A Land That Lives By Its Own Rules – Kecskemet (For The Love of Hungary Part 44)

Of the nine cities in Hungary with a population of one hundred thousand or more, Kecskemet can lay claim to the most sublimely remote location. The city is located out on the southern Great Plain amid a netherworld of ever-expanding agricultural fields, pancake flat steppe land and horizons that provoke thoughts of forever. Sand and soil were the defining traits of this region for generations. Modern agricultural techniques were the only thing that saved the area from becoming a Hungarian Sahara. The rather recent, at least in historical terms, agricultural cultivation of this land did little to ameliorate the effect of a rail ride into a county (Bacs-Kiskun) that has less than a hundred meters of elevation change throughout the area in which Kecskemet is located. The city itself comes on like a mirage, materializing an hour and 22 minutes by train outside of Budapest. The length of travel time is deceptive. Budapest seems like it could not possibly be that close or for that matter exist at all. Such was the landscape’s effect upon my perception of time and distance that I felt as though I had entered a land that lived by its own rules.

The Midpoint of Nowhere - Landscape around Kecskemet

The Midpoint of Nowhere – Landscape around Kecskemet (Credit: Csepege)

The Mid-Point Of Nowhere – Pass Through Country
Location meant everything to the historical development of Kecskemet. The city stands at the exact mid-point between the Danube and Tisza Rivers, halfway between Szeged and Budapest. Hungary is much too small to have fly over country like the Great Plains of the United States. Nonetheless, it has plenty of pass through country in its eastern portions. Kecskemet could be called the capital of pass through country. On my journey, I got the feeling that Kecskemet was a thousand miles from anywhere. One hundred kilometers on the Great Plain, was equivalent to ten in northern or western Hungary. Sky, grass, turned up earth and belts of trees were the only things marking what must have been a limitless horizon in prior centuries. The cultivation of trees till could not hide the growth of sky which was by far the most dramatic feature of the landscape. Time was measured in hours rather than minutes in this land.

It was with a fair amount of relief that I arrived in Kecskemet. The journey seemed to take much longer than I imagined. Upon my arrival, I had the disconcerting feeling that this was the kind of place I was never meant to visit. It was Hungarian through and through. Gone was the cosmopolitan air of Budapest, a provincial spirit pervaded Kecskemet. The Magyar tongue was the only language I heard spoken on the streets. There was an insular quality to this city, made more so by its seeming isolation. I hoped that whatever attractions the city might hold would be of greater interest than its immediate surroundings. I suspected that Kecskemet’s size and importance were due to its role as a large center of trade and commerce somewhere in this outer Hungarian space. Population, agriculture, pastoralism and the conduct of human affairs demanded as much. In that sense, Kecskemet was much like another metropolis of the Great Hungarian Plain, Debrecen. Both were surrounded by spaces that demanded a center. Kecskemet would turn out to have an astonishingly vibrant one.

Coming Into Its Own - Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century

Coming Into Its Own – Kecskemet at the turn of the 20th century (Credit: Ferenc Somorjai)

Shifting Wasteland – From Existential To Environmental Crisis
I assumed that Kecskemet’s history was pockmarked with the excesses of Ottoman Turkish occupation. This was true to a lesser extent when compared to most other places on the Great Hungarian Plain. As the Ottoman war machine surged northward it laid waste to outlying settlements. Refugees fled to Kecskemet. Its population was swelled further when it gained protected status. Because of its role as a market town and trade center, Kecskemet came under the Sultan’s direct control. Any taxes paid went to the pasha of Buda and Ottoman treasury. Other areas on the southern Great Plain were not so lucky. Corrupt military commanders ruled in what was known as the Spahi system, where their income was derived directly from squeezing the land and business owners in the areas under their rule. Conversely, the Sultan and his administrators held a vested interest in Kecskemet which kept the town under the rule of law and relatively prosperous. This meant the town continued to undergo development rather than destruction during a century and a half of Ottoman rule.

An environmental rather than an existential crisis buffeted the city during the 18th century threatening its commercial livelihood. Tens of thousands of cattle grazed the surrounding steppe land until its already sandy soils were reduced to shifting wastelands. The pastoral economy completely collapsed. It took almost a century for the region’s economy to recover. A vigorous campaign to re-vegetate the Great Plain surrounding Kecskemet was encouraged by a massive tree and vine planting program. This led to the development of fruit orchards and vineyards. The cultivation of apricots was perhaps the most notable offshoot of this economic reorientation. Kecskemet soon became the center of production for Hungary’s delicious apricot brandy. In addition, the sandy soils proved to be the best defense against phylloxera, a nasty insect which caused vine rot across Hungary. Phylloxera devastated the country’s wine growing regions during the late 19th century. Vines entrenched in the sand in the area around Kecskemet proved immune. Production soared to meet demand. The led the city’s economy to a commensurate expansion.

Stopping Point - Kecskemet Railway Station

Stopping Point – Kecskemet Railway Station (Credit: B.Zsolt)

Architectural Inspiration – An Exotic Jewel Box
The redevelopment of the surrounding landscape from pastoralism to viticulture, orchards and cropland brought prosperity to thrifty landowners. This newly acquired wealth led to the construction of public and private buildings in the city center during the late 19th and early 20th century. Some of Hungary’s most magnificent examples of Art Nouveau architecture were constructed during this time. These buildings have become Kecskemet’s calling card for visitors. As I was about discover, the city’s downtown was marked by a spaciousness clustered around four interconnected squares showcasing Art Nouveau inspired wonders. The astonishingly exotic buildings could not fail to impress precisely because they were beyond the modest expectations anyone might conjure up for the city. Kecskemet was more than a large city in the middle of nowhere, it was a self-contained jewel box filled with treasures from a time when architecture was informed by the most spectacular manifestations of creativity. Those manifestations would be the highlight of my visit to the city.



A Miracle of History – Fusion of Faith: The Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim In Pecs (Ottoman Hungary #2)

One of the more remarkable experiences of my Eastern European travels came in Pecs, the second largest city in southern Hungary. On an early spring Sunday afternoon I disembarked at the eclectic masterpiece which has acted as the city’s railway station since 1900. My objective was an overnight stay in the city’s Belvaros (inner city). It was early afternoon and the wind was blowing hard. I walked up the Jokai Mor utca (Mor Jokai Street) dragging my luggage behind me while trying to shield my eyes from swirls of dust. My only knowledge of the city was what little I had read. Pecs was known for its jewel box of a Belvaros, a magnificent cathedral and an early Christian Necropolis that had been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The mid-sized city certainly sounded like a nice stopover to break up a train trip between Sarajevo and Budapest. At least that is what I thought until I entered Szechenyi ter (Szechenyi square). My expectations were immediately exceeded.

It was right then and there that the magic of Pecs materialized before my very eyes. To my right was the baroque façade of Saint Sebastian’s Church, in front of which stood the pyrogranite, Art Nouveau Zsolnay Well. Further up was the neo-baroque Town Hall with its grand tower surging into a clear blue sky. Next I saw the colorful confectionary façade of the Nandor Hotel. Further up there was a brass statue of the great Hungarian leader Janos Hunyadi on horseback, adding an element of glorious pageantry. Could this really be just a provincial city, there was something positively royal about it. The square slanted upward as it proceeded to the north where a large column of the Holy Trinity was situated. Behind it was the most stunning sight of all, at the highest point of the square stood what had formerly been the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim and now is the Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The structure was positively magnetic to the eyes. It looked like it had come from another world and truth be told it had.

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter

Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim looking northward from the center of Szechenyi ter (Credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor)

If You Build It, They Will Come – The Conquest Of The Conquerors
Most miracles are created by the imagination and based on a belief system, but there are other miracles that can be seen and touched, these are the miracles of history. The fact that there is anything left of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim can rightly be considered a miracle of history. Following the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Pecs, Pasha (Governor) Gazi Kasim ordered the building of the mosque. It took four years to construct and used stones from what had been the Gothic Saint Bartholomew Church which had stood on the city’s main square.

As impressive as the structure looks today, it was even more stunning during the era of Ottoman rule. The famous Ottoman traveler and literary scribe Evilya Celebi commented on the majestic view of the mosque. He compared its size and grandeur to the mosque of Sultan Selim in Istanbul. Celebi was lucky to visit Pecs right before Turkish rule in Hungary suffered a series of devastating setbacks.

The threats to the mosque’s existence began even before the Turks were forced out of Pecs. In 1664 an army under the command of nobleman Miklos Zrinyi besieged and then occupied Pecs. They carried out acts of wanton destruction, pillaging and burning for several days. Yet the Mosque of Pasha Qasim was one of three in the city that survived this rampage. A little over two decades later the Turks were cast out of the city for good. They burnt much of the city, but left the mosque untouched before the conquering Habsburg Army entered Pecs on October 14, 1686. After the Habsburgs took control they held a Thanksgiving dinner inside the mosque to celebrate their conquest. Their initial plan for the city, as well as the mosque, was to destroy it. The Habsburg court in Vienna changed its mind after deciding they needed Pecs to act as a rival to nearby Ottoman held Szigetvar.

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian's Church in the backgrounnd

Flowers in Szechenyi ter with Saint Sebastian’s Church in the backgrounnd

Conversions – Spiritual & Physical
The peace and prosperity that Habsburg rule brought to southern Hungary meant something quite different for the mosque. It would survive, but undergo a major transformation in the process. Six years after the Habsburg conquest it was converted into a church. The mosque’s minaret was struck by lightning in the 18th century, before finally being pulled down by the Jesuits in 1766. Then in the 19th century the interior was rebuilt. After 1868 only Christian worship services could be held there. This spiritual conversion was done in parallel with an overhaul of the interior. Such features as the containers for holy water that today stand beside the vestries were taken from the Turkish baths which were once adjacent to the mosque.

A few Islamic details did escape the transformation, such as verses of poetry from the Koran that can still be seen on the interior walls. The exterior, with the exception of the minaret, stayed almost exactly the same as it looked during Ottoman rule. The building that stands today is still the most impressive example of Turkish architecture in Hungary. It consists of an octagonal drum crowned with a dome. On top of the dome is a crescent moon, symbol of Islam, connected to a Christian cross. The duality of the symbolism is not lost on the historically minded viewer.

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Interior of the Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kasim/Downtown Candlemas Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Will To Change – Pattern Of The Past
I was lucky enough to be one of those viewers on that beautiful sunlit, spring day. Walking up to and then around the church/mosque I felt as though I were in an outdoor museum studying an artifact from the past that had been shaped by centuries of spiritual history. A steady succession of beliefs had produced this synthesis of Christian and Islamic sacred architecture, fused together as one now, but still with distinct patterns of the past, imposed one atop another. Here was a lasting remnant of how the world was built, from foundations and fusions, changes and challenges. The will to create and restore, defeating the will to destroy.  Only a miracle of history could have created such a structure.


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 Age Of Wine – Csopak, Hungary: Time & Again

Location is everything. The small, but thriving village of Csopak along the northern shore of Lake Balaton in Hungary has made the most of its location. Less than 10 km (6 miles) from the popular resort town of Balatonfüred, climate, water and wine have been central to sustaining the life of this village. Many visitors to the area bypass Csopak in a mad rush to Balatonfüred. This is unfortunate because Csopak has the kind of simple delights that make it a memorable experience in its own right.  It also has a fated history of cataclysm and rebirth that provides a unique perspective on 1,800 years of life in the area.

The essence of Csopak - wine and Lake Balaton

The essence of Csopak – wine and Lake Balaton

Water Into Wine
Start with the waterwheels of Csopak. These are the historic remnants of pre-modern industry that once helped power the local economy. Six of these mills can still be found scattered throughout the village today. They are among the oldest structures in Csopak. Their age, at just over two hundred years is less than ancient. This relative youth, compared to what can be found in other parts of Central Europe, is both deceptive and revealing. It gives some idea of the tumultuous history from which the village has so often suffered. The 16th and 17th centuries were not kind to Csopak. For many years it was located in a no man’s land border zone of conflict between the Ottoman Turkish and Habsburg Armies. Border warfare led to the total destruction of Csopak.  After a century and a half of on again, off again warfare little if anything remained of what had once been a prosperous community. Eradication of pre-Ottoman invasion Csopak was so complete that the village would have to be totally reconstructed. In the early 18th century only the village’s name remained.

The rebirth of Csopak would take place by recalling an earlier and much more successful era in the village’s history. An era that has reoccurred throughout its history, no matter who ruled the land, this might best be termed the age of wine. The first recorded documentation of Csopak can be found in 1082, with a written reference to the Bishop of Veszprém’s vineyards. Wine was a major force in the economic life of Hungary during the Middle Ages. The Hungarians were building upon a much earlier tradition. A few kilometers inland from Csopak, on the Balaca Plains, once stood Villa Urbana. This Roman site from the 2nd century was the beginning of winemaking in the immediate area. The Romans were the first to realize the tremendous potential of the region’s climate. The early springs, warm summers, long dry autumns and mild winters in the area were perfect for wine cultivation.

Vineyards at Csopak with lake Balaton in the distance

Vineyards at Csopak with lake Balaton in the distance

Continuity and Change – Cultivating Csopak
Hungarians built upon this legacy eight centuries later, as they restrung vineyards across the hillsides. Csopak’s situation on the shores of Lake Balaton proved to be advantageous as well. Sunlight that is reflected off the sparkling waters of the lake improves the quality of grapes, a key ingredient to the microclimate that has driven development of the village time and again. In a village that was susceptible to upheaval, winemaking turned out to be the one constant, a perpetual source of regeneration throughout its history. Thus in the early modern era of the 18th and 19th centuries an influx of new settlers restarted wine production to boost the local economy. This rebirth culminated in Csopak once again becoming home to the Bishop of Veszprém’s vineyards. This was not without difficulties as the dreaded Phylloxera plague put most of the vineyards out of business in the latter part of the 19th century. Csopak vintners had to start all over, reconstituting production.

Today one of the major economic engines for the village is the wine industry. The area is part of the Balatonfüred -Csopak Wine Region that covers 17 towns and villages across 2,500 hectares. Csopak is home to Olaszrizling, an ancient variety of white grape. The wines made from these are known for their complexity and acidic strength. Wine lovers flock to the Jasdi Wine Cellar which was built at the end of the 18th century. During communist rule it fell into disrepair, but was restarted by the Jasdi family in 1998. The family had the cellars neo-baroque buildings restored to their original appearance. This award winning cellar now produces approximately 80,000 bottles of wine per year. Wine tourism is thriving like never before in the area.

Strand in Csopak, Hungary

A Day At the Strand in Csopak

A Day At The “Hungarian Sea”
Visitors also come to Csopak for its famous strand which offers one of the prime vacation spots along Lake Balaton’s northern shore.  The greenish tinged waters of Balaton seem to glitter and glow depending upon the angle of the sun. They act as a magnet to those longing for relaxation. Though the northern side of the lake is the deepest, it still only averages three meters (10 feet) in depth. The water is also a bit cooler, but visitors can still swim here for at least five months a year. In this landlocked nation, Lake Balaton affords Hungarians the opportunity to frolic in the “Hungarian Sea.” Hungarians greatly value “the Balaton” as they like to call it, more so due to the fact that they do not have any ocean or sea coastline. As the largest freshwater lake in the whole of Central Europe, Lake Balaton holds a special place in the hearts of Hungarians and Csopak is center stage for many in this love affair. It is easy to see why. A tough day at the beach is usually followed up with a visit to one of the many pinces (wine cellars). What could be more appealing than a frolic along the strand, followed by an evening spent with one of Balatonfüred’s exceptional wines.

“Worse Was Lost at Mohacs” – Hungary’s Historical Psychosis

Mohács is a word fraught with meaning for Hungarians. The word, or more appropriately the name, has come to symbolize more than just a 16th century battle. Mohács has become a byword for the succession of tragedies which have recurred in Hungarian history. Over the past several centuries whenever Hungarians suffered at the hands of historical fate, they have been consoled with the statement, “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.” Roughly translated this means, “worse was lost at Mohács.” Thus the failed revolutions of 1848 and 1956, the losses in World Wars I and II, the curses of fascism and communism all pale in comparison with what happened to Hungary in a few tragic hours at the Battle of Mohács . What resulted was no less than both the end of medieval Hungary and also its end as a major European power. To Hungarians nothing could be worse than the loss at Mohács. For a people who have suffered more than their fair share of catastrophes, the Battle of Mohács ranks as the seminal disaster in Hungarian history. It is hard to overstate just how devastating the battle was to the future course of Hungary.

Battle of Mohács

A 16th century Ottoman artistic rendering of the Battle of Mohács

Disunited – The Long Road To Defeat
In the decades leading up to Mohács, Hungarian society was riven by infighting. Following the death of King Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadi Mátyás) in 1490, the landed nobility asserted their authority. They made sure that the weakest king they could find was placed on the throne. This turned out to be Vladislaus II (Ulászló II), who would soon acquire the nickname “Ok Ulászló” because he agreed with any and all of the nobility’s demands. Vladislaus II handed over most of the royal estates to the nobility in order to satisfy them. Without the income from these lands, the crown became severely indebted and expenditures on border defense against Ottoman incursions in southern Hungary fell to a trickle. Meanwhile, the nobility spent decades mistreating the peasantry.  Their actions included passing discriminatory laws and increasing taxes on those who worked the land. This led to a full scale peasant revolt in 1514.

The rebellion was put down with an extraordinary amount of violence, followed by the imposition of onerous laws which enshrined the largest landholder’s privileges at the expense of not only the peasantry, but the lesser nobility as well. This was soon followed by the accession of a youthful, inexperienced and weak king, Louis II (Lajos II) to the throne. These events made Hungary ripe for conquest by the Ottoman Turks who had been constantly testing the porous border defenses of Southern Hungary. The situation would come to a head in the late afternoon of August 29, 1526 as the Imperial Ottoman army met Hungarian forces on an uneven plain near the Danube River and the town of Mohács in southern Hungary.

Battle of Mohács - painting by Bertalan Székely

Battle of Mohács – painting by Bertalan Székely

Drawn & Quartered – An Army & A Kingdom Fall Apart
The Hungarian forces arrayed that day on the fields near Mohács had wasted months just getting organized. Only when the enemy threat was clear and present did the stubborn, selfish nobility heed Louis II’s call to arms. Their behavior contributed as much to the Hungarian defeat as did the formidable Ottoman war machine. The Ottoman army at Mohács was at least twice the size of the Hungarian one, with a decided advantage in firepower and fighting prowess. In simplified terms, the battle went as follows. The Hungarians charged the center of the Ottoman line. At first, they made some minor gains, but the Ottomans unleashed a devastating counterattack on the Hungarian flanks utilizing a lethal combination of accurate artillery fire and crack troops. The Hungarian forces quickly crumbled before the onslaught. What followed was encirclement and near total destruction. The Ottomans took few prisoners. Sources state that the Ottomans killed thousands of captives by having them drawn and quartered. Louis II, the 20 year old Hungarian king, was said to have drowned in a stream while trying to escape the field of battle. Few of the defeated were able to escape the battlefield alive or for that matter with their limbs intact.

It was not just 28,000 Hungarian soldiers and assorted mercenary troops that were wiped out on that rainy, late summer’s day. The loss opened a massive gap in central Europe’s defenses. The Ottoman Turks were now free to head north and west, forge deeper into Europe, where in coming years they would besiege Vienna. As for the legacy of Mohács, this set in motion Ottoman occupation of the Hungarian heartland for most of the 16th and 17th centuries. Another swath of Hungary that bordered Ottoman occupied territory became a no man’s land, acting as a permanent war zone with resulting depopulation, deforestation and starvation in those areas. The loss at Mohács led to even greater losses for Hungary, losses from which the Kingdom would never recover. Mohács effectively ended Hungary’s status as a European power forever. It would take nearly three centuries before Hungary would regain complete independence from foreign rule.

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

Wooden carvings atop a mass grave from the Battle of Mohács

All Was Lost –Memorializing Mohács
Today the Historical Memorial Park of Mohács is as close as Hungarians and foreign tourists can get to the watershed battle. The Park has a visitor center that is built in the shape of the Hungarian crown. Unfortunately, the visitor center provides limited information and interpretation on the battle. The park contains the site of a mass grave with approximately 400 bodies of those killed in the battle. There are symbolic carvings posted around this burial site. The site is a somber, morose place. It is believed that some of the battle may have taken place near here, but no one can be quite sure. The plain where the battle was fought continues to elude discovery. It is strange that such an important place in Hungarian (and Central European) history was never marked. Then again would it really matter if the specific site was known? In effect, locating the battle site would please a few historical purists and battlefield buffs. For the majority of Hungarians, knowing the actual place would be just another reminder of their ill-fated history. Besides, they get enough painful reminders each time someone says “Több is veszett Mohácsnál.”