A Trip to Everywhere – Balazs Orban: An Encyclopedic Life (Part Two)

To really appreciate one’s homeland perhaps it is best to leave it all behind and then return many years later to see it with a fresh perspective. As the poet T.S. Eliot rhapsodized, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The meaning of those words would have been familiar to Balazs Orban though they were written a half-century after his death. For it was Orban who spent thirteen formative years away from his homeland, Szekelyland in eastern Transylvania, before he returned with fresh eyes and an entirely different perspective. Those years away for Orban were spent traveling, writing, doing researching and in exile. In 1859, with tensions between the Hungarians and Habsburgs subsiding, Orban returned to his homeland on the far eastern frontier of the Hungarian Kingdom. A land of remarkable landscapes, full of untamed mountain wilderness, bucolic valleys and pristine lakes. This was where Orban’s life began in 1829. Thirty years later it was about to begin all over again as Orban set out on a historic journey to expose the heart and soul of his homeland.

During his travels away from Szekelyland, Orban had explored and written about many exotic locales in the Middle East. After returning to Hungary, he recognized that many of his fellow countrymen had as little idea about the Szekely people and the land they inhabited as they did about foreign lands. It might even be said that they knew even less. Orban yearned to combat this ignorance with knowledge. He planned on making Szekelyland accessible to all Hungarians, through an encyclopedic work that would cover such topics as ethnography, geography, history, culture, customs and architecture. The project was to be comprehensive in the extreme. No community would be left unvisited, no landscape uncharted, no castle, whether standing or in ruin, unstudied. The most impressive aspect of this undertaking was that Orban would be both the primary and only author of it. The project would put his formidable intellect along with his physical stamina to the test. Orban’s ambition and vision would be critical to its completion.

An Image Of The Past - The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from Balazs Orbans A Szekelyfold Leirasa

An Image Of The Past – The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from Balazs Orbans A Szekelyfold Leirasa

Research & Resourcefulness – The Journey Home
Balazs Orban was nothing if not thorough when it came to research and writing. This was especially true when he turned his attention to his native homeland. Orban spent several years visiting every Szekely settlement. This meant he traveled to over five hundred towns and villages, virtually every inhabited place. He did not limit his focus just to settlements either. Orban also documented anything of interest, from native flora and fauna to old ruins. His curiosity for all things Szekely was unmatched by anyone before or since. His field research was nothing short of incredible considering the difficulties of travel during this era.

Railroads had yet to arrive in Szekelyland. Travel by carriage meant traversing roads in all types of conditions, often dependent on the weather and season. Horseback was the best way to visit remote areas of which Szekelyland had a majority. Orban was extremely resourceful because he had to be. There was no other way to do his research, but through rigorous physical exertions. Whatever the situation demanded he was ready to make every sacrifice in pursuit of his goal to document Szekely life and customs for present and future generations.

The Greatest Szekely - Balazs Orbans grave in Szejkefurdo (Credit Tamas Thaler)

The Greatest Szekely – Balazs Orbans grave in Szejkefurdo (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

For six years, from 1862 to 1868, Orban was in the field working on his project. The result was a six-volume work published over a five-year period beginning in 1868. Titled Székelyföld leírása, each volume dealt with a specific administrative unit of historical Szekelyland. Almost immediately the work became the go to source for all things Szekely. No other work, before or since comes close to its thorough, comprehensive treatment. It was and still is today the greatest work on Szekelyland. It would eventually result in Orban being known as The Greatest Szekely. More important to him at the time, Hungarians now had massive amounts of information about the Szekely at their fingertips. The work filled a gap in knowledge that had been sorely lacking. Not only was A Székelyföld leírása encyclopedic, it was also innovative.

The volumes contained many images reproduced from photographs that Orban had taken himself. His newfound photography skills, which he had learned from Victor Hugo’s sons while in exile on the Channel Islands, resulted in some of the first photographic images ever taken of Szekelyland. Considering the difficulty of travel logistics in the region, it is incredible that Orban was able to transport his photography equipment and put it to such good use. The images he took are now held in the archives of the Romanian State Archives in the city of Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures). In 2012, they were put on display at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. This only seems right since Orban’s goal was to educate and enlighten Hungarians. The display of these photographs meant they were following the same path to recognition as A Székelyföld leírása, which was first published in Budapest. That same year Orban also moved to the city.

The Path Home - Szekely Gates on the trail to the grave of Balazs Orban

The Path Home – Szekely Gates on the trail to the grave of Balazs Orban (Credit: Christo)

The Visionary – An Essence Of Life
Balazs Orban passed the final days of his life far from his homeland. He would die in Budapest during the spring of 1890. At the time, there were more people living in the city than the entire population of Szekelyland. Budapest was the antithesis of Szekelyland’s rural, forested and mountainous landscape, but it had also been a large part of Orban’s later life. The publishing industry, as well as the Hungarian Parliament of which he was a long-standing member, were housed in the booming metropolis. Nonetheless, the true soul of Balazs Orban would always be with his people deep in the wilds of eastern Transylvania.

Fittingly, his remains would eventually be returned and interred back in his homeland. They were laid to rest in the spa town of Szejkefurdo (Baile Seiche), not far from the area where he had been born. The spa was the product of yet another of his visionary ideas. Orban had been instrumental in the construction of thermal baths from the hot springs that flowed out of the earth there. The resort boosted the local economy and brought tourists into the heart of Szekelyland. It was a small, but striking example of Orban giving back to the land and people he so passionately loved. At its very essence, that was the story of his life.

The Efforts Of Exile – Balazs Orban: Channeling The Intellect On Stormy Shores (Part One)

I never thought I would meet a Hungarian who spent time living on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. The chance meeting on a tour bus in Turkey was quite an unexpected coup. Prior to this meeting, I had never met a single person who had set foot on that small island most notably known as an off-shore tax haven. It is where mainland Brits and people from around the world hide their wealth. By one estimate three-quarters of the economy is based on financial services. The Hungarian I met was a young woman by the name of Agnes. She was travelling around Turkey on vacation with her Australian husband Andrew. His job in IT had taken them to Jersey on an extended stay that had just come to an end when I met them on that trip around Turkey. Agnes was elated they would not be returning to Jersey. She said the weather in winter was miserable, while social relations were as cold as the gusts of wind whipping off the sea. Loneliness was a constant companion during her time there. She made it sound like a pseudo-exile that had to be endured and hopefully never repeated. Her experience in Jersey rightly or wrongly framed my own image of the island for years to come. That was until something strange happened.

Years later while doing research on Szekelyland I came across another Hungarian speaker who spent an extended period on Jersey and its nearby sister island of Guernsey in the mid-19th century. I now wish I could ask Agnes whether she was aware that the famed Szekely polymath, Balazs Orban, had spent a considerable amount of time on the Channel Islands while in exile. Perhaps this would have brightened her gloomy opinion of the island. Well I doubt it. At least Orban and Agnes have something in common. They both found something memorable on the island, specifically images that stayed with them. For Agnes, it was the greyness, chilling winter rains and howling winds. For Orban there were quite different images. The islands were where he first learned photography and spent time with one of the world’s greatest novelists. I now wish I could have mentioned this to Agnes.  It certainly would have made for an interesting conversation. It might also have led to a discussion of Balazs Orban, one of the most fascinating, if not famous, men of his time.

The Greatest Szekely - Balazs Orban statue in Szekelyudvarhely (Credit Laszlo Hunyadi)

The Greatest Szekely – Balazs Orban statue in Szekelyudvarhely (Credit: Laszlo Hunyadi)

The Greatest Szekely – A Life’s Work
Balazs Orban is known as the Greatest Szekely. Such an honorific is a quintessentially Hungarian creation. Case in point, a Greatest Hungarian also exists. In that case it is the reformer, politician, economic innovator and writer Istvan Szechenyi. Being known as the greatest in a field is a remarkable accomplishment. Being known as the greatest of an entire people is an historic achievement. Balazs Orban lives up to the title that has been bestowed upon him. Orban is one of those people whose work is difficult to describe succinctly. He was a writer, including the author of two six-volume sets. He was also a world traveler, an exile, the first Szekely photographer, an ethnographer, a politician, an entrepreneur and an aristocrat. Looking at the entire breadth of Orban’s life work is daunting. It is hard to imagine how anyone could have accomplished so much in one lifetime. Perhaps that is why will always be known as the Greatest among his people.

Balazs Orban was born in Lengyelfalva (Polonita Romania), a village in the Szekelyland region of eastern Transylvania in 1829. His father was of noble lineage. One side of his mother’s family came from a wealthy Greek merchant family who called Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) home. Just two years prior to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Orban was uprooted from his schooling as the family moved to Constantinople where they were to inhabit a castle built by his grandmother. Under strange circumstances, the grandmother would die not long after their arrival. Most of her fortune never went to the family. Orban turned this family crisis into an opportunity. He traveled deep into the Holy Land and climbed the Egyptian Pyramids. He later wrote a six-volume work about his journey, entitled “Oriental Travel.” It turned out to be a mere prelude to another multi-volume work that would later become his magnum opus.

A Man of Many Talents - Balazs Orban

A Man of Many Talents – Balazs Orban (Credit: Ede Ellinger Vasárnapi Ujság 1890/17)

Indelible Impressions – At Home Abroad
Following his Middle Eastern travels, Orban found his way to Greece where he spent time examining the ruins of classical civilization for himself. Nationalism soon swept over him. He became a fervent supporter of the Greeks gaining independence from the Ottoman Turks. It was also during this time that the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. Orban, whose father had been a Hungarian hussar, managed to raise a detachment that he planned to lead in assisting the cause. No sooner had the detachment begun heading up the Danube then they were informed of the Hungarian surrender. Orban would find himself back in Turkey once again, This time he assisted those in exile, including the famed revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth. For his efforts, Orban was labeled persona non grata by the Habsburgs. His life was under threat if they ever managed to arrest him. Orban decided that a faraway exile was the better part of valor as he made his way to London.

His period in London allowed him time to do further research and writing for his volumes on the Orient. As a talented linguist, Orban was fluent in the English language as well as five other languages, including tongues as disparate as Turkish and Greek. Those who met him were highly impressed with his intellect and ideals. It was also during this period that he spent time on the Channel Islands with none other than Victor Hugo. The French writer was also in exile. in Hugo’s case, from the rule of Napoleon III. He inhabited a house on the Island of Guernsey. The meetings between the two men left Hugo with an indelible impression of Orban. He would state that if he had a cadre of men like Orban at his side he could overthrow Napoleon III. That would not happen, but for Orban something more important did. He acquired a new passion for photography. This skill was taught to him by Hugo’s sons. It would result in more indelible future impressions from Orban, not of the Channel Islands, but of Szekelyland.

Click here for: A Trip to Everywhere – Balazs Orban: An Encyclopedic Life (Part Two)

A Thing Of The Past – The Szekely Himnusz: “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!” (Part Two)

The Szekely Himnusz began as a poem, one that could be read as a cry for help. The kind of help the poet, Gyorgy Csanady, had in mind for the Szekelys was probably not that of the musical variety, but this was exactly the treatment his poem soon received. Not long after it was written, the poem was set to music by Csanady’s close friend and associate Kaliman Mihalik. Mihalik had much in common with Csanady. His schooling had been interrupted by several years of service at the front during the First World War. By war’s end he had been forced to flee Transylvania for Hungary where he continued his education as a medical student. Like Csanady, Mihalik’s academic background was quite different from what he would end up being remembered for. Though he completed studies to become a physician, he had a passion for musical composition and autonomy for the Szekelys. Mihalik set Csanady’s poem to an original musical score he composed.

Opening Lines of the Szekely Himnusz

Opening Lines of the Szekely Himnusz

Life After Wartime – Yearning To Be Free
The finished work was publicly performed in the spring of 1922, less than a year after the poem had first been written by Csanady. It was met with a warm reception. Unfortunately, Mihalik had contracted typhus, which he would succumb to only a few months after his work’s inaugural performance. The physician turned musician had been unable to save himself, but his musical score left the Szekely nation with a lasting impression that would long outlive its creator. Just before his death, an article written by Mihalik and edited by Csanady retitled the work Szekely Himnusz, a name that has stuck with it ever since. In a fitting tribute at Mihalik’s funeral, his closest friends sung the Szekely Himunusz at the side of his grave. The poem’s lyrical sense of longing had been made much more emotionally expressive with the addition of Mihalik’s musical composition. It was little wonder that it soon caught on with Szekelys and Hungarians who yearned to be connected in the same state once again.

At the same time, the Himnusz made Romanian nationalists’ blood boil. Any hint of Szekely nationalism, self-determination or autonomy was viewed with extreme skepticism. A potential fifth column for Hungarian revisionist efforts that looked to change the borders set by Trianon. Romania was struggling politically and economically during the inter-war years, as were all the newly enlarged nations that had gained territory at Hungary’s expense. Hungary was not doing much better. Trianon had become a national self-obsession for Hungarians that must be reversed at any cost. Meanwhile, Szekely Land suffered under corrupt and inefficient administration. This was not much different than the rest of Romania, but the Szekelys were a distinct people who had historically enjoyed many freedoms even during more difficult times. Szekely freedom was now a thing of the past, autonomy like democracy a distance memory by the mid-1920’s.

Frozen out - Winter in Szekely Land

Frozen out – Winter in Szekely Land (Credit: Albertistvan)

Acts of Oppression & Forms of Protest – The Szekelys Under Communism
The Szekelys waited and hoped to be rescued by their fellow ethnic kin further to the west. That is just what happened in 1940 when Hungary threatened war with Romania if they did not cede Transylvania. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi German government intervened to avert war between the two since both were German allies. The deal that was agreed upon handed northern Transylvania and Szekely Land back to Hungary. It was a deal with the devil, one that Hungarians and Szekelys would come to regret but one time and that would be continuously.  During World War II, the Szekely Himnusz enjoyed a resurgence. It became part of the mandatory curriculum in Hungarian schools. Ever so slowly, the Himnusz was gaining a popular following. This nationalistic turn did not last long, as the Soviet Red Army invaded and occupied Romania in 1944 while pursuing the Germans. Northern Transylvania was placed back under Romanian rule after the war ended and Romania was soon under communist rule, as was Hungary. This portended a worsening situation for the Szekelys.

On the surface things did not look so bad at first, as the Szekelys were given their own autonomous region, affording them the superficial trappings of freedom. The reality turned out be very different as Szekely Land was ruled by a thoroughly communist administration. The façade of autonomy was stripped away by Nicolae Ceauscesu in the late 1960’s. Soon, oppression of Szekelys based on their ethnic identity began. They made a convenient scapegoat for a communist government looking for someone to blame for a failing economy, wholesale shortages and a useful distraction from the sheer venality of Ceaucescu’s rule. During the long and increasingly tyrannical rule of the communists in Romania singing of the Szekely Himnusz was forbidden. Those caught singing it could be imprisoned and sentenced to hard labor in work camps. This ban had paradoxical consequences, with the Himnusz becoming more rather than less popular. It was an act of protest against the dictatorial Ceaucescu regime, a profession of both individual and collective identity by Szekelys.

Clouds on the horizon - Szekely Land

Clouds on the horizon – Szekely Land (Credit: Laslovarga)

The Last Line – A Tragic Transylvanian Tale
The fall of Ceaucescu and communism in Romania at the end of 1989 meant the Szekely were free to sing the Himnusz once again in public, but this was seen by many as a subversive act against Romanian rule. Calls for Szekely autonomy have been met with skepticism, feeding fears that Hungary might try to regain Transylvania. While nationalist tensions have waxed and waned over the last three decades, the Himnusz has continued to grow in popularity. To the point, that in 2009 it was made the official anthem of Szekely Land by the Municipal Assembly in Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Securisec). Many Hungarians, in faraway places such as Nyugati Station in Budapest where I first heard the Himnusz, know the anthem by heart. It speaks to the tragic history of the Szekelys and Historic Hungary.

A wound that can never be healed is soothed by those who sing the words to this song of sorrow. Such empathy is not shared by many Romanians who feel that what the Szekely are really seeking is independence. That singing the Himnusz is not an expression of ethnic pride, but another step on the slippery slope towards independence. It is highly doubtful that the Szekelys could ever regain independence, but that has never stopped them from yearning to be free in their ancient and historic homeland. They continue to remain ever faithful all the way to the Himnusz’s last line, “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!”

 

Who Knows Where Destiny Takes Us – The Szekely Himnusz: An Anthem Without A Nation (Part One)

The bowels of Nyugati station in Budapest during the afternoon rush hour seem like a strange place to catch a whiff of Transylvania. The area where the metro line 3 escalators rise to one level below the surface is ringed with fast food dispensaries, newsstands and knick knack shops. During the late afternoon, the area is crowded with youth wasting time after school, stray weirdos who look worse than they smell and smiling, way to properly dressed Hungarian women (a rare and untrustworthy sight) promoting racks of evangelical religious literature. From time to time there are also busking musicians playing some strange instrument such as the accordion in a desperate effort to garner a handful of forints. On more than one occasion, I heard the strains of a heart wrenching tune playing on an invisible PA system wafting above this tumultuous den of humanity.

The song seemed to lower the usual clamor in this part of the station. While the song played I witnessed more than a few people singing the words to it. I would later discover the song was Szekely Himnusz, the national anthem for a people without a nation. The Szekelys are considered by many Hungarians to be the “true” or “original” Hungarians. Due to their remote homeland in southeastern Transylvania where they are an ethnic island surrounded by mountains and Romanians, they preserve a purity of culture that has been all but lost to most Hungarians. The Himnusz acts as a lyrical and musical reminder to all Hungarians of the Szekelys fight to hold onto their homeland and way of life.

Szekely Himnusz (Szekely National Anthem)

Sorrowful Lamentations – Szekely Himnusz (Szekely National Anthem)

Post-Partition Depression  – A Sense Of Insecurity
The Hungarian tendency toward sadness and loss is legendary. These are a people who have been known to say, “I’m happy when I’m crying.”. A bitter sweetness has been the hallmark of many a Hungarian’s emotional state. This tends to manifest itself in sorrowful lamentations concerning Hungary’s fated history. To this end, the Szekely Himnusz is one of their most beloved tearjerkers. The anthem conjures up an obscure and beloved land on the far eastern frontiers of Transylvania. Due to the post World War I Treaty of Trianon it was lost and now looks to be gone forever. The failure to retain Szekely Land was especially wrenching for Hungarians, disconnecting the people they extol as proto-Hungarians from the mother country.

For Szekelys it was an even greater trauma. For over four hundred years, beginning in 1438, the Szekelys were part of the Union of Three Nations (along with the Hungarian nobility and Saxons) that were granted special privileges denied to the Vlachs (Romanians). During the latter half of the 19th century, the Szekely were subsumed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but as Hungarian speakers they still enjoyed rights that many other minority groups in the Hungarian portion of the empire could only dream about. That situation would be reversed by the first cataclysm of the 20th century.

It is said that war changes everything. That was certainly true when it came to World War I’s effect on Transylvania and Szekely Land. The Hungarian ruling class was upended by a massive upheaval that rearranged the powers that be to Romania’s favor. Transylvania went from being ruled for the benefit of Hungarians, Saxons and Szekely, to a constituent part of the Romanian nation. This was a profound shock to the system of all three groups, but its most profound effect was on the Szekely. They were more isolated and thus more vulnerable than any of the other groups. Not only did they find themselves part of Romania, but unlike many other Hungarians who were “stranded” in Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, the Szekely were nowhere near the actual land borders of Hungary. A deep-rooted sense of insecurity developed from this traumatic separation.

An Expression of Grief – The Aftermath of War
A new organization was formed in Hungary by Szekelys to boost their national consciousness and cultivate a feeling of togetherness. The group, known as the Association of Szekely University and College Students (Székely Egyetemista és Főiskolai Hallgatók Egyesülete; SZEFHE), was dedicated to helping young Szekely men and women who had fled their homeland in the aftermath of war. In a sad irony, most of the organization’s leading figures were now living abroad in Budapest. They were blessed with the energy and fervor often found among idealistic students. To this end, they did everything they could to promote the Szekely cause, including the creation of what would eventually come to be known as the Szekely Himnusz, an anthem expressing their grief at what fate had befallen their homeland.

The Szekely Himnusz did not start out as a national anthem, instead it was born as a neo-romantic, proto-nationalist lament, penned as a poem by Gyorgy Csanady. Though of a literary persuasion, Csanady’s education was interrupted by the First World War. He spent four years fighting at the front. For his services he ended up wounded and found his homeland severed from the much smaller Hungarian state born in its aftermath. Csanady, like so many other young Szekelys, fled to Budapest where he completed a degree at the Academy of Commerce, though business was not to be his calling in life. Csanady lived to write, whether it be poems, plays or stories. In 1921, at the tender age of twenty-six, bereft of his homeland and hardened by years spent at the battlefront, Csanady wrote sixteen lines of verse that expressed both the contemporary as well as the historical frustrations, fears and anguish of the Szekely people.

The Writing On The Wall - Szekely Himnusz (Szekely National Anthem)

The Writing On The Wall – Szekely Himnusz (Szekely National Anthem)

A Geopolitical Roller Coaster Ride –The Szekelys Tragic Century
Csanady’s lines started with “Who knows where destiny takes us/On a rough road on a dark night”. That dark night would continue throughout much of the 20th century. When Csanady penned the lines, “Handful of Székely being crushed like the cliffs/On the sea storming from the battle of nations”, he was expressing uncanny foresight. Over the next seventy years, Szekely Land would be taken on a geopolitical roller coaster ride as the political pendulum swung from the rule of Greater Romania to Horthy’s irredentist Hungary to a bizarre autonomy within Stalinist Romania and then persecution under the vile Ceaucescu regime. The poem’s final line, “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!” was a plea for divine intervention to save the Szekely. From 1918 through 1989 there was no divine intervention forthcoming.

Click here for: A Thing Of The Past – The Szekely Himnusz: “Don’t let Transylvania be lost, our God!” (Part Two)

The Dreams To Come – Sandor Korosi Csoma: A Transylvanian Discovers Tibet (Part Three)

The foundations of everything the western world has come to know about Tibet were built upon luck, chance and fate. Such were the circumstances of the first encounter between Sandor Korosi Csoma and the British explorer and officer of the East India Company, William Moorcroft. In 1822, three years into a journey that he hoped would lead to the discovery of the original Hungarian homeland, Csoma was a financially destitute Hungarian scholar/explorer with a proposed journey to East Turkestan (western China) stalled out. After spending three and a half weeks traveling up a route that he had hoped would take him over the Karkorum Mountains, Csoma was forced to turn around due to dangerous conditions, only part of which were due to the climate. On his way back to Lahore, Csoma had a chance encounter with Moorcroft in Kashmir that would transform both his journey and life. The two men were intrigued by one another. They would spend a month together in the ancient city of Leh, during which time Moorcroft would share the only book he or any other Brit had on Tibet at that time, a Tibetan dictionary. In that moment was the genesis of what would become the life’s work of Csoma. The encounter with Moorcroft eventually leading him down a path that eventually led to the creation of Tibetology.

Portrait of a Tibetologist - Sandor Korosi Csoma

Portrait of a Tibetologist – Sandor Korosi Csoma (Credit: Ágost Schöfft)

The Barest Of Necessities – Language Learning & The Lama
The opportunity to research and learn Tibetan, a language entirely unknown in the western world, was too good of an opportunity for Csoma to pass up. An intensive study might lead to sources that could shed light on the origins of the Hungarians, perhaps even lead Csoma to their original homeland. Through his many connections, Moorcroft arranged for Csoma to stay and study in the region. The British were expanding their influence in the area. Thus, language aptitude would be critical to understanding and influencing the local populace. A man with Csoma’s linguistic skills would be invaluable. Moorcroft arranged for Csoma to study the language with Sang-rgyas Phun-tsogs in the settlement of Zangla. Phun-tsogs, a local leader, would teach Csoma the language and introduce him to Tibetan literature. For over a year, in unbearable weather conditions while subsisting on the barest of necessities, Csoma was tutored in all aspects of Tibetan language and literature. His ability to withstand near total deprivation while remaining true to his cause made him the perfect student for Phun-tsogs, the man he would come to know as “the lama”.

By the time his first period of education had ended, Csoma was the world’s leading non-native authority on the Tibetan language. He did not stop there. Despite difficulties in obtaining the services of Phun-tsogs over the next several years, Csoma continued to further his education. Moorcroft recommended to the British authorities that Csoma be supported in his endeavors. His work was of interest to the British as they were establishing a colonial foothold in the region. This was the period of what has been termed “The Great Game” in Central Asia, when the British and Russians vied for control of the area. Csoma’s broad knowledge of languages was useful to furthering their interests. In turn, the British could provide him with nominal financial support and access to a culture which was off-limits to all but a chosen few. After some initial skepticism by the authorities, Csoma was approved for service to the British.

Mysterious mysticism - Phugtal Monastery

Mysterious mysticism – Phugtal Monastery (Credit: hamon jp)

Distant Memories – From Tibet To Transylvania
At a monastery in Phugtal, Csoma would reunite for his final and most fruitful period of study with Phun-tsogs. Over the next several years he completed what would become his most famous and lasting work, the Tibetan-English dictionary. It consisted of over 30,000 words while providing guidance on Tibetan grammar. In addition, Csoma assembled a massive amount of Tibetan literature. Future western scholars of Tibet would find Csoma’s work invaluable. It opened new avenues of study into a culture that had previously been closed off to the west. The study of Tibet, its language, culture and Buddhism could now proceed scientifically. As for Csoma’s search for the original Hungarian homeland, that had been temporarily set aside, but not forgotten. He still hoped his knowledge of Tibet and its language would lead him to sources that would point the way to Hungarian roots in East Turkestan.

During the 1830’s, Csoma was made an honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. His ensuing work provided just enough in earnings to cultivate an increasingly austere lifestyle. He spent much of his time doing research, learning Sanskrit – a language he wrongly believed was distantly related to Hungarian – then returning again and again to his Tibetan studies. Amid these scholarly pursuits, he was still mindful of his native land. His countrymen remembered him as well. A collection had been taken up in Transylvania to support his work and sent to him. Csoma repaid this generosity by sending them twenty-five copies of his combined works. In addition, he returned the money that had been raised for him, along with a small sum he had been able to save during his travels. The money went to establish a foundation which would support students with elite academic credentials back in Hungary.

Tomb and Memorial of Alexander Csoma de Korosi at Darjeeling

One of a kind – Tomb and Memorial of Alexander Csoma de Korosi at Darjeeling (Credit: Bodhisattwa)

Creature Comforts – A Blue Suit & A Library Full Of Books
As he grew older, Csoma withdrew into a hermetic existence. He never gave up on his dream of discovering the original homeland of the Hungarians, but he was possessed by a fevered passion for learning. His days of intrepid travel looked to be in the past. He lived with scarcely any material belongings, other than his collection of Tibetan books. Observers noted that he always wore the same blue suit of clothes. Csoma cared nothing for material comforts. His world was enriched by the wealth of knowledge he had managed to acquire over a lifetime of intensive study. One visitor who talked with Csoma said that the only thing which interested him later in life, besides Tibet, was continuing his search for the deepest ancestral roots of the Hungarians.

In 1842, twenty-three years after he first set out from Transylvania, Csoma renewed that search. His plan was, travel first to Lhasa and then make his way into East Turkestan. The first part of this journey was from Calcutta to Darjeeling through tropical jungle. Along the way Csoma contracted malaria. Overcome by fever and chills, the man who had walked halfway around the world in the pursuit of a dream died in Darjeeling at the age of fifty-eight. He never made it to East Turkestan or found the original Hungarian homeland. Instead, he found Tibet. In the process, his path breaking work helped the western world discover a mysterious and mystical world through Tibetan language and literature. In essence, Sandor Korosi Csoma laid the foundations for all the dreams to come from his discovery of Tibet.

Leaving Home To Find A Homeland – Sandor Korosi Csoma: In Search Of Relatives (Part Two)

Leaving home for Sandor Korosi Csoma, meant first leaving Transylvania. He had spent the first thirty years of his life in one of three places, either his home village of Koros, at college in Nagyenled or teaching at Szaszvaros. By this point in his life he had traveled very little, but when compared to his fellow Szekelys, Csoma was a world traveler. In early 19th century Transylvanian society, traveling far from home, other than for military duty, was virtually unheard of. Education had afforded Csoma opportunities that his ethnic kinsmen could scarcely dream of. This would once again be the case as he procured a stipend to study at the University of Gottingen in Lower Saxony. It was there that he would move closer towards realizing his destiny in the Orient, becoming increasingly fascinated with theories and historical evidence concerning the original home of the Hungarians. What he learned at Gottingen led Csoma to devote his life to searching for that place.

Sandor Korosi Csoma - Bust at the Asiatic Society of Bengal

Sandor Korosi Csoma – Bust at the Asiatic Society of Bengal

Speaking A Different Language – In The Pursuit Of Destiny
The University of Gottingen was dedicated to academic freedom and promoting Enlightenment ideals. To this end, Csoma would be given wide latitude to pursue his interests. He was fortunate to study under the tutelage of famed Oriental scholar Johann Gotfried Eichorn. It was a seemingly random remark of Eichorn’s that had stimulated Csoma’s interest in learning Arabic. In one of his lectures, Eichorn mentioned that certain Arabic manuscripts contained important information on the history of the Middle Ages and the origin of the Hungarians in Asia. That was enough to set Csoma’s curiosity alight. He would learn Arabic in order to read manuscripts that might offer clues on the true home of the Hungarians. Arabic would also be essential if he was to travel across the Middle East and Central Asia. He soon mastered it, along with Turkish. Both would prove invaluable to him in the future.

Csoma’s linguistic skills were unsurpassed. By the end of his life, he would master eighteen languages, among which were Greek, Hebrew, Slavonic, Persian and Tibetan, in addition to his native Hungarian. Csoma possessed skills for acquiring, retaining and interpreting knowledge that placed him at a near genius level. Add to that, an iron will with a single minded focus. Csoma’s mentality would lead him to feats that no one could have ever imagined for the son of a Szekely border guard. After three years in Gottingen, Csoma returned to Nagyenled (Aiud Romania). He told friends and colleagues of his intention to journey across the Middle East and Central Asia to find the original Hungarian homeland. His idea was met with a negative reception. To the majority of his acquaintances it sounded quite ridiculous. Csoma did not have the financing for such a trip, while his only travel experiences had been within Europe. He would have to cross numerous hostile territories with nothing more than his wits for protection. All this in pursuit of what many regarded as a fantasy.

From One World To Another  –  From Transylvania To Tehran
A few of Csoma’s friends were a bit more optimistic, one of whom convinced him to first learn Old Slavic, which he proceeded to do in Romania and Croatia over the next year. In the late autumn of 1819 he decided to set off from Hungary for his journey to the Far East. He was thirty-five years old at the time and unmarried. Neither of his parents were still alive. For what was about to turn into a lifelong journey, Csoma had very little money and possessed a temporary Hungarian passport. He was never to return to Hungary, but the fame he acquired would long outlive him. One story concerning the day of his departure from Transylvania illuminates Csoma’s mindset. A Count Teleki met Csoma walking down the road and inquired about his destination. Csoma replied, “I am going to Asia in search of our relatives.” Such an understated, matter of fact answer belied the dogged determination with which Csoma would pursue his dream.

Csoma’s initial plan was to make his way to Constantinople, then north to Moscow. From there he would drop down into Central Asia with the eventual goal of reaching East Turkestan (western China). An outbreak of the plague in Constantinople caused a change of plans. He instead took a ship to Alexandria in Egypt, from there he made his way to Cairo, sailed onto Lebanon and then into the heart of the Middle East. By October 1820 he was in Persia. For the next six months, Csoma would wait out the winter in Tehran. It was here that he penned the reasoning and ambitions behind his journey in a letter. “Both to satisfy my desire, and to prove my gratitude and love for my nation, I have set off, and must search for the origin of my nation…avoiding neither dangers that may perhaps occur, nor the distance I may have to travel.” Back in Hungary he was now considered a missing person, who was most likely dead. Far from it, Csoma was preparing to continue his journey the next spring into what would prove to be even more challenging territory.

Eastern Transport - Statue of Sandor Korosi Csoma riding a yak

Eastern Transport – Statue of Sandor Korosi Csoma riding a yak (Credit: Csanady)

Danger, Distance & A Detour – Toward A New Passion
Danger and distance were two themes that would recur in his travels over the coming year as he made his way along the ancient Silk Road. Csoma took to dressing in local garb to keep from being robbed or worse. After over a year of travel through such exotic locales as Bukhara and Kabul, he made his way to Kashmir. At this point Csoma was forced to make a difficult decision. He had to decide whether to continue northward on an extremely dangerous route to East Turkestan. The region was crucial to his work since this was where he hoped to find the original homeland of the Hungarians. Unfortunately getting there meant having to cross mountain passes approaching 6,000 meters in elevation and braving bandits. The threat of being murdered was bad enough. That, coupled with the dangerous climatic conditions found in the rarified air of the Karakorum Mountains, made him reconsider this route. Instead Csoma found himself back in the walled fortress city of Leh. This led to a serendipitous meeting in a nearby village with William Moorcroft, a British explorer. It would also mean the stagnation of his dream to find the original Hungarian homeland and the beginning of a newer, more exotic passion.

Click here for: The Dreams To Come – Sandor Korosi Csoma: A Transylvanian Discovers Tibet (Part Three)

In Search Of The Very Beginning – Sandor Korosi Csoma: From Szekelyland To The Orient (Part One)

How far would one person go to discover the origins of his people? In the case of Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Koros), a Szekely, the answer is halfway around the world and close to the top of it. Even if he had to walk, ride and sail thousands of miles through often treacherous physical and political terrain, overcoming a multitude of obstacles from climate to culture, Csoma was going to do everything he could to explore the theory that the Szekelys were direct descendants of the Huns and/or the Uighurs, an ethnic group inhabiting East Turkestan (western China). He was the proverbial man on a mission, risking his life to see whether the theory was true. In the process, Csoma crossed the near east and the entirety of central Asia. Though he did not find the answer he was looking for, Csoma did end up making history. He founded Tibetology, wrote the first Tibetan-English dictionary and became revered as one of the great Orientalists of all time.

This from a man who did not have wealth or privilege to assist him in his path breaking pursuits. Csoma came from a humble background, growing up on the frontiers of a kingdom where very few knew or cared about the Orient. He was forced to rely on a supreme intellect that infused him with a love of learning and an inexhaustible amount of curiosity. That intellect was almost always enough to see him through in a life filled with adventure and scholarly achievement that no one could have predicted for a Hungarian, especially a Szekely who grew up in a cloistered society remote from the great centers of learning in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though Csoma’s fame comes from his philological works and vast travels, his early years in Szekely Land followed by studies in Europe are also worthy of attention. If for no other reason than to try and understand how someone who was born into such humble circumstances could become a man of unmatched intellectual powers.

A Brilliant Intellect -Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Kőrös)

A Brilliant Intellect – Sandor Korosi Csoma (Alexander Csoma de Kőrös)

Out Of Obscurity – Setting A New Course
Just south of the spa resort town of Covasna in Transylvania, where legions of tourists enjoy the healing effects of mineral waters, lies the small village of Chirius. Turn off Highway 13E, onto one of the village’s backstreets and in a few hundred meters there is a bust of the villages’ most famous native, Sandor Csoma. Just below the bust, small wreaths festooned with ribbons with the colors of the Hungarian national flag are attached to the monument. Such recent evidence provides proof that Csoma has not been forgotten by Szekelys and ethnic Hungarians in the area. Chirius, was where Csoma was born into a relatively poor Szekely family. At that time, the village was known by its Hungarian name of Koros as it was then located on the Kingdom of Hungary’s southeastern frontier. Koros was shadowed on its western flank by the Penteleu Mountains. In these same mountains, just ten kilometers to the east, was where the Hungarian Kingdom’s southeastern border was historically located. By the late 18th century, Szekelys had been guarding this border for over five hundred years. Though the Szekelys, like the rest of the Hungarian Kingdom, were under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs at this time, they continued to perform their traditional (and compulsory) border guard duties, Sandor’s father was one of them.

Sandor Csoma was the sixth child in a large family. His brothers and sisters did little to distinguish themselves from others in the region. They were quintessential Szekelys, living according to the traditions and patterns which had proscribed their behavior for centuries. Sandor would turn out to be altogether different from his siblings. He would likely have followed in his father’s footsteps as a border guard since there were few other promising career paths available to Szekelys in the borderlands at this time, but Sandor showed himself to be highly intelligent. He excelled in the village school to such an extent that his father was successful in helping him gain admission to Transylvania’s most prestigious Protestant college, the Bethalinium in Nagyenyed (present day Aiud Romania). This would be a crucial turning point in Csoma’s life. It set him on a course that eventually led to his travels and studies in the Orient.

Bust of Sandor Csoma Korosi - In Chirius (Koros) Romania

Bust of Sandor Csoma Korosi – In Chirius (Koros) Romania (Credit: Csanády)

A Limitless Capacity – Following A Distant Dream
Boarding school taught Csoma more than academic subjects and course work. Discipline was rigorous, providing him with structure and focus that would be extremely useful in helping him cope with the hardships and setbacks that would occur during his travels later in life. The education he received was supposedly going to be provided free of charge, but there were strings attached. Csoma’s family did not have the means to pay for any part of his schooling. Thus, he was forced to earn his tuition by working. He did this by acting as a servant to fellow students. In addition, he taught summer courses at another school in Transylvania. Such experiences were invaluable, cultivating a tireless work ethic that when coupled with his insatiable curiosity and brilliant intellect led to academic achievement. Csoma did so well at college in Nagyenled that after passing his final exams that he was invited to continue his education with more advanced studies. During this time, he attained the highest honors from the college which resulted in a scholarship from the Prince of Transylvania. This allowed him to spend three years studying philosophy and another four years immersed in theological studies.

Csoma looked geared for a career in the priesthood, but during his advanced studies he became fascinated with theories concerning the origins of Hungarians. The theory that the Hungarians descended from the Avars and Huns had been growing in popularity. There were other professors who believed their most distant ancestors were the Uighurs. Csoma was determined to investigate these theories and find hard evidence confirming where the Hungarians had originally come from. This would mean travelling to the Orient sometime in the future. Such a dream would have seemed distant to most men, but Csoma was not like most men. His capacity for knowledge was limitless. He would soon realize that his capacity for travel was much the same. Though Csoma had yet to set foot in the Orient, his studies in Transylvania first showed him the way.

Click here for: Leaving Home To Find A Homeland – Sandor Korosi Csoma: In Search Of Relatives (Part Two)

 

A Bilingual State Of Mind – Place Names In Szekely Land: Etymological Exotica

One of my favorite travel activities takes place before I ever leave home. This involves spreading out a map and studying it while planning a travel route. For Szekely Land, I had an excellent road map of Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) that I purchased at a MOL petrol station in eastern Hungary. I like to buy good quality road maps of places that I plan on eventually visiting. This is in the hopes that one day I will use them. That moment had arrived. Scanning the map for potential routes I could not help but notice the very strange names of Szekely Land’s larger towns. This became more than a temporary distraction as I began to wonder less about the route I would take and more what these names could possibly mean. The fact that each town had a Hungarian and a Romanian name complicated the situation further. I found myself having so much trouble with these names, that I decided to research their actual meanings.

Multilingual sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Multilingual sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Mutually Unintelligible – Lost In Translation
On the western edge of Szekely Land was the city of Targu Mures. Though it has a Romanian majority, it is home to a very large Hungarian minority who call the city Marosvasarhely. I found these the easiest names to pronounce of the cities in Szekely Land, but while saying them was rather easy, I did not have the slightest clue as to what they meant. A bit of cursory research resulted in the discovery that both the Hungarian and Romanian names of the city meant virtually the same thing. The Romanian “Targ” and Hungarian vasarhely both mean marketplace. The meaning of these words may be synonymous, but the difference in languages could not be more distinct. Romanian, part of the Romance language family and Magyar (Hungarian), part of the Finno-Ugric family, have little in common.

As for the Mures and Maros found in the city’s names, they refer to the river which runs through the city. This being Transylvania, there is also a German name for the city. Historically it was home to a community of Saxons. Superficially that name, Neumarkt am Mieresch, looks very different from either the Romanian or Hungarian versions. Yet when literally translated the German variation means the same thing as in the other languages. The genesis of this name dates back to the early 17th century when the famous Transylvanian prince, Gabor Bethlen (an ethnic Hungarian), granted it the status of a free royal city. This brought the city special economic privileges which boosted its role as a trading hub. The economic imperative is a long running thread in Targu Mures’ history. The most striking example of which can be found in the first documentation of its name in 1349, then it was known Latin as Novum Forum Siculorum which means New Szekely Marketplace.

Bilingual street sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely)

Bilingual street sign in Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely) (Credit: Kulja)

If Words Could Smell – A Pungent Odorheiu
The further eastward I went on the map into Szekely Land, the stranger the names. One of my favorites was a small city that went by the name of Odorheiu Secuisec in Romanian. I knew the latter word in the name meant Szekely in Romanian, but the first word was baffling. If words could smell bad, then Odorheiu had a foul stench about it. Entering it in Google Translate did nothing to clarify its meaning. According to that program, Odorhei in Romanian means Odorhei in English. I contacted a Romanian friend of mind, whose replied that she was “Not sure if it means anything.” The German form of the city’s name, Odorhellen, was just as odious as the Romanian form and offered no better explanation. I had better luck with its Hungarian name of Szekelyudvarhely which means Szekely courtyard place. The name likely results from its historical role as a hub of Szekely power for many centuries. The name was one of the few I found much easier to pronounce in Hungarian than Romanian. It also offers an example of how the Hungarian language combines words into one long stream of consonants and vowels, while Romanian more logically – at least to my mind – spaces out the different words, even if they are still unintelligible.

Moving eastward again, I found more toponymic teasers. The city of Miercurea-Ciuc (Romanian) was noticeable for the simple fact that it looked like a word one would find on the back of a medicine bottle. The name looked and sounded just about as foreign as anything I have had the displeasure of pronouncing. The Hungarian name, Csikszereda, was a bit easier to say, but understanding its meaning a bit more mind bending. Miercurea means Wednesday in Romanian, as does szereda in Hungarian. After some research I discovered that the name derived from trade fairs held in the city on Wednesdays. I found this to be a rather delightful derivation, a reminder that trade fairs were the medieval equivalent of market days which still take place in towns both large and small in Transylvania.

Untying The Tongue –   Saying What You Mean
I found my favorite Romanian city name, Sfantu Gheorghe way down in the southeastern corner of Szekely Land. The word Sfantu literally rolled off my tongue. It was easy to remember and define, as the Romanian word for Saint. Since the second word quite obviously was the Romanian word for the name George, it meant the city was named for Saint George, who was the patron saint of its most famous medieval church. The Hungarian word for Sfantu Gheorghe was a built more difficult to enunciate. Each time I tried to say Sepsiszentgyorgy, I felt like the word was being spit out of my mouth. The Sepsis prefix added a whole new layer of meaning to the word. It is a callback to the earliest days of the Szekely in Transylvania, when they inhabited the southern frontier in the Sebes area. They were displaced from that region when the Kings of Hungary settled Saxons there beginning in the 12th century. The Szekely have kept this medieval memory alive through the name of Sepsiszentgyorgy.

The strange sounding names of Szekely Land were not confined to the largest cities. There was Sangeorgiu de Padure (Erdoszentgyorgy), Cristuru Secuiesc (Szekelykeresztur) and Targu Secuiesc (Kezdivasarhely). The map was covered in exotica to the point that one word names were relatively rare and noticeable. By going north to south, I spotted Borsec (Borzek), Balan (Balanbanya) and Baraolt (Barot). I got the distinct feeling after looking at Szekely Land, that I would need more than a road map when traveling through this remote land. A bilingual state of mind, a vocabulary guide to untie my tongue and a knowledge that all the names somehow might make sense are travel essentials if I really want to understand Szekely Land.

An Antidote For Modernity – The Szekely & Szekely Villages: On The Verge Of Collapse & Still Standing

Despite Szekelyudvarhely’s clean swept streets, neatly kept public spaces, soaring churches and quaint beauty, it was far from being the standard bearer of Szekelyland. Though it was tiny compared to other Romanian cities, Szekelyudvarhely was an urban metropolis by the standards of the region. It ran counter to the popular image of the Szekely as a prototypically village people, their past and present shaped by those tiny tumbling wonderlands that so many of them call home. Villages are the hub of community, where the heart of Szekely culture beats slower, but stronger. If I was going to gain insight into Szekely culture, heritage and traditions than an exploration of their villages was a must. Szekelyudvarhely had been an inspiration, but Szekely villages might offer revelations as to how these people subsisted in one of Europe’s remotest areas.

A Little Bit Of Heaven - View over the village of Szekelydersz (Darjiu, Romania)

A Little Bit Of Heaven – View over the village of Szekelydersz (Darjiu, Romania)

Beautifully Rugged – A People Like Their Land
The villages were not difficult to reach as they could be found in any direction throughout the region. It did not take long for me to see just how different Szekely villages were from the small city of Szekelyudvarhely. Everything looked original with an indigenous quality of craftsmanship.  The structures, whether homes, gates, or fences looked both vigorous and worn, much like the rough hewn people I saw plying the streets. Villages reflected the Szekely and the Szekely reflected the surrounding landscape. One that was beautiful in a deeply rugged sort of way. The weather was harsh, the terrain by turns hilly and mountainous. Life in Szekelyland was the opposite of easy. Luxury and creature comforts from the modern world looked to be in short supply. Many villagers earned their living in activities that could be classified as little more than subsistence level.

The structures in Szekely villages, rustically colorful homes, tip wells and wood carved gates were symbolic of the people. Many of the villages looked on the verge of collapse, but somehow kept standing. I got the sense that these people were rich in a way that outsiders such as me would never really understand. Money was no match for tradition and culture in these villages. The rhythm of life was still based on the seasons, of which winter was the longest and most pervasive. I assumed that outside of automobiles (which were in short supply), electricity and modern forms of communication, very little had changed in Szekely villages over the past several centuries. The Szekely had lived so long in trying circumstances, physical, political and economic that getting by was an accepted way of life. The faces of Szekely men and women were etched with stoicism. Physically they looked strong and stout, the kind of strength both mental and physical that comes from a lifetime spent trying to subdue less than hospitable terrain. Szekely stubbornness could overcome almost anything.

Collective Individualism -Szekely Gate in Marefalva (Satu Mare, Hargita)

Collective Individualism -Szekely Gate in Marefalva (Satu Mare, Hargita)

Life In The Village – Gates, Hooves & Horsepower
The most notable symbol of these villages was the ubiquitous wooden Szekely gate. Many of these were decorated with an amazing array of folk motifs carved into the wood with careful precision. Though many were decorated with carvings, they were not decorative like those to be found in Hungary. There was nothing new or polished about these gates. Szekely gates were made to be used and re-used thousands of times. Their antiquated, semi-decrepit rusticism as much a hallmark as their two doors, a large one for wagons and a smaller one for people. Many were faded from weathering, dusty and hard-bitten like the villages they stood within. The gates were original, historical and quite useful. There was no better place to look at these gates then the village of Marefalva (Satu Mare, Harghita), a few kilometers east of Szekelyudvarhely. By one count, more than eighty Szekely gates fronted on the main highway cutting through the town. The majority of these could be seen from the main highway winding its way through the village. The gates were the pride and joy of Marefalva, a nod to collective individualism, a paradoxical pride on display for public viewing. A fine example of this was when my wife wanted to take a photo of one, a villager was standing on a ladder doing some minor repair work. He asked if she would like him to move, which he soon did. His face was an expression of pride as she snapped several photos. Then he placed his ladder back in the same place and continued with the repairs.

The same quiet sense of duty could be seen in the faces of those who plied the village thoroughfares and rural byways in horse drawn wagon carts. Wagon drivers, almost always accompanied by a stocky accomplice, could be seen driving a couple of horses along at a ponderous pace. Unblinking, indifferent to those on foot or the dull whine of automobile traffic, they trotted on towards greener pastures or back towards home. The wagoneers seemed to exist outside the present, spirits of a former age that mysteriously arrived and departed with little regard to time. They were not in a hurry, there was no reason to be. Time was elastic, it expanded at the speed they set each day. The same speed decided centuries ago by hooves and horsepower. The wagons, drivers and passengers bore an uncanny resemblance to etchings in 19th century ethnographic tomes. They had been summoned forth from parched pages as an anecdote to modernity.

Spirits of a Former Age - One horsepower in Szekelyland

Spirits of a Former Age – One horsepower in Szekelyland

The Difference Between Want & Need – A Szekely State Of Mind
The beauty of Szekely villages came from their time worn look. The homes, many of them little more than brightly painted cubes covered in a sheen of summer dust, were the humble dwellings of people who had learned to survive with a graceful indifference to the vicissitudes of life. In the villages I suddenly became aware of a class system inherent to Szekelyland. Survivors lived in the villages, thrivers in Szekelyudvarhely and a few other larger towns. There were many more survivors than thrivers, but no one looked like they had missed a meal. These were a people, like their land, richly endowed with everything they needed. They knew what the more populated outside world had yet to comprehend. Specifically, that getting what you need is more important than getting what you want. And what did these people need. Food, water, a roof over their heads, wood and livestock. Everything and nothing had changed in these villages over the years. Kingdoms, empires and dictators came and went, perhaps next would be the fall of nation-states, yet the Szekely always managed to remain.

A Last Bastion – Szekelyudvarhely: The Most Hungarian City in Szekelyland

Seven years ago I arrived in the southern Hungarian city of Pecs. I can still distinctly recall my astonishment at the vibrancy, beauty and history of that provincial city. This was the first of many similar experiences in Hungary. It happened so many times, in so many different Hungarian provincial cities – Sopron, Szeged, Szekesferhvar and Szombathely just to name a few – that I almost forgot how wonderful the feeling could be. Repetition has a way of dulling even the most memorable experiences. That was until I arrived in the city of Szekelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania), the largest city in Szekelyland on a late summer day. I came expecting a down at the heel, provincial outpost. What I found brought back that delightful sense of déjà vu consistently induced in me by Hungarian provincial cities. The only difference, Szekelyudvarhely was located deep in Romania, eastern Transylvania to be exact. Cut off from Hungary by long ago border alterations and most of Romania by the Harghita Mountains, the Hungarian speaking Szekely people of Szekelyudvarhely have created a wonderful city. Despite suffering grievous wounds due to the twin vices of the 20th century, radical nationalism and vile communism, the Szekely have cultivated a thoroughly Hungarian city where I least expected to find it.

Vibrant beauty - Interior courtyard at the Town Hall in Szkelyudvarhely

Vibrant beauty – Interior courtyard at the Town Hall in Szkelyudvarhely

Thoroughly Hungarian – The Unspoken Words
Szekelyudvarhely’s Hungarianess or as the inhabitants would likely prefer it to be called, Szekelyness, is centered around language. Not once in several days while staying in the city did I hear a word of Romanian spoken. I saw a Romanian flag flying over the Town Hall. Romania’s national colors were to be found on the police cars and the Romanian word for police, “Poliția”, was emblazoned on the sides of these cars. Some shops had their names or functions written in Romanian. These were the only noticeable national reminders of Romania to be seen.  Everything else was thoroughly Hungarian. The people looked and acted like Hungarians, with only one exception, they were friendlier than Hungarians back in the mother country. I soon discovered that favorite Hungarian language pastime, literature, was alive and well with the Szekely. I came across three bookstores in the space of 30 minutes and 800 meters. I was forced to suspend disbelief, was this Szekelyland or Hungary? There was little difference to be found in Szekelyudvarhely’s Belvaros

Public monuments in Szkelyudvarhely were no less conspicuous for their nod to Hungarian nationalism. While walking by the neo-classical House of Culture, I noticed a bust of Istvan Szechenyi, the “Greatest Hungarian” prominently placed close to the entrance. In the town center, there was a large and prominent statue of a Honved (Hungarian) military soldier atop a towering pedestal. This was in memory of those Hungarian soldiers from the city who had been killed in World War I. A Hungarian War Memorial in the heart of Romania was a strange site indeed, since Hungary and Romania were on opposite sides in the war. The two had fought both during and after the war. Such incongruities and historical dissimilarities felt totally in keeping with the discombobulating Magyar aesthetic of the city.

Changing sides - World War I Monument in Szekelyudvarhely

Changing sides – World War I Monument in Szekelyudvarhely (Credit: Bbama)

Another Realm – Signs Of Szekely Life
In the main square, within a stone’s throw of the town hall was a statue of Balazs Orban, the Szekely who wrote the first and still greatest descriptive book of Szekelyland. He is revered by Magyar nationalists as not just a Szekely, but also a Hungarian national hero for his ethnographic work. The best example of this trend was a sculptural garden in the city center with bust after bust of famous Hungarians and Szekely. Each figure had a ribbon in the color of the Hungarian flag tied around their neck. Such prominent placements of Hungarian heroes were to be seen across the city, a constant reminder that such historical personages are revered by the Szekely as true representatives of their heritage. Such overt national signs were everywhere, including in the realm of business.

The restaurants, the shops, the accommodations all catered to Hungarian speakers. I soon began to wonder if there were any Romanians who lived in Szekelyudvarhely. In the absence of experiential evidence the question sent me to the latest census searching for answers. Those figures show the proportion of Romanians in the city is just 2.6%. Hungarians make up 95.8% of the population and outnumber Romanians by a ratio of 37 to 1. Thus, the number of Romanians in Szekelyudvarhely is nominal. I imagine that most of them are only here as representatives of the national government. Perhaps from a Romanian perspective, this would be a hardship posting, working in a bizarre environment where they might feel like a foreigner in their own country. Szekelyland may be in Romania, but from what I saw there is hardly any Romania in Szekelyland. The difference between the two is more than a divide, it is a chasm.

 

For what they dream of - Szekelyudvarhely in 1868

For what they dream of – Szekelyudvarhely in 1868 (Credit: Karoly Rusz from Balazs Orban A Szekelyfold leirasa)


Magnetic Attraction – Longing For Land & A Way Of Life

Prior to my arrival in Szekelyudvarhely I was under the assumption that the Szekely were under threat of being totally absorbed into Romania. Several days in the city did much to change my mind. While their total numbers have dropped in Szekelyland, the Szekely are holding on tighter than ever to their ethnic heritage and what they consider their homeland. This adherence to Szkely freedom has been a boon to the economy, at least in Szkelyudvarhely which seemed to be doing remarkably well for a provincial outpost. There is an entire cottage industry of Szekely heritage tourism that brings a stampede of Hungarians each summer.

Szekely villages attract tourists who stay for several nights or longer in Szekelyudvarhely. These tourists fill local coffers with the money they spend. Szekelyudvarhely may be a small urban center, but its continued prosperity depends to a certain extent on the nearby villages and heritage tourism they manage to attract. It was a marriage made possible by Hungarians back in the mother country longing for a land and way of life that does not exist back home. Szekelyudvarhely may be of Hungary, but it is not Hungary. This is part of its magnetic attraction for Magyars. Nothing in the future is likely to alter that fantastic feeling.