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 – 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.
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.
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.