The Power of Place
The more Hungarian history you learn, the more certain dates loom above all the others and become imprinted on the memory.
The year 1526 and the Battle of Mohács, 1848 and the revolution against the Habsburgs, 1956 and the uprising against Soviet rule. These dates and their corresponding events are the first that any visitor to Hungary should commit to memory.
They are a little harder to memorize though because unless you’re a student of European history, they seem a bit random. One date that can easily be remembered and just so happens to coincide with a seminal event in Hungarian History is the year 1000. A nice round number, easily memorable!
The event, István (Stephen) is crowned king by Pope Sylvester II and Hungary makes a historic pivot toward the western world. This is the crucial moment from which all Hungarian history thereafter flows.
The upshot, Hungary becomes the frontier guardian of Christianity. The kingdom will be in the vanguard attempting to repel the eastern hordes that appear again and again on the borders of Europe throughout the coming centuries.
To understand the ramifications of the year 1000, travel to Esztergom where it all happened over one thousand years ago.
Learning dates in school is how many of us remember our historical education. While dates are definitely of value – chronology and sequence help us make sense of the past – the power of place is often overlooked.
Visiting the place where a great event happened can give us a more complete understanding of what occurred. Esztergom has the power and presence to evoke this type of experience.
The small city of Esztergom is set on the banks of the Danube, just 70 km north of Budapest. The most noticeable piece of architecture is the Basilica which is beautifully situated on a hill overlooking the older part of town, the Danube and across the river waters into Slovákia.
The basilica stands in the same place that an earlier 11th century church, St. Adalbert’s, was set. In turn St. Adalbert’s was place on the spot where Stephen was crowned King of Hungary.
Standing in the shadow of the gigantic neoclassical Basilica it is easy to see why Istvan’s father Geza picked this spot as his seat of government.
The nearby river was a magnet for trade and commerce. It also offered a natural defensive barrier to keep enemies at bay. The hillside on which the Basilica is sited towers above the land below.
Thus a castle, the walls of which can still be seen on the way up to the Basilica, was also placed in this area. While the natural setting surrounding the Basilica is impressive, the building itself may leave the visitor with ambiguous feelings.
It is done in the neoclassical style which was all the rage in 1822 when construction started. The central dome is 100 meters high at its pinnacle. The entire building seems to intimidate more than provoke awe.
The looming presence of the basilica dwarfs the visitor. One can easily imagine how it took thirty-seven years to complete. It feels important yet overbearing. Perhaps the building is trying to equal that pivotal historical moment when Stephen was crowned here.
The power of this historic place is defined by the monumental architecture of the Basilica for good or bad. Living up to what occurred here a thousand years before may be too much to ask of a building.
It is not too much to ask of the imagination though. By coming here you can imagine Istvan receiving the crown, setting Hungary on a new course. From that moment forward it was no longer a tribal collection of nomadic warriors.
It was now a nation turned toward the west and in the process becoming European. The rest is history!
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