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How the Magyars Became the Hungarians

Statue of St. Stephen in Budapest, HungaryHungary is like that old Sesame Street song: “One of These Things is Not Like the Other.”  Each Central European nation has its own quirks, but Hungary’s language, customs, cuisine, and folklore are so varied and distinctive that they cry out for a deep research dive into the nation’s roots. 

The debate about Hungary’s origins rages to this day between archeologists, philologists, and historians, but on one thing all agree: Hungarians are more Asian than European and their story includes an almost epic migration in one direction or another across the great steppe of Russia to their current homeland in the Carpathian Basin. 

Hungary’s distinctive language is part of the eclectic Finno-Ugrian (-Turkic) family, which includes Finnish and Estonian.  This fact, linguists argue, roots Hungary’s antecedents, known as the Magyars, in the Ural Mountains along with the early Finns, who migrated from there to the Baltic Sea around 2000 BCE.  Others argue that a branch of the Magyars appears to be rooted in modern-day Central Asia, known to the ancient world as Scythia - a powerful warrior nation in the 5th Century BC.

Two convincing arguments support the theory that the Magyars are more Asian than European: their folklore, which has many parallels in narrative and theme to that of Asian civilizations; and their spicy cuisine with its distinctly eastern flavors of ginger, paprika, and saffron.  Still other scholars argue that the Magyars were both warriors and nomads, who covered huge swaths of land who were adept at both assimilation and kidnapping local women as wives and slaves, which could account for both storytelling and diet. 

The Magyars were fierce, adroit fighters, who enjoyed immense success on the battlefield thanks to their light armor, sharp, curved swords, deadly archery skills and their prowess as horsemen; they were often in demand as mercenaries and allies and, thanks in large measure to this, they prospered as they moved ever westward.

At the end of the 9th Century, the military leader of the Magyars, Árpád gathered the seven tribes to declare his intention of crossing the Carpathian Mountains and winning a new homeland in the fertile Danube basin.  The Magyars swore a blood oath and embarked on a crucial episode in their national story, for as they moved in a sophisticated and disciplined military ”pincer” formation, they were also making the psychological transition from nomadic easterners to settled and integrated westerners.  Within a hundred years, the king-saint Stephen (István) would convert the nation to Christianity, and petition Pope Sylvester II to crown him on Christmas Day, 1000 AD.  At the end of his life, King Stephen advised his son and heir in his famous Admonitions: “If you wish honor of kingship, be peace-loving. Rule over all without anger, pride, or hatred, but with love, tenderness, humanity.” 

But they kept the paprika…

Alexander + Roberts pioneered travel to Central Europe and offers many ways to explore Hungary’s rich history and culture in itineraries including the memorable Grand Capitals of Eastern Europe by Rail.

Posted: 10/13/2015 12:39:02 PM by Alexander + Roberts