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The Hungarian Conquest

Construction phases of the Magyar Yurt

The Hungarian Conquest

Olga Vállay Szokolay

The unusually cool weather did not chill the warm atmosphere at the annual season’s closing picnic of the Hungarian Cultural Society of Connecticut.  The traditional feast took place at the Cheshire home of its president Dr. Balazs Somogyi and his talented artist wife, Csilla, on Saturday, June 23, 2018.

Several dozen members and guests gathered at the extensive terrace of the impressive mansion that resembles hunting-seats of yore.  The bar and the offerings of the spectacular buffet table satisfied the appetites of all and the guests later enjoyed friendly conversation by the welcome heat of the huge fieldstone fireplace.

Two weeks earlier the same venue was stage to Dr. Somogyi’s enlightening lecture titled Our Conquests (Honfoglalásaink).  In the traditional sense, that phrase covers the history of our ancestors’ occupying the Carpathian Basin.

Dr. Somogyi’s detailed, thorough, all-encompassing enumeration of events leading to and culminating in the Magyars’ ultimate Conquest in 895-96, however, dealt with much more than one theory, one aspect, one legend.  Our publication’s scope would not permit the total translated text, thus, with his permission, we are attempting a “Readers’ Digest” version.

According to the “One Step” theory, the conquering tribes settled on the low-lying areas of the Carpathian Basin around 895-96.  The mission of these Hungarian newcomers was made simpler by the already crumbling empire of the sons of Svatopluk I.  By 902, the conquerors had the whole Carpathian Basin under their control but, needing grazing grounds for their animals, they settled mainly in areas that provided good pastures (Alföld, Mezőföld, Kisalföld, Csallóköz, Szerémség).  Conquering these areas was also facilitated by the scant inhabitant population of presumably Avars and Slavs who, in a few generations, assimilated into the tribes of the conquerors. 

The other significant theory, called the “Double Conquest”, defines the Magyars’ occupation of the Carpathian Basin as a two-step procedure.  The first stage, as described by the anonymous monk-scribe of the 13th century king Béla III in his “Gesta Hungarorum”, allegedly took place around 670 by relatives of the Hungarians, the Huns.  This was supposedly followed in the 9th century by the second stage, under the command of Árpád, son of Chieftain Álmos.  According to this theory, 896 marks only the completion of the Conquest.

The process of the Conquest definitely took more than one year and was spread over two major phases.  The conquerors first occupied the eastern part of the country, then, at the beginning of the 10th century, they invaded the western areas as well.  Although both theories count significant historians among their subscribers, much of the so-called supporting evidence is anecdotal.

Nevertheless, both theories identify the seven leading tribes of the Magyars as Nyék, Megyer, Kürtgyarmat, Tarján, Jenő, Kér and Keszi. They participated in the treaty signed with blood at Etelköz during the 890’s, that led to the birth of the Hungarian Kingdom a hundred years later. The tribes’ leaders were Álmos, Előd, Ond, Kond, Tas, Huba and Töhötöm.  Some of these can still be found as family names.  Various historians estimate the population of the Hungarian tribes differently, but most agree to numbers between 200,000 and 500,000, yielding a military power of about 40,000 to 70,000 men.

The Magyars raised mostly large animals – horses, cattle, sheep and pigs.  That explains their initial settling at the low-lying, flat landscapes.  However, cemetery evidence indicates their keeping more than a dozen species of smaller domestic animals, including some that they had imported from the East-European steppes.  The presence of poultry typically marks settled societies while fishing and hunting were more the activity of the socially more prominent ones.

Prior to their moving west, our ancestors were already practicing agriculture at the South Russian steppes.  They had been using plows, scythes, hand-mills and the sickle.  Their most important grains included millet, barley and wheat.  Preparing pelts and skins, spinning, weaving, felt making and sewing all developed into significant trades after settling in their new, supposedly permanent land.

The settlement network created by the Magyars arriving at the Carpathian Basin was not uniform.  Their dwellings serve as evidence of the period’s social division.  A characteristic structure of large animal-raising communities was the round, tent-like yurt.  It served as a domicile that was easily taken down and re-erected as necessitated by the changing seasons or other conditions.  (Yurts are still made, sold and used in different locations around the world.) Various further buildings, such as adobe huts, wooden structures on dirt or stone foundations, as well as homes dug into hillsides were also part of the landscape.

Residences of the Chieftains differed from those of the commoners.  Much of the population lived alternately in summer and winter accommodations, winter lodgings gradually turning into villages and marketplaces.

The court of the Prince accommodated and employed various tradesmen such as gunsmiths, shoeing smiths, bowmen, falconers, cooks, interpreters, scribes and, of course, healing shamans.  In the process of healing, the shaman, wildly beating his drum, would fall into a trance, would struggle with and expel evil spirits.  His function also included foretelling the future.

In the days of the Conquest, Shamanism rivaled Christianity.  The spiritual world in both faiths consisted of three levels: underworld, earthly world and celestial world.

During the centuries around the Conquest, the Eurasian geography was the scene of various simultaneous battles and wars, involving numerous other groups, tribes and nations.  Considering our limited space as well as the insufficient and often contradicting data and evidence of the material, we opted for the omission of those background bits of history.

Instead, let us advance into the present, recognizing that in the face of over 11 centuries of adversity, Hungary and the Magyars still exist.  In fact, they have been expanding, migrating again to the west for economic and political reasons, mostly during the 20th century.

As demonstrated over and over in the course of history, the Magyars’ innate survival skills are once again assuring the success of their New Conquest! 

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.








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