The abandoned Eden
For decades, historical lethargy, the indelible legacy of the post-1945 communist regimes, has been deeply ingrained in the hearts of the Hungarian community in the motherland.
The abandoned Eden
Kazakhstan (Photo: Gábor Margittai)
Gábor Margittai 20/03/2023 16:00

For decades, historical lethargy, the indelible legacy of the post-1945 communist regimes, has been deeply ingrained in the hearts of the Hungarian community in the motherland. It is no wonder, then, if the lost cultural areas of the Carpathian Basin, the small Hungarian communities that have faltered in their existence and splintered, has caused and continues to cause much confusion in Hungarian minds. How can we expect that this confusion will not be exacerbated by the mention of scattered communities that, thousands of kilometres from the borders of our country, half a millennium away, say that their roots reach back to the pristine Hungary?

We have three puzzling mythic tales, for which I have travelled around three continents with my wife, Anita Major. We have devoted years to visit ethnic groups in Türkiye, Kazakhstan and Egypt who have for centuries believed that their forefathers once came from Hungary and are related to Hungarians. Turkish Madiars, Egyptian Magyarabs, Kazakhstani Madjars, continent-wide distances apart, with radically different historical backgrounds, circulate like secret satellites in the pull of Hungarian history. Who are they? How can we explain their attachment to the Hungarian being, passed down from father to son? Our book, “Mi a madzsar?” (What is Madiar?) (Scolar Publishing, Budapest) was looking for these questions and we sincerely hope it has found the answer...

In the footsteps of great travellers

From Istanbul to North-Mesopotamia to Ararat, we have travelled through the heart of the Ottoman Empire; we’ve trudged across the steppes of Central Asia in soulless vehicles, one of the most hellish corners of the former Gulag archipelago; we have explored the most desperate shantytowns of the Sahara, and learned more about people, minority-majority relations and national myths than anywhere else in the world. The formulation of the question “What is the Madiar?” is not a safe action, as it sheds light on the origins of disconnected, unrelated groups as much as on the life of our minorities - our destiny. In this question, we are actually a reflection of ourselves.

We have an almost millennial tradition of researching the lost Hungarian peripheries. The Asian homeland of Magna Hungaria, outlined in the 13th-century report of Friar Julian, where the tribes of the Eastern Hungarians lived until they were swept away by the Tatar invasion, has been the source of great discoveries and huge falsifications. From the Middle Ages onwards, there was a pulsating desire in the world-travelling Hungarian souls to find at least the remnants of the destroyed Hungarian community in the East. We cannot deny that we have always remained alien to the West, that their relations with us were a kind of forced marriage, while the East was mute for us. “Whoever sets out after me (...) should go straight to Greater and Lesser Bukaria and from there begin his explorations; the inland parts of Tartary in China are the places where we must seek the cradle of the Hungarian nation” - says the spiritual testament of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma, who was driven to Asia by his search for the land of the Yugurs. “I believe that those who came to Hungary with Árpád can be classified as Inner Asian tribal Turks,” says Aurél Stein, based on Uyghur excavations, whose research in the East was not supported by anyone in Hungary, and who was forced to make some dazzling discoveries as a British citizen. It is a cliché in the history of science: Hungarian Orientalism owes its world-class status to the fact that its cultivators were driven by the desire to find their ancestral homeland. While the Western states explored the customs, languages and religious behaviour of the Eastern empires they conquered and wanted to conquer according to the colonialist point of view, their Orientalism was thus a continuation of war by other means, the East excited the Hungarians as a deserted Eden to which there was no return.

There is an obvious, yet under-emphasised, phenomenon in Hungarian history: the all-popular sport of enslavement, which our Eastern scholars have for centuries left out of the equation. If you were looking for Eastern Hungarians, who, as we know from the classical philologist János Harmatta, can only be found by chance, you could easily find Westerners or their great-grandchildren in Asia. Although the Tartar invasion was a short episode compared to the century and a half of Ottoman rule, even then whole villages could be driven east by specialised troop units. And then, when it became industrialised to deport the population of the southern lands from the second half of the 14th century onwards! It is therefore inexplicable that while the Hungarians of Julianus are engraved in the national and folklore memory, the slave settlements of Hungarian origin, which heroically preserved their identity, were not reported in any news of any value until the first third of the 20th century. And yet, for at least five hundred years, the Magyarabs of Egypt and Sudan have not been able to forget where their ancestors were taken by the Turks. The inhabitants of Macarköy, or Magyarfalu, in Anatolia, with the stubborn memory of nomads, passed down from generation to generation that their ancestors had a connection to the Hungarian people, as the name of the settlement preserved. It is the only one of the eight Madiar prefixes in Türkiye whose population is of some Hungarian origin.

So let us look at those three perplexing mythic tales!

Macars in Türkiye

“Our ancestors came from Hungary to the Gebze region of Istanbul 420 years ago. They settled there and founded a village. Unable to get along with the inhabitants of a nearby Circassian village, they abandoned the village and fled to Sorkunjajla near Isparta. They took possession of the place and came here in search of winter shelter. Here they established a village and secured their new property. In the summer they went up to the Yayla, and in the winter they came down here, near the beach. Settling there, they decided to give the place a name that would remind them of both their homelands, and so the village was named Gebiz-Macar,” writes New York professor Ferenc Ispay in Élet és Tudomány (Life and Science), 1981, issue 49, in which he recounts the background to his thought-provoking discovery. Ispay first travelled to Istanbul to find the small church in Galata where the ashes of Ferenc Rákóczi II were waiting to be taken home in 1906. However, a Hungarian member of the Jesuit order in Istanbul, a certain János Vendel, made a strange request after the church visit: somewhere in Türkiye there is a small village called Macarköy (Magyarfalu). Ispay should find this municipality and find out why it is called like that. The teacher had travelled hundreds of kilometres in Asia Minor, but no one had heard of Magyarfalu. He did not give up, he took a journey in the Toros Mountains with a forest ranger, into the nomadic world of the Yörük nomads, where Béla Bartók made his great discoveries of our musical kinship. “Between Serik and Perge, I visited the newly established winter shelter of the Karakoyunlu tribe (...) The conversation went something like this: Tell the owner that I am Hungarian. We in Hungary know that the Yörüks and the Hungarians are related to each other. (...) The male population of the village sat in dignity at the tables set up in the small square. (...) “All eyes were on me,” recalls Ferenc Ispay of his research trip, “and I pointed to the ground and asked: Macarköy? I get an affirmative answer! Then I point my index finger at my chest and introduce myself: Macar! That is, that I am Hungarian. The brothers stood up one after the other. They surrounded me, stared at me, shook my hand, pulled me to their table. Without any further explanation, they understood the purpose of my visit.”

The population of a Hungarian village deported during the occupation? A colony of Kuruc in hiding? A village of Hungarians which flee this far during the reign of Maria Theresa? A colony of exiled officers running from the Russian intervention forces? So many legends of the origin live together in Macarköy, as we experienced on our research trip. The Macarköyans have always considered us brothers; but, as they told us, they have come so far that they could not find their way back...

Egypt (Photo: Gábor Margittai)

Magyarabs in Egypt

The Csángós of Africa, the Magyarabs of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, on the other hand, can find their way back to us from half a thousand years and continents away without any problems - if we let them. The Magyarabs, ie. the members of the Hungarian tribe, are under as much fire as the Hungarian scattered communities in the Carpathian Basin: they are threatened from many sides by Arab assimilation and the horror of cultural loss. “Magyar families were the leaders in the villages where our ancestors lived,” said a prominent member of the Hungarian tribe during our visit. Well, the founders of these families came to Egypt with Sultan Selim. Our ancestor Ibrahim el-Magyar, but we also call him el-Magyarab or el-Magyari, he does the same, was a prominent figure in the Turkish army, a military expert to the Sultan and then a leader in charge in Nubia. When Selim’s power weakened in Egypt, and he forgot about the Hungarian soldiers and officials, they began to live their own lives; and Ibrahim, by his position, obviously could only marry into the most prestigious Nubian family. You know, important people only with important people.”

Ibrahim el-Magyar, Abraham, the slave leader, captain of the forgotten garrison. Today, his descendants populate the few villages that remain, from the area around Kom Ombo to the north of Sudan, which the Egyptian state built as a kind of miserable shantytown in the middle of the desert, far from the Nile, as a “compensation”. According to tribal tradition, during the First World War, the British put the Magyarabs in internment camps because of their loyalty to the country at war with them... The return of North-Erdély was welcomed in a telegram addressed to Miklós Horthy... László Almásy, the “English patient”, introduced them into the somewhat amused public consciousness, even visiting them in the 1930s while wandering around the original settlement areas.

According to official figures, there are about 7,000 in total today. The Arabic-language website hosted in Vadi-Halfa, Sudan, reports that there are significant Magyarab diasporas in Tripoli, Libya, Kairouan, Tunisia, and Morocco. The dwarf minority, so to speak, in Egypt is the aristocracy of the Nubian world, which does not want to hear about its minority status. They are linked not really by ethnic but by family ties, or rather by the memory of one man, the supposedly Hungarian Ibrahim, preserved for five hundred years. The question is whether they were first-generation slave soldiers, ambitious renegades who were taken from their villages and castles, or boys born into a slave family in Turkish territory. It is also a question of how the Magyarabs developed and maintained an extremely strong sense of aristocratic identity, typical of truly military communities, based on the memory of the domination of their environment, and which presupposes the deployment of a larger, ethnically homogeneous garrison. The preservation of power over the centuries and the transformation of the former garrison into a new Nubian elite tribe may explain the persistence of identity.

Kazakhstan (Photo: Gábor Margittai)

Madjars in Kazakhstan

The third mythic tale takes us to the bottomless depths of Hungarian ancient history. The Kazakh steppe is home to the Madjar tribe of a few thousand people, which owes its existence to a miracle: for decades, the Russian empires of Tsarist and Stalinist Russia destroyed the people of the yurt settlements, shooting children, women helpless old men, and exiling them to the gulag, because the colonisers did not seek assimilation, but extermination. The Hungarian traveller walks with a heavy heart in these wastelands, which, according to one of the prevailing views of Hungarian historiography, are not far from the land where our ancestors became “Hungarians”. According to another, non-dominant view, this is where the handful of tribes with a kindred consciousness lives and still proudly claim to be Madjar, despite the Soviet terror that erased the past.

On the seventh day of the seventh month of two thousand and seven, a lucky day according to nomadic numerology, I visited them as a member of a Hungarian delegation at the first Kurultai, that is a tribal meeting, and experienced the sense of belonging of a handful of communities, which transcends all the violence of Sovietization that still oppresses souls today. From Astana, the new Kazakh capital, with glass pyramids, hanging gardens, giant golden mace, freshly plastered snow-white mosques, modern prayer complexes, twisted skyscrapers, a government quarter reminiscent of a space centre, it took a thousand kilometres of driving on unpaved roads to reach the godforsaken artificial settlements of the Torgay swamplands, where members of the Madjar tribe live along the trails that are only passable for a few months a year. Russian and Ukrainian survivors of the gulag camps on the steppe, which were run under hellish conditions, were settled among the Kazakhs after their “release”, mostly criminals with public records, to disrupt ethnic unity, to dig up virgin lands as agricultural slaves and to provoke never-ending conflicts with the nomadic natives. Astana, today’s wonder city, was also run as a camp in the 1930s; and in the world wars, the Kazakhs on horseback, so proud of their fighting skills, were mostly conscripted for the humiliating labour service work, which guaranteed huge losses. Their native language, the preservation of their traditions and the practice of their religion were banned.

In the Torgay basin, the home territory of the Madjar tribe, there have long been stubborn peoples who have fought all invaders, the Mongol Dzungars, the Kalmyks, the Tsarist troops. With lances, swords and bows, led by a single, highly skilled commander meant to die, they charged the Russian regulars equipped with machine guns, using the age-old tactics of light cavalry fighting, and repeatedly made the armies outnumbering them to retreat. The uprisings were followed by regular punitive campaigns: In 1916-18, for example, a million nomads from Kazakhstan were killed by the Russians because they refused to serve as labourers in the First World War. The Tsarist authorities did not dare to give weapons to the Kazakhs.

In the solar system of “Csángóization”

Neither the Magyarabs nor the Madjars (nor the Turkish Madiars) are in any way different from their environment, they are just as Nubian, Kazakh (or Turkish) as anyone else within hundreds of kilometres. They share the same material culture, the same songs, the same reactions, the same skin colours, but their sense of identity is different. They may be only one shade different, but they are excruciatingly and inexplicably different. These endangered, marginalised people, perhaps living their last hours, are already in a precarious position and deserve the attention of travellers sensitive to their minority status. All the more so if their history has Hungarian aspects! For us, they are the “outermost Hungarians”, the outermost ring in the solar system of “Csángóization”, who, if you like, can be interpreted as a metaphor of being lost and yet remaining. But this says nothing about them, about their way of life so alien to us, their fears, their deeply traditional culture. Whoever takes the serious risks of travelling to the East today, and visits them in their desert, steppe and mountain world, listens to their sagas and feels their confused attachment, can understand the Hungarian brother seekers of many centuries, but certainly the ideal of brotherhood.

The author is a journalist

This article was originally published in our Hungarian-language magazine Eurázsia in 2022

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