What History Is Made Of – The Walls Of Gyor: Guarding A Gate To Vienna

To the naked eye or uninformed mind, Becsi Kapu ter appears as another series of incomprehensible Hungarian words. Translated into English the meaning of those words becomes clear, Becsi Kapu ter means Vienna Gate Square.  This was as good a place as any to start looking deeper into Gyor’s history. The gate no longer exists, but the name denotes what was once a crucial point into or out of the city, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries when Ottoman forces threatened to destroy the Habsburg Empire. The Vienna Gate was where the road from Gyor to Vienna began or ended depending upon which way a peasant, merchant or military force was traveling.

Popular history has made the Gates of Vienna famous and the walls of Gyor anonymous. The walls can be seen while standing in Becsi Kapu ter. They still exist unlike the gate, which is now only a ghostly place name spoken by hundreds of Hungarians each day. The walls of Gyor are about the only thing left of the city’s defenses from the Turkish Wars. During the long years of war with the Ottomans, these walls were a barrier that the Turks were only able to overcome on one occasion. Gyor became known as the “Dear Guard” due to its role helping to protect the Habsburg capital 120 kilometers further to the west. It is quite ironic that a provincial Hungarian town once guarded the Gates of Vienna.

The City Walls of Gyor at sunset

The City Walls of Gyor at sunset

Great Divide – The Importance Of A City’s Walls
On an early spring evening, as the sun began to set on the Baroque spires of Gyor’s Belvaros and with the still waters of the Raba River reflecting a cloudless sky, I walked along the old city walls extending beyond Becsi kapu ter. I held out my hand, touching the bricks and mortar. I wanted to make a deeper connection with that turbulent time when the Ottoman Turks stood beneath them, trying to uproot the Hungarian and Habsburg forces sequestered within. Those who would decide the fate of Central Europe stood on either side of these walls, a stone’s throw away from one another. This was all that separated the forces of Christianity and Islam, one imperial overlord from another, Royal Hungary from Ottoman Hungary. Walls are important in history, they serve as borders, but also fault lines. They can mean freedom, tyranny or a combination of both. This was certainly true for the walls of Gyor.

The Turks referred to Gyor as “Yanikkale” or the “burnt city”. It received this name not by anything the Turks did, instead it came from the smoldering ruin that the Habsburgs and Hungarians left the city in 1529. When the Turks appeared outside of Gyor in that fateful year, the commander, a man by the name of Kristof Lamberg, decided not to defend the city, even though it was of great strategic importance. Lamberg ordered the fortress torched. The Turks were left to occupy the ruins, but it would never be this easy for them again. Later that same century the city was rebuilt in Renaissance style atop the original layout. Italian experts were brought in to design and build new city walls. These were fortified. Behind the walls were Gyor Castle, an impressive structure which sported no less than seven bastions. The city’s defenses were much stouter than before. They had to be because sometime in the future they were likely to face the Ottoman Sultan’s Army.

Schwarzenberg-Palffy Monument - In honor of the Liberation of Gyor

Schwarzenberg-Palffy Monument – In honor of the Liberation of Gyor (Credit: Pe-Jo)

Military Camp Or Market Town – Moment Of Truth
The moment of truth came at the end of the 16th century. Could Gyor withstand an assault from the Ottoman war machine? The Turkish army was led by an elderly figure, the Grand Vizier Sinan Pasha, who was 88 years old when the campaign began.  Sinan’s body may have been frail, but his skill and determination in leading an army was still superior to most men. Opposing the Ottomans was a force of 6,000, most of which were Germans and Italians. The Habsburgs had disavowed Hungarian forces believing they were of questionable loyalty. Sadly, those left to defend Gyor were no match for the Ottomans. The castle was abandoned by the defenders after they were promised safe passage. The townspeople of Gyor fled with them, fearing what would happen to them under Ottoman rule. For almost four years the Ottoman forces contented themselves with pillaging the town and terrorizing the countryside. They quartered horses and installed artillery emplacements in the Gyor Cathedral. The city became a mere shell of its former self during this time, a military camp rather than a market town.

Ottoman rule in northern Hungary was always highly tenuous. Gyor was at the very limit of their supply lines, about as far away from Constantinople as the Ottomans ever were in Europe, other than the Gates of Vienna. In 1598 a force of 5,000 Habsburg troops prepared an expedition to retake Gyor. Setting out from Komarom, 50 kilometers to the east. They used surprise and stealth rather than raw manpower to aid them in their effort. On the night of March 28th the troops managed to sneak over the city walls. The sleeping Turks were caught unaware and soon forced to capitulate. Gyor would never fall under the Ottomans again, even during their final campaign to take Vienna eight and a half decades later. Once back under Habsburg rule, the Baroque period in Gyor’s history began in earnest. Construction of the Belvaros’ atmospheric architecture which I could see rising from beyond the old city walls started during this period.

The Raba River at Sunset - Just beyond the City Walls of Gyor

The Raba River at Sunset – Just beyond the City Walls of Gyor

Pockmarked Past – Knowing Better, Knowing Worse
I walked along the walls as night slowly descended upon the city, following them around until they bordered the Raba River. It was quiet except for the laughter of a few teenagers. The air was as still as the river, the surface of which did not betray a hint of movement. Gyor was now a peaceful city, serene and elegant. The violent clash of empires that had left its past pockmarked with conflict might as well have never occurred. At this moment, it was nearly impossible to imagine all that had happened here. I knew better, because I knew worse. Hundreds, if not thousands, had given their lives close to where I stood. And for what? In the service of empires that had long since ceased to exist, for future generations who would never comprehend their sacrifices or to be recalled only by a stretch of city walls that hardly anyone takes time to notice. Such is the stuff history is made of.

Click here for: Forget Them Not – The Napoleonic In Hungary: A Battle At Raab, A House In Gyor  


The Avars & Gyor: Only the Name Remains

The city of Gyor is situated in one of Hungary’s most prosperous economic areas. Located in the far northeastern part of the country, the city is close to both the Austrian and Slovakian borders. The capital cities of Vienna and Bratislava, are little more than an hour away. These major metropolitan areas are a crucial part of Gyor’s economic hinterland. The city is home to a large Audi factory which produces state of the art engines. Industrially, it is best known as the home of the Raba Engineering Works which manufactures rolling stock for railways and trucks. The name Raba comes from the river which flows into a major tributary of the Danube, the Mosoni-Duna at Gyor. The Habsburg name for Gyor in the 17th and 18th centuries was Raab named after the Raba River.

Gyor - this beautiful Hungarian city's name belies a vague and mysterious peoples past

Gyor – this beautiful Hungarian city’s name belies a vague and mysterious peoples past

Darkest of the Dark Ages – The Rise & Fall of the Avars
Over the last couple of centuries as Austrian influence waned, the city gradually came to be known as Gyor. This only seems right since Gyor is dominated ethnically, linguistically and culturally by Hungarians. Strange as it may seem though, the name Gyor is neither a linguistic creation of Hungarians or Austrians. Actually the name was adopted from the language of a much older group of people who once inhabited this same area. Gyor comes from the word gyuru, which means circular fortress in Avar. It seems that during the 8th and 9th centuries the people known as the Avars placed a round fortress in the area that is Gyor. This comes about as close as you can get to any direct Avar influence in Hungary today. It is simply amazing that a people who once dominated the land which makes up present day Hungary have all, but disappeared, if not from the historical record, at least from historical consciousness. So exactly who were the Avars?

Depiction of Avar warriors

Depiction of Avar warriors

In the simplest terms the Avars were a tribe of nomadic horsemen that occupied the Carpathian Basin in the period between the decline of the Huns and the arrival of the Magyars (Hungarians). Keep in mind that the Huns and the people who came to be known as Hungarians were two very different, distinct peoples, separated by over four hundred years as well as the rise and fall of the Avars. The Avars would rule the basin area from the mid-sixth century up until the beginning of the ninth. This era is often referred to as the Dark Ages, due to the decline of European civilization following the collapse of the Roman Empire. During this period the Avars occupied a historical netherworld that might best be described as the Darkest of the Dark Ages. This was a time when written chronicles were few. Most of what is known about the Avars comes from archaeological evidence.

The Avars ruled over much of Central and Eastern Europe by the middle of the 6th century

The Avars ruled over much of Central and Eastern Europe by the middle of the 6th century

The Historical Middle – Caught Between Greatness & Oblivion
If historical knowledge of the Dark Ages is vague and mysterious in western Europe, than it is downright invisible in eastern Europe. Noticeable traces of the Avars have been all but erased from the landscape. Whereas one can go visit the ancient Roman ruins of Aquincum in Obuda, there is no easily accessible Avar site that would even come close to being termed a ruin. The only people with knowledge of the Avars are most likely to be found in the archaeology or ancient history departments of local universities.

This almost total unawareness of the Avars is mostly caused by the fact that they neither built nor developed anything of lasting influence. Furthermore, the Avars never produced a leader that captured the historical imagination such as the Hun warrior, Attila. Even though the Huns rise and decline in Europe occurred in barely a hundred years – a blink of an eye by human historical standards – knowledge of their deeds vastly outweighs what is known about the Avars who occupied relatively the same area two and a half times longer. Unfortunately, the Avars suffer the plight of those who came before (the Romans) or those who came after (the Magyars). A cautionary tale for those who get stuck in the historical middle, their past has been relegated to at best, the unknown and at worst, oblivion.

Avar Artifacts - Silver arm rings found in Hungary (Credit: James Steakley)

Avar Artifacts – Silver arm rings found in Hungary (Credit: James Steakley)

A History of Forgetting – The Avars & Us
So what can be learned from story of the Avars or should we say the lack of a story? Perhaps they help us grasp just how incredible it is that the Magyars were able to make the Carpathian Basin their permanent home. Consider that if you take the combined time the Avars, longer lasting Romans, and short lived Huns ruled the area, it still does not match the 1,100 years and counting that the Magyars have ruled over the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians took what had become a land of the temporary and made it their permanent home.

In the bigger picture, the Avars remind us how everything human is temporary. Rises, declines and falls are all normal outcomes in the histories of peoples, empires and nations. Some such as the Greeks and Romans are remembered long after they are gone. They are the exceptions rather than the rules. Many more peoples, too numerous to name, are all but forgotten. The Avars are unexceptional because their story is so common. The majority of human history is just like the Avars, vanished without a trace. Does it really matter? Who cares about the Avars? It really does not seem to matter, until one considers that almost all of the human history occurring today will be all but forgotten. We are not headed to the historical realm of the Greeks or Romans or even the Hungarians, the majority of us are headed to oblivion. If we are lucky someone may remember us, a little bit more or a little bit less, than we now remember the Avars.