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The Effects of Turkish Rule in Hungary

A letter sent in 1685 by a Turkish potentate to judges in several Magyar communities gives witness to the tone that prevailed for 150 years in the parts of Hungary ruled by the Turks. It began: "Ye above named country and town judges, ye disobedient dogs, hounds, and swine, I hereby ordain that, upon seeing this, my sealed letter of command, ye do not delay a single hour... or else, upon my word as a Turkish Mohammedan gentleman, I shall send forth 300 cavalrymen to fetch ye judges, and 45 of ye shall be impaled. Ye false and faithless dogs, hounds and swine, do ye carry this letter posthaste from village to village..."

The Turks' physical devastation of the land was quite in keeping with the language they used toward its hapless inhabitants.

Buda in Turkish Days

The official name of Turkish-occupied Hungary was Madjaristan (country of the Magyars) with Buda - or Budin, as the Turks called it - as its capital and seat of the all-powerful military commander and civil governor.

About 1680, six years before the liberation, Buda was a city of some 26,000 inhabitants, the majority of them Turks. The Turks called the famous palace of King Matthias Corvinus Kizil Elma (Red Apple) because of the gilded globes on its spires and roofs. At first, the pashas of Buda resided in the palace where travellers could see the gilt ceilings, the valuable carpets and paintings, and the Hungarian coat-of-arms carved in stone on the doors. But the building was so damaged in repeated sieges that the Pasha moved out, leaving it to become a depot. The palace was completely neglected, its windows walled up except for small slits, while whatever remained of the world-famous Corvina Library was piled up and left to the rats - an irreparable loss to the world.

The churches in Buda were all turned into mosques except one, which was used jointly by Protestants and Catholics.

The Turks constructed no new buildings in the territories they occupied except for baths and religious houses. Instead, they converted existing structures into churches, barracks, offices or prisons. This policy of conversion condemned many valuable works of art to destruction, since Islam does not tolerate altars or statues, nor indeed the reproduction of any living thing. The "idols" were therefore thrown out, the walls of the churches whitewashed and souras of the Koran painted over them.

Today there are only three baths and one monument in Buda which bear witness to Turkish occupation: the tomb of Gül Baba, a famous Turkish martyr and holy man, on Rose Hill (Rózsadomb). It is not surprising that Buda is so poor in Turkish remains. Great fires broke out five times, an earthquake hit in 1758, and the city underwent four sieges culminating in the final struggle for its possession in 1686. Elsewhere in Hungary, two minarets still stand. Virtually nothing else remains of the Turkish occupation, but three magnificent baths in Buda. After the Turks withdrew, practically everything in Buda was reduced to ruins. The city and the rest of the country offered a devastating sight.

The Land Devastated

If you travel in Hungary, and go south or east from Budapest, you will soon find yourself in the flat country of the Great Plain (Alföld), a fairly well-cultivated land often uninhabited for dozens of kilometers, except for a few scattered farmsteads. Before the Turkish occupation, this whole area resembled the low countries of Western Europe, its fertile lands thickly studded with the small villages typical of medieval times-villages surrounded by forests, ponds, small patches of almost garden-like fields, with the white Roman or Gothic spires of churches peeping out of their refreshingly green surroundings.

The Turkish occupation changed everything. The forests were cut down or burned. The ponds became unhealthy swamps. The rivers spread unrestrained over the Plain and roads were slowly covered by thick brush. The peaceful little villages disappeared and the Plain became a scene of desolation.


The best of the male population was fighting in the armies of the King or the warlords. The others - old men, children and women - were either taken prisoner and carried off to the interior of the Turkish Empire as slaves or, if they were more fortunate. took refuge in neighboring communities. Towns like Halas, Kecskemét and Nagyvárad were fortified.

(Nagyvárad renamed to Oradea, is part of Rumania today.) Large communities in general were fairly secure against the predatory lust of the Turkish troops. Still. Christians as such were not persecuted.

In districts where the Turks were encamped for some time, for example during the siege of Nagyvárad in 1660, the damage was severe. This border fortress had been a great center of Hungarian culture. When the Turks entered the town, they destroyed the college, the university library and the famous printing house. They burned and ravaged the defenseless neighborhood. At Pocsaj, the commanding pasha paid his soldiers one tallér for every Christian head lopped of, at Székelyhida 4,000 prisoners were carried away. Matters were even worse, if possible, near the winter quarters of the Tartars, who served as auxiliary troops of the Turkish army.

As a result of this systematic destruction of the country, the once rich and fertile land lay fallow. Where once 25 or 30 villages stood in an area of 200,000 to 300,000 acres, only a single small country town survived. Large tracts of the country lay without the slightest trace of cultivation. Even grazing ceased, the ever-possible appearance of Turkish marauders had made it too risky. Weeds, windblown sand and gradual alkalization took possession of the desolate land.

Thus was born the dreaded puszta. Travellers, some of them Englishmen, spoke with horror of the "terrible solitude" they found in many regions. The puszta was worse than the prairies of the American continent because it was man-made and not a natural wasteland. One area of the puszta near Debrecen, Hortobágy - now at least partly reclaimed grazing land - serves as a reminder of the complete desolation of the countryside from Debrecen to the southeastern parts of Transdanubia during and immediately after the Turkish occupation.

A change in climate accompanied this general destruction. The area was no longer healthy. Vapors from the large swamps, the unbearable heat of the days and unusually cold nights, the dearth of good drinking water and many other circumstances caused dangerous epidemics. Morbus Hungaricus was the medical name given to the most common illness, a kind of typhoid fever, but malaria and dysentery raged in camps and towns, too.

Catastrophic Population Losses

The second main effect of Turkish rule - the dramatic decrease in population - almost fatally weakened the Magyar race. Depopulating the country became an actual policy of the Turkish authorities. Apart from military matters, the Turks were never great organizers and they regarded the occupied territories in Hungary as a temporary annex to their empire, to be used only for military and strategic purposes. Their rule was characterized by the worst possible economic exploitation. To them Hungary was a kind of manpower reservoir. To sell the prisoners of war as slaves in the markets of Istanbul was in harmony with the morals of the age. But the Turks went further than that. They took even the peaceful inhabitants of occupied countries as slaves-men, women and children. Male children were prospective recruits for the famous Janissary regiments, composed mostly of non-Turkish soldiers who were captured as children in subjected territories.


The extent of the population loss varied from place to place. In parts of the country, the original inhabitants disappeared entirely. Thus the Magyar people lost the southern areas forever - the eastern part of Croatia and the southern half of Bácska and Bánát, where Magyar reoccupation of the lands was prohibited by the Austrian authorities.

The now flourishing Transdanubia had also suffered badly. Its population had numbered 900.000 in 1500, but in the 17th century there were only 300,000 people in the area. In counties (megye) such as Tolna and Baranya, where there are about 250,000 inhabitants today, only a few hundred were found after the Turkish occupation. Somogy County, which had numbered 11,000 households at the end of the 15th century, had only 106 in 1671. Bihar County with a population of 42,000 in 1552, had only 5,000 inhabitants by 1700. And in Békés County the population after the Turks withdrew numbered only two.

At the end of the 15th century, Hungary had been one of the strongest and richest countries of Europe. During the reign of Matthias Corvinus, which ended in 1490, the population was about the same as that of England: four million, of which 75 to 80 per cent were of Magyar stock. When the Hungarian Diet tried to compile data on the survivors in 1720, the population of Hungary was found to be 1,770,000 and 800,000 in Transylvania. But the number of Magyars was as low as 45 per cent.

These figures, which had been widely used by Hungarian historians in the past, should be regarded with reservations, because according to the most recent data produced by historical research, the population of Hungary at the end of Turkish occupation was between 3.5 and 4 million.

An Anti-Hungarian Resettlement Policy

Following the liberation, the Habsburgs adopted a resettlement policy that weakened the Magyars' position even further.

Typical of this policy was the repopulation strategy employed in Bánát, a thoroughly devastated area on the Plain between the rivers Tisza, Maros and Danube, but one that had once been fertile and highly cultivated. Instead of settling new Magyar families into the region, or honoring the claims of returning refugees, the properties that had lawfully belonged to Magyar families were given to new settlers of mostly Serbian and German origin.

Believing the Magyars to be an untrustworthy and rebellious element, this policy was even more pronounced along Hungary's borders, where the Habsburgs created a belt of non-Hungarians. The newcomers, Slavs and Rumanians, occupied the104

frontier lands adjacent to their own homelands. Hungary was not a "melting pot," and these newly settled peoples were separated from the Magyars not only by language and historic tradition but also by religion. It was natural that their sympathies lay with their own kinfolk beyond the border. Thus Vienna kept the Magyars under control by applying the "divide and rule" principle.

Considering the 200 years of blood-letting in Turkish wars, and the anti-Hungarian policy of the Habsburgs, it is one of the wonders of European history that Hungary could survive and grow again into a strong nation in a considerably shorter time than the Turkish occupation had lasted.

At the end of the Turkish occupation, Hungary had about as many inhabitants as she did 150 years before, having lost the entire increase of her population during that period.

However, resurgent Hungary was carrying within itself the seeds of tragedy, seeds sown during the years of Turkish rule and by the shortsighted resettlement policy of the Habsburgs. In the next century the specter of nationalism would raise its head, leading, in 1918, not only to the dismemberment of Hungary but to the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire as well.

This chapter was drawn from essays written by Joseph Somogyi ("Buda in Turkish Days"), Paul Török ("Hungary under Turkish Rule") and Alexis Máthé ("Hungary after the Turkish Occupation") and first published in The Hungarian Quarterly in 1940-41


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