Mention Eger to a Hungarian and expect some amount of fawning, “You’ll love it, make sure you visit the castle.” My friend, Szabi, told me, “Julie, if you are going to Eger, you must read The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon. Every Hungarian reads it. Then you will understand exactly what this town means to us.”
The next day, I went on a search for Geza Gardonyi’s novel. At dinner, I questioned a friend’s son who is 10 years old, “Do you know the book The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon?” “Of course, I’m reading it now for school.” Bingo.
It seems to be the Hungarian equivalent of the stories I grew up with in New Jersey; Honest Abe, George Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas Eve, Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. My stories reflected a happy history, albeit brief, with the emphasis on life lessons.
Hungarians tell tales of centuries of oppression offset by micro bursts of happiness – heavy showers of grief interspersed with highly intermittent optimism. Eger is the archetype of a perfect Hungarian day.
The book tells the story of the Turkish conquest of Hungary in the 16th century – an occupation which lasted over 150 years. Turks ruled the kingdom from Pecs through the capital city of Budapest and from Sopron to the Tokaj region.
Gardonyi recounts stories of the Turkish army approaching: lines of dervishes twirling before their sultan, troops in towering turbans with silver and gold clubs, white Arabian stallions – all marching to sounds emanating from trumpets, pipes, cymbals and drums. Their march across Hungary is portrayed with all the pomp of the Rose Bowl parade.
Not until the Turks converged on Eger was their advance thwarted. A Hungarian contingent of men, women and children a fraction of the size of the Turkish army deployed trickery and good old fashioned hutzpah to fend off the unrelenting attack. The Turks retreated in defeat. Eger remained free until ultimately succumbing to the Turks 40 years later.
One theory for the Turkish defeat in Eger is that Hungarians led the fight. In other cities, foreigners bolstered the local forces waging the counterattack.
“In due course they’ll say that Temesvar and Szolnok fell because the Turks were stronger, but that is not so. They fell because Temesvar was defended by Spanish mercenaries, Szolnok by Spaniards, Czechs and Germans. ….. Here apart from the five bombardiers, everyone is Hungarian, and most of them are from Eger. Lions defending their own den! I trust in Hungarian blood!” (Geza Gardonyi, The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon)
As we walked through the castle, I could picture the Turkish army storming the walls – women in bonnets and ankle length dresses throwing boiling soup from caldrons onto the heads of the marauders, children tossing all means of common items stuffed with surprise explosives. Off kilter, the Turks retreated, frightened by the unpredictable booby traps.
In the far corner of the castle, Geza Gardonyi is buried. Perhaps 200 yards away is the house where he wrote his most famous book. The home in tiny, a small entryway which leads to two rooms; a bedroom and an expansive, book filled office. From his bed, Gardonyi gazed out the window towards the Eger castle.
Occasionally, I learn something I never knew, perhaps a new word or a name. Then, over the course of weeks I will hear it repeated again and again. How did I never notice it? So it is with the name Geza Gardonyi. In Budapest the 47 tram stops at Gardonyi square. In the center of the square stands one of my favorite statues in the city memorializing Geza Gardonyi.
Eger is, at its core, a town similar to the nicest of the old Hungarian villages. A large square dominates the center. Tourists cluster here, as do street performers. Coffee houses and restaurants vie for their fair portion of the outdoor space.
Surrounding the square are a number of churches and buildings adorned with the ornamental plaster I have learned to associate with this region. In the middle of the square is – of course – a statue. You can walk to the the Valley of the Beautiful Women on the outskirts of town to taste the local bull’s blood wine in a row of cellars tucked side by side and burrowed into the hills (watch for this post!).
Looming above the old city is the castle. Should you climb up to it, or even if you don’t, you will notice a minaret, the only part remaining from the mosque built after the Turks returned. Today, it serves as a lookout over the city. A line of tourists wait to climb to the top.
Some may look at the minaret and comment about the 150 years of Ottoman occupation in Hungary. Others may wonder why the odd, needle shaped tower exists at all. However, I turn and gaze up to the castle and imagine the ragged Hungarian victors, 40 years during which Eger defied all odds and remained free. I look at Eger and see it through Hungarian eyes.
Categories: Central/Eastern Europe