With the Ottomans in the Balkans – Hungary

I shall spend the next month in Central Europe and the Balkans. At the cusp of the Catholic/ Orthodox divide. In countries which, during the 16th and 17th centuries were part of the Ottoman Empire. Where remnants of the Ottoman Empire survive: buildings; food; religion, though relatively few converted to Islam; and, most importantly of all, in the psyche of the people.

I start in chilly Budapest. Occupied by the Ottomans in 1541, the south-eastern part of what is now Hungary remained part of the Ottoman Empire till 1686. This about as far as the Ottomans got: they arrived at the Gates of Vienna in but failed to enter, and, with their forces outstretched, withdrew in 1529.

Ottoman rule was far from tyrannical. Local lords were enlisted to collect the local poll tax and to enforce the devishirme, through which young boys and girls were sent as slaves to Istanbul. But slaves is hardly the right word. Pretty young girls were sent to the Sultan’s harem, and strong bright young boys were sent to train as soldiers in the Janissary guard, most of whom came from the Balkans. And indeed, for an impoverished peasant family, though the lives of their son and daughter might now depend on the Sultan’s capricious whim, the daughter might bear the next Sultan, or at least become the wife of a Pasha, and the son could become a commander of the most ferocious and feared army in the world.

There is little sign of Islam in Budapest. Indeed, one of the most imposing buildings is the Synagogue, the second largest in the world, newly restored, partially by the Tony Curtis Foundation. In the Central Market the suckling pigs, ready for the New Year feasts, chuckle in defiance. The stuffed peppers and spices remind one a little of Istanbul, but that is all.

Then I enter the National Gallery. Paintings of heroic Hungarians falling at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, which has become a founding moment of Hungarian nationalism, where the Christian Magyars were defeated by the Turk.

Growing up in the UK in the 1960s I was never aware of the threat of the Turk to Christian Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. History was 1066 and all that, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake (please do not call him a pirate!) finishing his game of bowls before defeating the Spanish Armada, the Sun Never Set On Our Empire, and the Battle of Britain. Off the coast of Europe, we would have been the last to be had by the Turks, even if their supply lines had been able to extend that far. We were never taught that the most powerful army ever assembled, which had taken the holy city of Constantinople, the “Rome of the East”, in 1453, still considered a tragedy by many, was a very clear threat and constant worry to those living in what is now central Europe. Indeed, the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where the Venetian navy defeated the Turks, and which is now best known through Shakespeare’s Othello, was a cause for rejoicing throughout Europe.

Thus the large number of pictures of Hungarian leaders together with leaders of the Church, or praying, in paintings from the the post-Ottoman period, from 1686, when they were kicked out by the Hapsburgs. Hungary is part of the Christian West. We fear you, Turks! Europe is Christian, says Valery Giscard d’Estaing and many others. Indeed, in a survey made among the members of the European Union before the accession of the East European states, it was Austria which was most reluctant to admit Turkey. The memories of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna do not fade.

In the beautiful town of Pecs, pronounced Piets, where the formal Hapsburg style mixes with the French and the Italian rococo, and where one of the main squares is dominated by a huge synagogue, I visit the Mosque Church, yes, the Mosque Church, originally built as a church then destroyed by the Turks, who built Ghasi Khasim Pasha Nosque with its stones. After 1686 the mosque became a church again, and now, above the mithrab niche, which of course points to Mecca, there is wooden Christ on the crucifix, and in the other corner niches, statues of the Virgin Mary and the Apostles. The mosque, or rather, church, was extended in 1939, with a semi-circular chapel with a mural which shows, on one side, St. Stephen, the patron saint of Hungary, offering his country to God and Christianity and, on the other, the defeat of the Turks at Belgrade by Janos Hungadi and St Janos Kapistranos in 1456, which temporarily held up the Ottomans’ progress, and they were only to capture Belgrade in 1521. After the successful defence of Belgrade, Pope Calixtus III ordered that the church bells throughout Christendom be rung every day at midday to commemorate this victory over the Turks. Many still are.

The rancour is still there for all to see. In St Mateusz Cathedral in Buda the end of the year tourists troop past the chapel containing the tomb of Bela III, king of Hungary from 1172 to 1196, “the only king of the Arpaid dynasty whose tomb was not ravaged by the Ottoman Turks”.

I commemorate the end of 2007 in Pecs. The snow is falling; the temperature is minus 13C. The lead guitarist in the rock band in the main square is wearing his overcoat. Chimes 12 midnight. Cheers. then, before the fireworks, the Hungarian national anthem. All sing. In the background the Mosque Church, the church that was a mosque that was a church.

My thanks to Krisztina Zamanyi


7 Responses to “With the Ottomans in the Balkans – Hungary”

  1. Ricardo Says:

    Happy new year, John!

    Thank you for the information, very interesting.

    Best regards

  2. Ana Iaria Says:

    Fascinating as usual, John. I am a great fan of this period history and I read as much as I can about it.

    Well, drop me a line if you head to Blighty.

    Happy New Year!

  3. Edward Says:

    Happy New Year, John, and best wishes for your trip.


  4. Gisele Wolkoff Says:

    Dear John Milton:

    You ALWAYS surprise us with your fascinating news on places…

    Very interesting to know that the national anthom preceded the N.Y’s fireworks! It reminded me of the current, Portuguese aversion to the national anthom, particularly, before soccer games, because apparently it was very much on all the time during Salazar…

    Wish you safe trips and hope to see you back to Sampa soon,


  5. B. Torres Says:

    (not to be published, either:)

    Dear John,
    how lovely to hear from you and learn about those fascinating places it is your privilege to visit !
    As you may know, I have been working as a reviewer and since I trust you more than other sources, I would very much like to know whether the sun never SAT or never SET on your Empire.
    Also, reading the reply from G.W., whom I saw defending her thesis and consider brilliant, I wonder if ANTHEM and ANTHOM are the same thing.
    I wish you all the best for this new year

  6. Will Sutton Says:

    Dear John,

    Happy New Year to you. We had a good one in Scotland, with snow soon after Hogmanay, but not as chilly as yours.

    A cricketing friend of mine is travelling through S America within the next few months, possibly looking for a game. If it’s okay, I might give him your email in case he’s looking for contacts/suggestions in SP or BA? Dan’s a very useful player, South African, lovely chap, and speaks Portuguese as his parents are from Madeira.

    Enjoy your travels in Mittel Europe. Best for 2008.


  7. peter Says:

    have read your blog. happy birthday!

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