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.

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.

The Architecture of Self-Destruction – Nevitsky Castle, Ukraine: A Lesson In Ruins

The extension of the Soviet Union’s borders westward in the aftermath of World War II brought the Transcarpathian region into Ukraine. One of the results of this was that Ukraine would inherit the historic sites in the region, which had very little to do with the overriding majority of Ukrainians. By and large Transcarpathia had a very different history from the rest of Ukraine. The area had been a fringe zone where Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Rusyns vied for control. One of the sites in the region was Nevitsky castle. It might be said that though the castle is in Ukraine, it is not quite of Ukraine, at least from a historical standpoint.

 Ruins of Nevitsky Castle

The ruins of Nevitsky Castle – evocative and instructive (Credit: Masha Kovalchuk)

Ascendants & Descendants – Nevitsky Castle : The First Two Hundred Years
The history of Nevitsky castle is to a great extent a microcosm of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history during the Middle Ages. It does have some tangential connections to the history of the Ukraine, but these are not nearly as obvious. The first version of the castle was constructed in the early Middle Ages to help protect Hungary from possible invasion by way of the Carpathian Mountain passes to the north. The Hungarians knew from first-hand experience that these passes must be guarded. During the late 9th century, the Hungarians had used one of these passes to sweep into and conqueror the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians did not want to fall prey to the same stratagem they had used. Thus in the 12th century, Nevitsky Castle was constructed on a 260 meter high volcanic rock outcropping above the Uzh River. This highly strategic point guarded both trade and possible invasion routes. The first version of the castle did little good in slowing down the Mongol advance which came roaring through the area in 1241. The land that is presently Ukraine had already been ravaged by the Mongols, the Kingdom of Hungary was to be next. The Mongols put Nevitsky’s wooden structures to the torch, resulting in its utter ruin.

The Mongols only stayed in the Kingdom of Hungary temporarily before they retreated eastward. The upshot of the Mongol Invasion was an order by Hungarian King Bela IV for stone castles and fortresses to be built in order to better protect the Kingdom. Nevitsky was soon restored and refortified in a much more substantial manner. While Hungary was able to recover from the Mongol disaster relatively quickly, the course of Ukrainian history was irreparably altered by the invasion. Kievan Rus ceased to be the center of power for the Eastern Slavic world. The power base of the Slavic world gravitated to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, what would eventually grow into Tsarist Russia. Meanwhile, as the 14th century dawned Nevitsky once again came under foreign rule, but this time it was not from invasion, but by invitation.  The King of Hungary at the time, Charles Robert, transferred ownership of the castle to members of an Italian family of French origins, the Drugeths. This made sense in light of the fact that Charles Robert had the same ethnic background as the Drugeths. Members of the family had loyally fought on the side of the king in helping defeat rebellious aristocrats to secure his rule. The Drugeths were richly rewarded for their service. Nevitsky was just the start as the Drugeth family began their meteoric ascent to become the largest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary. Like seemingly everything in the fringe area of Transcarpathia, it would not last.

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River (Credit: Юрій Крилівець)

Enemies Within – The Ruin Of Nevitsky
The decline of the Drugeths and Nevitsky as an active castle came not from without as so often happened in the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, but from within. Family infighting plagued the Drugeths for decades. This led to such bizarre situations as the time when in 1600 one family member besieged the castle with a 3,000 man strong army. Inside the walls were the wife and children of the recently deceased head of the Drugeths. They were forced to flee and leave the country. Land and power trumped bloodlines. The end for Nevitsky came less than half a century later. The Drugeths were supporting the Catholic Habsburgs. In the Middle Ages, religion was a much stronger identifier than nationality. The problem for the Drugeths is that Nevitsky was situated in an area consumed by Protestant fervor. They incurred the wrath of the powerful Transylvanian princes. In 1644, Gyorgy Rakoczi I, Prince of Transylvania captured Nevitsy, destroying much of the castle. A new chapter in the castle’s history dawned that continues up through the present, the castle as a ruin.

Today when visitors go to Nevitsky they can see one of the original towers still intact. There are also substantial portions of the walls. There is always something romantic and evocative about ruins that lends them to the imagination. The act of imagination can also distract from the lessons and instructiveness of such ruins. Despite its position towering above the Uzh River, despite multiple constructions that upgraded its defenses, despite the wealth and power of the Drugeths, Nevitsky eventually failed. The seeds of its destruction came from within. For all the chaos and violence imposed on Hungary by the Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs, the ultimate problem came from within. Whether it was the divisions of a family, of the nobility, of religion, or of nationalities the weakness engendered by internecine disputes was ultimately a fatal flaw that time and again brought the Kingdom of Hungary defeat and eventually destruction. The ruins of Nevitsky Castle can be seen as a physical manifestation of this trend.

The ruins of Nevitsky castle

The ruins of Nevitsky castle – a window into the past (Credit: Anatoliy Fedusenko)

Disunity – A Warning To Ukraine
Nevitsky Castle’s ruins are now a much visited tourist spot in modern Ukraine. The place and its history would seem to have little to do with Ukrainians, but it still offers lessons. Presently Ukraine is embroiled in a war on its eastern border. Russia has done much to bring this about, fomenting discontent and violence. These insidious efforts have been aided by disunity inside Ukraine. This war is not just between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, but also between Ukrainians themselves. There are regional differences, religious differences, generational differences, economic differences. All these divisions only serve to weaken Ukraine. What will the end result be? The ruins of Nevitsky Castle serve as a warning of what the future might hold for Ukraine if it fails to unite.

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.

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.

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.

 

Visions of Greatness, Delusions of Grandeur – Eastern Europe: Too Much History

For the Romanians it is ancient Dacia, for the Czechs it is the Kingdom of Bohemia, for the Slovaks it is the centuries long fight for independence, for the Poles it is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for the Hungarians it is Saint Stephen and the Arpad Dynasty. For the Serbs, it is the Serbian Empire, for the Croats, it is the Kingdom of Croatia and so it goes on. Each one of these peoples had a period of greatness that they can look back on with adoration. Even if it was hundreds of years ago, in a world much different than the present, that scarcely matters. What really matters is that once they were the rulers rather than the ruled. In Eastern Europe, it seems every nation enjoyed a long ago day in the sun.

Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

A Great Place To Start?- Detail from Arrival of the Hungarians by Arpad Feszty

The Past Isn’t What it Used To Be
In an essay titled Historiography of the Countries of Eastern Europe: Hungary, Istvan Deak states the following: “Public fascination with national history, especially with a faraway often mythical, past as a guide to future action is hardly a Hungarian monopoly! Rather, such fascination is common to East Central Europe as a whole. Romanians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians and South Slavs have had little choice but to find inspiration and consolation in visions of past greatness when faced with the miseries and powerlessness of the present.”

Dealing with the challenges of the present often is easier for an Eastern European when they can recall a historical past where their people were on top. It is as though, if it happened once, it could certainly happen again. It is the possible dream. A glorious period deep in the past allows for optimism, even if the future is filled with uncertainty or gloom. I once asked a Hungarian about what would happen if one side or the other won the next election, their reply was revealing, “well whatever comes, we all know it won’t be good.” That was a statement informed by history. I can’t imagine my opinion would be any different if my nation had suffered through a 20th century like Hungary’s. Or for that matter, had been overrun by the Mongols, occupied by the Turks for a century and a half, and then followed by another century and a half of Habsburg absolutism. This same Hungarian talked of Saint Stephen, a man who lived over 1,100 years ago, as though he had just left the building.

Tomek Jankowski writes in his recently released Eastern Europe: Everything You Need To Know About The History (And More) Of A Region That Shaped Our World And Still Does: “The past for Eastern Europeans is not restricted to dry, dusty books on shelves that only a few socially maladjusted nerds read; the past is a living part of life for Eastern Europeans, and their discussions about the present are often clothed in language of the past.” Jankowski quotes historian Lonnie R. Johnson who says: “Some of the problems Central Europeans have with themselves and with one another are related to the fact that their history haunts them.”

The former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain – the former Soviet Bloc illuminated

An Invisible Iron Curtain
The final part of that last sentence, “their history haunts them” is an eloquent critique on the presence of the past in the psyches of Eastern Europeans. The ghosts of empires, wars and revolutions past exists somewhere in that nebulous space between reality and imagination. This is in contrast with how the past is viewed by western Europeans. In the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy or even Germany, the past is to be respected, but the present is still pretty good and the future just might be better. It is as though an invisible iron curtain still divides Western and Eastern Europe. In the west they look forward, in the east they look backward.

Quite obviously, none of these countries are glorifying the present or recognizing it as a golden age, despite the fact that Eastern Europeans are freer than at any time in their history. Even Ukrainians, who just ousted the oppressively corrupt Yanukovych regime, at present, enjoy freedom of movement, relative freedom of the press and a degree of civil rights unprecedented in their long and contentious history.

Lest They Forget
Is it really possible for a people to have too much history? It is not so much the quantity of historical events as it is the depth to which these events have skewed the perspectives of Eastern Europeans. In Bulgaria, time and again I heard the phrase, “five hundred years of slavery” in reference to the Ottoman Turkish occupation. The people I heard this from, were not historians or geriatric wanna be khans, they were students working the front desk at hostels or leading the free city tour in Sofia. Their average age could not have been more than twenty-two. Yet they spoke of the dreaded Turk as though he had just been run out of the country last week.

But the past in Eastern Europe is not just about what is remembered, it is also about omission, about what is forgotten. In western Ukraine, there is the wonderful mittel European city, par excellence, Lviv. It is identified by the catchy phrase, “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine.” This conveniently ignores the fact that it was majority Polish right up until the Second World War. Polish Lwow is ancient history. In Kosice, Slovakia there is the beautiful old town which was the main reason the city was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is packed with buildings that were the handiwork of the Hungarian bourgeois and German burghers who respectively called the city Kassa or Kaschau. This is supposed to be Slovakia? It’s quite the trick to fool the tourist; it’s quite the feat for the Slovaks to fool themselves. Lest they forget!

Forgetting and remembering, it’s all about the past in Eastern Europe. The past really is a different country in Eastern Europe, it bears little resemblance to the present and for that reason it is all the more appealing.

A Houdini Act On Hungarian History – The Arpad Age Reformed Church At Ocsa

One of the few things European and American cityscapes have in common seems to be the suburban outskirts of their large cities. Rarely are these the types of places tourists might find appealing. Suburbs in the United States bring to mind a seemingly endless succession of houses, office parks and strip shopping malls. They are largely safe, well kept areas known for good schools, better than average quality of life and excellent places to raise a family. American suburbs are a product of the last fifty years and have almost no intrinsic historic or cultural value to speak of. In Europe, suburbs have a mind numbing sameness. They are usually home to large blocks of high rise flats. Sometimes these are quite safe and prosperous, in other cases they are home to down at the heel housing projects and industrial zones. They hold little appeal for outsiders.

This pretty much holds true for Budapest as well. I rarely see tourists in the outer districts of the city or hear English spoken. Since I am married to a Hungarian, I have been able to spend a fair share of time in districts that are foreign to foreigners.  I cannot say these areas are wholly without cultural value, but one has to work pretty hard to locate notable sights. Beyond Budapest’s outer districts are what might be termed village districts. Such areas are villages that have become attached to Budapest, by the slow, inexorable expansion of urban sprawl. Fortunately, some of these villages still retain aspects of their original existence. In one astonishing case southeast of Budapest, the tidy settlement of Ocsa is home to a true historic gem that has successfully resisted an endless litany of foreign invaders, wars and modernizing forces. Today, what is known as the Arpad Age Romanesque Church at the heart of Ocsa offers a rare architectural set piece from the early medieval age of Hungarian history.

The Arpad Age Reformed Church - started in 1234 and still standing strong today

The Arpad Age Romanesque Church – started in 1234 and still standing strong today

This fine work of religious architecture is a rare treat in Hungary. Construction on what is today the church, began as a monastery in the year 1234. That’s 820 years ago! To put this length of time into its proper context, ask yourself this question: what physical legacy from our own world will be left for future generations to ponder some eight centuries from now? Even the most visionary futurist has little idea of what remnant of our modern world might survive us in the year 2834. A rather humbling best guess might just be nothing at all. With that in mind, I felt a reverence for what I saw in Ocsa. The church has not just stood the test of time, it has played a Houdiniesque escape act on Hungarian history. It first escaped the Mongols who came and went only seven years into the monastery’s construction. The Mongol hordes swept away an estimated half of the Hungarian population in their visceral yet fleeting conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 1241-42. Yet they were unable sweep away the soon to be completed structure at Ocsa. The Mongols disappeared, while the monastery soon began an illustrious history. The Ottoman Turks three centuries later, turned the monastery into a mosque, covered the mosaics and converted it into an house of Islam. One hundred and fifty years later the Turks were done for. The mosque morphed into a church for Reformed Protestants. As for Hungary, it was now under the sway of the Habsburgs, fellow Christians, but also brutal reformers. They forced Catholicism on their Magyar subjects, yet their counter-reformation came and went. Protestantism remained, the House of Habsburg would not.

Medieval mosaics can still be seen on the church walls

Medieval mosaics can still be seen on the church walls

There is a moment when the spirit of the past proves much more powerful than the present. That spirit lives on in the cavernous spaces of the church in Ocsa. Outside the church’s thick, stony walls modernity marches on. The constructions of capitalism, while fleeting, make and remake the villagescape in an image that will be also soon be lost, swept away by tides of technological progress integral to an ideology based upon creative destruction. I look around at Ocsa, at Budapest, at the modern world and wonder what architectural or cultural legacy will be left behind by our modern world. The cynic in me says not much. Then again perhaps there is hope. That hope still stands in Ocsa, just as it has for over eight centuries. The Arpad Age Romanesque Church may not last forever, but it will most likely last a whole lot longer than the world around it.