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Who Are the Magyars?

A Chinese proverb states:. "Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step." It is very possible that the proto-Magyars wandered not a thousand miles but ten times that distance during the span of many centuries before arriving in their present homeland. Although some historians depict the Magyars as a people of European origin, the greater part of the evidence points to Asia. One thing is certain: they came from the East. The matter of dispute is from how far east?

Search for a definitive answer to this question can be a frustrating experience.

The best known theory of the Magyars' origin is the Finno-Ugrian(-Turkic) concept. The advocates of this theory believe in the linguistic and ethnic kinship of the Hungarians with the Finns, Esthonians, Ostyaks and Voguls. This concept places the ancient homeland of the Finno-Ugrians on both sides of the southern Urals, a relatively low mountain range (average altitude 3000 feet) which separates Europe from Asia.

Since the linguistic likeness of the Magyar language to the Finno-Ugrian family of languages has been firmly established, the advocates of this theory insist that the cradle of the Magyars could only have been situated in the Ural region. It was from there - so the theory goes - that around 2000 B.C. the Finnish branch broke away to finally settle in the Baltic area.

Meanwhile, the proto-Magyars remained on the vast West Siberian steppes with other Ugrian peoples until around 500 B.C. (There is no satisfactory explanation, however, for how the Proto-Magyars, who had been forest dwelling hunters and gatherers along with the other Finno-Ugrians, became horse-breeders, livestock herding horsemen and warriors).

Then the Magyars, now alone, crossed the Urals westward to settle in the area of present-day Soviet Bashkiria, situated north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Remaining there for centuries, they became neighbors of various Ural-Altaic peoples such as the Huns, Turkic-Bulgars, Alans and Onogurs. Inevitably, these proto-Magyars adopted many of their neighbors' cultural traits and customs. Some ethnic mingling also occurred before the various Hungarian tribes, pressured by waves of migrating nomads, started their own migration westward toward the Carpathians.

This Finno-Ugrian(-Turkic) theory was quasi sanctioned by the state from the middle of the 19th century to recent times. After World War II, however, this concept was challenged by a new coalition of scholars and orientalists. The Finno-Ugrian theory, they argue, is based on linguistics alone, without support in anthropology, archeology or written records.

The orientalists point, instead, to apparent evidence that the cradle of the Magyars and their language lay not in the Ural region, but in an area of Central-Asia, earlier known as the Turanian Plain. Now known as Soviet Turkestan, this area stretches from the Caspian Sea eastward to Lake Balchas. Ancient chronicles called this huge area Scythia. A living tradition fed by centuries of folklore holds that the proto-Magyars were related to the Scythians, builders of a great empire in the fifth century B.C. Greek and Latin authors freely referred to a great variety of peoples living within this empire as "Scythians," just as the varieties of peoples encompassed by the Soviet Union today are often called "Soviets."

After the Scythian Empire disintegrated, the Turanian Plain witnessed the rise and fall of empires built between the first and ninth centuries A.D. by the Huns, Avars, Khazars and various Turkic peoples, including the Uygurs. The proto-Magyars absorbed new strains from these peoples, and formed tribal alliances from which later the Hungarian nation - an amalgam of Onogur, Sabir, Turkic and Ugrian peoples - was to be born.

Today, students of Far-Eastern history believe that the Magyars were strongly exposed to Sumerian culture as well since proto-Sumerians too, had inhabited the Turanian Plain until about 3000 B.C. This people then migrated to Mesopotamia, where they built a brilliant civilization, whose most important achievement was the invention of writing.

By 1950 B.C. the Sumerian empire was gone, but their cunei form writings endured on the tablets they had used. Famous linguists of the 19th century, including Henry C. Rawlinson, Jules Oppert, Eduard Sayous and François Lenormant soon found that knowledge of the Ural-Altaic languages - particularly


Magyar - can greatly facilitate the deciphering of Sumerian writings. Cunei form writing was used by the Hungarians long before their arrival in the Carpathian Basin, and afterwards as well.

The similarity of the two languages strongly inspired Hungarian orientalists to seek a deeper Sumerian-Hungarian connection. To the present day, however, no indisputable and decisive proof has yet emerged.

However; a by-product of orientalist speculations - a "Finno-Ugrian concept in reverse. " - is worthy of note. This concept holds that, if the proto-Magyars were neighbors of proto-Sumerians in the Turanian Plain, then the development of the Hungarian language must have been the result of Sumerian rather than Finno-Ugrian(-Turkic) influences. In turn, this would mean that, rather than being the recipients of a Finno-Ugrian linguistic heritage, it was the Magyars themselves who must have conveyed their own proto-language, enriched by Sumerian, to the Finns and Estonians, without being ethnically related to them!

Adding strength to this theory is the fact that the Magyars have always been numerically stronger than all their distant Finno-Ugrian neighbors combined. It is possible that Finns and Ugors received strong linguistic strains from a Magyar branch which had broken away from the main body on the Turanian Plain, and migrated to West Siberia.

The Magyar-Uygur "Connection"

Highly interesting in the quest for the ancient Hungarian homeland have been recent efforts to study the Magyar-Uygur connection. The Uygurs are a people with a Caucasian appearance in the Xinjiang province of China. This region still reflects its ancient role as a meeting place of Chinese civilization and Central Asia's nomadic peoples. Here, members of a dozen ethnic groups outnumber the nationally predominant Han Chinese. The largest among them are the Uygurs, 7 million strong, who still hold fast to their Turkic language.

The Uygurs inhabit the Tarim Basin and a chain of oases between the forbidding Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. Traversing the region is a 4,000 mile trade route used by caravans traveling from China to the shores of the Mediterranean. Taklamakan "in the folklore of the Uygurs means once you get in, you can never get out." Over the centuries the Uygurs have built intricate canal systems for waters originating in the snow-covered mountain ranges to the north. They also dug wells to supply water for growing grains, fruit, vegetables and cotton. At the Uygurs' northern border stretches the Dzungarian Basin, a steppe-like region where dry grain - farming is practiced.

The very name Dzungaria has a striking similarity to Hungaria, the Latin word for Hungary, a word still used in poetic terms in Hungary today. Northeast of Dzungaria lies the Altai Mountain Range, a name used by linguists in defining the Ural-Altaic language group to which Magyar also belongs. Further to the north stretches the Lake Baykal region. It is from here that first the Scythians, then the Huns emerged to conquer the Turanian Plain. The Magyars, Uygurs and the Turks may also have started their migrations from the northeastern part of the Baykal area.

Given all these circumstances, it is no wonder that the most famous Hungarian explorer, Sándor Körösi-Csoma, pointed toward the land of the Uygurs in his quest, which started in 1819, for the ancient Magyar homeland. Unfortunately, neither he nor Ármin Vámbéry, another Hungarian explorer of international fame, was able to reach the land of the Uygurs, due to forbidding deserts and mountain ranges, and marauding bandits. Sir Aurél Stein. a third internationally famous Hungarian explorer did succeed in reaching Xinjiang with his expedition in 1913, but exploring the Uygur area regarding the origin of the Magyars was beyond his mission of collecting artifacts for the British Museum.

It was not until the 1980s that Hungarian orientalists could finally overcome natural and political barriers to finally take a good look at the Uygurs. They returned impressed by what they had seen, and one after the other gave glowing accounts, documented by audio-visual presentations, of the similarities in facial features, music and folk arts. In addition, reports mention that the Uygurs have an unwritten tradition about their kinship with the Magyars whom they call "vingirs," and who had left many centuries earlier finally emerging as "conquerors" in Europe.


Until further anthropological, archeological and linguistic research is conducted, however, drawing definite conclusions would be premature.

This might take long years, because in April, 1990 China declared Xinjiang an "off limit" area again to foreigners. Anti-Chinese agitation among the Uygurs is attributed to the ban.

However, one fact stands out in the labyrinth of various theories and that is the undeniable Asiatic influence which is expressed in various forms among Hungarians even today.

Legends and folk tales reach back much further in time than the pens of historians. Magyar folk tales are strikingly similar to those of Asian peoples. The structure of Magyar folk music, which uses the pentatonic scale, also points to Asian origins. "We actually have two mother tongues," said Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian musical genius of this century. "One is the spoken language of Finno-Ugric origin, and the other is the language of our music, which is the westernmost branch of a great Asian musical culture extending from China through Middle Asia to our area."

The famous gate ornaments of the Székelys in Transylvania bear a strong resemblance to those in the pagodas of China. Their tombstones (made of wood) are similar to those seen in Chinese cemeteries. Interestingly, the color of mourning in some parts of Hungary, notably in Somogy County, is the same as in parts of Asia - white. Hungarian cuisine - using strong spices and seasonings such as paprika, pepper, saffron, and ginger - also bears the imprint of Asian influence. as do the patterns used in national folk costumes.

Former premier Count Pál Teleki, perhaps the highest authority on Hungarian history and geography, once said: "I profess with pride, both here and abroad, that we are a people of Asian origin!"

The Hun and Avar Connection

The best known Magyar folk tale is the Legend of the White Stag.. It describes how two sons of Nimrod, Hunor and Magor, were lured into a new land by a fleeing white stag. There they married the king's daughters. The descendants of Hunor and his men became known as the Huns, and the descendants of Magor and his men became known as Magyars.

This legend contains a grain of truth in that it points to the common origin of the Huns and Magyars, which Hungarians have known since time immemorial. Surprisingly, Hungarians are proud of their origin despite the bad reputation given to the Huns and their leader, Attila, by Western history books. Most writings describe Attila the Hun as cruel and ruthless, with one notable exception - the famous German Nibelungen-Lied mentions him thus: "There was a mighty king in the land of the Huns whose goodness and wisdom had no equal."

Wherever the truth may lie, cruelty and man's inhumanity to man have always been characteristics of human behavior. Actually, the Vandals were much worse than the Huns, so much so that their terrible "character" has been immortalized by the word "vandal" itself. In comparison, Attila was also less cruel than Cortez, Pizarro, and Ivan the Terrible. Would these conquerors have shown Rome mercy, as Attila did, when the Pope pleaded with him outside the gates of the Eternal City? Genserich, Belizar the Saracens, the Norsemen, and 1000 years later (in 1527) the German and Spanish mercenary troops all pillaged Rome without heed.

In the midst of Oriental and barbaric splendor, Attila's simplicity stamped him a true soldier. Delegates from Byzantium related with wonder that the mighty Hun chief used only a wooden goblet and wooden plate during the sumptuous banquets they had attended. At that time. Attila's empire extended from the Rhine River to the Caspian Sea, and from the Baltic Sea to the Lower Danube. But. as with many quickly created empires. Attila's realm fell to pieces soon after his early death on his nuptial night in 453 A.D. Rivalry broke out among his sons, and the Huns who had threatened Gaul and Rome withdrew to the East between the Don and Kuhan rivers. There they disintegrated into various nomadic tribes.

After the tide of the Huns had peaked and ebbed, further waves of peoples moved in to take their place, but all were crushed by the Avars, a quickly emerging branch of the Ural-Altaic group. They succeeded in founding an empire whose heart was in the area once held by the Huns: the territory between the Danube and Tisza rivers in the Carpathian Basin. The Avars' peculiar weapon was the gladius hunnicus, the Huns' curved sabre. They raised circular bulwarks and dug entrenchments, the traces of which can still be seen in scattered locations.

The Avars' downfall was hastened by the development of Charlemagne's Frankish Empire. Their armies clashed in a fierce war of attrition that lasted seven years, from 796 to 803 A.D. After their defeat by Frankish troops, most Avar tribes returned to the slopes of the Caucasian Mountains. Some others, however, stayed and mingled with the Slavs of the area and later with the Magyars.

When the Magyars tinder Árpád arrived in their new homeland, they found that they were welcomed as brethren by the sparse population ill some areas. According to the Teri-i-Üngürüsz chronicle: "When they arrived in the land, they saw its many rivers teeming with fish, the land rich in fruits and


vegetables, and members of other tribes, some of whom understood their language."

But this seemingly simple progression into the Carpathian Basin is only part of the story, as we shall see.

Black Magyars and White Magyars

Ancient Chinese geographical directions, not skin color, form the basis for the distinction between the "black" branch and the "white" branch of the Magyars.

Contrary to the Western compass, the Chinese held that there were, five cardinal directions, the fifth being "the center of the universe", China itself. Each of the five directions was symbolized by a color.

The central point, China, was indicated by yellow, for the gold that befit His Imperial Highness. The North, so often shrouded by the dark of Arctic nights, was black. The West was given white, a color that reflected the blinding white sands of the vast deserts on the western horizon. Red denoted the sunny South, and the East was symbolized by blue, the color of the ocean eternally washing China's eastern shores.

Based on these color symbols, the White Magyars ("white ugurs") represented the Western branch of their race. According to ancient Russian chronicles, the White Magyars appeared in the Carpathian Basin as early as 670-680 A.D., first with the Bulgars, and later with the Avars.

The second branch of Magyar tribes - called Black Magyars in ancient Russian chronicles - took a different route. The directions that route took are still debated by Finno-Ugrian and orientalist theorists, but the final outcome is that the Black Magyars became connected with peoples belonging to the Ural-Altaic groups. These included a range of peoples from Manchuria to Turkey.

Among these groups the Finno-Ugrian/Magyars drew closest to the Turks, who were fierce warriors with a talent for statecraft. This association with the Turks created a new blend of Magyar: Finno-Ugrian in language but Ural-Altaic in culture. This was the breed of Magyars that in 896 A.D. would ride into the Carpathian Basin under Árpád - following the footsteps of the 'White Magyars who appeared in the Carpathian Basin in the 670s A.D. But for now, Árpád's Magyars were still many hundreds of miles away from that area, engaged in a struggle for survival among warlike nomads.

In a protracted scramble for living space, the Magyars were pushed closer to the West by their powerful enemies, the Petchenegs (bessenyök), until they settled in what was called Lebedia, named after their leader, Lebed. But the relentless onslaught of their enemies continued and finally, breaking under the strain, a small group of Magyars split from the main body and moved back to their former homeland in the Volga region, Baskiria (later dubbed Magna Hungaria).

The main group moved farther west and attempted to settle an area known as Etelköz, between several rivers, not far from the foothills of the Carpathians. Even here, in Etelköz, Bulgarian and Petcheneg harassment continued.

About this time, in the eighth and ninth centuries, Christian missionaries frequently traveled over the Carpathian Mountains, bringing with them news of Pannonia, the western part of the Carpathian Basin beyond the Danube. Their tales rekindled memories of the Hun-Avar-Magyar kinship and must surely have played a major role in pushing the leaders of the Magyar tribes to a fateful decision: they must find a new homeland,. defensible against present and future enemies. What followed was the Hungarian equivalent of "Westward, ho'."


A Covenant of Blood-with a "Flaw"

By the time their chieftains had decided to go west and cross over into the Carpathian Basin, the Magyars were a well organized tribal alliance. Their society was clearly divided into social strata, administered by councils on the clan and tribal levels. However, their leaders were empowered to take arbitrary measures in cases of emergency. They formed a democratic society which was constantly on military alert.

Knowing that difficult and dangerous times lay ahead, the tribal chieftains decided to unite under a single Supreme Chief. (There were 108 clans represented by the seven Magyar tribes and the three Kabar tribes that had recently joined with the Magyars.

The chiefs assembled under a large tent, with their people as witnesses around its square perimeter. Each chief in turn slit his forearm, and let his blood flow into a cup. Last to contribute his blood was Árpád, their newly chosen leader The táltos (shaman) who presided at this rite mixed wine with the blood that had thus been collected. He then poured a small amount of the mixture onto the ground, sprinkled a few drops north, south, east, and west, and then passed the cup to the chiefs, who drank from it one by one.

From this day forward, "the táltos declared," the Magyars, the Huns, and the Kabars shall be one nation indivisible, just as your blood has become one in this cup.

Árpád, the chosen Supreme Chief was last to drink from the cup. Thereupon, according to custom: he was raised on a shield and duly installed in his new role as Supreme Chief...

In this manner the Covenant of Blood forged one nation, thereafter known as the Hungarian nation.

The terms of the Covenant of Blood were simple enough. Any land obtained by common effort would be shared fairly by all members of the nation. The land was to be held by individuals as their rightful property (not in fief from their lord, as in the medieval principle of feudalism). The elected sovereign (Árpád, in this case) was to rule by the will of the nation rather than by absolute Divine Right, and Árpád's descendants would be hereditary rulers.

The covenant did not lay down exact rules of succession since it was assumed that, according to tradition, the oldest able-bodied male of the family would inherit the leadership. But this principle of succession, known as senioratus, was regarded as outdated in contemporary Europe, where the Christian rulers preferred the system of primogeniture, according to which the first-born son would inherit the throne. This conflict of principles would later result in bloody rivalries among Árpád's successors after the introduction of Christianity into Hungary.

With the election of their new leader, it was only a matter of time before the Hungarians would set forth to conquer the coveted land. When the Petchenges renewed their attacks in 895 A.D., Árpád alerted his people to prepare for the crossing of the Carpathians.


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