A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.

A Man & His Castle – Somosko: Between Hungary & Slovakia

The past really is a different country at Somosko Castle. Set atop a basalt peak, straddling the Hungarian-Slovakian border, are the crumbling castle ruins. At 526 meters (1,725 feet) these ruins are not especially lofty by the standards of hilltop fortresses, but the fact that they can be sighted towering over the Hungarian village of Somosko gives them an evocative presence. Driving through the village hundreds of meters below I found my eyes drawn upward. Among the small village homes tucked together up and down the winding village streets, the castle ruins would appear and then disappear. As the final road to the ruins was scaled, what was left of Somosko castle became more and more prominent. Yet the closer I got, the less entrancing the view. From a distance, the castle looked like a regal sentinel, keeping watch over the surrounding mountains and valleys. Up close, the crumbling edifice was less impressive, my perspective was now limited. There was no longer any space to help frame the view, now there were crumbling half walls and rough archways towering just above me. The size of the walls, even though much had vanished, was still imposing. The castle was not what I had thought it was going be. This mirrored my visit, which was also quite different from what I expected.

Somosko Castle looms above a house in the Hungarian village of the same name below it

Somosko Castle looms above a house in the Hungarian village of the same name

First Impressions – A Man & His Castle
At the entrance to the castle, stood the caretaker, dressed not in an official uniform, but in street clothes. He wore a thick jacket with a hood pulled over his head to protect against the fierce winter wind blowing through the barren, leafless trees covering the hillsides.  I have been to at least fifty castles in Europe, but I had never seen anyone like this caretaker. He did not have any tickets to sell. Because of this, it was really up to the visitor whether or not they wanted to pay the nominal fee, which was handwritten on a placard. If not for his name tag, which stated his name and position, there was no way of separating this man from any other visitor. He had a small portable radio attached to him, on which he was listening to what sounded like a talk radio show in Hungarian. My feeling for this bizarre embodiment of a docent was one of deep and abiding gratitude.

It was Sunday morning, the temperature was 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit) and the wind was gusting. He had to be freezing.  His nose was running from the cold. Nonetheless, he stood their manning the entrance, giving directions, answering questions. If he had not been there, no one would have been allowed to go inside. Much to my surprise there were other visitors, a father with his young son and a couple. It was four days before Christmas, in the dead of winter on top of a mountain and Somosko Castle, at least what was left of it, was open to visitors all because of this one man.  I began to wonder, what was more impressive the ruins or this man’s devotion to duty.

The ruins of Somosko Castle

The ruins of Somosko Castle

Crossing Historical Fault Lines – On The Border
From conversation, I learned that he worked pretty much every day. I also learned that though he lived in the Hungarian village at the foot of the castle, he worked for the state of Slovakia. His job straddled a historic fault line. He even took the time to point out the border markers which had been placed in the ground.  The entrance to the castle stood in the middle of the Hungarian – Slovakian border. He showed where a border gate used to be situated. This was where an official border crossing had been located for many decades between Czechoslovakia and Hungary and later on between Slovakia and Hungary. With both nations now members of the European Union that crossing had been disassembled. It was hard to imagine why anyone would have gone to the trouble of erecting a border post, on the side of a hill, in the woods.

Then again it is hard to imagine the depth of ancient enmities or the dictates of totalitarian societies which once held sway over this region. Much is made these days about problems with the European Union, much less is said about all the good things this community of nations has brought about. Putting an end to ridiculous border posts is one of them, especially among countries that have much more in common than they are ever likely to admit.

View from the tower of Somosko Castle looking over the village of the same name and the ruined hilltop castle of Salgo in the distance

View from the tower of Somosko Castle looking over the village of the same name and toward the ruined hilltop castle of Salgo in the distance

What Really Matters – The Personal Over The Past
The caretaker at Somosko Castle – a historic site that just happens to be in Slovakia – is an ethnic Hungarian. Slovakia is not persecuting Hungarians they are employing them. The border is still there, but as much in theory as in practice. What a refreshing change from the past. The caretaker, his sense of duty and the information he shared was much more interesting than the castle itself. Sometimes history is no match for personal experience.

And really do the details of history matter when it comes to Somosko Castle. Hardly! Sure it is interesting to note that the first iterations of what would become the castle were laid out in the 14th century and that this was one of the few fortresses in Upper Hungary that the Ottoman Turks managed to occupy. Yet these tidbits are just random, disconnected facts. Any discerning person could stand atop the ruins of Somsko Castle and immediately realize its historical value. Specifically that location matters. It was placed atop a prominence to command the surrounding area. The location was in a fabulous defensive position. This was all well and good, but not half as interesting as the guy manning the entrance.

Somosko Castle - a ruined entryway to the  blue skies above

Somosko Castle – a ruined entryway to the blue skies above

For All I Remember – Keeping History Alive
The journey to visit Somosko Castle had been transformed into something quite different. To be honest I do not remember much about walking among the ruins, I do not remember what the signboard explaining the castle’s history actually said. At this point I have to go back through my photos to get more than just a bare impression of what Somsko castle even looked like. What I do remember though, is that caretaker standing at the entrance waiting to assist the very few visitors who might arrive on a bone chilling winter day. I remember his sense of duty and his helpfulness. And I will never forget that man is the one who is keeping history alive for thousands of people, including myself.