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Karcag, Capital of Nagykunság
Karcag, Capital of Nagykunság

Top: Millennium memorial by Győrfi Sándor, statue of Col. Michael Kováts de Fabricy at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C.- Center: Zádor Bridge, Windmill. Bottom: Kováts plaque in Karcag

A touch of history

This is the land of the Cumanians – kunok – who were settled in Hungary in the 13th century, twice! A nomadic people of Turkish origin, roaming through an area between the Volga and the lower Danube, the kunok were a large nation but without a central organization, and were thus easily dispersed by the Mongolian invasion.

In 1239, the kunok asked King Béla IV for permission to settle in Hungary.  He agreed, hoping to increase his military strength with their help. In the presence of the king, they were baptized at the border, and entered the country with their huge flocks.

But their nomadic and pagan form of life – their Baptism did not seem to have indicated a true conversion! – caused great conflicts with the agricultural Christian population.  Béla decided to disperse them throughout the land, but was prevented from doing so by the Mongolian invasion of 1241.

Many thought that the kunok were complicit with the Mongolians, who were considered to be identical people.  Because of this, the Hungarian forces gathering against the Mongolians at Pest murdered the kun prince and his entourage, at which the kunok left the camp and the country, pillaging along the way.  Thus they did not take part in the disastrous Battle of Muhi against the Mongolians.

Once the Mongols had left the country, Béla recalled the kunok (1243) in order to rebuild his military might.  He settled them on the Alföld in today’s Kiskunság and Nagykunság area where, because of the devastation caused by the one-year long Mongolian invasion, the population had been drastically reduced, so that there were fewer conflicts with the remaining native population.  Béla considered their presence so vital for Hungary that he married his son István to Erzsébet, daughter of the kun prince.  (Their son King László IV was therefore known as ”Kun László”).

Pope Nicholas III sent an envoy to King László IV in 1279, forcing him to pass a law regulating the conversion and settlement of the kunok. But the king waffled between living according to kun customs and obeying the law.  Despite the fact that the kunok were granted significant autonomy, and were  allowed to retain their distinctive attire and certain customs, they were once again disappointed in the king, and turned against him, pillaging wherever they went.  The conflict was finally resolved in a major battle near today’s Hódmezővásárhely, where the king’s forces inflicted a major defeat on the kunok.  While they retained a certain autonomy and enjoyed a collective nobility, they became assimilated into the Hungarian nation.

Karcag, ”Capital of Nagykunság”

The name is said to derive from the kun word for ”fox of the puszta”.  It first appeared in a personal name in the 14th century. 

Karcag became the center of an agricultural region.  But farms began to give way to urbanization in the 18th century, and were intended to be eliminated through the collectivization of farms in the 1960’s.

As a reminder of its agricultural past, Karcag holds a mutton cooking competition in June, and equestrian days in October. The local lebbencs leves harks back to the shepherds’ way of life. 

One of Karcag’s illustrious sons is Colonel Commander Kováts Mihály de Fabricy (see the June 2011 issue of Magyar News Online), whom we know as the Father of the US Cavalry.  After a long military career in Europe, Kováts moved to Paris, where he offered his services to Benjamin Franklin to further the cause of liberty in the American Colonies.  He sailed for the New World, and applied for service with George Washington, but due to problems of translation, his application was rejected at first. Eventually, through Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski, whom Kováts had trained years earlier to fight for Polish independence, he began to train the incipient American cavalry.  In 1778, Congress appointed Kováts the first commander of the US Cavalry.  He was killed in the Battle of Charleston, SC, on May 11th, 1779. Consequently, Karcag holds Kováts Mihály Memorial Days every May.

Karcag is home to artists, poets, writers, painters, wood carvers, potters, lace makers, folk artists and sculptors. In a town renowned for its numerous statues, twelve were created by contemporary sculptor Győrfi Sándor (winner of the Munkácsy Prize and many other prizes). Numerous ornamental fountains and gates in wood and wrought iron also adorn the town.  Folk songs and concerts – orchestral and choral – are another part of the cultural life of Karcag.  

Among the sights of Karcag today is the windmill, built in 1859.  It is the only surviving one of the 11 windmills that once operated in the town.  It forms the entrance to the Hortobágy National Park which is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

Another sight, Zádor Bridge, is located outside the city.  It was the model for the Hortobágy Bridge, having originally nine arches, and was opened to traffic in 1809.  The two end spans were swept away in the great flood of 1830.  With flood control, it eventually lost its purpose, as the water it spanned disappeared.  Today, Zádor Bridge is the center of a wildlife refuge area, home of several protected species of birds and plants.  

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