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.

The Efforts Of Exile – Balazs Orban: Channeling The Intellect On Stormy Shores (Part One)

I never thought I would meet a Hungarian who spent time living on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. The chance meeting on a tour bus in Turkey was quite an unexpected coup. Prior to this meeting, I had never met a single person who had set foot on that small island most notably known as an off-shore tax haven. It is where mainland Brits and people from around the world hide their wealth. By one estimate three-quarters of the economy is based on financial services. The Hungarian I met was a young woman by the name of Agnes. She was travelling around Turkey on vacation with her Australian husband Andrew. His job in IT had taken them to Jersey on an extended stay that had just come to an end when I met them on that trip around Turkey. Agnes was elated they would not be returning to Jersey. She said the weather in winter was miserable, while social relations were as cold as the gusts of wind whipping off the sea. Loneliness was a constant companion during her time there. She made it sound like a pseudo-exile that had to be endured and hopefully never repeated. Her experience in Jersey rightly or wrongly framed my own image of the island for years to come. That was until something strange happened.

Years later while doing research on Szekelyland I came across another Hungarian speaker who spent an extended period on Jersey and its nearby sister island of Guernsey in the mid-19th century. I now wish I could ask Agnes whether she was aware that the famed Szekely polymath, Balazs Orban, had spent a considerable amount of time on the Channel Islands while in exile. Perhaps this would have brightened her gloomy opinion of the island. Well I doubt it. At least Orban and Agnes have something in common. They both found something memorable on the island, specifically images that stayed with them. For Agnes, it was the greyness, chilling winter rains and howling winds. For Orban there were quite different images. The islands were where he first learned photography and spent time with one of the world’s greatest novelists. I now wish I could have mentioned this to Agnes.  It certainly would have made for an interesting conversation. It might also have led to a discussion of Balazs Orban, one of the most fascinating, if not famous, men of his time.

The Greatest Szekely - Balazs Orban statue in Szekelyudvarhely (Credit Laszlo Hunyadi)

The Greatest Szekely – Balazs Orban statue in Szekelyudvarhely (Credit: Laszlo Hunyadi)

The Greatest Szekely – A Life’s Work
Balazs Orban is known as the Greatest Szekely. Such an honorific is a quintessentially Hungarian creation. Case in point, a Greatest Hungarian also exists. In that case it is the reformer, politician, economic innovator and writer Istvan Szechenyi. Being known as the greatest in a field is a remarkable accomplishment. Being known as the greatest of an entire people is an historic achievement. Balazs Orban lives up to the title that has been bestowed upon him. Orban is one of those people whose work is difficult to describe succinctly. He was a writer, including the author of two six-volume sets. He was also a world traveler, an exile, the first Szekely photographer, an ethnographer, a politician, an entrepreneur and an aristocrat. Looking at the entire breadth of Orban’s life work is daunting. It is hard to imagine how anyone could have accomplished so much in one lifetime. Perhaps that is why will always be known as the Greatest among his people.

Balazs Orban was born in Lengyelfalva (Polonita Romania), a village in the Szekelyland region of eastern Transylvania in 1829. His father was of noble lineage. One side of his mother’s family came from a wealthy Greek merchant family who called Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) home. Just two years prior to the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, Orban was uprooted from his schooling as the family moved to Constantinople where they were to inhabit a castle built by his grandmother. Under strange circumstances, the grandmother would die not long after their arrival. Most of her fortune never went to the family. Orban turned this family crisis into an opportunity. He traveled deep into the Holy Land and climbed the Egyptian Pyramids. He later wrote a six-volume work about his journey, entitled “Oriental Travel.” It turned out to be a mere prelude to another multi-volume work that would later become his magnum opus.

A Man of Many Talents - Balazs Orban

A Man of Many Talents – Balazs Orban (Credit: Ede Ellinger Vasárnapi Ujság 1890/17)

Indelible Impressions – At Home Abroad
Following his Middle Eastern travels, Orban found his way to Greece where he spent time examining the ruins of classical civilization for himself. Nationalism soon swept over him. He became a fervent supporter of the Greeks gaining independence from the Ottoman Turks. It was also during this time that the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. Orban, whose father had been a Hungarian hussar, managed to raise a detachment that he planned to lead in assisting the cause. No sooner had the detachment begun heading up the Danube then they were informed of the Hungarian surrender. Orban would find himself back in Turkey once again, This time he assisted those in exile, including the famed revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth. For his efforts, Orban was labeled persona non grata by the Habsburgs. His life was under threat if they ever managed to arrest him. Orban decided that a faraway exile was the better part of valor as he made his way to London.

His period in London allowed him time to do further research and writing for his volumes on the Orient. As a talented linguist, Orban was fluent in the English language as well as five other languages, including tongues as disparate as Turkish and Greek. Those who met him were highly impressed with his intellect and ideals. It was also during this period that he spent time on the Channel Islands with none other than Victor Hugo. The French writer was also in exile. in Hugo’s case, from the rule of Napoleon III. He inhabited a house on the Island of Guernsey. The meetings between the two men left Hugo with an indelible impression of Orban. He would state that if he had a cadre of men like Orban at his side he could overthrow Napoleon III. That would not happen, but for Orban something more important did. He acquired a new passion for photography. This skill was taught to him by Hugo’s sons. It would result in more indelible future impressions from Orban, not of the Channel Islands, but of Szekelyland.

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