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.

Capital Of The Great Hungarian Plain – Discovering Debrecen: Arrested Development (For The Love of Hungary Part 16)

The remarkable thing about my first visit to Debrecen was that I remembered anything about it at all. For many people, Debrecen can be an entirely forgettable experience. It is not a love at first sight city, more like a one-night stand with a harlot who offers the fleeting promise of passion. My problem with visiting Debrecen had to do with great expectations gone wrong. Debrecen is the second largest city in Hungary. As such, those who come for a visit may be forgiven for expecting something more than a Belvaros (Inner city) largely lacking in memorable architecture or atmospherics, especially when compared to the elegant old towns of such Hungarian cities as Gyor, Pecs, Sopron, Szeged and Szekesfehervar. Since most foreign visitors to Debrecen have already been in the western part of Hungary, they probably visited one of those more attractive cities. This leaves an indelible impression upon the senses. Debrecen cannot help but pale in comparison.

The way it was meant to be - Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

The way it was meant to be – Piac Utca (Market Street) in Debrecen during the early 20th century

Along A Fluid Frontier– At The Mercy Of Others
As a first-time visitor, I wrongly assumed that Debrecen would be much the same as all those other Hungarian cities that had left me starry eyed. I soon discovered that Debrecen is fundamentally different from other Hungarian cities, in many ways reflecting the difference between eastern and western Hungary. It has been my experience that cities tend to develop based on the topography that surrounds them. For instance, the confluence of the Raba, Rabca and Danube Rivers around the city of Gyor defined much of its early development.  Debrecen is not much different in this regard. The city is set out on the fertile featureless flatland of the Great Hungarian Plain. As such Debrecen has plenty of room to sprawl. On my first forays into the city, it seemed to go on in a multitude of directions without any discernible boundary. I felt as though the buildings had been scattered about with little regard for architectural symmetry. Much of this had to do, through no fault of Debrecen’s city administrators across the ages, with topography and history. The former influencing the latter. With no physical barriers anywhere near the city it could develop equally in any direction. Furthermore, the lack of obstacles meant it was also at the mercy of invaders, most prominently during the Ottoman era in Hungarian history from 1526 to 1686.

During those times, Debrecen was situated along a fluid frontier riven by an alarming amount of violence. Such venal activities as plundering, pillaging and slave raiding were commonplace. Low intensity warfare occurred for decades without end. This forced Debrecen into multifaceted deals to retain some degree of autonomy over its internal affairs. At one point, the city was forced to pay simultaneous financial tributes to the Ottoman Sultan, Habsburg Emperor and Prince of Transylvania. It was an unenviable position to be in. Consequently, this situation also affected the city’s spiritual and cultural development. During this period, Protestantism in the form of Calvinism sunk deep roots in the dark and dusty soil.  Roots that would eventually resist the counter-reformation. A visitor will search Debrecen largely in vain for those Baroque Catholic churches that can be found in other Hungarian cities further to the west. This is because for a 160-year period the building of Catholic churches was not permitted anywhere in the city.

Stock market - Horse market near Debrecen

Stock market – Horse market near Debrecen (Credit: Alexander von Bensa)

A Hungarian Frontier Town – In The Crosshairs Of Conflict
Besides Calvinism, the greatest influence on the city’s historical development was the cattle trade which enriched many of its most prominent merchants. These men held vast tracts of land out on the surrounding plain which they would lease to herdsmen and shepherds. Grazing spread across the plain, tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses were fattened up on the grasslands, then driven to market. Debrecen became the center for this trade, which boosted the city’s growth beyond what might have been expected for a city that lacked a river or any other defining topographic feature. In short, Debrecen grew into a large city because economic trade demanded and subsequently enriched it. By its very nature, the grazing industry is a largely nomadic and dispersed activity, thus it not surprising that Debrecen took on many of the qualities associated with a pastoral frontier. Imagine a Cowtown on the Great Plains of the United States such as Abilene or Dodge City, its streets beset with whirlwinds of dust in the summer and quagmires of mud in the spring and autumn. Reports from 19th century travelers, such as the Englishman John Paget, describe Debrecen in such a manner.

Debrecen has been as unlucky in its modern history, as it was in the early modern period. The reason that it lacks in historical architecture is due to warfare. Parts of the city were obliterated or badly damaged by both aerial bombardment and ground fighting during World War II. American bombers leveled its railroad marshalling yards and targeted other industrial infrastructure. A large tank battle on the city’s outskirts between German and Soviet forces occurred in the latter part of 1944. Structures that were rebuilt in its aftermath, the main train station being the most notable example, have no architectural qualities to recommend them other than stolidity, function over form and the use of a kazillion tons of concrete. Debrecen is pockmarked with such communist era monstrosities. Fortunately, it does have a few architectural calling cards that manage to draw tourists to the city, foremost among these is the Great Reformed Church (a reformatus nagytemplom).

Symbol of the city - The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground

Symbol of the city – The Great Reformed Church in Debrecen with the Kossuth monument in foreground (Credit: gelledina)

An Architectural Illusion – A Portal Of Protestantism
To say the Great Reformed Church is the main draw for tourism in Debrecen does it a disservice. It is also the city’s most recognizable symbol. Anyone who has visited Debrecen is bound to have seen its classically inspired yellow façade, glowing brightly at the end of Piac Utca (Market Street). Due to its role as a hub of Protestantism in Hungary, Debrecen has been called the Calvinist Rome. This oxymoronic appendage weds together two disparate ideals. The stern rigidity of Calvinist doctrine with the grandeur of Rome. The same could be said for the Great Reformed Church, its splendid twin towered exterior could not possibly be a greater contrast to its austere interior. Upon entering, I questioned whether I had been transported through a portal of architectural illusion. To understand Debrecen, I would first have to understand the Great Reformed Church.

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

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)

The Shimmering Citadel – Gyula Castle: Last Of Its Kind (Part Two)

The two-hour journey from Debrecen to Gyula that seemed more like ten, came to a sudden end when we suddenly arrived at Gyula. The southern reaches of The Great Hungarian Plain did not end here, but Gyula was so charming, elegant and relaxing that it gave the illusion of an entirely different world. The Belvaros (City Center) was clean swept and tidy, the colorful exteriors of its buildings emanated an aesthetic of vibrancy. The place felt alive, this was quite the contrast to the endless void we had just crossed. Gyula was the essence of quaint, looking as though it had skipped a turbulent 20th century marked by calamity and regress. In truth, Gyula had also suffered grievous wounds during that time, most prominently from that bane of modern Hungarian history, the Treaty of Trianon.

A New Frontier - Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Border marker on the Hungarian-Romanian border

A New Frontier – Stranded Along The Border
A large part of my years long procrastination in waiting to travel to Gyula, was due to one thing, its location. A mere four kilometers separated Gyula from the border with Romania. It had not always been this way, Gyula was left stranded on the frontiers of Hungary by geopolitical events over which it had no control. Only a hundred years before, Gyula had been economically connected with cities north, south and east of it which were part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Nagyvarad (Oradea, Romania) and Arad were approximately 70 kilometers away. Temesvar (Timisoara, Romania) was almost as close to Gyula as Szeged. Gyula had been part of this economic orbit until suddenly it was cut off. The Hungarian-Romanian border solidified on June 4, 1920 when the post-war peace treaty was signed at the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles. The ramifications were felt most acutely seventeen hundred kilometers away in places such as Gyula, whose entire economic orientation was forced westwards.

Whereas before Trianon, Gyula had been within the economic sphere of five cities, after the treaty went into effect it was left close to only two, nearby Beckecsaba and Szeged. Furthermore, it was now at the very edge of Hungary, along an insecure frontier where dangerous grievances seethed. Railway connections were severed, vital markets suddenly cut off and centuries old commercial connections thrown into chaos. Traveling north, south or east meant crossing a hard border into less than friendly territory. The effects caused of this border realignment were vast. Gyula struggled to adapt. The interwar period also brought a blow in prestige to Gyula. The administrative seat of the country was moved to the faster growing Beckescsaba. Gyula was now becoming an afterthought. Something of which it has largely remained since that time.

Reflective qualities - Gyula Castle

Reflective qualities – Gyula Castle

Besieged From On High – A Castle Falls
A few minutes after entering Gyula we were approaching its famous castle. My first view of it was striking. A red brick Gothic era creation set against a winter sky airbrushed with thin clouds. A large pond, fringed by atmospherically placed weeping willows, fronted the castle entrance. The trees and castle reflected off the pond’s placid surface. Looking down at the pond was just as enchanting as looking up. The castle was transformed by its liquid reflection into a dreamlike image, a shimmering citadel spectacularly surreal. Historically, water had been more than just a part of the scenery in Gyula. What water still exists presently around the castle is for public enjoyment and aesthetic appeal rather than as a defensive barrier. The castle had once been surrounded by a large moat. This watery barrier was substantial, measuring 30 meters in length and 5 meters in depth.

In 1566 an Ottoman army, 30,000 strong, surrounded the castle. They outnumbered the defenders by a ratio of at least 10 to 1. The castle’s Hungarian commander, Laszlo Kerecsenyi, had been appointed by the Habsburgs due to his prior success in fighting the Turks. His martial prowess was beyond reproach, but he and the castle’s garrison faced insurmountable odds. When the Turks managed to take one of the castle’s towers the situation turned dire, as enemy fire now rained down on the defenders. It is a tribute to Kerecsenyi’s leadership skills that the defenders managed to hold out for 63 days, twice the average length of time the Turks usually needed to conduct a successful siege. Nonetheless, a surrender was negotiated in early September. This allowed the castle to remain largely intact. The surrender was much less accommodating to Kerecsenyi and his soldiers. Despite promises of safe passage, almost immediately after surrendering they were imprisoned or executed. The Turks then proceeded to occupy Gyula and the surrounding area for one-hundred and twenty-nine years.

Ottoman Traveler - Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary

Ottoman Traveler – Evliya Celebi statue in Eger Hungary (Credit: Globetrotter19)

Venetian Gyula – A Momentary Image
One famous Turkish traveler left a fascinating anecdote of his impressions while visiting Gyula during the 17th century. In 1663-1664 the Ottoman polymath, diplomat and obsessive traveler Evilya Celebi visited Hungary. Celebi recorded for posterity his impressions of Gyula in a travelogue known as the Seyahatname (Book of Travel). He compared Gyula to Venice because of the marshy terrain, remarking that it was a strange sight to see residents traveling between houses, gardens and mills along watercourses. This anecdote is corroborated by engravings from that era. Celebi would be hard pressed to recognize anything from that time in Gyula today other than the castle. The mosques, madrasas and Turkish baths were all wiped out in the half century after his visit.

The castle outlasted Celebi and the Ottomans, which judging by the fact that it was the only one of its type left on the Great Hungarian Plain made it worthy of note. I could not help but feel sadness upon learning this fact. While I was glad that Gyula Castle had survived the Ottoman and counter-Ottoman onslaughts, I could not help but think of all the castles and fortifications in southern Hungary which had been ground to dust by decades of unending warfare. They had been erased from history never to return. It was unsettling to consider the eradication of this incredible heritage. For me, Gyula Castle represented all that had been lost, just as much as what still stands today. And while the castle still exists, the area around it has been transformed beyond all recognition. History moves on, Gyula Castle is all that remains.

Click here for: Besieged By Sterility – Gyula Castle: Tidying Up History (Part Three)


What History Is Made Of – The Walls Of Gyor: Guarding A Gate To Vienna

To the naked eye or uninformed mind, Becsi Kapu ter appears as another series of incomprehensible Hungarian words. Translated into English the meaning of those words becomes clear, Becsi Kapu ter means Vienna Gate Square.  This was as good a place as any to start looking deeper into Gyor’s history. The gate no longer exists, but the name denotes what was once a crucial point into or out of the city, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries when Ottoman forces threatened to destroy the Habsburg Empire. The Vienna Gate was where the road from Gyor to Vienna began or ended depending upon which way a peasant, merchant or military force was traveling.

Popular history has made the Gates of Vienna famous and the walls of Gyor anonymous. The walls can be seen while standing in Becsi Kapu ter. They still exist unlike the gate, which is now only a ghostly place name spoken by hundreds of Hungarians each day. The walls of Gyor are about the only thing left of the city’s defenses from the Turkish Wars. During the long years of war with the Ottomans, these walls were a barrier that the Turks were only able to overcome on one occasion. Gyor became known as the “Dear Guard” due to its role helping to protect the Habsburg capital 120 kilometers further to the west. It is quite ironic that a provincial Hungarian town once guarded the Gates of Vienna.

The City Walls of Gyor at sunset

The City Walls of Gyor at sunset

Great Divide – The Importance Of A City’s Walls
On an early spring evening, as the sun began to set on the Baroque spires of Gyor’s Belvaros and with the still waters of the Raba River reflecting a cloudless sky, I walked along the old city walls extending beyond Becsi kapu ter. I held out my hand, touching the bricks and mortar. I wanted to make a deeper connection with that turbulent time when the Ottoman Turks stood beneath them, trying to uproot the Hungarian and Habsburg forces sequestered within. Those who would decide the fate of Central Europe stood on either side of these walls, a stone’s throw away from one another. This was all that separated the forces of Christianity and Islam, one imperial overlord from another, Royal Hungary from Ottoman Hungary. Walls are important in history, they serve as borders, but also fault lines. They can mean freedom, tyranny or a combination of both. This was certainly true for the walls of Gyor.

The Turks referred to Gyor as “Yanikkale” or the “burnt city”. It received this name not by anything the Turks did, instead it came from the smoldering ruin that the Habsburgs and Hungarians left the city in 1529. When the Turks appeared outside of Gyor in that fateful year, the commander, a man by the name of Kristof Lamberg, decided not to defend the city, even though it was of great strategic importance. Lamberg ordered the fortress torched. The Turks were left to occupy the ruins, but it would never be this easy for them again. Later that same century the city was rebuilt in Renaissance style atop the original layout. Italian experts were brought in to design and build new city walls. These were fortified. Behind the walls were Gyor Castle, an impressive structure which sported no less than seven bastions. The city’s defenses were much stouter than before. They had to be because sometime in the future they were likely to face the Ottoman Sultan’s Army.

Schwarzenberg-Palffy Monument - In honor of the Liberation of Gyor

Schwarzenberg-Palffy Monument – In honor of the Liberation of Gyor (Credit: Pe-Jo)

Military Camp Or Market Town – Moment Of Truth
The moment of truth came at the end of the 16th century. Could Gyor withstand an assault from the Ottoman war machine? The Turkish army was led by an elderly figure, the Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, who was 88 years old when the campaign began.  Sinan’s body may have been frail, but his skill and determination in leading an army was still superior to most men. Opposing the Ottomans was a force of 6,000, most of which were Germans and Italians. The Habsburgs had disavowed Hungarian forces believing they were of questionable loyalty. Sadly, those left to defend Gyor were no match for the Ottomans. The castle was abandoned by the defenders after they were promised safe passage. The townspeople of Gyor fled with them, fearing what would happen to them under Ottoman rule. For almost four years the Ottoman forces contented themselves with pillaging the town and terrorizing the countryside. They quartered horses and installed artillery emplacements in the Gyor Cathedral. The city became a mere shell of its former self during this time, a military camp rather than a market town.

Ottoman rule in northern Hungary was always highly tenuous. Gyor was at the very limit of their supply lines, about as far away from Constantinople as the Ottomans ever were in Europe, other than the Gates of Vienna. In 1598 a force of 5,000 Habsburg troops prepared an expedition to retake Gyor. Setting out from Komarom, 50 kilometers to the east. They used surprise and stealth rather than raw manpower to aid them in their effort. On the night of March 28th the troops managed to sneak over the city walls. The sleeping Turks were caught unaware and soon forced to capitulate. Gyor would never fall under the Ottomans again, even during their final campaign to take Vienna eight and a half decades later. Once back under Habsburg rule, the Baroque period in Gyor’s history began in earnest. Construction of the Belvaros’ atmospheric architecture which I could see rising from beyond the old city walls started during this period.

The Raba River at Sunset - Just beyond the City Walls of Gyor

The Raba River at Sunset – Just beyond the City Walls of Gyor

Pockmarked Past – Knowing Better, Knowing Worse
I walked along the walls as night slowly descended upon the city, following them around until they bordered the Raba River. It was quiet except for the laughter of a few teenagers. The air was as still as the river, the surface of which did not betray a hint of movement. Gyor was now a peaceful city, serene and elegant. The violent clash of empires that had left its past pockmarked with conflict might as well have never occurred. At this moment, it was nearly impossible to imagine all that had happened here. I knew better, because I knew worse. Hundreds, if not thousands, had given their lives close to where I stood. And for what? In the service of empires that had long since ceased to exist, for future generations who would never comprehend their sacrifices or to be recalled only by a stretch of city walls that hardly anyone takes time to notice. Such is the stuff history is made of.

Click here for: Forget Them Not – The Napoleonic In Hungary: A Battle At Raab, A House In Gyor  


Pleasure Palaces Of Empire – Taking A Bath: Roman, Ottoman & Austro-Hungarian Baths In Budapest

The Roman, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were very different entities. On the surface they seem to have little in common, besides the fact that all three eventually collapsed. It is difficult to find clear connections among the three. They were separated by time, hundreds and even thousands of years apart. They were also largely separated by space. The Roman world was centered largely on the Mediterranean Sea, the Ottomans around the near east, the Austro-Hungarians in east-central Europe.

Each of these empires also radiated outward and at certain points managed to overlap, if not in the same historical time period, than in the same geographic location centuries apart. One of the best places to see this is in Budapest. It was here that the Romans built a city on the western side of the Danube called Aquincum – in today’s Obuda area – to guard their northern frontier. A millennium and a half later the Ottoman Turks occupied and then recreated Buda in their image. Still later, Austria-Hungary oversaw the expansion of the city into a political, industrial and cultural powerhouse. Quite miraculously, there is still one commonality among all these empires to be found in the city today, baths.

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum

The Great Public Bath at Aquincum (Credit : Bjoertvedt)

From Romans To Ottomans – Bathing In Buda
The Romans were great lovers of baths. Much of their social life took place at imperial bath complexes known as thermae. These were constructed in cities throughout the empire. A thermae in Aquincum can still be seen today as part of the excavated ruins. In addition to thermaes there were private bathing facilities called balneum. Aquincum also has one of these, which was part of a villa that belonged to a wealthy citizen. Such ruins offer the first window into baths and bathing culture in the land which would one day become Hungary. The warm springs that simmer beneath the surface of Budapest have been exploited by each empire that occupied the area since antiquity. They are the city’s greatest natural resource, numbering over 120 in Buda alone. Though the Roman baths lost their purpose not long after the empire fell, the ones built by the Ottoman Turks many centuries later have had a much different destiny.

One of the very few sites left over from the Ottoman occupation are the baths which were constructed in the 1560’s and 1570’s. Though bathing culture had come down to them through the Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire), the Ottoman Turkish bath facilities were unique in that they were also part of religious customs, specifically ablutions. Thus their baths were built adjacent to mosques. The mosques in Buda have long since disappeared, but the baths have managed to survive. On the west side of the Danube, close to Elizabeth Bridge, stands the unique domed structure of the Rudas Baths. It looks like something that might be found tucked away in a quiet corner of Constantinople. Yet these baths were fundamentally different from the ones in the Ottoman capital city. Whereas a traditional Turkish bath, known as a Hamam, consisted of three rooms, one each for hot and cold soaking, plus a large central room that was filled with steam.

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath

Inside the Kiraly Thermal Bath (Credit: Báthory Gábor)

In Ottoman Buda, the bath’s central space consisted of several pools. Rather than being filled with steam it was used as a bath. What is today the Kiraly Thermal Bath was completed under the administration of Pasha Sokoli Mustapha, the Ottoman governor who oversaw the construction of several Turkish baths in Buda. Over four hundred years later the architecture is pretty much unchanged. The outer walls of the bath are square, in the large room they enclose an octagonal chamber topped with a dome which allows in shafts of light. The light projects through the glass, adding an exotic element to the splashing and soaking that goes on inside. Modern bathers relax in the same setting that Ottoman officials once did. The Ottomans and almost all of their architecture have disappeared from Hungary, but their presence can be felt inside Kiraly Thermal Bath. Other Ottoman Turkish baths in Budapest include the Rac and Rudas Baths. These marvels of architecture are also places where Hungarians and tourists rub shoulders while soaking in the history.

Drilling Deep – Szechenyi Surfaces
Modern Budapest bathing culture began in the 19th century as scientific innovation brought thermal waters to the surface in places the Romans and Ottomans could only have dreamed about. With the industrial revolution, drilling technology improved at an incredible rate. Drillers were able to plume formerly unfathomable depths beneath the city. One of the first was a Hungarian engineer by the name of Vilmos Zsigmondy who spent ten years drilling a well that was nearly a thousand meters deep in the area that is now a pond in the City Park (Varosliget). This well provided thermal waters to the Artesian Bath or “old Szechenyi Bath” as it is sometimes called. The Artesian Bath has long since disappeared, but its famous replacement is nearby.

From a touristic point of view, bath and spa culture in Budapest is dominated by the splendid neo-Baroque Szechenyi furdo (Szechenyi thermal bath). Completed in 1913, the Szechenyi takes bathing to a whole new level. It is a world away from the quasi-Oriental aesthetic and sultry exoticism of the Ottoman baths. The Szechenyi has a fin de siècle refinement infused with a tasteful modernization that includes state of the art deck pools, whirlpools and even wave pools. As one of the largest bath complexes in Europe its hosts tens of thousands of visitors each year, many of whom snap photos of elderly men enjoying a soak while playing a game of chess. The magnificence that was Austria-Hungary and the golden age of Budapest permeate Szechenyi still today.

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

The splendor of Szechenyi Thermal Bath in Budapest

Impossible To Resist – Three Empires That Took The Waters
For all the physical architecture that the Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians imposed on the cityscapes of Aquincum, Buda and Budapest it is doubtful that any of these empires suspected that baths would be among their most lasting contributions. As different as each empire was, they all found the thermal waters of the area impossible to resist. These waters were harnessed to great effect in baths that can still be visited today. Whether in ruins or modernized, they evoke the grandeur and charm of an imperial golden age’s true pleasure palaces of empire.



An Age That Lives Forever – The Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #3)

The Mosque of Geza Kasim Pasha seems to have it all, a central location in Pecs’ Szechenyi ter at one of the highest points in the Belvaros (inner city), an original structure that is largely intact with a fascinating history of conflict and conservation. One thing it does not have is a minaret. Two and a half centuries ago it was pulled down. I would never have noticed this omission if not for a second visit to Pecs. After arriving at the train station on a cold and rainy spring day I had to walk through an intermittent downpour to my accommodation southwest of the city center. There are few things worse than dragging a suitcase through puddles while being pelted by raindrops. I clung to the sidewalk along Rakoczi utca while passing by shops, banks, small scale residences and apartments. Quickening my pace I lamented the weather, my baggage and a strange adherence to an odd personal superstition that does not allow me to use umbrellas.

I kept my head down for long stretches, as if not looking up would somehow keep me dry. This trek would have been an altogether miserable one if not for a startling sight that caused me to pause. On the south side of the street, sandwiched between an ochre colored building that housed a medical clinic and a cream colored four story structure, was a mosque. A minaret pierced the sky just behind it. It is hard to imagine a stranger setting for a mosque. Centuries of development had remade Rakoczi utca time and again, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque was still standing. The mosque looked to be smaller than its counterpart in  Szechenyi ter, but it did have the characteristic minaret from where in the 16th and 17th centuries a muezzin sounded the call to prayer five times each day. I made a mental note to visit the mosque before I left Pecs.

Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs

Side by side – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque in Pecs (Credit: Peter Lóránd)

“Caravans of camels laden with the merchandise” – Ottoman Pecs
It is rare that a person comes into contact with another world, but seeing the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque made the distant past suddenly seem close at hand. The building transcended space and time, acting as a portal to Ottoman Hungary. It made me wonder just what Pecs was like during the Turkish occupation. The remains of that time lie scattered in and around the city center offering a few disparate clues, two mosques and a Muslim burial chapel hinted at the role of Islam in Ottoman society. Not long after the Bishop of Pecs handed over the keys to the city in 1543, Ottoman administrators ordered that most of the Christian churches be converted into mosques. The two still standing in present-day Pecs were subsequently converted back to churches soon after the Habsburg conquest. The idea was to eradicate the physical, spiritual and cultural symbols of Ottoman rule. This had been done to the point where a curious visitor has no other recourse but to rely on historical information to gain any idea of what the Ottoman period in Pecs that lasted from 1543-1686 had actually been like.

Prior to the mid-16th century Pecs had been a town organized by its streets. The Ottoman system was fundamentally different, arranging towns around neighborhoods. The Muslim administrators, soldiers and settlers took over the center as well as the area within the city walls. Very few Muslims lived outside the walls. The exceptions were those who lived near the gates that led to roads out of the city towards Buda, Szigetvar and other important cities. The Christian population was pushed into the suburbs. Each of their neighborhoods was centered on a specific congregation with a church in the center. Christians were still free to practice their religion. The Ottomans brought in their own emigrants from the northern Balkans. These settlers transformed the streets, roofing them over and selling goods from stalls.

The inner part of the city center underwent radical change. What is today the heart of Pecs, Szechenyi ter, had been a marketplace prior to Ottoman rule. It was now turned into a bazaar. One historical account described a scene with “caravans of camels laden with the merchandise from India and the Yemen.”  The orient had arrived in Hungary. The Muslim emigrants were usually much poorer than the Christian inhabitants. They lived in ramshackle structures of haphazard construction and made their living trading an assortment of goods. The ephemeral quality of their humble homes and market stalls is one of the main reasons why Pecs and the rest of Hungary have so few remnants of the Ottoman presence.

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque

Prayer hall of Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Zairon)

From Conversion To Transformation – Bringing In The Balkans
The most radical transformation of Pecs was in the religious sphere. The centrality of Islam was on full display in the city. Charitable foundations supported educational institutions. There were five madrasah (Islamic religious schools) and at least twice as many mektebs (elementary schools).  Pecs was the major Muslim educational center in southern Hungary. Mosques matched schools in both number and importance.  In 1663 the Ottoman traveler and scribe Evliya Celebi visited Pecs. His work lists seven large mosques and ten small ones. Several of these had been converted from existing Christian churches. The city’s cathedral was converted to a mosque named after Sultan Suleiman who had led the conquest. Another one, the mosque of Memi Pasha, was built on the site of a medieval Franciscan monastery. The former monastery provided the scaffolding around which the mosque was built.

Both of these would eventually disappear, but the Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque which I discovered on that rainy day managed to survive. Its namesake was the great-grandson of Memi Pasha who had established both a mosque and Turkish bath in Pecs. Hassan ordered his mosque built right next to that of his illustrious ancestor. Visiting the mosque brought me as close physically as one can now get to the era of Ottoman Hungary. The exterior of the building is rather simple in design, square shaped, lacking decoration, with two stone bordered windows close to ground level and a round arched window further up. Atop the structure sits a round dome. From the street side this dome hides much of the minaret on the mosque’s southwestern corner. The exit door onto the minaret’s balcony faces mecca.

The lone minaret in Pecs

The lone minaret in Pecs – Jakovali Hassan Pasha Mosque (Credit: Alesha)

The Essence Of An Era – A Deeply Spirtual Place
Inside I saw what was left of the original interior that had escaped the mosque’s conversion to a Christian chapel. It had been restored back to an approximation of its former glory in the 1960’s. There were painted verses from the Koran, floral decoration and three stalactite arches. It was a deeply spiritual place that seemed far removed from the busy street just outside its walls. I felt a pervasive stillness, a quiet reverence. This was a space that transcended the present, transporting me to an eternal past, the essence of an age that in this space could live on forever. The past was no longer just a part of history, it was also alive. I could feel it within these walls. I could feel it within me.

A Miracle of History – Fusion of Faith: The Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #2)

One of the more remarkable experiences of my Eastern European travels came in Pecs, the second largest city in southern Hungary. On an early spring Sunday afternoon I disembarked at the eclectic masterpiece which has acted as the city’s railway station since 1900. My objective was an overnight stay in the city’s Belvaros (inner city). It was early afternoon and the wind was blowing hard. I walked up the Jokai Mor utca (Mor Jokai Street) dragging my luggage behind me while trying to shield my eyes from swirls of dust. My only knowledge of the city was what little I had read. Pecs was known for its jewel box of a Belvaros, a magnificent cathedral and an early Christian Necropolis that had been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The mid-sized city certainly sounded like a nice stopover to break up a train trip between Sarajevo and Budapest. At least that is what I thought until I entered Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square). My expectations were immediately exceeded.

It was right then and there that the magic of Pecs materialized before my very eyes. To my right was the baroque façade of Saint Sebastian’s Church, in front of which stood the pyrogranite, Art Nouveau Zsolnay Well. Further up was the neo-baroque Town Hall with its grand tower surging into a clear blue sky. Next I saw the colorful confectionary façade of the Nandor Hotel. Further up there was a brass statue of the great Hungarian leader Janos Hunyadi on horseback, adding an element of glorious pageantry. Could this really be just a provincial city, there was something positively royal about it. The square slanted upward as it proceeded to the north where a large column of the Holy Trinity was situated. Behind it was the most stunning sight of all, at the highest point of the square stood what had formerly been the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim and now is the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The structure was positively magnetic to the eyes. It looked like it had come from another world and truth be told it had.

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

If You Build It, They Will Come – The Conquest Of The Conquerors
Most miracles are created by the imagination and based on a belief system, but there are other miracles that can be seen and touched, these are the miracles of history. The fact that there is anything left of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim can rightly be considered a miracle of history. Following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Pecs, Pasha (Governor) Gazi Kasim ordered the building of the mosque. It took four years to construct and used stones from what had been the Gothic Saint Bartholomew Church which had stood on the city’s main square.

As impressive as the structure looks today, it was even more stunning during the era of Ottoman rule. The famous Ottoman traveler and literary scribe Evilya Celebi commented on the majestic view of the mosque. He compared its size and grandeur to the mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul. Celebi was lucky to visit Pecs right before Turkish rule in Hungary suffered a series of devastating setbacks.

The threats to the mosque’s existence began even before the Turks were forced out of Pecs. In 1664 an army under the command of nobleman Miklos Zrinyi besieged and then occupied Pecs. They carried out acts of wanton destruction, pillaging and burning for several days. Yet the Mosque of Pasha Qasim was one of three in the city that survived this rampage. A little over two decades later the Turks were cast out of the city for good. They burnt much of the city, but left the mosque untouched before the conquering Habsburg Army entered Pecs on October 14, 1686. After the Habsburgs took control they held a Thanksgiving dinner inside the mosque to celebrate their conquest. Their initial plan for the city, as well as the mosque, was to destroy it. The Habsburg court in Vienna changed its mind after deciding they needed Pecs to act as a rival to nearby Ottoman held Szigetvar.

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian's Church in the backgrounnd

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian’s Church in the backgrounnd

Conversions – Spiritual & Physical
The peace and prosperity that Habsburg rule brought to southern Hungary meant something quite different for the mosque. It would survive, but undergo a major transformation in the process. Six years after the Habsburg conquest it was converted into a church. The mosque’s minaret was struck by lightning in the 18th century, before finally being pulled down by the Jesuits in 1766. Then in the 19th century the interior was rebuilt. After 1868 only Christian worship services could be held there. This spiritual conversion was done in parallel with an overhaul of the interior. Such features as the containers for holy water that today stand beside the vestries were taken from the Turkish baths which were once adjacent to the mosque.

A few Islamic details did escape the transformation, such as verses of poetry from the Koran that can still be seen on the interior walls. The exterior, with the exception of the minaret, stayed almost exactly the same as it looked during Ottoman rule. The building that stands today is still the most impressive example of Turkish architecture in Hungary. It consists of an octagonal drum crowned with a dome. On top of the dome is a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, connected to a Christian cross. The duality of the symbolism is not lost on the historically minded viewer.

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Will To Change – Pattern Of The Past
I was lucky enough to be one of those viewers on that beautiful sunlit, spring day. Walking up to and then around the church/mosque I felt as though I were in an outdoor museum studying an artifact from the past that had been shaped by centuries of spiritual history. A steady succession of beliefs had produced this synthesis of Christian and Islamic sacred architecture, fused together as one now, but still with distinct patterns of the past, imposed one atop another. Here was a lasting remnant of how the world was built, from foundations and fusions, changes and challenges. The will to create and restore, defeating the will to destroy.  Only a miracle of history could have created such a structure.


The Father Of Roses In Buda – Afterlife: The Tomb Of Gul Baba (Ottoman Hungary #1)

You have to really take your turban off to Gul Baba. For a man who spent only a small part of his life in Buda he sure has staying power there. For nearly five centuries his tomb has retained a place among the city’s attractions. Despite sweeping changes in empires, rulers, religions and ideologies the tomb remains. Known as “The Father of Roses”, legend has it that Gul Baba was the first to introduce roses to the area. Not by coincidence the tomb is located in the 2nd District (Roszadomb – Hill of Roses) about a thousand feet west of the Danube in Buda. It is one of a very select few Ottoman Turkish sites left in Buda today.

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb (Credit: Dguendel)

Getting to the site requires a steep climb up the cobbled, broken Gul Baba utca followed by a short walk along Turban utca. Suddenly and quite improbably the visitor arrives at the tomb. To find the shrine of an Ottoman Bektshi Dervish tucked within the quiet back streets of the Hungarian capital is surprising to say the least. On a visit to the tomb, I got the distinct feeling that I was in Anatolia rather than Eastern Europe. The Orient felt very near. Such a fascinating slice of eastern exotica left me with questions. Just who was Gul Baba and why does he still have a presence in a city that is two thousand kilometers from his birthplace? From what I discovered Gul Baba exerted a powerful spiritual influence. Much the same effect can be felt by those who visit his tomb today.

A Sultan’s Spiritual Sage – The Rise Of Gul Baba
Gul Baba died in the Carpathian Basin, but his life began far, far away on a plain in northern Anatolia. He was born sometime in the late 15th century at the fortified trading city of Merzifon. He would eventually make his way to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul where he would come to the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Legend has it that Suleiman came upon him while hunting. At the time Gul Baba was tending and praying for roses he had planted. He certainly made a lasting impression on the Sultan as he had on many others. Gul Baba was a member of an Islamic movement known as the Bektashi dervish order that flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire. They practiced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. In the Bektashi order, baba denotes an experienced spiritual guide. A baba ranks above a dervish and one below the highest rank in the order. The order was closely affiliated with the Sultan’s Janissary corps, elite infantrymen who were the heart and soul of the Ottoman war machine.

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda (Credit: Thaler)

Gul Baba became a close companion of Suleiman, offering him spiritual guidance during his many military campaigns. He was also a warrior, known to carry a large wooden sword in his hand during battle. He was with Suleiman when the Ottoman Turks occupied Buda. Gul Baba was going to start a religious center in the city, but he suddenly died. The death of Gul Baba, like so much of his life, is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Two possible dates are given for his death. The first, August 21, 1541, also happens to be the final day of the siege of Buda, when the Habsburg army was finally defeated after three and half months. Gul Baba may have perished in the fighting below the city walls. The second and more common date of death given is ten days later on September 1st. In this case Gul Baba is said to have collapsed and died after giving the first prayer during a Muslim ceremony held in the Church of Our Lady (current Matthias Church), which had instantly been converted into the Great Mosque. The funeral that followed shows Gul Baba’s popularity, likely stimulated from the great emotion felt by the Sultan. It is said that thousands took part, with Suleiman himself acting as one of the pall bearers.

Restoration & Resurrection – A Spiritual Revival
Suleiman’s affinity for this holy warrior and deeply spiritual figure likely had much to do with Gul Baba becoming the Patron Saint of Ottoman Buda. He was memorialized for the sake of posterity when his tomb was constructed from 1543-48 on orders of the third pasha of Buda. It was to become a holy shrine with a dervish cloister and a site of pilgrimage for the Bektashi order during Ottoman rule in Hungary. The tomb survived the retaking of Buda by the Habsburgs in 1686, but afterwards was converted to a Jesuit chapel. Only after the Jesuit Order was dissolved did the tomb start to be restored through local efforts. A landowner, Janos Wagner, allowed Muslim pilgrims access to the site. The first of two major restorations by the Turkish government took place in the late 19th century. Another restoration was done at the end of the 20th century, giving the complex its current form. The area around the tomb includes a colonnade, decorative fountains and gardens planted with roses. There is also a statue of Gul Baba. The tomb itself is located in a hexagonal shaped building, made from limestone and mounted with a gold crescent.

The casket of Gil Baba

The casket of Gil Baba (Credit: Thaler)

The day I visited the tomb there was only a single family of Turks at the site. The eldest of which was a grandmotherly type who was overcome with emotion during their visit. She spent many minutes deep in prayer as her family looked on. All around the tomb’s interior, the walls contained tiles with verses from the Koran. Gul Baba’s coffin was of traditional Ottoman design, covered with Oriental carpets featuring elaborate patterns. I marveled at the lady’s devotion. To travel all the way from Turkey into the heart of Europe, just to visit this obscure site made a great impression upon me. The tomb of Gul Baba is the most far flung pilgrimage site for Muslims in Europe. The opportunity to see the tomb and pray on-site must have been a lifelong dream for this lady. I had no way of communicating with her through language, but her expressive emotion told me all I really needed to know. Gul Baba was more than just a historical personage, he was that rarest of Holy Men, one whose mysterious power could speak across the ages, both to believer and observer.