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

Beginning At The End – A Garden Of Scattered Ruins
The Tower is all that is left of the Church of Mary Magdalene. All other parts of the Church have vanished, victimized like so much else on Castle Hill by the catastrophic destruction unleashed during the 1944-45 Siege of Budapest and the vicissitudes of totalitarianism which was imposed in the war’s aftermath. Destruction and transformation are constants in the history of the Church. For the Church of Mary Magdalene cannot be thought of as the kind of architectural entity or house of worship fixed once and for all time, instead it has been shaped and molded by the varying extremes that have buffeted the history of Hungary and by extension Castle Hill. Instead of starting at the beginning in telling the history of the Church, perhaps it is better to start where I did, at the end.

My first view of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene was startling. I knew almost immediately that the tower stood as much for what was not there as what was. This was a place where presence and absence were inseparable. There was a garden of scattered ruins fronting the tower, providing rough traces of what had once existed. The Tower itself, like the Military Museum, was not open on this day. That made it no less impressive. I was forced to use my imagination to try and envision what it had once been like. The tower looked and felt medieval, but as I would later learn that was only part of its story. A view from the top would have been spectacular, but even from ground level its height and proportions had a way of causing dizziness. A sort of vertigo in reverse, induced while looking upward from the ground below. It had a Leaning Tower of Pisa like quality, looking as though it might fall at any moment. And of course, it had not fallen and probably never would, at least not in my lifetime. The present age is most likely not the end for the tower, more like another beginning.

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction (Credit: fortepan.hu)

The Separation of Church & State – The Conqueror Becomes The Conquered
There have been many beginnings for the Church of Mary Magdalene. The first of these dates to its inception back in the 13th century. It acted for the next several centuries as the Parish Church for Hungarians in the Castle Hill area. The German population had their own house of worship nearby, the Matthias Church. Each ethnic group was segregated from the other in religious affairs. A stultifying example of how heaven is informed by the human prejudices on earth. Back in those times, the Church was a fine example of Gothic architecture. It remained as such even after the Ottoman Turkish conquest following their successful Siege of Buda in 1541. The Church was the only one which was not immediately turned into a mosque. It managed to serve the Christian population for half a century. That was until the Turks finally decided to make it a mosque during the Long War (1591-1606). This transformation did not last out the 17th century. A Habsburg led army defeated the Turks in yet another Siege of Buda in 1686. The siege left the church badly damaged. And began yet another era in its history.

There is a saying that every crisis is also an opportunity, the same might be said about the aftermath of war. The ability to change things is much easier when something has been brought to near ruin. That is what transformed the Church of Mary Magdalene in the early modern age. The church was given to the Franciscans who tore down what was left of the existing structure, except for the tower. They then rebuilt the church with a single nave in fully fledged Baroque style. The Franciscans were eventually ousted after the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his edict closing monasteries in the latter part of the 18th century. The Church stood dormant for many years with only one memorable exception. An unlikely event which bequeathed a bit of fame upon it took place in 1792. In that year, the Church was the scene for Habsburg Emperor Franz I’s coronation. This was an eventful interregnum amid a long period in which the church was scarcely utilized.

Casualty of war - Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene

Casualty of war – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Live By The Sword , Survive Despite The Sword – A Final Testament
In 1817 the Church was handed over to the military garrison in Buda. The military used it to conduct services for the soldiers up until the outbreak of World War II, but it was militarism that would bring most of it down. The catastrophic violence the church endured during the Siege of Budapest left it once again teetering on the edge of extinction. Several years after the war’s end, most of the ruins were swept away by order of Hungary’s Stalinist dictator Matyas Rakosi. Only the Tower was left as an austere reminder, standing as a final testament to over 600 years of Hungarian history, a statement of ruin and rejuvenation. The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene bears silent witness to all those ages that have long since passed.

Click here for: Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

This was just my second visit to Budapest, but like the first one I felt the magnetic pull of Castle Hill. Something about castles and hills have a way of drawing throngs of tourists to the most important cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are among the most prominent places sporting a hilltop castle. In each city’s case, a castle stands high above a famous river. The most famous of these rivers is the Danube or the Duna as Hungarians call it. The river slides between Buda and Pest, a ribbon of slate grey luminescence that is transformed into liquid fire at dawn and dusk. Standing by the Duna looking up at the conical spires reaching upward toward the sky, Castle Hill provides the viewer with an aesthetically enthralling sensation that is nothing short of spectacular.

Elements of magic - Buda Castle & Castle Hill lie up at night

Elements of magic – Castle Hill lie up at night (Credit: hpgruesen)

Elements Of Magic – A Splendid Sensation
This scene was first set out before me a year and a half earlier on my first trip to Budapest. It left me with indelible impressions that have stayed with ever since then. On this my second trip to the city, I found myself on a beautiful autumn morning traveling from the gritty working class district of Kispest to the regal splendor of Castle Hill. This trip when done by way of public transport takes a little less than an hour. Upon arrival, I had one goal in mind on this visit, to spend the better part of a day walking around Castle Hill. This would be done in the hope of gaining a better understanding of its history and architecture. That rocky plateau had been home to triumphs, sieges and cataclysmic battles that had served to shape Hungary’s destiny.

On my previous visit to Budapest, I had spent just a little over an hour atop Castle Hill, not nearly enough time to get to know the place. My most lucid memory was of standing outside the Matthias Church listening to a guide on the Budapest Free Tour explain how the structure had been co-opted as a model for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I have never been to Disney World and have no desire to visit a make-believe world when there are real places of much greater interest. I must admit though, that there does seem to be an element of magic associated with Castle Hill. It provides a suitable destination to explore the fantastical. That first visit lodged itself in both my memory and imagination. A trip to Budapest would never take place again without a visit to that dazzling island in the sky that Hungarians call Varhegy (Castle Hill).

A step up - The climb to Castle Hill begins

A step up – The climb to Castle Hill begins

Scaling The Heights – To The Pinnacle Of Power
I made the mistake of walking, rather than riding to the top of Castle Hill. This mistake turned out to be quite revealing. Though I exercise each day, getting to the top of Castle Hill proved to be a workout. It stands on a mile long plateau of rock, rising two hundred feet above the Danube. Two hundred feet may not sound like much of a climb, but when that elevation rises over a length of just a thousand feet, scaling it can be exhausting. I decided against a frontal assault and scaled the hill up a set of stairs along its western side. This approach conveyed to me the importance of topography in the history of Castle Hill. The first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary was not located here, instead it was on another hill further north overlooking the Danube, in the city of Esztergom. Buda only became the administrative seat of power in Hungary after the Mongol invasion in 1241.

The capital at the time of invasion was in Esterzgom, but that city proved no match for the Mongols who destroyed most of it. The King of Hungary at the time of the Mongol Invasion was Bela IV (1235 – 1270). He was forced to flee all the way to an island off the coast of Dalmatia to avoid being killed. After the Mongols withdrew from Hungary a year later, Bela decided that the only way to protect the Kingdom from another invasion was by building hilltop fortresses. These were constructed all over Hungary. Bela had a fortress and accompanying residence built atop Castle Hill. In the 14th century, a castle was built atop the hill as well. Then during the long reign of Sigismund (1387 -1427) a Gothic Palace and protective fortifications were added. By this time, Buda had become without a doubt the epicenter of political power in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Castle District got a renaissance makeover during the long and storied reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 1490). This period was the height of cultural and architectural achievement in medieval Hungary, ushering in a gilded age for Castle Hill. Marble fountains, expansive new Renaissance style buildings and crushed gravel pathways covered the district. During this time, the Kingdom of Hungary expanded its borders into lower Austria and Bohemia. This expanding empire had at its core Castle Hill. It must have seemed at the time that nothing could threaten the district. It stood secure, floating high above the Danube, a spectacular reminder of the wealth and power of Matthias’ reign. This peak turned out to be something of a false summit, for it was all downhill after the death of Matthias. The Kingdom of Hungary began a period of decline which led to defeat and occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The Castle District fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks after their successful siege of Buda in 1541. They then made it their seat of power. Though the Turks converted plenty of churches to mosques on Castle Hill they left the royal palace intact.

Scaling the heights - Statue atop Castle Hill

Scaling the heights – Statue atop Castle Hill

Baroque Beginnings – The Castle District Rises Again
The end of Turkish power in Buda and most of Hungary came in 1686, it also brought an end to the old Castle District. The successful siege by a Habsburg led army resulted in the historic architecture that stood on Castle Hill being laid waste. Very little was left to build upon. This meant an entirely new version of the district, heavily influenced by the Baroque era, would slowly arise. Much of the architecture from that period still exists today. This was what confronted me when I finally I made it to the top of Castle Hill and caught my breath. I was soon to discover it was worth every bit of energy that I expended to get there.

Click here for: The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)


The Coming Of The Vizslas –  Conquering Hearts: Hungary’s Iconic Companion

There are certain aspects of history that will never be known. It is a daunting thought to consider that way less is known about the past than anyone can possibly imagine. Put simply, much more has been lost than preserved. This is especially true when it comes to pre-modern history. Before the era of mass literacy (largely a 20th century phenomenon), documentation was limited. The past only survives in fragments, whether on paper or parchment, in slowly disintegrating ruins or beneath the earth waiting to be uncovered by excavation. Because of this incomplete record of the past, historians and scientists are often left to amass evidence wherever possible. This makes it nearly impossible to say when and where many things began.

Such is the case with the Magyar Vizsla, that most iconic of Hungarian sporting dogs. Ancestors of the Vizsla are believed to have been with the Magyar (Hungarian) tribes when they first arrived and conquered the Carpathian Basin in the late 9th century. Exactly when the Vizsla breed originated is open to conjecture. The starting point for when a breed of hound resembling the Vizsla enters history is not open to speculation. It is commonly given as 1357, the year generally agreed upon when a Vizsla first appears in the historical record.

Distant Ancestors - Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

Distant Ancestors – Illuminated illustration from the Chronicon Pictum

A Gift To The Future – Illuminated History
In the mid-14th century, King Louis I of Hungary (reigned 1342- 1382) decreed that an illuminated chronicle be created depicting the history, culture and life of Hungary. Officially it was known by its Latin name of Chronicon Pictum or Chronicon (Hungariiae) Pictum (also known as the Vienna Illuminated Chronicle), which in translation means “Illuminated Hungarian Chronicle”. That name is an apt description of the magnificent volume created. It contains 147 illuminated pictures (as well as text) that provide some of the best visual information on the culture, court life and lifestyle in the upper echelons of medieval Hungarian society during the reign of Louis I.

The illuminated artistic renderings are a tribute to the artistic ability of Mark Kalti, a priest who produced the work. Such was the combination of intimacy and accuracy in the Chronicon’s that it took Kalti nearly fifteen years to complete the work. It was then given by Louis to King Charles of France upon the engagement of the Louis’ daughter to Charles’ son. It would turn out to be more than a gift between royals, it was also a gift to the future that would come to inform a great deal of history, including that of the Vizsla.

Kalti’s work included the first documented representation of a dog resembling a Vizsla. It is found in a section of the Chronicon that provides information on falconry. Prior to the advent of firearms, hunters relied on falcons as their weapons of choice in hunting wild game. The role of finding and pointing out such animals was left to hounds that were most likely ancestors of the modern Vizsla. There has been a great deal of speculation as to what dog is portrayed in Kalti’s rendering. It was likely a yellow Turkish hound or a breed of hound from Transylvania. The hound’s appearance in the Chronicon is similar enough to the modern Vizsla that many believe this to be one of its forebears. Other references to dogs of similar stature and skill can be found in Hungarian documentation throughout the centuries leading right up to the modern age

The Vizsla - Hungarian Born & Bred

The Vizsla – Hungarian Born & Bred (Credit: Antoniodog)

A Rare Breed – On The Edge Of Extinction
During the period from the 18th through the mid-20th century, the Vizsla was quite literally an aristocratic dog. Most of the owners were the social elites of Hungary. This meant that a relatively small number were bred. Ownership was closely guarded by those who saw the Vizsla as much a symbol of wealth and refinement as it was a hunting dog. By the late 19th century, the Vizsla had become overwhelmed by pointer breeds in Hungary that were dominated by an influx of English setters and German Weimaraners. The number of pure bred Vizslas left in Hungary was miniscule. If something was not done, the Vizsla would soon become extinct. A group of breeders scoured the countryside, where they were able to collect a dozen pure breds. It was from this stock that the Vizsla rose once again in numbers and prominence over the course of the first four decades of the 20th century. Their growth prospects look assured until they took a disastrous turn for the worse during the Second World War.

Like everything else Hungarian, the Vizsla breed suffered irreparable harm when the fighting between German and Soviet forces came to Hungary during the latter part of 1944. As the Red Army fought its way across the country, the Vizslas, much like their aristocratic owners were subjected to murderous treatment. They were possessions of the wrong class, in the wrong country, at the wrong time. This led to the decimation of nearly all Vizslas in Hungary. The situation was dire by war’s end. Once again, the Vizsla was facing extinction. Fortunately, some of their aristocratic owners who had fled to the west took their Vizslas with them. Though they once again numbered little more than a dozen, this Vizsla stock would provide a resurgence in numbers. What also helped matters was that Vizslas were taken abroad to peaceful and prosperous countries such as the United States and Canada where they would soon thrive.

Growth Spurt - A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary

Growth Spurt – A healthy population of Vizslas have returned to Hungary (Credit: Adam Ziaja)

The Embodiment of Hungary – A Special Breed In A Special Land
The transport of Vizslas to the west following the Second World War was the beginning of a buildup that led to the healthy population that can be found throughout the world today. They have also returned to prominence in Hungary, valued as hunting dog, loyal companion and family pet. Their intelligence, beauty and grace has made them highly valued. In many ways, Vizslas are reflective of the land where they originated and the Hungarians who revere them. They are a special breed in a special land, seen by many as an embodiment of Hungarian greatness. To see a Vizsla in the Hungarian countryside is an unforgettable experience, a fascinating reminder of this iconic breed’s deep roots in the land of the Magyars.