Traces of Transcarpathia’s Progress: Nyalab & Kankiv Castles

There is a clear line running through the history of Transcarpathia during the early Middle Ages. That line is the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242. From the time period preceding the invasion very little castle architecture exists, nearly all fortifications were destroyed by the Mongols. In the years that followed the invasion and ravaging of Transcarpathia, Hungarian King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) issued a decree that “castles be built on suitable sites where the people may find refuge if they have to retreat from threatening dangers.” This policy led directly to the building of hilltop, stone fortresses for defensive purposes across the Kingdom of Hungary. Castles soon began to dot strongpoints in Transcarpathia, a critical region for securing Hungary’s eastern frontiers. This construction program was a matter of national security. These castles also provided security for something just as vital to the interests and welfare of the Kingdom’s inhabitants, salt.

Nyalab Castle

Nyalab Castle – one of the strongest defensive fortifications along the Salt Road during the Middle Ages

The Salt Road
Salt was one of the most important commodities in medieval times, literally a matter of life and death. Salt allowed for the preservation of food. Without preservation and the resulting ability to store foodstuffs, one bad harvest could doom a village to starvation. Salt also made travel possible. Without a sustainable supply of food, it was impossible to travel far afield. For these reasons, a plentiful supply of salt was of the utmost necessity. Central and Eastern Europe’s source for salt was Transylvania, which held bountiful reserves. After mining, the salt would then be transported westward via rivers systems. The Tisza River was an integral part of this route. The Kingdom of Hungary had to ensure that the transport trail was secure. Castles were constructed on hilltops along the salt road of the Tisza. Remnants of a couple of these castles can still be seen today.

A series of ruins stands atop a 40 meter high hill overlooking the Tisza River valley close to the town of Korolevo, Ukraine. In Slavic, Korolevo means “king’s house.” This name is derived from the original Hungarian name for that same place, Kiralyhaza. It was on top of this hill where the Hungarian King Stephen V erected a wooden hunting lodge. Later the hill was fortified with what became known as Nyalab castle, guarding the salt road along the nearby Tisza. Today the castle ruins do not look like much, little more than a few rough walls and stone stubs. They could easily be mistaken for natural rock formations if they garner any notice at all. This is historically deceptive. For centuries Nyalab Castle was one of the strongest defensive fortifications in the region. This eventually led to its downfall. The Habsburg emperor Leopold ordered it blown up in 1672 so that rebellious Hungarians could no longer use it to defend against his forces.

Painting of St. Francis Assisi Church and the adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle

Painting of the church and adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle from the 16th century

A Fight From Start To Finish – Kankiv Castle
Further down the Tisza lies the small city of Vynohradiv in Ukraine, with the ruins of Kankiv Castle standing nearby on Chorna Hora (Black Mountain). Enough of the castle’s remnants still exist to give some idea of what the original structure looked like. The castle was built in the shape of a square with a tower on each corner. Unlike other castles in Transcarpathia that enjoyed relative peace until the 16th century, Kankiv Castle was nearly ruined not long after it was first constructed. This was due to a succession fight for the Hungarian throne after the Arpad Dynasty collapsed at the beginning of the 14th century. The castle was sacked by the troops of the eventual victor King Charles Robert. Fortunately the new king had it restored and gave Kankiv as a gift to his wife. The Perenis, a powerful family of nobles gained ownership of the castle in the 15th century. During this time they allowed Franciscan monks to build a Gothic Church known as St. Francis of Assisi’s along with a monastery on the grounds. The entire complex was enclosed by defensive walls. In the 16th century the head of the Pereni household converted to Protestantism and forced the monks out of Kankiv. Before their eviction, the Franciscans placed a curse on the castle. Either by coincidence, superstition or happenstance the curse turned out to be ominously prescient. Not long afterwards Kankiv was reduced to ruins by the pro-Catholic Habsburgs in their war against rebelling Protestant nobles throughout the region.

Kankiv Castle

Kankiv Castle – the ruins that are left today can still stir the imagination

Relegated To Ruins – Transcarpathia’s Past
Very little is left of either Nyalab or Kankiv Castles. Casting a glance back through the history of the region it is easy to see why they were relegated to ruins. The region they were located within served as a proto-typical frontier. The Mongols may never have come back in force, but Transcarpathia experienced the violent excesses of invading Turks, Tatars and Transylvanians, Hungarians, Poles and Austrians. These peoples were fighting for power, land and resources. The legacy of centuries of struggle left scars on the landscape, but these are now barely noticeable. Today hardly anyone in Transcarpathia gives a second thought to the ravages of the Mongols, the salt road or the ruins of Nyalab and Kankiv. Some might say that is a shame, but it also illustrates how far the remoter reaches of Europe have advanced beyond the day to day struggle of life and death. Progress has been made, even in this forgotten netherworld, if only someone would stop and recognize it.

The Mongols, Mohi & Hungarian History: Precursor & Predictor of the Future

You are unlikely to find the Battle of Mohi in any European History textbooks. Even in Hungary, where the battle resulted in cataclysm, it has fallen out of the historical consciousness. This is unfortunate because it was a defining historical event for the Kingdom of Hungary. The battle and its aftereffects were the beginning of several historical trends that would reoccur in Hungarian history. The battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. The Mongol Army under the command of Batu Khan used their mobile calvary to rout the Hungarian forces. Following the battle, the Mongols rampaged across the Carpathian Basin causing destruction on a tremendous scale. Yet within a year and a half they withdrew. Their legacy of conquest was short lived. The same could not be said for other conquerors of Hungary who in future centuries would set down deeper roots.

The Battle of Mohi - Historical Print

The Battle of Mohi – Historical Print

Mohi – Precursor & Predictor of the Future
The battle does not fit easily within the traditional Hungarian historical narrative. The early Middle Ages are ancient history to Hungarians. Prior to the Mongol Invasion, Hungary had experienced three centuries of successful state building in the Carpathian Basin. The Arpad Dynasty produced good rulers who created a regional power respected and feared by its neighbors. It looked as though Hungary might become the great power of Eastern Europe. This is largely forgotten due to invasions and occupations which further shaped Hungary.  Including the Ottoman Turkish occupation, Habsburg Absolutism, the dismemberment of historic Hungary at Trianon and Soviet imposed Communist rule.

Hungary as a successful flourishing state – which is certainly what it was before the Battle of Mohi – goes against the grain of today’s popular Hungarian historical narrative. Hungarians now understand their history as moments of greatness followed by luckless defeat. This was not really the case until the Battle of Mohi. The battle began a historical trend that would reemerge in the ensuing centuries: an ascendant Hungary cut down before it fully takes flight. Mohi is an illuminating event because it is reflective of Hungarian history.

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Division & Conquest
Trend # 1: Political turmoil leads to disunity
In the years leading up to Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was rocked by divisions between the nobility and the king. In 1235, King Bela IV ascended the throne. Almost immediately he began to reverse the privileges that had been granted the nobility by his father King Andrew II. These privileges had included donations of vast estates to the nobles. They had also been given greater political rights which increased their power and weakened the throne. Once he took power, Bela IV began to re-confiscate the land which the nobles now saw as rightfully theirs. The nobles also tried to challenge the king’s authority, but Bela limited their political rights. They were not even allowed to petition him in person, they had to send written petitions instead. Bela had moved the Kingdom toward autocratic rule. He might have been able to get away with this, but as the Mongol threat grew on the eastern horizon, Bela IV suddenly needed the nobles to provide forces to protect the Kingdom, but they were now ambivalent. Their indifference would prove costly. This type of divisive political turmoil has been a hallmark of other Hungarian historical disasters.

Second Class Citizens – The Coming of the Cumans
Trend #2: Failure to assimilate foreigners
The Cumans were a tribe of nomadic warriors who had been pushed westward into the Carpathian Basin by the Mongol advance. The Cumans were good warriors. They were willing to fight with the Hungarians against the Mongols as long as they could settle in the country. Bela IV realized this was to his advantage. He allowed them to settle within the lands of the Kingdom. They were Christianized as well. Despite this, the majority of the populace would not accept them. This led to riots and infighting. Bela supported the integration of the Cumans since they bolstered his power. The nobles were embittered by his favoritism towards what they saw as nothing more than primitive nomads. This furthered the division and disunity prior to battle. The situation with the Cumans is indicative of the Hungarian attitude throughout their history towards foreigners in general. Other peoples may be allowed to live within the Kingdom (see the nationalities prior to World War I), but they were second class citizens. This us versus them mentality towards outsiders would have disastrous consequences not only at Mohi, but many more times for Hungary in the future.

King Bela IV - barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

King Bela IV – barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

The Second Founding
Trend #3: Victory From Defeat
Following defeat at Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was reduced to a wasteland by marauding Mongol forces. One-fifth of the population was killed and sixty percent of the settlements were destroyed. The Kingdom lay in ruins. Bela IV fled all the way to the Dalmatian Coast. He barely escaped with his life and throne intact. It could have meant the end of Hungary, but it led to a new beginning. Bela IV put a vast amount of resources into building fortified, hilltop castles. In a ten year period of rebuilding that began after the Mongols withdrew from Carpathian Basin in 1242, over forty castles were constructed. The Hungarian army was reorganized with heavy armored Calvary. The next attempted Mongol invasion met with defeat. The Kingdom recovered and was soon flourishing once again. This was an incredible achievement, so much so that Bela IV is now seen by many historians as the second founder of Hungary. His reign would last for thirty five years.

Rising From The Ashes
This type of recovery would be repeated several more times by Hungarians. The Ottoman Turkish occupation, the heavy hand of the Habsburgs and the imposition of Communism by the Soviet Union all changed the history of Hungary for the worse. Nonetheless, Hungarians have always found a way to make the best of a bad situation. They have managed to overcome invasion and occupation.  Even in disunity and defeat, they rise from the ashes and recreate their kingdom, their nation and their history.

 

Visions of Greatness, Delusions of Grandeur – Eastern Europe: Too Much History

For the Romanians it is ancient Dacia, for the Czechs it is the Kingdom of Bohemia, for the Slovaks it is the centuries long fight for independence, for the Poles it is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for the Hungarians it is Saint Stephen and the Arpad Dynasty. For the Serbs, it is the Serbian Empire, for the Croats, it is the Kingdom of Croatia and so it goes on. Each one of these peoples had a period of greatness that they can look back on with adoration. Even if it was hundreds of years ago, in a world much different than the present, that scarcely matters. What really matters is that once they were the rulers rather than the ruled. In Eastern Europe, it seems every nation enjoyed a long ago day in the sun.

Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

A Great Place To Start?- Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

The Past Isn’t What it Used To Be
In an essay titled Historiography of the Countries of Eastern Europe: Hungary, Istvan Deak states the following: “Public fascination with national history, especially with a faraway often mythical, past as a guide to future action is hardly a Hungarian monopoly! Rather, such fascination is common to East Central Europe as a whole. Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs have had little choice but to find inspiration and consolation in visions of past greatness when faced with the miseries and powerlessness of the present.”

Dealing with the challenges of the present often is easier for an Eastern European when they can recall a historical past where their people were on top. It is as though, if it happened once, it could certainly happen again. It is the possible dream. A glorious period deep in the past allows for optimism, even if the future is filled with uncertainty or gloom. I once asked a Hungarian about what would happen if one side or the other won the next election, their reply was revealing, “well whatever comes, we all know it won’t be good.” That was a statement informed by history. I can’t imagine my opinion would be any different if my nation had suffered through a 20th century like Hungary’s. Or for that matter, had been overrun by the Mongols, occupied by the Turks for a century and a half, and then followed by another century and a half of Habsburg absolutism. This same Hungarian talked of Saint Stephen, a man who lived over 1,100 years ago, as though he had just left the building.

Tomek Jankowski writes in his recently released Eastern Europe: Everything You Need To Know About The History (And More) Of A Region That Shaped Our World And Still Does: “The past for Eastern Europeans is not restricted to dry, dusty books on shelves that only a few socially maladjusted nerds read; the past is a living part of life for Eastern Europeans, and their discussions about the present are often clothed in language of the past.” Jankowski quotes historian Lonnie R. Johnson who says: “Some of the problems Central Europeans have with themselves and with one another are related to the fact that their history haunts them.”

The former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain – the former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain
The final part of that last sentence, “their history haunts them” is an eloquent critique on the presence of the past in the psyches of Eastern Europeans. The ghosts of empires, wars and revolutions past exists somewhere in that nebulous space between reality and imagination. This is in contrast with how the past is viewed by western Europeans. In the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy or even Germany, the past is to be respected, but the present is still pretty good and the future just might be better. It is as though an invisible iron curtain still divides Western and Eastern Europe. In the west they look forward, in the east they look backward.

Quite obviously, none of these countries are glorifying the present or recognizing it as a golden age, despite the fact that Eastern Europeans are freer than at any time in their history. Even Ukrainians, who just ousted the oppressively corrupt Yanukovych regime, at present, enjoy freedom of movement, relative freedom of the press and a degree of civil rights unprecedented in their long and contentious history.

Lest They Forget
Is it really possible for a people to have too much history? It is not so much the quantity of historical events as it is the depth to which these events have skewed the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. In Bulgaria, time and again I heard the phrase, “five hundred years of slavery” in reference to the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The people I heard this from, were not historians or geriatric wanna be khans, they were students working the front desk at hostels or leading the free city tour in Sofia. Their average age could not have been more than twenty-two. Yet they spoke of the dreaded Turk as though he had just been run out of the country last week.

But the past in Eastern Europe is not just about what is remembered, it is also about omission, about what is forgotten. In western Ukraine, there is the wonderful mittel European city, par excellence, Lviv. It is identified by the catchy phrase, “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.” This conveniently ignores the fact that it was majority Polish right up until the Second World War. Polish Lwow is ancient history. In Kosice, Slovakia there is the beautiful old town which was the main reason the city was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is packed with buildings that were the handiwork of the Hungarian bourgeois and German burghers who respectively called the city Kassa or Kaschau. This is supposed to be Slovakia? It’s quite the trick to fool the tourist; it’s quite the feat for the Slovaks to fool themselves. Lest they forget!

Forgetting and remembering, it’s all about the past in Eastern Europe. The past really is a different country in Eastern Europe, it bears little resemblance to the present and for that reason it is all the more appealing.