To Watch The World & Yourself Fade Away – Banksa Stiavnica

When you end up in the middle of a place you never could have imagined, in a town whose name you have never heard of, when you learn fascinating details about the place that they probably should have taught you in history class but never did and never will, then you know you are in Banska Stiavnica.

In Defiance of Disbelief – All the Banska Stiavnica’s
There are countless Banska Stiavnica’s and you never even noticed them. They can be discovered hiding throughout Eastern Europe. That’s because Banska Stiavnica is representative of all the Gyors and Soprons, the Sibius and Clujs, the Veliko Tarnovas and Plovdivs, the Lvivs and Uzhhorods that exist outside both historical and travel consciousness. They are all uniquely distinct cities, both large and small. Secret finds and fascinating surprises that capture, first your imagination and then steal your heart. They punch above their weight in atmospherics and aesthetics. Delightful in the way they soar through you and then seep back into your memory many months later. They are the delights of the selfish traveler, all yours and only yours because the people you keep company with back home would not even begin to consider visiting them.

One World Fades Into Another - A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

One World Fades Into Another – A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica is a hallmark example for these types of places. It has a quaint grandeur all its own. This little city, with a population of barely ten thousand, has an outsized history which is betrayed by its current size and lack of prominence. A potted history of Banska Stiavnica goes something like this: It was a mining mecca starting in the early Middle Ages. First declared a royal free town in the mid-13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary (Hungarians call the city Selmecbanya), the town grew quickly into one of the most important mining communities in the world. Skilled German miners (Germans call the city Chemnitz) were invited by the Hungarian kings to provide the expertise and labor to excavate the vast silver and gold reserves in the area. The city enjoyed a series of recurrent booms spurred on by the ingenuity of miners and engineers.

Historic & Forgotten Firsts – The Hidden History of a Five Hundred Year Boom
Among the historic firsts that happened at Banska Stiavnica include the first use of steam driven mechanisms to expunge water from mining areas and the world’s first polytechnic university. Incredibly the good times ebbed and flowed for over five hundred years. By the late 18th century Banska Stiavnica was the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary, ahead of even Buda and Pest in population at that time. Strangely enough, while the population was at its pinnacle with 40,000-odd residents in 1782, the mines had already been in terminal decline for several decades. Lacking economic diversification, Banska Stiavnica soon faded into obscurity.

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

The city’s rich (quite literally) past is still physically represented by the superb architectural wonders straddling its serpentine streets. There are two castles within a ten minute walk of one another. The most impressive of these, Stary Zamok (Old Castle), is a three nave Romanesque style, part spiritual, part military fortress. What had started as a church had been fortified to fend off the Turks during the 16th century. It is an intriguing synthesis of the religious and the martial. In Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), at the city’s heart, stands a very large Baroque plague column. It attracts the eyes and humbles the heart, a monument to those who suffered the scourges of centuries past. Either side of the square is lined with Romanesque and Renaissance era burgher’s houses. Further afield the colorful buildings continue.

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

A Lifetime’s Worth of Discovery – Glory of the Faded & Forgotten
The city’s setting, in an expansive wooded valley with hills rising on several sides, lends an air of dramatic natural beauty. Taking it all in, the traveler gets the sense of a deep and penetrating history that pervades Banska Stiavnica. It is enough to make the traveler want to settle in for what might become a lifetime long sojourn of sipping coffee and reading historical tomes in sleepy cafés. Another alternative is just as inviting, to use Banska Stiavnica as a stimulus to continue teasing out all the hidden in plain sight places that lie in between the more well-known places on the map of Eastern Europe. How many other Banska Stiavnica’s are out there, likely a lifetime’s worth. For those who say that everything has been discovered, Banska Stiavnica and cities like it put the lie to that cliché. Discovery is not about some vague historical personage stumbling on the New World. Instead discovery is something deeply personal, finding a place where you find yourself.

The crazy thing is that for the completely curious, those who cannot wander far enough, who have to keep pushing into the deeper recesses of the atlas, there are always going to be more remote spaces and unimaginable places with semi-pronounceable names to discover. The idea that they are all out there waiting, is enough to set the pulses of wayward travelers racing. They are an avenue into a wider world, stretching across thousands of invisible kilometers, space and time captured by a wandering heart. True discovery lurks in these in-between spaces. The places you were never required to know or consider but forever exist in a state of suspended anonymity.

A window into the present and a reflection of the past - the allure of Banska Stiavnica

A window into the present and a reflection of the past – the allure of Banska Stiavnica

Stay (Faraway, So Close)
There is this idea with travel that if you go long enough and far enough, you will eventually have seen it all or at the very least exhausted your curiosity. Then abruptly the affair will end and you will retire to a cubicle and life of disciplined domesticity, climb the ladder into middle management, live a nice quiet life sleeping in on Saturdays and one day telling the grandkids you visited Banska Stiavnica. They will look at you like the crazy old man you have become, dreaming of the days when you owed the world nothing and tramped into parts unknown. There is another way this comfortingly sad tale might end. What if you went to Banska Stiavnica and never left. Decided to stay there and watch the world along with your life slowly grow old and familiar until, like this slumbering old mining city, it finally fades away.

 

The Avars & Gyor: Only the Name Remains

The city of Gyor is situated in one of Hungary’s most prosperous economic areas. Located in the far northeastern part of the country, the city is close to both the Austrian and Slovakian borders. The capital cities of Vienna and Bratislava, are little more than an hour away. These major metropolitan areas are a crucial part of Gyor’s economic hinterland. The city is home to a large Audi factory which produces state of the art engines. Industrially, it is best known as the home of the Raba Engineering Works which manufactures rolling stock for railways and trucks. The name Raba comes from the river which flows into a major tributary of the Danube, the Mosoni-Duna at Gyor. The Habsburg name for Gyor in the 17th and 18th centuries was Raab named after the Raba River.

Gyor - this beautiful Hungarian city's name belies a vague and mysterious peoples past

Gyor – this beautiful Hungarian city’s name belies a vague and mysterious peoples past

Darkest of the Dark Ages – The Rise & Fall of the Avars
Over the last couple of centuries as Austrian influence waned, the city gradually came to be known as Gyor. This only seems right since Gyor is dominated ethnically, linguistically and culturally by Hungarians. Strange as it may seem though, the name Gyor is neither a linguistic creation of Hungarians or Austrians. Actually the name was adopted from the language of a much older group of people who once inhabited this same area. Gyor comes from the word gyuru, which means circular fortress in Avar. It seems that during the 8th and 9th centuries the people known as the Avars placed a round fortress in the area that is Gyor. This comes about as close as you can get to any direct Avar influence in Hungary today. It is simply amazing that a people who once dominated the land which makes up present day Hungary have all, but disappeared, if not from the historical record, at least from historical consciousness. So exactly who were the Avars?

Depiction of Avar warriors

Depiction of Avar warriors

In the simplest terms the Avars were a tribe of nomadic horsemen that occupied the Carpathian Basin in the period between the decline of the Huns and the arrival of the Magyars (Hungarians). Keep in mind that the Huns and the people who came to be known as Hungarians were two very different, distinct peoples, separated by over four hundred years as well as the rise and fall of the Avars. The Avars would rule the basin area from the mid-sixth century up until the beginning of the ninth. This era is often referred to as the Dark Ages, due to the decline of European civilization following the collapse of the Roman Empire. During this period the Avars occupied a historical netherworld that might best be described as the Darkest of the Dark Ages. This was a time when written chronicles were few. Most of what is known about the Avars comes from archaeological evidence.

The Avars ruled over much of Central and Eastern Europe by the middle of the 6th century

The Avars ruled over much of Central and Eastern Europe by the middle of the 6th century

The Historical Middle – Caught Between Greatness & Oblivion
If historical knowledge of the Dark Ages is vague and mysterious in western Europe, than it is downright invisible in eastern Europe. Noticeable traces of the Avars have been all but erased from the landscape. Whereas one can go visit the ancient Roman ruins of Aquincum in Obuda, there is no easily accessible Avar site that would even come close to being termed a ruin. The only people with knowledge of the Avars are most likely to be found in the archaeology or ancient history departments of local universities.

This almost total unawareness of the Avars is mostly caused by the fact that they neither built nor developed anything of lasting influence. Furthermore, the Avars never produced a leader that captured the historical imagination such as the Hun warrior, Attila. Even though the Huns rise and decline in Europe occurred in barely a hundred years – a blink of an eye by human historical standards – knowledge of their deeds vastly outweighs what is known about the Avars who occupied relatively the same area two and a half times longer. Unfortunately, the Avars suffer the plight of those who came before (the Romans) or those who came after (the Magyars). A cautionary tale for those who get stuck in the historical middle, their past has been relegated to at best, the unknown and at worst, oblivion.

Avar Artifacts - Silver arm rings found in Hungary (Credit: James Steakley)

Avar Artifacts – Silver arm rings found in Hungary (Credit: James Steakley)

A History of Forgetting – The Avars & Us
So what can be learned from story of the Avars or should we say the lack of a story? Perhaps they help us grasp just how incredible it is that the Magyars were able to make the Carpathian Basin their permanent home. Consider that if you take the combined time the Avars, longer lasting Romans, and short lived Huns ruled the area, it still does not match the 1,100 years and counting that the Magyars have ruled over the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians took what had become a land of the temporary and made it their permanent home.

In the bigger picture, the Avars remind us how everything human is temporary. Rises, declines and falls are all normal outcomes in the histories of peoples, empires and nations. Some such as the Greeks and Romans are remembered long after they are gone. They are the exceptions rather than the rules. Many more peoples, too numerous to name, are all but forgotten. The Avars are unexceptional because their story is so common. The majority of human history is just like the Avars, vanished without a trace. Does it really matter? Who cares about the Avars? It really does not seem to matter, until one considers that almost all of the human history occurring today will be all but forgotten. We are not headed to the historical realm of the Greeks or Romans or even the Hungarians, the majority of us are headed to oblivion. If we are lucky someone may remember us, a little bit more or a little bit less, than we now remember the Avars.

Miracles Do Happen: The Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny, Hungary

When visiting the many towns and cities in Hungary, one cannot help but notice the Baroque architectural style that predominates in the majority of its older buildings. It seems as though even the most minor towns and villages are home to at least one church dating back to the 1700’s. The Austrian Habsburgs who ruled over Hungary throughout the 18th and 19th centuries left their indelible mark on the townscapes. The Habsburg’s large scale Hungarian rebuilding project was born out of necessity. New constructions were badly needed due to the depredations caused by one hundred and sixty years of Ottoman Turkish rule. Turkish rule in Hungary went through several calamitous phases. The Turks first plundered much of the Carpathian Basin. They then followed with a prolonged, intensive occupation of Hungary that was intermittently marked by spasms of seemingly endless warfare. Only in the latter part of the 17th century were the Turks forced out of Hungary after a series of major defeats by a Habsburg-led Army.

The Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny - in both shadow and light1

The Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny – in both shadow and light

Reflections of Austria – The Habsburgs Transform Hungary
As the Habsburgs took over, they were doing more than just adding to their empire, they were also confronted with a process somewhat akin to nation building. The many decades of warfare had led to the devastation of urban environments throughout the country. The Habsburgs went about recreating Hungary in their image, most prominently through architecture. This makes many of Hungary’s historic urban areas look as though they were copied to a great extent from Austrian ones. The refinement and classicism of the Baroque is apparent. Because of this Hungary feels as much a part of Mitteleuropa as it does Eastern Europe. This rebuilding also means that the historic architecture of Hungary largely lacks the Romanesque and Gothic inspired constructions found in northern, southern and western European areas. When people think of old Europe, it is not Hungary that immediately comes to mind.

Yet there are notable exceptions, what might be termed delightful discoveries. As something much rarer appears before the eyes, the visitor may find themselves struck by a peculiar affinity. They discover that the rarity of a structure’s architectural design makes it both more notable and precious. Many travelers speeding along the M1 highway in western Hungary on their way to Vienna have no idea that one of the most significant architectural wonders in the whole of Hungary can be found just a short distance from the main thoroughfare.

Lebeny's Benedictine Abbey - a miracle of faith history and architecture

Lebeny’s Benedictine Abbey – a miracle of faith history and architecture

An Escape From History – The Abbey at Lebeny
An abbey, formerly Benedictine, towers over the village of Lebeny (population: 3,100), a mere 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of the city of Gyor. Constructed in 1208 it is one of a select few Romanesque churches that remain from the period pre-dating the Mongol Invasion of 1241-42. Churches such as the one at Lebeny were a notable feature to be found all across the early medieval landscape of Hungary. The fact that this one actually survived, first the Mongol invasion and then centuries later the Ottoman Turkish military threat, was due as much to luck as to its solid construction.

The Mongol rampage was at its most devastating in the eastern part of Hungary. This area, known as the Great Hungarian Plain, lacked any natural defenses to help ward off would be conquerors. Historians estimate that at a minimum half of all the settlements in this area were destroyed. Some estimates give a figure as high as 80%. As the Mongols reached the more formidable rolling and broken terrain in western and northwestern Hungary their rampage slowed. The places which stood the best chance of survival were those made of solid materials, such as fortified castles and stone abbeys. The Mongols were known for their lightning speed on horseback and did not have time for long sieges in this part of the country. They had failed to bring their siege engineers this far west, leaving them back in the Middle and Far Eastern parts of Asia. The abbey at Lebeny was thus spared by chance, luck and architecture.

Nevertheless, this was not the end of the military threat to the abbey’s existence. Nearly three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks burned, but did not destroy it. It was due to be demolished in 1563 so the stones could be used in the fortifications of Gyor, which was now attempting to fend off the dreaded Turks. A group of Italian stone masons were actually given the job of demolishing the structure. When they got their first look at the abbey, they instantly decided it was much too beautiful for destruction. The immediate calamity had been averted, but tests of survival for the abbey were not quite finished. The Turks burned it once again while retreating in 1683. Though the abbey was damaged it stood solid. It also survived an alteration that added Baroque features during the 18th century. Fortunately a fantastic restoration was carried out starting in the 1870’s.

After 800 years the Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny still towers above its surrounding

After 800 years the Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny still towers above its surrounding

Proof of Miracles – A Testament to Religion & History
Today at Lebeny, visitors can see the magnificent abbey towering over the village, as it has done in some form or fashion during the past eight hundred years. Twin stone towers stand on the western end of the basilica. A triple rounded apse on the opposite end is a masterwork of Romanesque style. The rare existence of such Romanesque abbeys in Hungary gives the one in Lebeny a singular character. Religion suffuses the abbey’s architecture with spirit and grace, history showcases it as a testament to the staying power of both a people and their beliefs. The abbey as it exists today, as it has existed throughout history, is proof that miracles really do happen.