A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.

A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

This was just my second visit to Budapest, but like the first one I felt the magnetic pull of Castle Hill. Something about castles and hills have a way of drawing throngs of tourists to the most important cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are among the most prominent places sporting a hilltop castle. In each city’s case, a castle stands high above a famous river. The most famous of these rivers is the Danube or the Duna as Hungarians call it. The river slides between Buda and Pest, a ribbon of slate grey luminescence that is transformed into liquid fire at dawn and dusk. Standing by the Duna looking up at the conical spires reaching upward toward the sky, Castle Hill provides the viewer with an aesthetically enthralling sensation that is nothing short of spectacular.

Elements of magic - Buda Castle & Castle Hill lie up at night

Elements of magic – Castle Hill lie up at night (Credit: hpgruesen)

Elements Of Magic – A Splendid Sensation
This scene was first set out before me a year and a half earlier on my first trip to Budapest. It left me with indelible impressions that have stayed with ever since then. On this my second trip to the city, I found myself on a beautiful autumn morning traveling from the gritty working class district of Kispest to the regal splendor of Castle Hill. This trip when done by way of public transport takes a little less than an hour. Upon arrival, I had one goal in mind on this visit, to spend the better part of a day walking around Castle Hill. This would be done in the hope of gaining a better understanding of its history and architecture. That rocky plateau had been home to triumphs, sieges and cataclysmic battles that had served to shape Hungary’s destiny.

On my previous visit to Budapest, I had spent just a little over an hour atop Castle Hill, not nearly enough time to get to know the place. My most lucid memory was of standing outside the Matthias Church listening to a guide on the Budapest Free Tour explain how the structure had been co-opted as a model for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I have never been to Disney World and have no desire to visit a make-believe world when there are real places of much greater interest. I must admit though, that there does seem to be an element of magic associated with Castle Hill. It provides a suitable destination to explore the fantastical. That first visit lodged itself in both my memory and imagination. A trip to Budapest would never take place again without a visit to that dazzling island in the sky that Hungarians call Varhegy (Castle Hill).

A step up - The climb to Castle Hill begins

A step up – The climb to Castle Hill begins

Scaling The Heights – To The Pinnacle Of Power
I made the mistake of walking, rather than riding to the top of Castle Hill. This mistake turned out to be quite revealing. Though I exercise each day, getting to the top of Castle Hill proved to be a workout. It stands on a mile long plateau of rock, rising two hundred feet above the Danube. Two hundred feet may not sound like much of a climb, but when that elevation rises over a length of just a thousand feet, scaling it can be exhausting. I decided against a frontal assault and scaled the hill up a set of stairs along its western side. This approach conveyed to me the importance of topography in the history of Castle Hill. The first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary was not located here, instead it was on another hill further north overlooking the Danube, in the city of Esztergom. Buda only became the administrative seat of power in Hungary after the Mongol invasion in 1241.

The capital at the time of invasion was in Esterzgom, but that city proved no match for the Mongols who destroyed most of it. The King of Hungary at the time of the Mongol Invasion was Bela IV (1235 – 1270). He was forced to flee all the way to an island off the coast of Dalmatia to avoid being killed. After the Mongols withdrew from Hungary a year later, Bela decided that the only way to protect the Kingdom from another invasion was by building hilltop fortresses. These were constructed all over Hungary. Bela had a fortress and accompanying residence built atop Castle Hill. In the 14th century, a castle was built atop the hill as well. Then during the long reign of Sigismund (1387 -1427) a Gothic Palace and protective fortifications were added. By this time, Buda had become without a doubt the epicenter of political power in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Castle District got a renaissance makeover during the long and storied reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 1490). This period was the height of cultural and architectural achievement in medieval Hungary, ushering in a gilded age for Castle Hill. Marble fountains, expansive new Renaissance style buildings and crushed gravel pathways covered the district. During this time, the Kingdom of Hungary expanded its borders into lower Austria and Bohemia. This expanding empire had at its core Castle Hill. It must have seemed at the time that nothing could threaten the district. It stood secure, floating high above the Danube, a spectacular reminder of the wealth and power of Matthias’ reign. This peak turned out to be something of a false summit, for it was all downhill after the death of Matthias. The Kingdom of Hungary began a period of decline which led to defeat and occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The Castle District fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks after their successful siege of Buda in 1541. They then made it their seat of power. Though the Turks converted plenty of churches to mosques on Castle Hill they left the royal palace intact.

Scaling the heights - Statue atop Castle Hill

Scaling the heights – Statue atop Castle Hill

Baroque Beginnings – The Castle District Rises Again
The end of Turkish power in Buda and most of Hungary came in 1686, it also brought an end to the old Castle District. The successful siege by a Habsburg led army resulted in the historic architecture that stood on Castle Hill being laid waste. Very little was left to build upon. This meant an entirely new version of the district, heavily influenced by the Baroque era, would slowly arise. Much of the architecture from that period still exists today. This was what confronted me when I finally I made it to the top of Castle Hill and caught my breath. I was soon to discover it was worth every bit of energy that I expended to get there.

Click here for: The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

 

Hidden In A Hungarian Cellar: The Last Living Legacy of the Mongol Invasion – Szokolya, Hungary

History is always with us, even when if we do not recognize it. Most of the past remains unacknowledged or unknown. This is due to both ignorance and the sheer breadth and depth of human activity. In nations such as Hungary, where history seems ever present, historical consciousness centers on events that are more recent and have defined modern Hungarian society. These are most obviously, the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon in which Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and population, the failed 1956 Revolution against Soviet style communism and the fall of the Iron Curtain. More generally, there is an awareness (some would say psychosis) of having suffered invasion and occupation by foreign powers such as the Soviets, Habsburgs, Ottoman Turks and Mongols. The further back in history one goes, the less visceral the memory. The Mongol invasion occurred so long ago that it is now nothing more than an abstraction. Proportionately though, it was as close to a cataclysm as Hungary would ever experience. The Mongol conquest could best be described in two words, wanton destruction. That is why there is so little physical evidence in Hungary today of any building or structure that existed prior to the Mongol invasion, but that does not mean there is none.

The Kiraly Forest Railway

The Kiraly Forest Railway – takes visitors into the verdant Borzsony Hills

Traveling With The Past & Into The Past
That brings us to Szokolya, smack in the middle of the largest basin in the Borszony Hills. It is less than an hour from Budapest by car, but the best method of travel to Szokolya is by railway. It’s not just the natural beauty of the northern uplands that make this trip worthwhile, but also the opportunity to ride on the Kiralyret Forest Railway one of the few narrow gauge rail lines left in Hungary. This line has withstood radical changes in travel and technology. It offers visitors to the Borszony Hills an intimate window into this bucolic landscape. Though the railway’s terminus is just a little farther north at Kiralyret, those interested in early medieval history should disembark at Szokolya. At first glance it is a prototypical Hungarian village with neatly kept streets, tidy houses and church steeples rising above it. It is easy to be impressed on a superficial level with this quaint settlement and its beautiful natural surroundings.

In Szolkolya though, there is more than meets the eye, especially when it comes to what lies beneath. Many homes in the village have cellars which store wine. Surprisingly this was not the initial reason for their construction. These were actually built as hiding places. Hiding from whom? Not the usual suspects. Not the Soviets or Habsburgs or Ottoman Turkish forces. In the case of Szokolya, it was the inaugural foreign conquest, the first in what would become a recurring theme in Hungarian history, the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242 which sent people into the underground. Overshadowed historically by more recent invasions, the Mongol incursion was the inaugural calamity in Hungarian history.

 Szokolya, Hungary

The village of Szokolya, Hungary – history is literally hidden beneath the surface here

The First Cataclysm
On several occasions before their arrival, King Bela IV had been forewarned that the Mongols were a ferocious opponent moving westward with alarming speed. For all intents and purposes, Bela did take the danger seriously. He conducted inspections of fortifications and attempted to improve the kingdom’s defenses. Unfortunately, the nobility was too busy quarreling with each other and the king while trying to protect or increase their privileges. This disunity has been a recurring theme in Hungarian military defeats. The nobles gave little thought to the ominous threat that was gathering on the eastern horizon. By the time they did take notice, it was much too late. In the spring of 1241, at the battle of Mohi in northeastern Hungary, the Hungarian army was destroyed in a matter of hours. The Mongols then swept across the Great Hungarian Plain carrying out a rapacious wave of destruction.

It has been calculated that over half of all settlements in this area were obliterated from the landscape. Those few that were left standing had their fields burned and food sources pillaged. Disease and starvation followed. Resisters were killed, while those who surrendered were taken as slaves. As if matters could not get any worse for the area east of the Danube, the Mongols advanced very little west of the river, instead they focused on “pacifying” the region. Historians have estimated that half of the entire population of Hungary was either killed or enslaved. How did the villagers who avoided this fate survive? Thousands were lucky enough to make their way to walled fortresses that provided some protection from the rampaging Mongol cavalry. The villagers also fled to the thick forests of the northern uplands where Szokolya is situated. In many cases, those fortunate enough to survive had to go underground, quite literally. They hid in cellars beneath village dwellings. Some of these still survive in Szokolya today.

The Mongol invasion of Hungary

The Mongol invasion of Hungary in Chronica Hungarorum by Johannes de Thurocz

Beneath the Surface – History’s Dark Spaces
There is little physical evidence of 13th century Hungary left in the country today. The rampaging Mongols wiped out both the present and what would have come to represent the past. The cellars in Szokolya offer one of the few recognizable remnants from this brief yet all- consuming catastrophe. These might not be overly impressive to the curious onlooker, until they realize that the Mongol destruction was so complete that the only physical remains left from that time can only be found beneath the earth. The fact that even this exists is something of a miracle. The Mongol invasion of Hungary has been completely forgotten. It is not even a distant memory. Sure it can be read about in history books, but that hardly brings it back to life. The only place left to get in touch tangibly with that event is in one of Szolkolya’s cellars. Here the past still survives, in dark, dank spaces hidden deep in the historical conscious.

Traces of Transcarpathia’s Progress: Nyalab & Kankiv Castles

There is a clear line running through the history of Transcarpathia during the early Middle Ages. That line is the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242. From the time period preceding the invasion very little castle architecture exists, nearly all fortifications were destroyed by the Mongols. In the years that followed the invasion and ravaging of Transcarpathia, Hungarian King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) issued a decree that “castles be built on suitable sites where the people may find refuge if they have to retreat from threatening dangers.” This policy led directly to the building of hilltop, stone fortresses for defensive purposes across the Kingdom of Hungary. Castles soon began to dot strongpoints in Transcarpathia, a critical region for securing Hungary’s eastern frontiers. This construction program was a matter of national security. These castles also provided security for something just as vital to the interests and welfare of the Kingdom’s inhabitants, salt.

Nyalab Castle

Nyalab Castle – one of the strongest defensive fortifications along the Salt Road during the Middle Ages

The Salt Road
Salt was one of the most important commodities in medieval times, literally a matter of life and death. Salt allowed for the preservation of food. Without preservation and the resulting ability to store foodstuffs, one bad harvest could doom a village to starvation. Salt also made travel possible. Without a sustainable supply of food, it was impossible to travel far afield. For these reasons, a plentiful supply of salt was of the utmost necessity. Central and Eastern Europe’s source for salt was Transylvania, which held bountiful reserves. After mining, the salt would then be transported westward via rivers systems. The Tisza River was an integral part of this route. The Kingdom of Hungary had to ensure that the transport trail was secure. Castles were constructed on hilltops along the salt road of the Tisza. Remnants of a couple of these castles can still be seen today.

A series of ruins stands atop a 40 meter high hill overlooking the Tisza River valley close to the town of Korolevo, Ukraine. In Slavic, Korolevo means “king’s house.” This name is derived from the original Hungarian name for that same place, Kiralyhaza. It was on top of this hill where the Hungarian King Stephen V erected a wooden hunting lodge. Later the hill was fortified with what became known as Nyalab castle, guarding the salt road along the nearby Tisza. Today the castle ruins do not look like much, little more than a few rough walls and stone stubs. They could easily be mistaken for natural rock formations if they garner any notice at all. This is historically deceptive. For centuries Nyalab Castle was one of the strongest defensive fortifications in the region. This eventually led to its downfall. The Habsburg emperor Leopold ordered it blown up in 1672 so that rebellious Hungarians could no longer use it to defend against his forces.

Painting of St. Francis Assisi Church and the adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle

Painting of the church and adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle from the 16th century

A Fight From Start To Finish – Kankiv Castle
Further down the Tisza lies the small city of Vynohradiv in Ukraine, with the ruins of Kankiv Castle standing nearby on Chorna Hora (Black Mountain). Enough of the castle’s remnants still exist to give some idea of what the original structure looked like. The castle was built in the shape of a square with a tower on each corner. Unlike other castles in Transcarpathia that enjoyed relative peace until the 16th century, Kankiv Castle was nearly ruined not long after it was first constructed. This was due to a succession fight for the Hungarian throne after the Arpad Dynasty collapsed at the beginning of the 14th century. The castle was sacked by the troops of the eventual victor King Charles Robert. Fortunately the new king had it restored and gave Kankiv as a gift to his wife. The Perenis, a powerful family of nobles gained ownership of the castle in the 15th century. During this time they allowed Franciscan monks to build a Gothic Church known as St. Francis of Assisi’s along with a monastery on the grounds. The entire complex was enclosed by defensive walls. In the 16th century the head of the Pereni household converted to Protestantism and forced the monks out of Kankiv. Before their eviction, the Franciscans placed a curse on the castle. Either by coincidence, superstition or happenstance the curse turned out to be ominously prescient. Not long afterwards Kankiv was reduced to ruins by the pro-Catholic Habsburgs in their war against rebelling Protestant nobles throughout the region.

Kankiv Castle

Kankiv Castle – the ruins that are left today can still stir the imagination

Relegated To Ruins – Transcarpathia’s Past
Very little is left of either Nyalab or Kankiv Castles. Casting a glance back through the history of the region it is easy to see why they were relegated to ruins. The region they were located within served as a proto-typical frontier. The Mongols may never have come back in force, but Transcarpathia experienced the violent excesses of invading Turks, Tatars and Transylvanians, Hungarians, Poles and Austrians. These peoples were fighting for power, land and resources. The legacy of centuries of struggle left scars on the landscape, but these are now barely noticeable. Today hardly anyone in Transcarpathia gives a second thought to the ravages of the Mongols, the salt road or the ruins of Nyalab and Kankiv. Some might say that is a shame, but it also illustrates how far the remoter reaches of Europe have advanced beyond the day to day struggle of life and death. Progress has been made, even in this forgotten netherworld, if only someone would stop and recognize it.

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.

An Approximation of Greatness – Visegrad: The Pinnacle of Ruins      

Visegrad is a stunning sight. The visitor can see right away why the spot was chosen as the location of successive fortresses/castles stretching back nearly two millennia. The remains of this once magnificent complex stand high atop a rocky crag then snake down an exceedingly steep hillside until terminating close to the banks of the Danube River. This complex, once the capital of Hungary, was sited at a highly strategic location, guarding the entrance to the lower Danube. Due to the forces of geology, geography and topography Visegrad seems to have been chosen not so much by man, but nature to play a unique role in East-Central European history. Once humanity discovered the uniqueness of its natural setting, empires and kingdoms sought to co-opt its nearly impregnable position for defensive purposes.

Visegrad as seen from the east side of the Danube River

Visegrad as seen from the east side of the Danube River – in the lower left corner is Solomon Tower (Lower Castle)

Going on the Defensive – Visegrad’s Rise, Fall & Rise
Though famous for its role in Hungarian history, the history of Visegrad starts long before the coming of the Magyars. The location first gained prominence during antiquity. The Romans were the first to take advantage of the area’s natural setting. Here they situated a fortress where the mighty River Danube makes a wide arc at what is known as the Danube Bend. This was a critical strongpoint since it helped anchor the defenses which kept the Germanic barbarian tribes to the north at bay. After the Roman Empire collapsed, various tribes continued to occupy the fortress, including Slavic ones which came into the area during the Dark Ages. Not much is known about these tribes, but they did leave at least one lasting legacy. They gave the place a name that is still recognizable today, terming it “Vysehrad” which means “high fortification.” (One of over a thousand words borrowed from Slavic languages that have become part of spoken Hungarian today)  The Slavic tribes of the Dark Ages were subsumed by the coming of the Magyars (Hungarians) who swept into the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. It was not long before the Hungarians were finding the site useful for their own purposes.

In the mid-13th century, a cataclysm of apocalyptic proportions brought about the Visegrad whose remnants can still be seen today. The Mongol Invasion in 1241-42 totally devastated what had been a prosperous Hungarian Kingdom. By one estimate, half of the Kingdom’s two million inhabitants were either killed or became refugees due to the onslaught. In the aftermath, the question was how to protect Hungary from another possible invasion. The answer came from King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) who began to seek out highly defensible places to fortify throughout the Kingdom. His wife, Queen Mary used wealth she had brought with her from the Greek Royal House to help finance the building of the castle/fortress complex. Visegrad became one of the most notable and long lived strategic responses to the utter destruction that had been wrought upon Hungary by the Mongols.

A drawing of Visegrad Castle during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus

A drawing of Visegrad Castle during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus

Remnants of a Golden Age
For nearly three centuries a host of Hungarian Kings used Visegrad during a golden age which saw them expand their realms from the Baltic to the Black Seas. The first to move here was King Charles Robert (1308 – 1342) in 1323 who wanted to put distance between his court and Buda’s majority German populace. Even after Charles’ successors moved the court back to Buda they continued to pursue work on a palace and castle complex he had started construction on close to the Danube’s banks. The most lavish renovations took place during the reign of King Matthias Corvinus (1458 -1490) who had the buildings associated with Visegrad redone not once, but twice. First in late Gothic style and then transformed to incorporate Renaissance ideas taking hold. It was the Ottoman Turks who would end the Golden Age of Visegrad just a scant half century after Matthias death. Following their occupation of Buda in 1541, they conquered Visegrad via siege warfare three years later. The castle and palace soon fell into disrepair, but the ruins remained to communicate some of Visegrad’s majestic glory to visitors down through the centuries. In the 20th century a major restoration took place. This effort gives a splendid approximation of Visegrad’s greatness.

Upper Castle - the pinnacle of Visegrad

Upper Castle – the pinnacle of Visegrad

A Medieval Fortress At Its Peak – Visiting Visegrad
Today Visegrad consists of three must see sites. The first are the palace ruins. In the late 15th century, the palace contained one of the most marvelous royal residences in Europe. Laid out on a square ground plan, there were over 300 rooms on multiple tiers with hanging gardens. Lavish fountains would spew wine during grand events. Among the remnants of the palace that can still be seen today is a loggia. This was among the first Renaissance architectural elements used on a building in Europe outside of Italy.  Next is the Solomon Tower (Lower Castle), one of the more impressive examples of a Keep found anywhere in Europe. At one time a string of these Keeps connected the lower part of Visegrad to the top of the citadel. This must have been quite a sight, intimidating to all but the most formidable of attackers. Unfortunately these defenses still could not stop the Ottoman Turks. During a raid in 1544, the south side of Solomon Tower collapsed. Visegrad was lost and the fortress slowly succumbed to ruin.

The last site is the most impressive of all, the towering Upper Castle looming far above the river, palace and Solomon Tower. It can be accessed via shuttle or footpath. A hike to the Upper Castle leaves the most lasting and exhausting impression. What a task it must have been for any would be conqueror to successfully mount an attack. The Ottoman Turks skill at siege warfare was such that even this daunting task was undertaken with success. From the top of the Upper Castle, the sky above seems close enough to touch, if not with the hand than with one of the citadel’s bastions. The effect is dizzying. It is as though the citadel is floating. Here at the heights of Visegrad, is a medieval castle complex at its peak.

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 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.