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They Rode into History on Horseback

There is a tomb in the National Museum of Hungary that evokes in visitors the awesome aura of Hungarian history of a thousand years ago. In the soil of the open tomb, surrounded by his ornaments, lies an ancient Magyar warrior and his faithful charger, whom neither death nor ten centuries could separate.

From time immemorial the Magyars were renowned as great horsemen, so it was fitting that they rode into history on horseback in 896 A.D., when they entered the Carpathian Basin to make their new home. This event marked not only a new beginning, but also the end of an epic "ride" that had lasted for ages. And, while we know where that ride ended, where it began, and when, remains a great mystery.

The migration to the land beyond the Carpathians followed a thoughtfully prepared plan. The Carpathian Basin was first reconnoitered and the mountain passes mapped out in detail. Logistic support had to be organized to provide enough food for a period of six months. Iron ore for arrowheads and other weapons were also among the essentials required to secure success for the great venture.

When everything was ready, the Magyars did not penetrate en masse at one location, but advanced at timed intervals along several routes in a giant pincer movement. Their purpose was to keep the Petchenegs in the dark about their final destination, and simultaneously to tie down the Bulgarians in the Balkans lest they interfere with the progress of the Magyars in the North. The latter was the more difficult task because the famous Tsar Simeon ruled over the Bulgars, who regarded the Carpathian Basin as a region within the Bulgarian sphere of influence.

Árpád's first born son, Prince Levente, was given the task of carrying out this preventive maneuver. As a preparation for the venture, Árpád had allied with Byzantium against the Bulgarians. However, the two Magyar tribes which had marched to Bulgaria under Levente, had unexpectedly found themselves facing the entire Bulgarian army alone, because their supposed ally. Byzantium, had made a separate peace with Simeon. What followed was an uneven but fierce clash in which the Jen tribe was practically wiped out, and even Prince Levente was killed. However, their sacrifice succeeded in averting massive Bulgarian interference with the advance of the other Magyar tribes in the Carpathian Basin.

Most of the Hungarians entered the Basin through the North-Northeastern Carpathians, while a smaller group came to the new homeland from the south, through the area now known as Transylvania. Árpád's endeavor to keep the great migration unnoticed was successful. Their enemies failed to realize that the Hungarians had evacuated their camps in Etelköz until they had long since crossed the Carpathians.

The migration was a tremendous undertaking. The people, who were accustomed only to the unending steppes, now had to struggle - men, women, children, their cattle and carts of household belongings - through dense forests and over the trackless ridges of the mountains. What a "Westward ho!" it must have been! Even now, with the established thoroughfares of modern times, the traveler crossing the Carpathians through the Verecke Pass must cross the Latorca River and its tributaries forty times. Once over the mountains, the Magyars probably approached the area near the banks of the Danube and Tisza rivers by different routes.

Before the coming of the Magyars, the Carpathian Basin had never seen a lasting national regime. At the time of their arrival, there was no central power in the area, only scattered ethnic groups governed by various rulers. Between the Danube and the Tisza, Prince Zalán reigned over Slavs and Bulgarians. In the East, King Marót ruled over the Moravians, while in Transylvania, Prince Gyelo governed scattered tribes. Pannonia, on the right bank of the Danube, was under Frankish influence, and on the left bank Szvatopluk II exercised power over the Slavs (Slovaks) in a sparsely settled area.

One after another, the Magyars subdued the opposition. Perhaps the greatest hurdle was posed by Prince Zalán, who allied himself with the Greeks. But even this alliance was no match for the Magyars. and Zalán was routed after fierce fighting at Alpár. This battle was celebrated in the poem The Flight of Zalán by Mihály Vörösmarty.

At the time of the conquest, the Hungarian nation


numbered between 350,000 and 450,000 people. They were strengthened somewhat by the remnants of the once powerful Avars and Huns scattered in the area, including descendants of the ancient White Magyars, who arrived in the late seventh century with the Avars. Some modern historians assert that Árpád's people represented the second wave in a two-phased conquest of the homeland (Kets honfoglalás). Whether this theory is correct or not, one thing seems fairly certain: the Szeklers (székelyek), probably the descendants of the Huns, had been long-time inhabitants of Transylvania before the Magyars found them there.

Pannonia (Trans-Danubia), where Árpád had established his own tribe, became the pivotal center of the original Magyar settlements, with the remaining tribes distributing themselves throughout the country according to a preconceived plan. The homeland the Hungarians had conquered provided everything they needed. It had ample water and land remarkably suited for agriculture, cattle grazing and cattle breeding. Most importantly, it was protected by the arc of the Carpathian Mountains - a perfect geographical unit if ever there was one.

A Parliament on Horseback

With the conquest accomplished it was time to organize the government of the newly settled nation. Realizing the importance of planning for the future, Árpád convened the first Hungarian National Assembly in the year 902 A.D. in Pusztaszer, where some of the sessions over the next thirty-four days were held on horseback. Recalling that event, Hungary's Premier Count Pál Teleki quipped: "We had a Parliament before we had chairs!"

A "Parliament on Horseback" was a fitting beginning for a nation that rode into history on horseback led by Prince Árpád. His achievements justified the reports sent by Greek merchants to their emperor describing the Hungarian leader as "a man wise in mind and in council, eminently valiant and qualified for government."

When Árpád died in 907 A.D., he was buried with honor above the source of a small stream whose rocky bed runs through the ancient city of Buda. The exact spot is unknown today, but a statue of Árpád, larger than life, still sets him astride his beloved horse, surrounded by the chieftains who had served him and his people well. The statue was erected in Budapest's Heroes' Square in 1896 when his grateful nation celebrated its millennium.


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