Versions of Vac: An Obscure King & The Missing Centuries (For The Love of Hungary Part 42)

Where does history begin in Hungary? For Hungarians it begins in the 890’s when they came storming into the Carpathian Basin to take what they consider to be their rightful place in the European family of nations. For many western historians, the human history of the land that is now Hungary begins with the arrival of the Romans. Other historians whose focus is on the Hungarians, begin history before their arrival during the Dark Ages. This was when barbarian tribes that have long since vanished occupied the area. The answer to the question of when history began in Hungary will always be subjective. That same question can be asked on a micro scale in the town of Vac, a half hour north of Budapest on the eastern side of the Danube.

Invisible Man - King Geza I

Invisible Man – King Geza I

The Age Of Baroque – Triumphal Architecture
In a physical sense, the history of Vac begins during the Baroque era. The oldest structures that I saw during my visit were all from that time period. To name but a few, the bridge to Budapest which crosses the Gombas stream south of the city center was completed in the 1750’s, the Dominican Church in 1741, the Franciscan Church in 1765, and the Assumption Cathedral in 1777. Though the Baroque period left the most lasting mark upon Vac, the first three decades of that period (1700 – 1730) were destroyed overnight. Each of the churches were built or finished after a cataclysmic fire in 1731 left only one out of every ten buildings in the town intact. The famous crypt which has become the Memento Mori museum – discovered in 1994 below the Dominican Church – dates from the Baroque period. It only came into use in the years after the fire. The first burial took place in 1738.

The most Important administrative structure, the Town Hall, was also completed in 1764. This was just in time for a visit to the town from Empress Maria Theresa.  A Triumphal Arch, the only one in Hungary, that can be found on the northern end of the old town was raised in honor of the Empress at that same time. Even the infamous building which would become and still acts today as a state prison was completed in 1777. All this gives the impression that the history of Vac is an 18th century construction. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is almost inconceivable to imagine the versions of Vac which have completely vanished. These include the Ottoman, Renaissance and Romanesque. If Vac could regain all the architecture that was swept away during the first 600 years of its existence, the town would be one of Europe’s greatest tourist destinations. Working backwards through Vac’s history reveals the riches which can only be recalled by history books and the most fantastical of imaginations.

An Old View - Vac (Weitzen in German)

An Old View – Vac (Weitzen in German)

Removing The Evidence – Searching For Clues
Eastern style exoticism marked Vac for nearly a century and a half. It was once home to a thousand wooden houses and seven mosques. Bosnian soldiers walked the streets and its inhabitants spent their leisure time at a Turkish bath. These structures were quite an achievement for a town that changed hands 40 times during the border wars which raged in the area between Ottoman, Hungarian and Habsburg forces. The fact that not a hint of that Vac still exists is a depressing thought, that paradoxically manages to exhilarate the imagination. What would it have been like to sail down the Danube then suddenly spy a skyline studded with minarets and domes while the muezzin sounds a sonorous call to prayer? We will never know. There is almost nothing left of Ottoman Vac, not even the ashes. History may have happened here, but we must rely on the written word rather than physical evidence. The effect is akin to visiting the scene of a crime where all the evidence has been removed.

The Vac that existed before the Ottoman Turks occupied the town is even more distant and remote. Next to nothing is left of the Renaissance buildings constructed during the enlightened period when the famous humanist Bishop Miklos Bathori was the most powerful person in the town. A few physical remnants of an earlier time period can be found on display in Marcius 15 ter (March 15 square). These are the traces of St. Michael’s Church outlined in the square. Only those well versed in Hungarian history would have any idea of another clue to the earliest history of Vac. On maps as well as on the ground there is a singular callback to the High Middle Ages in the name Geza Kiraly ter (King Geza Square). King Geza ruled for just three years, 1074 – 1077, as part of the Arpad Dynasty of Hungarian Kings. Hungarians might know this, but it is doubtful that anyone else does. After stumbling across the name while looking at a map of modern Vac, I became fascinated.

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls

Statue of King Geza I at Vac Castle Walls (Credit: Mister No)

Memory Marker – The Legacy of A Forgotten King
Hungary has innumerable squares named after Szechenyi, Kossuth and Petofi among a multitude of other famous sons. The name Geza is not used with the frequency of other names unless it refers to Prince Geza, father of Hungary’s first Christian king, Stephen I (Istvan I). Geza Kiraly is a rarity, specific to Vac for historical reasons. Geza was in line for the Hungarian throne until usurped by his cousin Solomon who had support from powerful German forces. After Geza’s father died, he was forced to travel to Poland and recruit military assistance. He ended up traveling back to Hungary with Polish help and fought his cousin to a draw. Geza was able to secure a small area under his direct rule that is now part of western Slovakia.

Eventually Geza and Solomon turned upon each other again. This led to a battle for the throne that took place close to present day Vac. Geza, with the help of his brother Laszlo, won a decisive victory. As King of Hungary his reign was rather short lived. During his reign, Geza managed to have a Romanesque Cathedral constructed at Vac in honor of the Virgin Mary. This was where Geza was buried when he died a natural death in 1077. A century and a half later, the Mongols destroyed the Cathedral. Geza, warrior, king and patron of Vac was little more than a memory by the mid-13th century. Today King Geza I’s legacy in the town is Geza Kiraly ter and a statue of him standing atop the walls of Vac Castle, a structure he would never have had any idea existed. The square and statue may not seem like much, but at the very least they are markers memorializing him. They also act as reminders that this is where the history of Vac really begins.

The Mongols, Mohi & Hungarian History: Precursor & Predictor of the Future

You are unlikely to find the Battle of Mohi in any European History textbooks. Even in Hungary, where the battle resulted in cataclysm, it has fallen out of the historical consciousness. This is unfortunate because it was a defining historical event for the Kingdom of Hungary. The battle and its aftereffects were the beginning of several historical trends that would reoccur in Hungarian history. The battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. The Mongol Army under the command of Batu Khan used their mobile calvary to rout the Hungarian forces. Following the battle, the Mongols rampaged across the Carpathian Basin causing destruction on a tremendous scale. Yet within a year and a half they withdrew. Their legacy of conquest was short lived. The same could not be said for other conquerors of Hungary who in future centuries would set down deeper roots.

The Battle of Mohi - Historical Print

The Battle of Mohi – Historical Print

Mohi – Precursor & Predictor of the Future
The battle does not fit easily within the traditional Hungarian historical narrative. The early Middle Ages are ancient history to Hungarians. Prior to the Mongol Invasion, Hungary had experienced three centuries of successful state building in the Carpathian Basin. The Arpad Dynasty produced good rulers who created a regional power respected and feared by its neighbors. It looked as though Hungary might become the great power of Eastern Europe. This is largely forgotten due to invasions and occupations which further shaped Hungary.  Including the Ottoman Turkish occupation, Habsburg Absolutism, the dismemberment of historic Hungary at Trianon and Soviet imposed Communist rule.

Hungary as a successful flourishing state – which is certainly what it was before the Battle of Mohi – goes against the grain of today’s popular Hungarian historical narrative. Hungarians now understand their history as moments of greatness followed by luckless defeat. This was not really the case until the Battle of Mohi. The battle began a historical trend that would reemerge in the ensuing centuries: an ascendant Hungary cut down before it fully takes flight. Mohi is an illuminating event because it is reflective of Hungarian history.

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Division & Conquest
Trend # 1: Political turmoil leads to disunity
In the years leading up to Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was rocked by divisions between the nobility and the king. In 1235, King Bela IV ascended the throne. Almost immediately he began to reverse the privileges that had been granted the nobility by his father King Andrew II. These privileges had included donations of vast estates to the nobles. They had also been given greater political rights which increased their power and weakened the throne. Once he took power, Bela IV began to re-confiscate the land which the nobles now saw as rightfully theirs. The nobles also tried to challenge the king’s authority, but Bela limited their political rights. They were not even allowed to petition him in person, they had to send written petitions instead. Bela had moved the Kingdom toward autocratic rule. He might have been able to get away with this, but as the Mongol threat grew on the eastern horizon, Bela IV suddenly needed the nobles to provide forces to protect the Kingdom, but they were now ambivalent. Their indifference would prove costly. This type of divisive political turmoil has been a hallmark of other Hungarian historical disasters.

Second Class Citizens – The Coming of the Cumans
Trend #2: Failure to assimilate foreigners
The Cumans were a tribe of nomadic warriors who had been pushed westward into the Carpathian Basin by the Mongol advance. The Cumans were good warriors. They were willing to fight with the Hungarians against the Mongols as long as they could settle in the country. Bela IV realized this was to his advantage. He allowed them to settle within the lands of the Kingdom. They were Christianized as well. Despite this, the majority of the populace would not accept them. This led to riots and infighting. Bela supported the integration of the Cumans since they bolstered his power. The nobles were embittered by his favoritism towards what they saw as nothing more than primitive nomads. This furthered the division and disunity prior to battle. The situation with the Cumans is indicative of the Hungarian attitude throughout their history towards foreigners in general. Other peoples may be allowed to live within the Kingdom (see the nationalities prior to World War I), but they were second class citizens. This us versus them mentality towards outsiders would have disastrous consequences not only at Mohi, but many more times for Hungary in the future.

King Bela IV - barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

King Bela IV – barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

The Second Founding
Trend #3: Victory From Defeat
Following defeat at Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was reduced to a wasteland by marauding Mongol forces. One-fifth of the population was killed and sixty percent of the settlements were destroyed. The Kingdom lay in ruins. Bela IV fled all the way to the Dalmatian Coast. He barely escaped with his life and throne intact. It could have meant the end of Hungary, but it led to a new beginning. Bela IV put a vast amount of resources into building fortified, hilltop castles. In a ten year period of rebuilding that began after the Mongols withdrew from Carpathian Basin in 1242, over forty castles were constructed. The Hungarian army was reorganized with heavy armored Calvary. The next attempted Mongol invasion met with defeat. The Kingdom recovered and was soon flourishing once again. This was an incredible achievement, so much so that Bela IV is now seen by many historians as the second founder of Hungary. His reign would last for thirty five years.

Rising From The Ashes
This type of recovery would be repeated several more times by Hungarians. The Ottoman Turkish occupation, the heavy hand of the Habsburgs and the imposition of Communism by the Soviet Union all changed the history of Hungary for the worse. Nonetheless, Hungarians have always found a way to make the best of a bad situation. They have managed to overcome invasion and occupation.  Even in disunity and defeat, they rise from the ashes and recreate their kingdom, their nation and their history.


A Maze of Imagination: The Hungarian Parliament Building

There is hardly a more fantastical structure in the whole of Europe than the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube, on the Pest side of the river, this architectural wonder is an eclectically astonishing mix of neos: Gothicism, Medievalism, Renaissance and Baroque. Viewed from the Buda embankment, it looks as though it is literally floating on the slate gray river waters of the Danube. When the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright, the building’s reflection unfurls upon the ripples of the river, a shimmering image, sparkling in lustrous splendor. If Disney’s Magic Kingdom was ever to have a stone and mortar counterpart, than surely this must be it.  The building looks as though it is out of a fantasy, a reimagining of grandeur on a scale that can be interpreted as confident, prideful and chauvinistic. It is a symbol of both independence and rebelliousness, infused as much by emotion as symbolism. More than anything, it stands as a singular reflection of the people for whom it was built.

A Maze of Imagination - the Hungarian Parliament

A Maze of Imagination – the Hungarian Parliament

A Transformative Optimism – The Building of Budapest
By the early 1880’s Budapest was in the throes of a transformative belle époque. The trigger for this golden age had taken place a decade and a half earlier. A compromise with the Austrians in 1867 led to the creation of the Dual Monarchy. The emperor of Austria was also crowned as the King of Hungary. At the same time, Hungary was offered virtual independence. One result of the compromise was that Hungarians were allowed their own parliament to practice self-rule.  In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest were consolidated into one. From this agglomeration came the city of Budapest. Soon it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the whole of Europe. People poured in from the countryside, leaving the landed estates behind, while looking to take advantage of the industrial revolution.

The city was literally bursting at the seams with economic activity. Hungary was now an equal part of an empire and virtually independent. The Magyar people, having been liberated from what they believed were centuries of oppression by foreign interlopers, cultivated an economic and cultural renaissance. Much of the newly created wealth went into architectural projects. Banks, universities, market halls, churches and a grand basilica rose from the flatlands of Pest. These constructions were the result of a tremendous optimism. The Magyar nation was ascendant. What followed would be the most optimistic construction project in Hungarian history, a brand new Parliament Building.

Crowning acheivement - A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Crowning acheivement – A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Medievalism Without Reason – A Parliament For the Ages
A contest was put on to see who could create the best design. The competition was fierce. Among the runners-up was Alajos Hauszmann, the famed architect who had designed numerous palaces and would go on to lead the renovation of Buda Castle. All was not lost for Hauszmann. For his entry in the competition would become the Ministry of Justice. This building, along with another runner-up which would become the Ministry of Agriculture, occupied positions directly across from the new Parliament. While each of these might be called stately and grand, they were dwarfed in size, scope and scale by the winning entry from architect Imre Steindl. One critic in the late 19th century termed the prize winning creation, “medievalism without reason.” Some of its stylistic elements certainly seemed to recall the Middle Ages, yet more than anything it redefined architectural possibility. It showcased a broad array of styles placed adjacent or piled on top of one another. For instance, the renaissance dome was topped with a gothic spire. It was a little bit of everything and a whole new thing. It was a building both of the ages and for the ages.

The style was both elegant and grandiose. Its size was otherworldly. This became readily apparent to those who visited the interior. The place seemed endless and unknowable even to those whose job brought them to work within its confines. There were no less than 691 rooms, a third of which were offices (big government was around in the 19th century as well).  The main entrance led to the first of 29 staircases, so many in fact that if stretched end on end they would cover twelve miles. Public officials could enter through 27 gates, use up to 13 elevators and relax in one of ten courtyards. It took over two decades to finish construction. It was finally completed eight years after it was dedicated. The architect, Steindl, went blind and died before it was finished. This hardly mattered, since his vision had little to do with sight and everything to do with imagination.

The Grand Staircase - the path to splendor

The Grand Staircase – the path to splendor

The Art of Possibility – A Building and Its People
Beyond the splendor, the building is, as it was at the time, really about a reverence for the past. It was everything Hungary had been. It looked back at various golden ages in Hungarian history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture were all inspirations. On the walls facing the Danube every former ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, leader of Transylvania and famous Magyar military figures was sculpted in stone. On and on it goes. The message is clear. Hungary and Hungarians represent greatness, it is the architecture of exuberant nationalism.

The building may have been officially finished in 1902, but it never really will be complete. It seems to be in a constant of becoming. Renovations have occurred throughout its history and there are, few if any times that it can be viewed without intrusive scaffolding. In this way, it mirrors the Hungarian nation, which is still a work in progress, never quite complete. The building is reflective of the people it was built for. Magnificently seductive, bursting with creativity and filled with a fierce, energetic pride, it is Hungary and the Hungarians, a nation and a people redefining the art of possibility.