A Trip to Everywhere – Balazs Orban: An Encyclopedic Life (Part Two)

To really appreciate one’s homeland perhaps it is best to leave it all behind and then return many years later to see it with a fresh perspective. As the poet T.S. Eliot rhapsodized, “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” The meaning of those words would have been familiar to Balazs Orban though they were written a half-century after his death. For it was Orban who spent thirteen formative years away from his homeland, Szekelyland in eastern Transylvania, before he returned with fresh eyes and an entirely different perspective. Those years away for Orban were spent traveling, writing, doing researching and in exile. In 1859, with tensions between the Hungarians and Habsburgs subsiding, Orban returned to his homeland on the far eastern frontier of the Hungarian Kingdom. A land of remarkable landscapes, full of untamed mountain wilderness, bucolic valleys and pristine lakes. This was where Orban’s life began in 1829. Thirty years later it was about to begin all over again as Orban set out on a historic journey to expose the heart and soul of his homeland.

During his travels away from Szekelyland, Orban had explored and written about many exotic locales in the Middle East. After returning to Hungary, he recognized that many of his fellow countrymen had as little idea about the Szekely people and the land they inhabited as they did about foreign lands. It might even be said that they knew even less. Orban yearned to combat this ignorance with knowledge. He planned on making Szekelyland accessible to all Hungarians, through an encyclopedic work that would cover such topics as ethnography, geography, history, culture, customs and architecture. The project was to be comprehensive in the extreme. No community would be left unvisited, no landscape uncharted, no castle, whether standing or in ruin, unstudied. The most impressive aspect of this undertaking was that Orban would be both the primary and only author of it. The project would put his formidable intellect along with his physical stamina to the test. Orban’s ambition and vision would be critical to its completion.

An Image Of The Past - The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from Balazs Orbans A Szekelyfold Leirasa

An Image Of The Past – The Fortified Church at Szekelyderzs from Balazs Orbans A Szekelyfold Leirasa

Research & Resourcefulness – The Journey Home
Balazs Orban was nothing if not thorough when it came to research and writing. This was especially true when he turned his attention to his native homeland. Orban spent several years visiting every Szekely settlement. This meant he traveled to over five hundred towns and villages, virtually every inhabited place. He did not limit his focus just to settlements either. Orban also documented anything of interest, from native flora and fauna to old ruins. His curiosity for all things Szekely was unmatched by anyone before or since. His field research was nothing short of incredible considering the difficulties of travel during this era.

Railroads had yet to arrive in Szekelyland. Travel by carriage meant traversing roads in all types of conditions, often dependent on the weather and season. Horseback was the best way to visit remote areas of which Szekelyland had a majority. Orban was extremely resourceful because he had to be. There was no other way to do his research, but through rigorous physical exertions. Whatever the situation demanded he was ready to make every sacrifice in pursuit of his goal to document Szekely life and customs for present and future generations.

The Greatest Szekely - Balazs Orbans grave in Szejkefurdo (Credit Tamas Thaler)

The Greatest Szekely – Balazs Orbans grave in Szejkefurdo (Credit: Tamas Thaler)

For six years, from 1862 to 1868, Orban was in the field working on his project. The result was a six-volume work published over a five-year period beginning in 1868. Titled Székelyföld leírása, each volume dealt with a specific administrative unit of historical Szekelyland. Almost immediately the work became the go to source for all things Szekely. No other work, before or since comes close to its thorough, comprehensive treatment. It was and still is today the greatest work on Szekelyland. It would eventually result in Orban being known as The Greatest Szekely. More important to him at the time, Hungarians now had massive amounts of information about the Szekely at their fingertips. The work filled a gap in knowledge that had been sorely lacking. Not only was A Székelyföld leírása encyclopedic, it was also innovative.

The volumes contained many images reproduced from photographs that Orban had taken himself. His newfound photography skills, which he had learned from Victor Hugo’s sons while in exile on the Channel Islands, resulted in some of the first photographic images ever taken of Szekelyland. Considering the difficulty of travel logistics in the region, it is incredible that Orban was able to transport his photography equipment and put it to such good use. The images he took are now held in the archives of the Romanian State Archives in the city of Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures). In 2012, they were put on display at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. This only seems right since Orban’s goal was to educate and enlighten Hungarians. The display of these photographs meant they were following the same path to recognition as A Székelyföld leírása, which was first published in Budapest. That same year Orban also moved to the city.

The Path Home - Szekely Gates on the trail to the grave of Balazs Orban

The Path Home – Szekely Gates on the trail to the grave of Balazs Orban (Credit: Christo)

The Visionary – An Essence Of Life
Balazs Orban passed the final days of his life far from his homeland. He would die in Budapest during the spring of 1890. At the time, there were more people living in the city than the entire population of Szekelyland. Budapest was the antithesis of Szekelyland’s rural, forested and mountainous landscape, but it had also been a large part of Orban’s later life. The publishing industry, as well as the Hungarian Parliament of which he was a long-standing member, were housed in the booming metropolis. Nonetheless, the true soul of Balazs Orban would always be with his people deep in the wilds of eastern Transylvania.

Fittingly, his remains would eventually be returned and interred back in his homeland. They were laid to rest in the spa town of Szejkefurdo (Baile Seiche), not far from the area where he had been born. The spa was the product of yet another of his visionary ideas. Orban had been instrumental in the construction of thermal baths from the hot springs that flowed out of the earth there. The resort boosted the local economy and brought tourists into the heart of Szekelyland. It was a small, but striking example of Orban giving back to the land and people he so passionately loved. At its very essence, that was the story of his life.