See also: Photos of the "siklos.hu/dzsami"]Malkocs Bej Dzsámi[/url] in Siklós city.
This next article appeared in the Independent.co.uk and dated to July 13, 2001, but is no longer available on that website.
Hungary: Of Masjids, minarets and Magyars
Hungary's Ottoman heritage may sometimes lie buried beneath a Christian veneer
By Sarah A Smith
If asked to name a Muslim country, it's unlikely that Hungary would be the first to spring to mind. Yet for more than 170 years (1526-1699), the heart of this country, including much of Transdanubia, Budapest and a slice of the Great Plain, was under Ottoman rule and marked the most westerly point of the empire. During this period, churches became Masjids, and belfries minarets; religious schools, dervish monasteries and caravanserais were set up in large towns, and Budapest's Margit Island was turned into a harem. It's difficult to believe, in this land of baroque churches and art nouveau mansions, but Hungary was once recognisably part of what was known as "Turkey in Europe".
Appropriately, the people who became a byword for hedonism left the capital, Budapest, one of its most pleasurable pastimes: the thermal baths. Hungary's hot springs were used by the Romans but the Ottomans made them an institution. The Rudas, Rac and Kiraly baths survive.
The best-preserved, the Rudas, squats at the foot of Gellert Hill, on the Danube embankment, and looks distinctly uninviting. Its hall, which I peer into (women are not allowed into the Rudas, although they can use the swimming pool) is shabby, and chunks of the ceiling have fallen in. But my partner agrees to try it in the interests of research.
Once he has got over his confusion at having to wear an apron rather than the expected loincloth, he adores the experience. The bath is so old (it dates from 1556), the water (36C and sulphurous) so relaxing: he has wallowed in history. After a sauna, he sits in the octagonal pool edged with pink marble, beneath a dome inset with coloured glass and supported by pillars. The dome and the water together create a magical acoustic, and the surrounding voices are reduced to an otherworldly murmur.
Aside from baths, the remaining traces of the Ottoman Empire are largely religious. The most impressive of these in northern Hungary is the tomb of Gul Baba, a dervish saint whose shrine is still visited by devotees of the Bektashi sect from across the Islamic world. Situated on Rozsadomb, or Rose Hill, in the north of Buda, with views over the city, the octagonal, copper-domed mausoleum is reached via a broken, weed-tight path. The tomb is pristine: Turkey provided the money to restore the building and it now sits in an incongruously Mediterranean-style garden, complete with pillars, climbing roses, an ablutions fountain, and rather too new-looking tiling. If it all appears slightly kitsch, it is touching to find so well-preserved a monument in a country that still remembers its Ottoman past with distaste, and has the statues of crushed Turks and victorious Magyars to prove it.
The real place for Ottoman remnants is in the south, however. PÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cs, 200km from Budapest, has a Mediterranean climate and pretty boulevards. Its central feature, and symbol, is an Ottoman-style Masjid, now an Ottoman-mosque-style Catholic church. A brick building in the midst of painted baroque faÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â§ades, a church with a crescent and a cross rising from its dome, it is unsettling inside and out. No amount of paint has been spared to retouch its vaulted corners, mihrab, or the bricks around its arched windows. To stand at the back of the church, looking past a modern Christian mural at the faded Koranic inscriptions on the walls and the Masjid lamps hanging from the ceiling, is giddying. A similarly confusing experience awaits in Szigetvár, 33km west of PÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cs, where the former Masjid of Ali Pasha has been cleverly hidden inside an 18th-century church.
Besides these hybrids, the Jakovali Hassan Masjid in PÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cs, and the Malkocs Bej Masjid in Siklós, a rundown town near the Croatian border, seem restrained. Jakovali Hassan is Hungary's only intact Masjid and the most sensitively restored. The monastery that once adjoined it is long gone, and now it is jammed between three-story buildings, its minaret poking up hopefully behind, an oddity in a street some way from the town's attractions. Malkocs Bej is now a museum and the enthusiasm with which the elderly caretaker greets us (would we like a Hungarian translation of the Koran? No? A book on the Bosnian war, perhaps?) suggests that it is little visited. The exhibits include a Turkish tea set, carpets, pipes and slippers. Mohács, 40km east of PÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â©cs, is the site of the fateful Ottoman victory that allowed the forces of the expansionist Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent into the country. Hungarian historians insist that their ancestors were outnumbered two to one; Western writers suggest the forces were evenly matched. In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered three mass graves in a field outside the town, and the area is now a memorial garden.
A sign emphasises that this is a burial ground and the scene of a national tragedy. We are met by a bewildering array of 2m-high carved wooden totem poles, staked around the garden. Some are abstract, others representative, none are standing quite straight. Suleyman himself is present, complete with a bag of wooden heads. He is placed, rather unnervingly, beside one of the wreath-strewn graves. From here, we headed north-east across the Great Plain, to Eger, in the northern uplands. Although we had avoided castles for most of our trip, there was something insistent about Eger's. It was the scene of a glorious Magyar defence in 1552 (the 1596 capitulation is largely glossed over).
The castle's strategist, Dobó István, lies within the "hall of heroes", guarded by figures of Magyar champions and adorned with ribboned wreaths. These are a feature of Hungarian monuments; flags seem to be everywhere, even a roadside shrine on the Plain has flowers in the national red, white and green. The town's other attraction is its minaret, the oldest surviving Muslim structure in Europe this far north. While most surviving Masjids lost their minarets, this lost its Masjid in 1841.
Ten minutes away is the Effendi Restaurant, serving such delights as the Pasha's Secret (a pork-stuffed bread loaf) and the Sultan's Cup (an ice-cream concoction). It seems a fitting place to end a trip through a land that, while it does not hide its Ottoman past, isn't always entirely sure what to do with it.