The Will To Survive

13th century illuminated depiction of the Battle of Mohi

13th century illuminated depiction of the Battle of Mohi

Smack in the middle of the largest basin in the Börszöny Hills is Szokolya. Though it is less than an hour from Budapest by car, it is best to travel to Szokolya by railway. It’s not just the natural beauty of the northern uplands that make this trip worthwhile, but also the chance to ride a narrow gauge line known as the Királyrét Forest Railway.

This track has withstood changes in travel and technology, to still offer visitors to the Börszöny Hills a more intimate mode of transport to experience this landscape. Though the railway’s terminus is just a little farther north at Királyrét, make sure to disembark at Szokolya.At first glance, it is a fine looking village with the obligatory tourist infrastructure, as well as neatly kept streets, tidy houses and church steeples rising above it all.

While in Szokolya visitors will be rightly impressed with this quaint village and its beautiful natural surroundings, but they really need to see what lies beneath. In Szokolya many homes have cellars which surprisingly were not first constructed to store wine, but instead these were used as a hiding place. Hiding from whom? Not the usual suspects.

Neither the Soviets or Nazis or Habsburg’s or even the Ottoman Turkish forces. In the case of Szokolya we have to go back to the inaugural foreign conquest, the first in what would become a recurring theme in Hungarian history, the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242.Overshadowed by more recent invasions, the Mongol incursion was the first truly traumatic calamity in Hungarian history.

On several occasions before their arrival, King Béla IV had been forewarned that the Mongols were a ferocious opponent moving westward with alarming speed. For all intents and purposes, Béla did take the danger seriously, inspecting fortifications and attempting to improve the kingdom’s defenses.

Unfortunately, the nobility was too busy quarreling amongst themselves (a recurring theme in Hungarian military defeats) to give their time and attention to the ominous threat that was looming on the eastern horizon. By the time they did take notice, it was much too late. In the spring of 1241, at the battle of Mohi, the Hungarian army was destroyed.

The Mongols then roared across the Great Hungarian Plain carrying out a rapacious wave of destruction. It has been calculated that over half of all settlements in this area were destroyed. Those that were not had their fields burned and food sources pillaged.

Disease and starvation followed. Resisters were killed, while those who surrendered were taken as slaves. As if matters could not get any worse for this area, the Mongols advanced very little west of the river, instead they focused on “pacifying” the area east of the Danube.Historians figure that half of the entire population of Hungary was either killed or enslaved.

How did the villagers who avoided this fate survive? Thousands were lucky enough to make their way to walled fortresses that provided some protection from the rampaging Mongol calvary.The villagers also fled to the thick forests of the northern uplands where Szokolya is situated.

They also fled underground to cellars beneath village dwellings. Some of these still survive here today.There is little physical evidence of 13th century Hungary left in the country today. This is due to the mass destruction wrought upon the landscape by the Mongol conquest.

The cellars in Szokolya offer one of the few recognizable remnants from this catastrophic period. These might not be overly impressive to the curious onlooker, until they realize that the Mongol destruction was so complete that in some cases the only place left to hide was underground. This is one of the ways villagers survived. Hidden, beneath the land they had once called Hungary and one day would do so again.

A view of Szokolya from outside the village

A view of Szokolya from outside the village

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About the Author: Leuko

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