The Last Place To Look First – Borzhava Castle, Vary Ukraine & Deep History

Travelers looking to visit the castles of Transcarpathia will not likely consider a trip to Vary. This small village with a population of 3,100 inhabitants, situated on the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine – Hungary border, would probably be last on a list of possible attractions for the traveler, if it was on any list at all. This is not surprising since Vary at first glance has very little to see concerning castles. It is deceptive because actually this dusty and forgotten village should be the first stop on a castle tour of the region. Paradoxically, this means the traveler will be looking for a place with very little remaining of its once prominent existence.

Vary, Ukraine

Vary, Ukraine – a forgotten place with a deep past (Credit: Gyure Fricy)

Protecting An Eleven Hundred Year Legacy – Hungarians & Transcarpathia
Vary may officially be in Ukraine today, but both its past and present like so much of the eastern fringes of Transcarpathia is informed by Hungary. Eighty percent of the Vary’s inhabitants are ethnic Hungarian, it has been this way for well over 1,100 years. Ever since the Hungarians first arrived in the Carpathian Basin around the year 896 they have dominated the area. Not long after their arrival the Hungarians imposed their presence on the landscape. They selected the Vary area for a castle/fortification because it lay at the confluence of the Tisza and Borzsova Rivers. Rivers were trade routes and transportation corridors, the lifeblood for commerce in the early Middle Ages.  The fortification was built near the mouth of the Borzhava River to control this strategic point, it would become known as Borzhava Castle.

Location matters in history, the confluence of the two rivers was the decisive factor in the placement of Borzhava Castle, one of the first defensive structures in what would become the Kingdom of Hungary. This was a place informed as much by geography and topography as by the designs of man. Due to the fact that only the barest of details exist about its structure, the actual design of Borzhava is open to interpretation. It was not a stereotypical early medieval castle. The defenses were constructed out of earth and wood. A description of such works is given in the essay Castle Construction in Hungary by Tibor Koppany who describes them as “not castles in the modern sense…the wooden outer walls, supported by inner wooden trellises and partitions, filled with earth.”  For the time, these types of works were considered to be the most impregnable.

Hungarian King Béla IV fleeing from the Mongols

Hungarian King Béla IV fleeing from the Mongols (Credit: Szechenyi National Library Budapest)

The Coming of the Mongols & The Devastation of Hungary
If geography is destiny, than the location of Borzhava marked it out for historical importance, but also destined it for obliteration. Its position on the eastern frontiers of the Kingdom turned out to be highly precarious. Borzhava was an adequate defense until a new foe suddenly appeared out of the East in the 13th century, the Mongols. According to historical sources word first began to trickle into the Carpathian Basin about the ferocity of the Mongols from Russian boyars (land owning nobility) who had fled the rampaging horsemen. The boyars were granted asylum in Hungary by King Bela IV. In 1237, a Dominican Friar by the name of Julianus made a pilgrimage to the banks of the Volga River in search of a Hungarian tribe that had branched off from the original Magyar tribes in their movement westward across the Asian steppes. Julianus found the tribe, but of even greater interest he discovered the Mongols were heading westward, conquering all before them. When he returned to Hungary a couple of years later Julianus carried a message from the Mongol leader Batu Khan, demanding that Bela IV surrender the Kingdom of Hungary. The message was ignored. Soon thereafter, the Cumans, a tribe that had been expelled from the steppes by the Mongols showed up in Hungary and were granted asylum. They also carried a message from the Khan demanding surrender. These warnings were ominous, but King Bela IV of Hungary and the Kingdom’s ruling elite paid little heed to the danger before it was too late.

In 1241 the Mongols suddenly appeared, conducting raids with lightning speed. Borzhava Castle and its defensive works never had a chance it was quickly destroyed. Once these eastern defenses were breached the whole of the Hungarian Plain lay open. The Mongols would go on to devastate Eastern Hungary, cross the Danube and ravage much of western Hungary. The only places in Hungary that withstood this onslaught were hilltop fortresses. When the Mongols retreated, the Hungarians were left with their country in ruins. Bela IV had to figure out how to protect the kingdom from another such incursion. In the aftermath of the invasion, the defensive fortifications of Hungary underwent an irreparable change. A massive rebuilding project was ordered by Bela IV. Defensive structures made of earth and wood would no longer be of use. Formidable hilltop castles made of stone were optimal for security of the kingdom. This meant that Borzhava would not be rebuilt. Its topographical situation made it much too vulnerable. The flatlands were no longer suitable for the kingdom’s defenses.

Sumeg Castle in western Hungary

Hilltop fortresses such as Sumeg Castle in western Hungary – were the types of defensive works that King Bela IV commissioned to secure the Kingdom of Hungary from another Mongol invasion (Credit: Balla Béla)

Traces of the Past – Etched In the Landcsape
The first era of Hungary’s castle/fortress architecture had come to an abrupt end with the Mongol Invasion. Borzhava Castle was no more, but settlement in the area would soon resurface and this time for good. In 1320 the village was given the name Vari. The word var in Hungarian means castle. This is one legacy of Borzhava Castle that survives in Vary to the present day. Physical evidence also remains. The discerning eye can still make out mounds, trenches and earthworks that were once part of the complex. The fact that anything at all remains is simply amazing given the changes that nature and man have wrought on the rivers and landscape.  Vary will not make anyone’s list of must see places, but it is worth a visit just to see the traces of a past that against time and fate still remains.

The Past Is A Different Country – Deva, Transylvania (Narratives of Nationalism)

The past is a different country or so it has been said. The city of Deva, Romania located in western Transylvania, is where the past is very much a different country, dependent on whose perspective one views it from. If a visitor views the past by monuments and statues than for all intents and purposes Deva has been shaped by Romanians. If a visitor views the past through the prism of the city’s most notable architectural relics, than Deva’s past was molded by Hungarians. Which version is correct? The answer is easy if you are Romanian or Hungarian, their own. It is much more complex and confusing for everyone else.

Decebalus Statue in Deva with Deva Fortress in background - detail from postcard

Decebalus Statue with Deva Fortress in background – detail from postcard

The Winners Rewrite History
It is said that the winners write history, to be more precise they rewrite history. In Deva also sculpted history. The majority populace in the city today is Romanian. They present a grand historical narrative of valor and achievement through a series of dynamic statues of historical figures. Among those portrayed are the Roman Emperor Trajan who conquered Dacia (what is today much of the modern nation of Romania) and Decebalus, the leader of the defeated Dacians. In addition, busts of the three leaders of an 18th century Transylvanian peasant revolt, Horea, Closca and Crisan are on offer. The final coup de grace is a statue of the famous Romanian nationalist poet Mihai Eminescu. What do all these personages have in common? They are the foundation upon which a Romanian national historical narrative has been constructed in Deva. Certainly they represent the majority point of view for Romanians. What they do not represent is those who ruled Transylvania for centuries – namely Hungarians.

What these figures also have in common was that they died less than ideal deaths, some more horrible than others. Quite paradoxical if one takes the time to think about the fact that in Deva they are portrayed heroically. The visitor to the city finds a parade of national icons, seemingly successful. Yet the truth is that in some form or fashion they all failed. Each figure is symbolic of the struggle Romanians had with the ruling elite for centuries on end. Horea, Closca and Crisan were all executed in the most horrible fashion possible, broken on the wheel. Decebalus committed suicide by slitting his own throat, rather than be dragged back to Rome and paraded through the streets as a war trophy. Eminescu suffered from bipolar disorder to the extent that he succumbed to mercury poisoning. The mercury used as an attempted antidote to treat his mental illness.

Horea, Closca and Crisan busts in Deva

Horea, Closca and Crisan busts in Deva

History Written in Bricks, Mortar & Stone
For all the national hero worship in Deva, it is the Hungarians – who today make up only 10% of the city’s population – that have left the most memorable and lasting historical legacy. This is strange since on the surface, the Hungarian presence is marginalized to the point of being invisible to the historically unaware. The Hungarian historical narrative has also been sculpted, but this time in bricks, mortar and stone. The center of Deva’s small tourist trade is the Magna Curia Palace. It was redesigned in Renaissance style by none other than Gabor Bethlen, the man who presided over Transylvania’s golden age. Ethnically Hungarian, Bethlen exploited the Ottoman-Habsburg conflict to gain relative independence for Transylvania, promote a cultural renaissance and entrench Protestantism in the region. He even went so far as to make Deva the capital of Transylvania for a short time. Transylvania came closer to being a separate nation during his reign than it ever was before or has been since that time. For that matter, it would never achieve such a prominent place in European politics again.

Magna Curia with Deva Fortress in the background

Magna Curia Palace with Deva Fortress in the background

Towering Above It All – Hungarian Historical Touchstones
Standing in front of the palace one cannot help, but notice the ruins of the Deva fortress crowning the hill in the background. Perched high above, the fragments of jagged stone stimulate the imagination. What remains of the fortress is all that’s left of its once formidable walls. The crumbling remnants of these walls and ramparts can be seen from miles away. They draw not only the eyes, but also the heart upwards to the citadel which sits atop a volcanic mountain. The fortress – first mentioned by Hungarians in mid-13th century documents – proved impregnable to the attacks of Cuman invaders. It continued to provide protection for the ruling Hungarians over succeeding centuries. It finally was blown up by the Habsburgs, in their bid to pacify the countryside and impose authority on their rebellious Hungarian subjects during the 17th century.

Today the fortress stops not invaders, but tourists heading to points farther east. It continues to undergo a slow, but steady reconstruction. The Romanians also constructed the first funicular railway in the nation to transport visitors to the fortress ruins. Ironically, visitors are starting and ending their journey at Hungarian historical touchstones, the Magna Curia and Deva Fortress.

Deva Fortress as it looks today

The ruins of Deva Fortress as it looks today

Same Differences – Romanians & Hungarians
Thus what we have in Deva is a situation where the basis of the city’s history was constructed by the Hungarians. The Romanians now inhabit this landscape of the past and have co-opted it as much out of economic interest as patriotic spirit. The Romanians were not allowed to be part of this history when it took place centuries ago. Today, the roles have been reversed. Hungarians have been left out of the cities past which they largely created and defined. The Hungarian presence is not so much invisible as it is unavoidable. The two, Romanian and Hungarian do not so much clash, as complement one another. Without one there could hardly be the other. These two peoples, historically at odds in Transylvania, are quite similar, especially in their differences.