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The "nine-holed bridge" (Photo: Zsuzsa Lengyel)



Hortobágy is the name of a region, as well as a river and a village. (The name of the river was mentioned as early as the 11th century.)  But the name Hortobágy is applied most commonly to the large grassy plain – puszta – in eastern Hungary, part of the Alföld, the largest natural grassland in Europe.  It developed over the ages through deposits of the rivers that watered the region.  Its flat surface used to be famous for mirages called délibáb, but due to 20th century forestation projects, délibáb is seldom seen any more.    

Cattle have been raised there, as well as sheep, horses and swine.  The city of Debrecen acquired its wealth from cattle trading. The main export was szürkemarha – the gray cattle that was introduced into the Carpathian Basin by the Cumanians.  That strain is well able to withstand being kept in the open air all year round, and can be driven long distances.  The German city of Nürnberg alone used to buy 70,000 head of gray cattle annually.  A statue of the gray cattle was erected in that city, to commemorate the historic event when a herd of cattle arrived from Hungary in the midst of a famine, saving the population from starvation.                                       

Allow me a brief aside for a short language lesson: The herd of cattle is called a gulya, and the cattle herder is called gulyás.The beef stew they make in a kettle over the fire is named for them.  The swineherd is called a kanász (kan being the word for the male swine – vadkan = wild boar).  The shepherd’s name is juhász, named for the juhok – sheep – that he tends.  Those who took care of horses were the csikósok, named after the csikók – colts that they took care of.  They ranked highest in the social hierarchy of the Alföld, probably because they were such expert horsemen.

Since the 19th century river regulations, the marshy areas of the Hortobágy have been drying up gradually.  But there still remain two bridges as reminders of the old days:  the Zádor bridge near Karcag, built in 1809, which originally had nine “holes”, but a flood washed away 4 of those in  1930, leaving only 5 “holes”; and the more famous nine-holed bridge,  erected in 1833, that has become a hallmark of the Hortobágy.  The cattle and sheep are driven out over the bridge in the spring on St. George’s day (April 24th), and return on St. Michael’s Day (September 29th). The herds can be visited only with guided tours.

A national park was established over 82,000 hectares (about 205,000 acres) of the Hortobágy in 1973, with 342 species of birds.  In 1999 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Here is the text of a gypsy song mentioining the Hortobágy:

Lenn a délibábos Hortobágyon Down on the mirage-y Hortobágy
Megakadt a szemem egy barna lányon.  My eye was caught by a brown-haired girl.
Hullámzott a göndör haja a sötétbe’,  Her curly hair was swaying in the dark,
Mikor belenéztem a szemébe. When I looked into her eye(s).
El is megyek hozzá meg is kérem,  I will go to her and ask her,
Legyen az én drága feleségem. To become my dear wife.
Boldogságom tudom nála megtalálom, I know I will find my happiness with her,
Lenn a délibábos Hortobágyon.  Down on the mirage-y Hortobágy. 


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