What History Is Made Of – The Walls Of Gyor: Guarding A Gate To Vienna

To the naked eye or uninformed mind, Becsi Kapu ter appears as another series of incomprehensible Hungarian words. Translated into English the meaning of those words becomes clear, Becsi Kapu ter means Vienna Gate Square.  This was as good a place as any to start looking deeper into Gyor’s history. The gate no longer exists, but the name denotes what was once a crucial point into or out of the city, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries when Ottoman forces threatened to destroy the Habsburg Empire. The Vienna Gate was where the road from Gyor to Vienna began or ended depending upon which way a peasant, merchant or military force was traveling.

Popular history has made the Gates of Vienna famous and the walls of Gyor anonymous. The walls can be seen while standing in Becsi Kapu ter. They still exist unlike the gate, which is now only a ghostly place name spoken by hundreds of Hungarians each day. The walls of Gyor are about the only thing left of the city’s defenses from the Turkish Wars. During the long years of war with the Ottomans, these walls were a barrier that the Turks were only able to overcome on one occasion. Gyor became known as the “Dear Guard” due to its role helping to protect the Habsburg capital 120 kilometers further to the west. It is quite ironic that a provincial Hungarian town once guarded the Gates of Vienna.

The City Walls of Gyor at sunset

The City Walls of Gyor at sunset

Great Divide – The Importance Of A City’s Walls
On an early spring evening, as the sun began to set on the Baroque spires of Gyor’s Belvaros and with the still waters of the Raba River reflecting a cloudless sky, I walked along the old city walls extending beyond Becsi kapu ter. I held out my hand, touching the bricks and mortar. I wanted to make a deeper connection with that turbulent time when the Ottoman Turks stood beneath them, trying to uproot the Hungarian and Habsburg forces sequestered within. Those who would decide the fate of Central Europe stood on either side of these walls, a stone’s throw away from one another. This was all that separated the forces of Christianity and Islam, one imperial overlord from another, Royal Hungary from Ottoman Hungary. Walls are important in history, they serve as borders, but also fault lines. They can mean freedom, tyranny or a combination of both. This was certainly true for the walls of Gyor.

The Turks referred to Gyor as “Yanikkale” or the “burnt city”. It received this name not by anything the Turks did, instead it came from the smoldering ruin that the Habsburgs and Hungarians left the city in 1529. When the Turks appeared outside of Gyor in that fateful year, the commander, a man by the name of Kristof Lamberg, decided not to defend the city, even though it was of great strategic importance. Lamberg ordered the fortress torched. The Turks were left to occupy the ruins, but it would never be this easy for them again. Later that same century the city was rebuilt in Renaissance style atop the original layout. Italian experts were brought in to design and build new city walls. These were fortified. Behind the walls were Gyor Castle, an impressive structure which sported no less than seven bastions. The city’s defenses were much stouter than before. They had to be because sometime in the future they were likely to face the Ottoman Sultan’s Army.

Schwarzenberg-Palffy Monument - In honor of the Liberation of Gyor

Schwarzenberg-Palffy Monument – In honor of the Liberation of Gyor (Credit: Pe-Jo)

Military Camp Or Market Town – Moment Of Truth
The moment of truth came at the end of the 16th century. Could Gyor withstand an assault from the Ottoman war machine? The Turkish army was led by an elderly figure, the Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, who was 88 years old when the campaign began.  Sinan’s body may have been frail, but his skill and determination in leading an army was still superior to most men. Opposing the Ottomans was a force of 6,000, most of which were Germans and Italians. The Habsburgs had disavowed Hungarian forces believing they were of questionable loyalty. Sadly, those left to defend Gyor were no match for the Ottomans. The castle was abandoned by the defenders after they were promised safe passage. The townspeople of Gyor fled with them, fearing what would happen to them under Ottoman rule. For almost four years the Ottoman forces contented themselves with pillaging the town and terrorizing the countryside. They quartered horses and installed artillery emplacements in the Gyor Cathedral. The city became a mere shell of its former self during this time, a military camp rather than a market town.

Ottoman rule in northern Hungary was always highly tenuous. Gyor was at the very limit of their supply lines, about as far away from Constantinople as the Ottomans ever were in Europe, other than the Gates of Vienna. In 1598 a force of 5,000 Habsburg troops prepared an expedition to retake Gyor. Setting out from Komarom, 50 kilometers to the east. They used surprise and stealth rather than raw manpower to aid them in their effort. On the night of March 28th the troops managed to sneak over the city walls. The sleeping Turks were caught unaware and soon forced to capitulate. Gyor would never fall under the Ottomans again, even during their final campaign to take Vienna eight and a half decades later. Once back under Habsburg rule, the Baroque period in Gyor’s history began in earnest. Construction of the Belvaros’ atmospheric architecture which I could see rising from beyond the old city walls started during this period.

The Raba River at Sunset - Just beyond the City Walls of Gyor

The Raba River at Sunset – Just beyond the City Walls of Gyor

Pockmarked Past – Knowing Better, Knowing Worse
I walked along the walls as night slowly descended upon the city, following them around until they bordered the Raba River. It was quiet except for the laughter of a few teenagers. The air was as still as the river, the surface of which did not betray a hint of movement. Gyor was now a peaceful city, serene and elegant. The violent clash of empires that had left its past pockmarked with conflict might as well have never occurred. At this moment, it was nearly impossible to imagine all that had happened here. I knew better, because I knew worse. Hundreds, if not thousands, had given their lives close to where I stood. And for what? In the service of empires that had long since ceased to exist, for future generations who would never comprehend their sacrifices or to be recalled only by a stretch of city walls that hardly anyone takes time to notice. Such is the stuff history is made of.

Click here for: Forget Them Not – The Napoleonic In Hungary: A Battle At Raab, A House In Gyor  


By Your Neighbors They Will Know You – Understanding Turkey

The Romans had a saying, “By your friends they will know you.” In essence, this meant that you could tell a lot about a person based on who their friends were. Substitute “neighbors” for “friends” and the same could be said of nations. In other words, “By your neighbors they will know you.” If you want to figure out why a nation is the way it is, take a good look at its neighbors.

This is especially true for Turkey. Consider a few of its neighbors: Syria, Iran and Iraq. With neighbors like these who needs enemies. Turkey has to be at turns: tough, worried and extremely vigilant in dealing with these eastern neighbors. The aforementioned three are just problems of the past 30 years or so. Add to this mix, historically bad relations between Turkey and the nations of Armenia, Greece and Bulgaria. There is the potential for a conflict at almost anytime. Turkey’s only really friendly neighbor is Georgia. The situation here has actually gotten better since the Soviet Union imploded. Georgia provides a buffer between Turkey and Russia, at least for the time being. The Turks other neighbor is something known as the Nakhchivan Autonomous Region (an exclave of Azerbaijan). Any place with a name like that is certainly troubled. Nakhchivan is nominally independent because Turkey and Russia guarantee its independence for Azerbaijan. The Turks do this mostly to annoy Armenia. When a relationship with an ally is this convoluted it certainly says something about the situation. Then again, this is about as normal as it’s going to get between Turkey and its neighbors.

The Ottoman Turks Conquered & Ruled Over All Of Their Neighbors - Today They Are Surrounded By These Same Peoples

The Ottoman Turks Conquered & Ruled Over All Of Their Neighbors – Today They Are Surrounded By These Same Peoples

To give you an idea of the tough neighborhood the Turks live in, I recall a visit I made to Bulgaria three and a half years ago. Nearly every Bulgar I met who spoke English (mostly young people who usually do not have much of an interest in history or a long historical memory) mentioned “the 500 years of slavery under the Turks.” Time after time, the “500 years of slavery” was brought up as though it had just happened yesterday. Wheras in other Eastern European countries I often hear about the “change of system” meaning the fall of communism, in Bulgaria it was the “500 years of slavery” that was the national mantra of choice. Young Bulgars seemed beholden to this legacy. They had nothing good to say about the centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule. Conversely, Bulgaria was one place in Eastern Europe where they seemed to have a positive attitude toward the Russians. And why not? After all it was with Russian assistance that they finally gained independence in the latter part of the 19th century. Keep in mind, that in 2010 when I traveled in Bulgaria they were enjoying historically good relations with Turkey. Well if this is the situation when it comes to the Turks vis a vis the Bulgars, one shudders to think of the situation with the Greeks, Syrians or gasp, the Armenians.

It cannot be said that from a historical standpoint that the Turks did not bring these fraught neighborly relations on themselves. One thing a tourist is bound to notice in Turkey is the aggressiveness of the Turks. This even goes for their friendliness. To say these people go a bit overboard is putting it lightly. Turkish hospitality is legendary, but so is Turkish ferocity. I used to think this aggressiveness was the main reason that the Ottoman Turks (forebears of modern Turkey) created an empire stretching from Persia to the Gates of Vienna. I still believe that to be true. This aggressiveness was feared by foe and friend alike. Yet in modern times the aggressive instinct also comes in handy. It is a way to keep the neighbors at bay.

And keeping the neighbors in their place will be Turkey’s great external challenge in the 21st century. When you have one eastern neighbor that has just used chemical weapons (Syria), another (Iraq) that had a dictator who used chemical weapons on a people (Kurds) that call Turkey home and yet another that is in the process of developing nuclear weapons  (Iran) well you better be prepared. Visiting Turkey, one can not help, but notice how the people stare deep into a stranger’s eyes. It’s as though they are sizing you up. They rarely flinch or look away, it is a form of respect and at the same time a show of toughness. I believe it is the same way the Turks look at their neighbors and by extension the world.