The Father Of Roses In Buda – Afterlife: The Tomb Of Gul Baba (Ottoman Hungary #1)

You have to really take your turban off to Gul Baba. For a man who spent only a small part of his life in Buda he sure has staying power there. For nearly five centuries his tomb has retained a place among the city’s attractions. Despite sweeping changes in empires, rulers, religions and ideologies the tomb remains. Known as “The Father of Roses”, legend has it that Gul Baba was the first to introduce roses to the area. Not by coincidence the tomb is located in the 2nd District (Roszadomb – Hill of Roses) about a thousand feet west of the Danube in Buda. It is one of a very select few Ottoman Turkish sites left in Buda today.

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb

The cobbled way up Gul Baba utca in Rozsadomb (Credit: Dguendel)

Getting to the site requires a steep climb up the cobbled, broken Gul Baba utca followed by a short walk along Turban utca. Suddenly and quite improbably the visitor arrives at the tomb. To find the shrine of an Ottoman Bektshi Dervish tucked within the quiet back streets of the Hungarian capital is surprising to say the least. On a visit to the tomb, I got the distinct feeling that I was in Anatolia rather than Eastern Europe. The Orient felt very near. Such a fascinating slice of eastern exotica left me with questions. Just who was Gul Baba and why does he still have a presence in a city that is two thousand kilometers from his birthplace? From what I discovered Gul Baba exerted a powerful spiritual influence. Much the same effect can be felt by those who visit his tomb today.

A Sultan’s Spiritual Sage – The Rise Of Gul Baba
Gul Baba died in the Carpathian Basin, but his life began far, far away on a plain in northern Anatolia. He was born sometime in the late 15th century at the fortified trading city of Merzifon. He would eventually make his way to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul where he would come to the attention of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Legend has it that Suleiman came upon him while hunting. At the time Gul Baba was tending and praying for roses he had planted. He certainly made a lasting impression on the Sultan as he had on many others. Gul Baba was a member of an Islamic movement known as the Bektashi dervish order that flourished throughout the Ottoman Empire. They practiced Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. In the Bektashi order, baba denotes an experienced spiritual guide. A baba ranks above a dervish and one below the highest rank in the order. The order was closely affiliated with the Sultan’s Janissary corps, elite infantrymen who were the heart and soul of the Ottoman war machine.

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda

Statue of Gul Baba outside his tomb in Buda (Credit: Thaler)

Gul Baba became a close companion of Suleiman, offering him spiritual guidance during his many military campaigns. He was also a warrior, known to carry a large wooden sword in his hand during battle. He was with Suleiman when the Ottoman Turks occupied Buda. Gul Baba was going to start a religious center in the city, but he suddenly died. The death of Gul Baba, like so much of his life, is shrouded in mystery and conjecture. Two possible dates are given for his death. The first, August 21, 1541, also happens to be the final day of the siege of Buda, when the Habsburg army was finally defeated after three and half months. Gul Baba may have perished in the fighting below the city walls. The second and more common date of death given is ten days later on September 1st. In this case Gul Baba is said to have collapsed and died after giving the first prayer during a Muslim ceremony held in the Church of Our Lady (current Matthias Church), which had instantly been converted into the Great Mosque. The funeral that followed shows Gul Baba’s popularity, likely stimulated from the great emotion felt by the Sultan. It is said that thousands took part, with Suleiman himself acting as one of the pall bearers.

Restoration & Resurrection – A Spiritual Revival
Suleiman’s affinity for this holy warrior and deeply spiritual figure likely had much to do with Gul Baba becoming the Patron Saint of Ottoman Buda. He was memorialized for the sake of posterity when his tomb was constructed from 1543-48 on orders of the third pasha of Buda. It was to become a holy shrine with a dervish cloister and a site of pilgrimage for the Bektashi order during Ottoman rule in Hungary. The tomb survived the retaking of Buda by the Habsburgs in 1686, but afterwards was converted to a Jesuit chapel. Only after the Jesuit Order was dissolved did the tomb start to be restored through local efforts. A landowner, Janos Wagner, allowed Muslim pilgrims access to the site. The first of two major restorations by the Turkish government took place in the late 19th century. Another restoration was done at the end of the 20th century, giving the complex its current form. The area around the tomb includes a colonnade, decorative fountains and gardens planted with roses. There is also a statue of Gul Baba. The tomb itself is located in a hexagonal shaped building, made from limestone and mounted with a gold crescent.

The casket of Gil Baba

The casket of Gil Baba (Credit: Thaler)

The day I visited the tomb there was only a single family of Turks at the site. The eldest of which was a grandmotherly type who was overcome with emotion during their visit. She spent many minutes deep in prayer as her family looked on. All around the tomb’s interior, the walls contained tiles with verses from the Koran. Gul Baba’s coffin was of traditional Ottoman design, covered with Oriental carpets featuring elaborate patterns. I marveled at the lady’s devotion. To travel all the way from Turkey into the heart of Europe, just to visit this obscure site made a great impression upon me. The tomb of Gul Baba is the most far flung pilgrimage site for Muslims in Europe. The opportunity to see the tomb and pray on-site must have been a lifelong dream for this lady. I had no way of communicating with her through language, but her expressive emotion told me all I really needed to know. Gul Baba was more than just a historical personage, he was that rarest of Holy Men, one whose mysterious power could speak across the ages, both to believer and observer.

 

 

The Last Coronation – Funeral Rites for the Dual Monarchy

Matthias Church, atop Castle Hill in Budapest, is an architectural fantasy. With its diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyle covered spire there is scarcely a more stirring scene of eclectic grandeur in the whole of Europe. This beautiful building was reconstructed in the late 19th century to a rough approximation of its medieval self, with flourishes of neo-Gothicism added to recreate it for the modern age. The church has been the site of numerous historical events, including the wedding of famed Hungarian Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus to Queen Beatrix of Naples. It was also the scene of multiple coronations. The last of these, less than one hundred years ago, was the setting for one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of Hungary.  It was at this event, what turned out to the last coronation of a Habsburg Emperor, that the fate of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foretold by an unanticipated event that took place in the church. This event exposed the crumbling decay that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.

Matthias Church - site of the last coronation

Matthias Church – site of the last coronation

“Creating Reality From Imagination” – Crowning A Final King
In the latter part of 1916, Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which he was at the helm of the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was hastily arranged. The demands of a raging war were set aside for the sake of tradition. This was imperative since the tottering monarchy needed to adhere to the trappings of power in order to give the appearance of strength and unity. The coronation in Budapest was set for the next to last day in December of 1916. Franz Josef’s great nephew, the man who would become Emperor Charles I was to ascend the throne.

The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in pageantry and protocol. Soon after it began, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this happened, the audience – made up of the crème de la crème of the aristocracy – was to exit the church. We have an astonishing first-hand account of what happened next from Miklos Banffy, the director of the State Theatres, who was charged with organizing the ceremony. As Banffy watched, “the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left of the church…They came down, one by one or in pairs, down the steps from the gallery and into the center aisle, all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels and glittering like figures from ancient times suddenly come alive again, creating reality from imagination. As they moved slowly out of the church in procession they were accompanied by the softest of organ music as if the disappearance of all this beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.”

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

“The Sad, Grey Tragedy of War” – The Knights of the Golden Spur
With the church now empty, it seemed just a matter of moments before the king and queen would exit as well. Yet protocol took precedence as suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur arrived to receive accolades from the newly crowned king. They were a seen of tragic poignancy at the ceremony:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

A greater contrast of scenes occurring in just a matter of moments could hardly have been imagined. Majesty met a deathly sense of duty. Splendor was overcome by decay and decline. The entire ceremony can be interpreted as a metaphor of life imitating art. In this case, art foreshadowed a tragedy of historic proportions. In the church that day the ladies represented what the empire had been, the alluring glamour and beauty of the aristocracy. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the stark reality of what the empire had become: broken, feeble, on its last legs and fading fast. The future was to be a very different place. After what these men – who were just a few of many millions – had endured nothing could or would ever be the same. The empire was disintegrating at the front. The broken soldiers were the physical embodiment of a mortally wounded monarchy.  The end was near.

Where the Dual Monarchy died - Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

Where the Dual Monarchy died – Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

The Verge of Oblivion – The Dual Monarchy On Its Knees
Studying this scene, it is much easier to understand what happened in the months and years that followed. The shimmering power of the monarchy had all but disappeared amid the dark shadows of war. It was a relic of a bygone era which had come to an end far from the neo-Gothic splendor of the Matthias Church. Belief in the monarchy had been buried in muddy and bloody trenches, drowned in the marshlands of Galicia and blown to bits high in the Italian Alps. The survivors were barely better off than the dead. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the last, stumbling vestige of a tradition that was on the verge of oblivion.  Soon the monarchy, the empire and the Kingdom of Hungary would cease to exist. Chaos would soon reign supreme.

What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

Listen to the audio cast:  What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

Much of the fighting at the end of the siege took place on Castle Hill in Buda. Today bullet holes from the final stages of battle still pockmark the facade of the former Military Ministry building which stands equidistant between Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. Such battle scars have been left as a physical reminder of the ferocious fighting throughout this area just before the siege’s end. The building could now be easily repaired, unlike the damage that was done to the bodies and psyches of thousands left in the city as the siege neared its end. Many of those who stayed behind, spent their final days in the ground directly beneath the Castle District.

What Lies Beneath
The Buda Castle district contains over six miles of underground passageways, known as the Labyrinth. During the war these were used by approximately 20,000 German and Hungarian soldiers as shelter from the constant bombardment of the Soviet Air Force and artillery. As the circle around the defenders continued to close, this area became as much a tomb as it was a shelter. The Castle complex was one of the last areas to surrender.

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Following the failed breakout attempt on February 11th, those left behind included about 5,000 Hungarian soldiers. Many of them lay among the thousands of badly wounded, unable to leave makeshift, underground field hospitals. The Hospital in the Rock – which can be visited today – was one of several subterranean areas beneath the hills of Buda, that held the wounded, infirm and those brought to the very edge of sanity by the siege.

Even the magisterial grandeur of Buda Castle, had become a house of horrors. In its cellars lay a couple of thousand wounded. These included many who had been wounded in the failed break out attempt only a day earlier. One medical officer, Werner Hubner, described the scene as where “sheer madness ruled. The weeks of encirclement had driven everybody to the brink of insanity….Pistols were going off in every corner of the huge underground infirmary: nobody wanted to be captured by the Russians in a wounded state.

Unfathomable Scenes
Soon the infirm and starving were roused and consequently enraged by the discovery of large amounts of food that had been withheld from them by their commanders in the underground chambers. One non-commissioned officer happened upon the now vacant bunker of the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, found his uniform and decided to wear it. He was soon shot dead by a furious soldier who had mistaken him for the commander. And where was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch? This “leader” who had neither the courage to disobey Hitler’s futile orders to holdout or the bravery to lead the breakout, was busy on the morning of February 13th surrendering himself to the comparative safety of the Russians. As a commander he would be held as a prize of war, his soldiers would not be so lucky.

Meanwhile, the situation in the cellars continued to devolve into a morass of suicide, death and despair. By the time of the surrender, it was too late for many. For days afterward, those left intact in body or mind witnessed scenes that are even now hard to fathom.  Medics were reduced to doing surgeries in an underground hospital that contained a large store of ammunition. A shootout took place among two combatants who made their way into the makeshift hospital. The discharges from their firearms set the place ablaze. The fire spread rapidly, as shells and grenades began exploding. Flames engulfed everything in the hospital, including the patient’s straw beds. This tragic incident was one of many that were all too common in the final days of the siege.

Places to visit: Castle District, Hospital In the Rock

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Five, The Break-Out, pgs. 201 – 256.

Hubner quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 242.
Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s uniform story from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 243.
Shootout in underground hospital from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 244.

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