A Small Corner in Szentendre – Serbia & The Power of Belief

North of Budapest, on the west bank of the Danube sits the astonishingly charming town of Szentendre.
Due to its proximity to the capital, it has pretty much become the number one day trip destination for visitors and locals alike. The town can be easily reached via the city’s suburban railway. On arrival, visitors find a colorful array of historic buildings, quaint, cobble stoned streets and an artistic colony, second to none in Hungary. Szentendre has a feeling of prosperity and wealth, as it has become a refuge for those looking to flee the noise, clamor and bustle of Budapest. It has also become a refuge for artists looking to glean inspiration from its Mediterranean like vibe.

Szerb utca (Serb street) - one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

Szerb utca (Serb street) – one of the main streets in Szentendre and for good reason.

History & Memory on a Street Corner in Szentendre
Szentendre’s history as a refuge extends much deeper into the past than might be expected. For those who look beyond the curiosity shops, patisseries and stylish restaurants there is a multi-ethnic history waiting to be discovered. On the corner of Lazar car ter (square) in Szentendre there is a monument topped with a cross. It is placed in a rather inconspicuous setting, beside a restaurant. The throngs of tourists that come to visit this historic town often overlook it. Nonetheless, this monument and where it stands represent the importance of Szentendre to the memory and history of Serbia during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Strategically located at the beginning of the Danube River’s bend north of Buda, Szentendre became a home to South Slavic refugees during the Middle Ages. The town’s history as a refuge began in the 14th and 15th centuries when groups of Bulgarians and Dalmatians made their way to the banks of this Hungarian stretch of the Danube while fleeing the Ottoman Turkish hordes ravaging their homelands. This wave of immigration was later followed by Serbs who settled in the area after fleeing the same group of invaders.  By the mid-16th century, the Turks had managed to occupy most of Hungary including the area that was Szentendre. The village was soon depopulated. It was only after the ouster of the Ottoman Turks in Hungary by Habsburg forces in the latter part of the 17th century that the region was safe once again for settlement.

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre - in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

Monument to Tsar Lazar of Serbia in Szentendre – in the place where a church once stood that held his bones

The Life Force Of A Nation
Meanwhile the Serbs were able to reoccupy their ancestral homeland. It was not long though before they were uprooted again by Ottoman counter advances. As a reward for their bravery and courage in fighting the Ottomans, the Habsburgs allowed some 6,000 Serbs to resettle in Szentendre. Their leader, Arsenije III Čarnojević, also brought the relics (bones) of Tsar Lazar, the Serbian nation’s last pre-Ottoman leader who had been killed on the field of blackbirds at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The relics had been given the greatest protection for the past three hundred years. Centuries long efforts of monks kept these relics from being defiled by the marauding Turks.

The relics allowed for the veneration of Lazar as physical and spiritual evidence of the Serbian nation’s will to exist no matter the historical circumstances. The relics were brought to Szentendre in 1690 where they were placed in a newly constructed wooden Serbian Orthodox church. They were housed there for seven years before eventually being returned to Serbia. The spot where the church was located is today marked by the memorial at the corner of the square. It seems almost impossible to believe that in this spot, the life force of a nation was once safeguarded.

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre - Credit: upsalatty

Serbian Orthodox Church in Szentendre – Credit: upsalatty

Symbols Matter – The Veneration of An Idea
To modern visitors this might seem like no big deal. In the present age where “enlightened” beliefs are pervasive, relics fail to receive accolades or veneration. It is commonly thought, especially in westernized cultures, that such traditions are based on antiquated beliefs, the superstitions of an unscientific age. Yet it is instructive to remember that people act on what they believe. If that belief is powerful enough to motivate the actions and activities of a group of people then it is certainly a worthy part of the historic record. The Serbian people believed in the greatness of their leader Tsar Lazar and the independence of the Serbian kingdom. He was the living embodiment of a people and culture at its zenith. Despite the centuries of Turkish occupation and oppression that followed Lazar’s reign, the idea of Serbia lived on.

In death Lazar may well have been more important to the idea of Serbia than he was in life. The veneration of his relics is as much the veneration of an idea as it is of a man. It is not so much who he was, as to what he symbolizes: a Serbian people ruling themselves, leading all the South Slavs, free and independent of foreign control. Did the relics assist this belief in Serbia? The answer is almost certainly yes. They were as much a part of the fight for that kingdom as any soldier or sword. The monument where that wooden church was once located, now stands improbably in another nation, Hungary, in a town that has only a handful of Serbs still living there. Nevertheless, it deserves not only to be noticed, but also to be read and remembered.

A Crowning Achievement – St. Martin’s Cathedral: Where Hungarian History Reigns Supreme

Over a period of nine hundred years, the monarchs of the Kingdom of Hungary were crowned in four different cities. Three of these four cities still lie in the territory of the Hungarian nation today. They are Esztergom, Budapest and Szekesfehervar. Interestingly, it was the last of these three towns that saw more Hungarian monarchs crowned than any other. From the middle of the 11th century through the middle of the 16th, no less than 37 kings and 39 queens consort were crowned in Szekesfehervar, at the Basilica. This was exactly how the first King of Hungary, Stephen I had planned it. Stephen had ordered the construction of a grand basilica around the year 1010 for just such ceremonies. It was one of the largest and most prominent buildings in Europe during the Middle Ages, a symbol of the power, majesty and Christianity of the Kingdom. Long before Visegrad or Budapest came to prominence, Szekesfehervar was the nerve center of Hungary during the Middle Ages.

St. Martin's Cathedral - Coronation site of Hungarian monarchs from 1563 to 1830

St. Martin’s Cathedral – Coronation site of Hungarian monarchs from 1563 to 1830

The Coming of the Turks – The Path to Pozsony 
As with so many things in the history of the Kingdom of Hungary, this underwent radical change with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.  In 1543, the Turks occupied Szekesfehervar. They proceeded to loot the tombs of the 15 kings and queens buried in the Basilica. Their banditry knew no bounds. It respected neither tradition nor religion. Insultingly, the Basilica was turned into a storage site for gunpowder. With much of their kingdom occupied, Hungarian leaders had little choice, but to move the coronation site. Beginning in 1563, coronations took place in upper Hungary, at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia).  For over two-hundred and fifty years, prospective monarchs strode through the Old Town of Pozsony along the coronation route. They made their way to the Gothic confines of the cathedral where kings and queens were crowned.

Following the expulsion of the Turks from the lands of historic Hungary in the late 17th century, coronations continued to take place in Pozsony. The last one occurred in 1830. In the meantime, the basilica in Szekesfehervar had longed since ceased to exist. It was destroyed in 1601 when a Habsburg Army unsuccessfully laid siege to the city. The gunpowder stored inside the basilica was sparked by fire from the ongoing battle and consequently blew up. Meanwhile St. Martin’s served the purpose of continuity and tradition. As the site for the coronation of 19 kings and queens, including no less a historical personage than Maria Theresa, it played an integral role in both Hungarian and Habsburg history. The coronations may have ended in Pozsony by the mid-19th century, but history was not through with the place.

Coronation of Maria Theresa at St. Martin's Cathedral in 1741

Coronation of Maria Theresa at St. Martin’s Cathedral in 1741

Historical Twists  – The Fate of Hungary’s Coronation Sites
The city was lost by the Hungarians, along with Upper Hungary (Felvidek) to the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, due to the post-war Treaty of Trianon that followed World War I. Today Pozsony is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Other than tourists, the presence of ethnic Hungarians in the city is minimal. In a historical twist of fate concerning the coronation sites, Hungarians had been detached from their history during the Middle Ages at Szekesfehervar due to an external threat. Nearly four hundred years later, they were once again severed from their historical past, but this time by an internal disruption. St. Martin’s Cathedral with its glorious past was cut asunder from its historical antecedents.

Today the cathedral still stands on the western edge of what was the Old Town of Pozsony. Within a stone’s throw, a major highway acts as a conduit for automobiles racing back and forth over the Novy Most Bridge and the Danube. In the last decade and a half, the church has undergone stabilization due to the vibrations caused by the nearby traffic. In this case, the past has become present once again, in prior centuries the church survived fires, earthquakes and lightning strikes. Today the question is whether it will survive the rumblings of modernity? Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for the presence of Hungarian history in Bratislava. It rests on shaky foundations.

Crowning achievement - The gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary atop St. Martin's Cathedral

Crowning achievement – The gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary atop St. Martin’s Cathedral

St. Martin’s Cathedral – Where History Reigns Supreme
The question today is how will the rich history of St. Martin’s Cathedral be viewed in a Slovakia which looks more toward the future?  As opposed to a Hungary which is obsessed with its past. Strangely enough, there is a magnificent reminder that all has not been lost. Quite literally a crowning achievement tops St. Martin’s. Atop the church’s Gothic steeple is a gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary. At 85 meters (279 feet) it soars above the Old Town, just as it did when it was first placed there in 1847. It was meant to commemorate the church’s historic role in royal coronations. The crown is still there today, resting on a gold pillow, a spectacular reminder that no matter what nation rules over this land today, it is still history which reigns supreme.


History Stuck On Repeat – The Belgrade Fortress & Neverchanging Human Nature

Where the Sava River flows into the mighty Danube sits the city of Belgrade, capital of Serbia. Towering over the confluence of the two rivers is the Belgrade Fortress. One would be hard pressed to find a more strategic point in the long and troubled history of the Balkans. It as though geology and geography have conspired to create a place where the desire of empires and ethnicities are acted out in century upon century of armed conflict. It is believed that some 115 different battles have been fought over the fortress throughout recorded history.

Belgrade Fortress - one of its many sides (Credit: Danomir)

Belgrade Fortress – one of its many sides (Credit: Danomir)

Buried History – The Graveyard of Conquest
The conquerors of this strategic point include three of the most important empires in world history, the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. They came, they saw, they conquered and they vanished. Holding this ground may well be just as hard as conquering it. Over the last one hundred years, the fortress has fallen under the sway of Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, Germany, Yugoslavia and back again to Serbia. There are very few pieces of land in the whole of Europe that have such a contentious history. Control of this area, meant control over historic trade and migration routes. This was the reason that the Celts, Romans, Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, Byzantines, Serbs, Hungarians, Turks, Austrians and Germans occupied it with varying degrees of success over the past 2,300 years. It was also the reason that the Celts and Romans selected the area as a fortified encampment.

During the 6th century, the Byzantine Empire at its zenith under Justinian the Great, constructed a more permanent stone fortress. From that point forward, there were concerted attempts to create an impregnable fortification at the site. Each attempt tried to improve on the one before, but even stone and cement were never able to keep pace with technological innovations in siege warfare and artillery. Due to this building and rebuilding, much of the architectural history of the fortress has been subsumed. Today the fortress area is considered to be the most beautiful parkland in the city, but this beauty also hides a fascinating history. Beneath it are catacombs and tunnels that have scarcely been explored. They could hold tantalizing secrets about the past. Yet even the more recent past, relatively unknown in the popular historical consciousness, is worth remembering.

The Opening Shots of World War I
With such a conflicted past it is little surprise that the fortress and city it was built to protect saw fighting during the First World War. Of greater interest is the fact that the Belgrade fortress bore witness to the first shots of what became known as the war to end all wars. Exactly one month to the day from when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The telegram declaring war was officially received by Serbian officials during lunchtime at 12:30 pm on July 28, 1914. Less than twelve hours later, Austro-Hungarian artillery was prepared to fire the opening shots of the war. A few minutes past midnight, from across the Sava in Semlin (today Zemun in Serbia), the giant guns manufactured in the Krupp and Skoda factories of the empire unloaded a torrent of shellfire on Belgrade and its fortress. Then gliding across the slate grey waters of the Danube came river monitors bearing even more shot and shell.

These were the inaugural shots of what were to be millions more over the succeeding four years. There was panic in the city as civilians cowered in temporary shelters or descended into caves in the hills beyond the city. Windows were shattered all over the inner city as well as the residential districts. And this was just the beginning. In the coming weeks, the fortress was reduced to rubble as well as the industrial districts of the city. Food became scarce and sanitation soon degraded as water and sewer facilities were destroyed. Belgrade, capital of the Serbian nation was paying the price of a war that many felt the Serbs had brought upon themselves. Through it all stood the ruined remnants of the fortress, a crumbling witness to the excesses of modern warfare.

The Belgrade Fortress has been fought over 115 times - making this sign literally true

The Belgrade Fortress has been fought over 115 times – making this sign literally true

History Stuck On Repeat
Following the end of the conflict, it was proclaimed that World War I had been “the war to end all wars.” Meanwhile those ruins that pockmarked the Belgrade fortress offered a testament otherwise. The fortress would soon be rebuilt in time for the next war. And this was before anyone knew an even worse war was to follow. Why rebuild? Because it would surely happen again, for it is here where the Danube meets the Sava that history is stuck on repeat. Here in this place that has seen over a hundred battles, the future is totally predictable. What was to come might even be worse. It was. One wonders, is it really a conspiracy of geology and geography which has brought the Belgrade fortress such suffering. Perhaps it is, than again maybe it’s a conspiracy of man and his worst instincts. After all, the Danube and Sava rivers often change, but human nature never does.

The Price They Paid For Not Paying The Price – A Medieval Arms Mercenary & The Fall of Constantinople

We have a saying in the United States that “you get what you pay for.” Of course this is a cliche, but like all cliches there is truth in it. In 1453 this cliche proved especially true as an Ottoman Turkish army besieged the city of Constantinople. Prior to that date, the walls of Constantinople had protected the city – home of the Byzantine Empire – from some 20 plus would be conquerors  over a thousand year period (the Crusaders in 1204 being the notable exception). Besieging armies consisted mostly of barbarian tribes that did not have the technological wherewithal to effect a breach in the walls. Many did not even bother trying. The invention of gunpowder, along with artillery that could magnify this explosive new form of firepower, made the walls of Constantinople vulnerable. This firepower was rapidly developed and put up for sale to the highest bidder. In centuries past the Byzantines would have had the financial means to purchase the latest advancements in weaponry, even if they were unable to develop it themselves. By 1453 the empire had fallen into economic destitution and had been whittled down to a rump state consisting of the city and not much else.

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

The reasons behind the empires desultory state were many. The Crusader force that had breached the walls in 1204 not only plundered the city, but also proceeded to set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople. They then carried out an extensive and thorough pillaging lasting over half a century. By the time the Latins were forced out by the Byzantines in 1261 much of the city and its priceless treasures had been stolen or  lay in ruin. By 1344, the Byzantine Empress Anna had to pawn the crown jewels in order to finance the Byzantine military in a virtual civil war. In 1347, the black death raged throughout what was left of the empire, depopulating Constantinople while leading to the further destruction of its meager economy. It has been estimated that by the mid-14th century the Genoese trading colony in Galata opposite Constantinople had financial revenues six and a half times those of the Byzantine state. Incredibly, Byzantium held on for another hundred years.

The Byzantine ability to hold a vestige of their state together was a tribute to the defensive advantage of the city walls. Yet weaponry was in the works that would make them vulnerable. This technology was being developed all across central and eastern Europe. One notable innovator was a cannon founder and engineer now known to history as Orban. The majority of sources agree that Orban, was a Hungarian from Brasso in Transylvania (Brasov, Romania today). He designed a bronze super cannon. This weapon was the bazooka of the middle ages. It could blast thick land walls into submission. Whoever held this mighty weapon had a distinct advantage in a siege. And it was not just a military weapon, but also a psychological one. An enemy on the receiving end of its barrage, would also be susceptible to an earsplitting, thunderous boom as well as its earth shattering ammunition . There had been nothing like its size or scale in the world up to this time. That made it a weapon of terror as much as anything else. Most importantly, this weapon was for sale to the highest bidder.

Orban offered his cannon as well as his services first to the Byzantines in 1452. The man who would soon become the final Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, would loved to have had the super cannon. The Ottoman Turks were bound to besiege Constantinople in the very near future. The city, which was pretty much the empire at this point, was impoverished. It did not have the manpower to raise a large force that might properly defend it. Only western forces or technology could possibly save it. Constantine XI could not afford Orban the engineer or his bronze super cannon, all he could hope for was generosity. It was not forthcoming. Orban was open to the highest bidder. This happened to be the Ottoman Turks. He soon placed his innovative weaponry in the services of a man who could afford them, Mehmed II, the Sultan who would become Mehmed the Conqueror. What helped make Mehmed the conqueror and Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor was Orban.

So many times in history, we want to believe that courage and honor, skill and cleverness led to military victory. To be sure, when it came to the siege of Constantinople all of these were present. Nonetheless, it also came down to what one side could afford and the other could not. Was this reason for the Ottman’s victory? It is probably not so simple. One weapon does not a military victory make, but absent that weapon perhaps the Turks do not break through the walls and the Byzantine Empire goes on a little while longer. In this case, all parties got what they paid for. Orban got money, Mehmed got the super cannon and Constantine XI paid for his poverty with an historic defeat.  Ironically, the first man to lose his life in this martial equation was Orban himself, who is said to have been killed along with his crew when one of his super cannons exploded. The cannon was one of several decisive factors that led to the Fall of Constantinople, even if only its benefactor Mehmed II lived to see its success.

The tale of Orban selling his services to the highest bidder, even to an empire that was quickly growing into an archenemy of the Christianised western world offers a compelling argument that the west was just as much a threat to Byzantium as the Ottoman Turks and Islam were. The Catholic Kingdoms in the west did not feel it was their duty to defend a depraved and faltering empire. It was a belief that in later centuries they would come to regret when the Ottomans appeared on their own doorsteps. There was no love lost between a Byzantine state firmly rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy and kingdoms across central and western Europe aligned with Catholicism.  The finest historical example of this was the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 fomented by western forces. The sack dealt the Byzantines a blow from which they never recovered. Then there was a man like Orban, he was a Crusader of another sort, for weapons innovation and arms trade. Orban was a mercenary selling his services to the highest bidder. He did not believe in the power of faith, but the power of the purse. That power finally brought Byzantium to its knees and the Ottoman Turks to their greatest glory.