Wednesday, November 11, 2009
That Budapest - one of the most beautiful cities in the world – has developed where it is, is not down to some historical accident. Take a look at Gellért Hill, right next to the River Danube as it flows majestically through the centre of the modern city. It was precisely the combination of the relative ease of crossing the River here and the natural protection the hill offered against invasion that decided the earliest settlers it was the ideal place to build a town. The Eravisci, a tribe of highly cultured Celts, had already settled at Gellért Hill in the third and fourth centuries B.C. They worked with iron, decorated their earthenware pots and even minted their own coins. Later, the Romans built a settlement at today’s Óbuda. They called it Aquincum and it was an important station along the limes which ran alongside the River Danube.
The advantages of settling here were equally obvious at the time of the Magyar Conquest. The new settlers built a centre on both sides of the River. Interestingly, both parts came collectively to be known as Pest. Some researchers say that the word is of Slavic origin, meaning stove or kiln, and refers to the natural warm springs found on and near Gellért Hill. The Royal Charter dating from 1232 appears to back this up. The name Buda came somewhat later, during the reign of King Béla IV. When Hungary was invaded and devastated by the Mongols (1241-1242), King Béla ordered new castles and fortresses to be built all around the country. He provided a good example, for he built the first Royal Palace in Buda on what from that time on become known as Castle Hill. It was also he who, in a gold-sealed letter of 1244, conferred privileges on the towns that enabled them to develop agriculture and trade. Buda became the royal seat around the turn of the fifteenth century under the rule of Sigismund of Luxembourg, and the Royal Palace grew ever larger until its zenith was reached under King Matthias (ruled 1458-1490). Pest also prospered at this time, and Matthias raised it to equal rank with Buda. In between the two, contemporary records show that Margaret Island was home not only to several monasteries but also to a castle built by the crusaders. Following the dire Hungarian defeat at the Battle of Mohács (1526) the Turks sacked and burned Buda. Pest and Óbuda, too, suffered dreadfully as a result of the century-and-a-half of Turkish rule that followed. The Turks did, however, build baths fed by the hot springs. Their cupolas appear on contemporary engravings, and of course some of them are still extant today – the most visible legacy of that period.
Buda was freed from Turkish rule on 2nd September, 1686, and so began the next period of development. Many places outside the capital gained the right to hold markets, and there were social developments as well. A printing press was established in Buda by 1724, and in 1777 Empress Maria Theresa had the country’s only scientific university moved here from Nagyszombat (today Trnava in Slovakia), bringing with it an influx of learned tutors and youthful students. Emperor Joseph II later switched it from Buda to Pest, a move which promoted a big growth in Hungarian-language literature and in due course theatre, because up until that time the dominant language of culture in Buda had been German. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Kisfaludy Társaság, and the National Theatre together played a pivotal rôle in the social development of the city. This was also the age when newspapers started, among them the ground-breaking Pesti Hírlap founded by Lajos Kossuth.