Visitors from across the world travel to Hortobagy National Park for a variety of reasons. These include a chance to see the csikos (Hungarian cowboys) in action, to catch a glimpse of ruggedly exotic animals such as Racka sheep and for world class birdwatching. All of these I found fascinating, but first on my list was the most famous and important architectural work associated with the Hortobagy. The Nine-Holed Bridge sounds like something one might find at a municipal golf course rather than part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the bridge’s name is highly descriptive, it is also deceptive. A closer look at the bridge shows that the holes are actually arches. These help make the bridge an architectural wonder, unlike anything else found in the area.
Located along Highway 33, a half an hour drive from Debrecen at one of the main entry points into the park, this unique 19th century architectural artifact surmounts the serpentine Hortobagy River. At the time of its construction, the bridge was the longest in the Kingdom of Hungary. Today, it is a fascinating stopping point for tourists and architectural buffs, but when it was first conceived the bridge was a crucial piece of infrastructure, facilitating commerce and transportation. It bridged the watery divide between the Hortobagy and its economic hinterland. Without the Nine-Holed Bridge, the Hortobagy would have been a poorer place, both economically and architecturally.
A Developing Situation – Bridge Over Murky Waters
To understand the Nine-Holed Bridge’s historical importance as much more than a tourist attraction, it is crucial to realize just what it meant to the Hortobagy region when it was first constructed. Travel in this part of the Great Hungarian Plain was daunting and dangerous. Seasonal rains often turned the land into a morass overnight. Getting cattle, pigs and sheep to the region’s largest market in Debrecen could take weeks or months rather than days. At times, the Hortobagy was so inundated by seasonal flooding that only flat bottomed boats could proceed through the murky waters. The steppe was transformed as streams became rivers and rivers swelled into lakes. The latter was apparent at the Hortobagy River which was the largest watercourse crossed on the road to and from Debrecen.
Following the expulsion of the Ottoman Turks from the Great Hungarian Plain, development of the region slowly began to proceed in the final years of the 17th century. Crossing what had become a trackless wasteland during a century and a half of Ottoman rule was a risk few cared to take. Every inch of the way was fraught with danger. Drowning in a sea of mud hole was a real possibility. Packs of hungry wolves lurked in the reeds as they waited to descend on unsuspecting herders. Stories abound of entire villages uniting to fend off ferocious attacks. There were also bandits and highwaymen ready to prey upon weary travelers. Taming this fetid land was a formidable task. To facilitate travel and make the region more accessible, a bridge was constructed over the Hortobagy River in the same place where the Nine-Holed Bridge stands today. By modern standards this wooden bridge would hardly be called substantial, but by the standards of the time it was a major piece of infrastructure.
Building Bridges – The Great Facilitator
The bridge’s role of facilitating commerce in the Hortobagy was key to creating a viable economic trade across a large swath of the Great Hungarian Plain. This development was aided by an unprecedented period of peace in Hungary during the 18th and most of the 19th century. It allowed the more marginal areas to enjoy relative prosperity as stock grazing increased. Massive herds loosely guided by shepherds pastured on every available piece of dry ground. The bridge over the Hortobagy helped support this industry as more and more animals were taken to market after grazing upon the sublime steppe. Predictably, the wooden bridge began to buckle under the strain of thousands of hooves pounding the planks into submission. Repair costs were exorbitant just to perform simple maintenance and upkeep. The cost was mainly shouldered by Debrecen. The city burghers could not afford to allow such a lifeline of economic infrastructure to collapse. A new, more durable bridge was soon deemed necessary. Architect Ferenc Povolny created a bridge based upon classical design, hence the arches.
Classicism, or more precisely neo-classical architecture, was emerging anew during what would come to be known as the Reform era in Hungarian history. Many great construction works were conceived during this time period. Povolny’s bridge was one of them. It was designed to be made of stone, as it would better stand the test of time. The only problem was finding the proper materials to construct it. The marshy soil provided little of the material necessary to create a permanent structure. The construction crews tried using sand from the area to build its vaults. This proved little more than an exercise in futility. An idea soon arose to look further afield for materials that might be of more lasting value. The search led northward to the wine growing region of Tokaj, where a local entrepreneur operated a small stone quarry set among his vineyards. Though the stone was quickly collected, the boat transporting it downstream sank due to the excessive weight of the stone. A construction project which should have taken a couple of years, stretched from 1827 until 1833 when it was finally finished.
A Work Of Art – Bridging The Divide
The completed bridge was a work of art. One that was of both utilitarian and aesthetic value. It still is today. Visiting the Nine-Holed Bridge was a strange experience for me. To find such an exquisite piece of architecture on a largely featureless landscape was shocking. It also made the bridge’s appearance that much more appealing. I inspected the bridge from all sides, marveling at its widened entrance which soon narrowed, a design effect to funnel the livestock herded across it. Now automobile traffic races across the 170 meter long bridge in just a few seconds. A far cry from the days when thousands of Hungarian Grey Cattle sauntered across. Times have changed, but the bridge has stayed the same.