A Small Corner in Szentendre – Serbia & The Power of Belief

North of Budapest, on the west bank of the Danube sits the astonishingly charming town of Szentendre.
Due to its proximity to the capital, it has pretty much become the number one day trip destination for visitors and locals alike. The town can be easily reached via the city’s suburban railway. On arrival, visitors find a colorful array of historic buildings, quaint, cobble stoned streets and an artistic colony, second to none in Hungary. Szentendre has a feeling of prosperity and wealth, as it has become a refuge for those looking to flee the noise, clamor and bustle of Budapest. It has also become a refuge for artists looking to glean inspiration from its Mediterranean like vibe.

Szerb utca (Serb street) - one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

Szerb utca (Serb street) – one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

History & Memory on a Street Corner in Szentendre
Szentendre’s history as a refuge extends much deeper into the past than might be expected. For those who look beyond the curiosity shops, patisseries and stylish restaurants there is a multi-ethnic history waiting to be discovered. On the corner of Lazar car ter (square) in Szentendre there is a monument topped with a cross. It is placed in a rather inconspicuous setting, beside a restaurant. The throngs of tourists that come to visit this historic town often overlook it. Nonetheless, this monument and where it stands represent the importance of Szentendre to the memory and history of Serbia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Strategically located at the beginning of the Danube River’s bend north of Buda, Szentendre became a home to South Slavic refugees during the Middle Ages. The town’s history as a refuge began in the 14th and 15th centuries when groups of Bulgarians and Dalmatians made their way to the banks of this Hungarian stretch of the Danube while fleeing the Ottoman Turkish hordes ravaging their homelands. This wave of immigration was later followed by Serbs who settled in the area after fleeing the same group of invaders.  By the mid-16th century, the Turks had managed to occupy most of Hungary including the area that was Szentendre. The village was soon depopulated. It was only after the ouster of the Ottoman Turks in Hungary by Habsburg forces in the latter part of the 17th century that the region was safe once again for settlement.

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre - in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre – in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

The Life Force Of A Nation
Meanwhile the Serbs were able to reoccupy their ancestral homeland. It was not long though before they were uprooted again by Ottoman counter advances. As a reward for their bravery and courage in fighting the Ottomans, the Habsburgs allowed some 6,000 Serbs to resettle in Szentendre. Their leader, Arsenije III Čarnojević, also brought the relics (bones) of Tsar Lazar, the Serbian nation’s last pre-Ottoman leader who had been killed on the field of blackbirds at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The relics had been given the greatest protection for the past three hundred years. Centuries long efforts of monks kept these relics from being defiled by the marauding Turks.

The relics allowed for the veneration of Lazar as physical and spiritual evidence of the Serbian nation’s will to exist no matter the historical circumstances. The relics were brought to Szentendre in 1690 where they were placed in a newly constructed wooden Serbian Orthodox church. They were housed there for seven years before eventually being returned to Serbia. The spot where the church was located is today marked by the memorial at the corner of the square. It seems almost impossible to believe that in this spot, the life force of a nation was once safeguarded.

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre - Credit: upsalatty

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre – Credit: upsalatty

Symbols Matter – The Veneration of An Idea
To modern visitors this might seem like no big deal. In the present age where “enlightened” beliefs are pervasive, relics fail to receive accolades or veneration. It is commonly thought, especially in westernized cultures, that such traditions are based on antiquated beliefs, the superstitions of an unscientific age. Yet it is instructive to remember that people act on what they believe. If that belief is powerful enough to motivate the actions and activities of a group of people then it is certainly a worthy part of the historic record. The Serbian people believed in the greatness of their leader Tsar Lazar and the independence of the Serbian kingdom. He was the living embodiment of a people and culture at its zenith. Despite the centuries of Turkish occupation and oppression that followed Lazar’s reign, the idea of Serbia lived on.

In death Lazar may well have been more important to the idea of Serbia than he was in life. The veneration of his relics is as much the veneration of an idea as it is of a man. It is not so much who he was, as to what he symbolizes: a Serbian people ruling themselves, leading all the South Slavs, free and independent of foreign control. Did the relics assist this belief in Serbia? The answer is almost certainly yes. They were as much a part of the fight for that kingdom as any soldier or sword. The monument where that wooden church was once located, now stands improbably in another nation, Hungary, in a town that has only a handful of Serbs still living there. Nevertheless, it deserves not only to be noticed, but also to be read and remembered.

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.