Friday, April 25, 2008

Budapest basics, part II

Compared with New York, which had its first major settlements in the l700s, Budapest is as old as the sea.
Its recorded history begins about the time of Christ’s death, 32. Today’s Budapest, just as its predecessor settlements, is very valuable for its proximity to the Danube, and its central location on the European continent. That led the greatest empire of its time, the Romans, to take control of the area and make the part of Budapest known as Obuda an important regional outpost. We know a fair amount about the Roman settlement now, because of archeological digs going on there for most of the past 50 years.

--it was conquered by Emperor Caesar Augustus, a name everyone knows, in around l00 AD
--several of its governors, including the famous Hadrian, went on to become Roman emperors.

In Roman times, neither the officials nor the townspeople called the settlement Obuda; they called it Aquincum for the endless flow of mineral waters that flow from the hills in the area. To this day, Budapest and Hungary generally are fantastic and well-visited spa areas. In Budapest, you can go to a spa hotel and take the waters one, two, three times a day; outside,you can go to a spa resort complex and take the waters AND learn Hungarian horsemanship, or shepherding, or just relax. MINERAL WATERS are one of the best things about Hungary. The Romans were the first to discover this.

Aquincum, as the archeologists have told us, was a typical regional town for the Roman legions. “the function of the Roman army was not only to conquer, but to spread culture and bring civilization to the peoples it came into contact with. Wherever it went, and set to building, which it did in times of peace, it had a common plan for its cities and facilities in which people could live and feel at home in, whether they lived in Asia minor, southern Europe or northern Europe.

It was an enclosed place, separated from the river by high walls and a moat. Inside were barracks for soldiers, assembly halls, stores, an arsenal, baths, gymnasium and infirmary, plus an aqueduct and network of streets, stores, and a library. Of course,a Roman town wouldn’t be complete without an amphitheater, and Aquincum had TWO, each of which seated ten thousand. Today, the Hungarian passion is soccer; back then it was bloody animal and human fights. I guess that means we’ve evolved.

The Roman empire eventually fell, of course; in the 5th century, contemporary Budapest was overrun by Atilla and the Huns, who are popularly supposed to be the fathers of Hungarians, but who actually don’t have any relation to them ethnically. They laid waste to aquincum and generally turned the Budapest area into a staging ground for combat with rival tribes.

At the end of the 8th century, the Magyar, or Hungarian, tribes arrived in what was to become their homeland. Five of seven Hungarian tribes settled here; their leader was a warrior named Arpad. Arpad himself made his headquarters in Obuda, where Aquincum had been, but substantial numbers of people lived south in Buda, and also Pest, where Islamic merchants had settled.

His successor, Stephen, the man known to history as King St. Stephen, honored every year on the country’s biggest holiday, August 20, also preferred to keep his headquarters away from the heart of modern Budapest; he actually established his reign in a city called Estergom, which is quite a bit farther north of Budapest. King St. Stephen is the man who accepted Christianity on behalf of the Hungarians from Pope Sylveszter II in the year l000, and he apparently felt that modern Budapest had too much the look and feel of an army camp to be a capital city.
For all that he believed the Budapest area unsuitable for his purposes, King St. Stephen is a HUGE presence in Budapest today. The main church in the city is St. Stephen’s Bacillica, a monstrous cathedral nearly the size of St. Peter’s in Rome; inside, you can go and inspect the Szent Jobb, the mummified Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen. The crown St. Stephen received from the Pope is in the Parliament; it dates to the year 1000, and it is very well-traveled. It has been hidden under hay carts in the countryside, it went to Vienna when the Hungarians lived under Austrian rule, came back to Budapest in l867, then resided there until it disappeared during World War II and then resurfaced in the US, where it remained in Fort Knox untill979.
In any case although it was not the capital in St. Stephen’s day, Budapest remembers its King Saint in many places. King St. Stephen is a major symbol of a free Hungary.

The next two hundred years of Budapest’s history pass without a lot of notice in the history books—St. Stephen’s son, Imre, died young, there was a struggle to succeed him, and a series of internal upheavals and invasions. The next of Hungary’s notable Kings, King Bela IV, founded a convent on what we now know is Margit island, the island in the middle of the Danube, and his daughter Margit died there, and left her name on the island.

Bela IV is generally considered to be a good king, progressive and enlightened, but he is notable for the terrible tragedy that befell Hungary and Buda in l241—in that year, like so many lands and cities before them, they were invaded by Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors, who came on horseback and sent showers of arrows flying into the air before they attacked. The Danube kept them on the Pest side for a time, but only until it froze in the winter. They sacked all the buildings in Pest and Buda, killed a lot of people, then burned everything they could manage There was a Dalmatian priest who witnessed the attack and described it as follows:

Fortunately, the Mongols didn’t linger; they had other conquests to complete. King Bela more or less counted his blessings and took several lessons away from the experience. First, this settlement along the Danube has strategic weaknesses; second, the only things that were not razed by the Mongols were made of stone; third, there was a nice, level space at the top of one of the lower hills, south of Obuda. This all translated into a decision to build a castle on this hill, which then came to be known as Castle Hill, or in Hungarian, Varhegy.
This castle has been destroyed and rebuilt many times times; it was destroyed in the Turkish invasion after l526, then rebuilt; destroyed when the Austrians helped the Hungarians expel the Turks in l783, then rebuilt; damaged in l848, bombarded and destroyed in l945, shelled in l956—it isn’t the same building at all as the one King Bela built at all. It now houses the National Art Gallery and the Hungarian National Library—there aren’t even any administrative offices left there. But it is one of the most important symbols that you will see in Budapest. This thing was built long before Budapest became the capital of Hungary, when there was barely a Buda or Pest. Nonetheless.

It says that Budapest is a city that has known foreign invaders, that it is a city that wishes to keep its freedom and independence, and therefore it built its most important structure for many years ON A HILL, where it can see and assess any threats to its independence and freedom.

Buda castle links the two key themes in Budapest’s development, the influence of geography(this time, the disadvantages), its legacy of foreign invasion and its preoccupation with preventing it. The Buda castle is probably the most important symbol in all the city for that reason—that and the parliament building, across the river.

Perhaps the second-greatest Hungarian King was Matyas, the author of the Hungarian renaissance.

He was determined that Budapest should have high culture, that it should be mentioned in the same breath as the great Italian cities, and so he was a very busy man during his 50-year reign

He rebuilt the Buda castle in a Florentine, Renaissance style. He retained the services of architects from Florence for this rebuilding, in which 20 Italian craftsmen worked more or less constantly. The reconstruction had everything that a renaissance structure of its day should have: three magnificent stories, an elaborate chapel, hanging gardens, tall columns, sculpture of classical figures, such as Athena, goddess of wisdom and knowledge—it was a state of the art building.
Inside, King Matyas had the best artwork money could buy—paintings, frescoes, even a sculpture of the Madonna by Leonardo da Vinci.
He also assembled the best library money could buy—the Corvina library, which ended up being second only in volume and import to the Vatican—Greek and Latin manuscripts, a wide variety of subject matter, philosophy, history, poetry, geography, mathematics.
He arranged to have a printing press, a rarity at that time. Matyas believed that Budapest would be a celebrated capital and thus it should be a center of book publishing.

Matyas is credited with establishing Buda as the center of action in Hungary, and with making the Castle the focal point of the city. He believed that a free city is also a cultured city, and so his legacy is not only the rebuilt castle, but also its place as a historical/cultural center. To this day, the Buda castle houses the National Art Gallery, the Budapest History Museum and the Hungarian national archives.

But there were two problems with Matyas’s reign in Hungary:: one, he eventually died without an heir, which guaranteed an internal fight for the throne, and Hungary was about to be invaded by the fiercest fighting force ever to hit Europe—the Ottoman Turks.

The Turks had already conquered all of southeastern Europe before l500—Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, part of Croatia, Romania. They were moving steadily towards Hungary with overwhelming force. In August of l526, in southern Hungary, the Hungarian King Lajos met 80,000 Ottoman crack infantrymen with an army of l0,000 in light armor. It was brutal and quick. At the end of l526, Budapest was yet again occupied by a foreign invader. This time, it was the Ottoman Turks who would came to rule Budapest and the Hungarians—they moved into the Buda castle as conquerors(illustration). Their tenure lasted a couple of hundred years, l526-1783.

You can see the Ottoman influence in many places in Budapest. First, you can see it in the huge number of coffeehouses there, now mostly on the Pest side. The Ottomans were the ones who brought coffee, strong coffee, to Budapest—concentrated essence of coffee that is served in a small cup. It packs a punch.
You can see it in the huge number of bathhouses, too, mostly on the Buda side—Islam prescribed the taking of medicinal baths, so there were very many on the Buda side because there were so many mineral springs there. There are at least three that I know of dating to this period on the Buda side, down from the castle near the river.
The other major evidence of Ottoman rule in Budapest is now a world heritage site. It’s located in the Buda Hills, a little bit north of the Castle area and across the Margit bridge.
It’s a tomb—the tomb of Gul Baba(visible on this post), one of the Turks who took Budapest in l527. He was a cleric, close to the Pasha, who took part in the week-long celebrations after the Turks took Budapest. In that time, the Turks took control of the castle, turned the Matyas church, the signature church from Matyas’s time, into a mosque. Unfortunately, Gul died suddenly during the celebrations, but he was given a splendid funeral and a burial in the Buda Hills. His name in Turkish means “father of roses,” and according to local legend, he introduced the rose to Budapest. So the area around the tomb is called Roszadomb, or Rose Hill, and it has been maintained carefully in good times and bad, with recent help from the Turkish government.

It is an ongoing reminder of a two-hundred year period in which Budapest and Hungary endured foreign rule—more evidence of Budapest’s obsession with independence and freedom.

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