The navel of Europe

“The center of the world is about half-way to Bukovina. South of Galicia, east of Máramaros, northwest of Moldova, along the river Tisza, there is a point. A straight way leads there. If we approach it through the valleys and glens of Subcarpathia, it is not far from the salt mines of Aknaszlatina/Solotvyno. We follow the way leading from Beregszász/Beregovo directly to Czernowitz. It can be done by train in seventeen, but by car or bus in five-six hours. You should not choose the train also because it meanders just like history did in this region, dividing the world into fortunate and unfortunate societies; the binaries run sometimes on the Romanian and sometimes on the Ukrainian side; the border guards stop us several times, and when it is flooding, the wagons do not move, but even the buses and cars remain standing. In Máramarossziget/Sighetul Marmației, at least this is how it seems from the train, there are no fortunate societies any more.”

On full screen

“Between 1873 and 1913 the Military Geographical Institute of Vienna carried out the first leveling survey in the whole territory of the Hapsburg Empire, setting up a nationwide height reference point network. Here, along the Upper Tisza, facing the Barnabás mountain ridge, we find the center of Europe, or at least – according to some descriptions – that of Central Europe. True, simple mathematical calculations do not support the idea of the existence of any center here; nevertheless, at that time, at the turn of the century they quickly erected an obelisk with the following inscription: Permanent base point, established with an extremely precise Austro-Hungarian leveler, according to the European grades of longitude and latitude.

“Of course I did not tell the truth; the road is not straight, but curved. Whoever sets out for the center of the world, wonders how beautiful the world is. The Apsas (Lower Apsa, Middle Apsa, Upper Apsa, Little Apsa) have wooden churches on their hilltops, lined with soft carpets, and as the traveler goes past them, he suddenly arrives to small cemeteries at the side of the churches. He proceeds among collapsed huts, looks at rebuilt bridges over the Tisza, and waddles among the bunkers of the former Árpád line. The center of the world is exactly between the Barnabás and Terebesfejérpatak/Delove. If we go on, and leave behind Rahó/Rahov as well as Kőrösmező/Yasinya, we arrive to the source of the Black-Tisza. Here ends the Tisza and its valley. And over the 2000-meter high ridge of Charnahora already begin the hills of Bukovina, the land of the Hutsuls and Hasids, the rivers Suceava and Siret, and behind them former arable fields, now weeds and some cultivated land: here lived in five villages the Székelys of Bukovina.”

“But let us turn back to the mountains! The forest Hasids of the Cheremosh know something. Someone once wrote that they are the real pessimists of the regions, because if they predict a disaster, they will be right. Let us therefore not run down from the mountains, because there is still something that we do not see, although it is there in the forest. If we look towards the Charnahora, to the east we see the snow-capped peaks of Pop Ivan. Let us look up on the mystical mountain of the intuitive peoples! The pious inhabitants of the deep black gorges of the 2028-meter high Pop Ivan were once Greeks, Romans, Jews and Rusyns. And over the past centuries from here started the rafts of wood, carrying timber to Kuty, to the Danube, and even as far as to Szeged. Whatever the mountains are telling is known here to everyone, and will remain a secret only to us for a while.”

Kiss Noémi: Bukó, detail. Lettre Internationale 58/2005

“Kőrösmező/Yasinya. Rafters’ prayer at the coming of the dam water”. Rafting timbers along the Tisza, not far above the center of Europe. Below the same, from a Hungarian newsreel of 1943.

A dozen of places compete for the glory of Europe’s geographical center, from Germany through the Hungarian Tállya in the region of Tokaj to Lithuania, and, in addition, each with a good reason, depending on how we draw the outlines of the continent and how we interpret the middle. These points are visited one by one by the Polish director Stanisław Mucha in his hilarious and thought-provoking film Die Mitte (2006).

The obelisk standing at Terebesfejérpatak/Delove reflects this complexity. This was the earliest defined midpoint of Europe, unless credit is given to the legend of the inn Mittelpunkt Europas in Hitler’s birthplace, Braunau am Inn, according to which it had been recognized as the center of the continent already by Napoleon. This obelisk was erected by the Military Geographical Institute of Vienna in 1877, during the first nationwide leveling survey of 1873-1913, when precisely this village became one of the seven main base points of the Hapsburg Empire. However, the midpoint defined by them is not exactly here, but some forty kilometers to north-west between the mountains, under Ökörmező/Mizhgire, where Ivan Olbracht wrote in the thirties his ironic and heart-wrenching stories about Rusyns and Hasids. The column served only to raise awareness of it along the main road leading from Vienna to Little Vienna, as Czernowitz was called at the time. And as the primitive elaboration and the incorrectly copied Latin text warns about it, this column is not that column any more. The original monument of the Monarchy may have been changed for the present one in 1986, when the Soviet plaque in Russian was attached to the wall behind it. This was followed by the rocket-like steel symbol, and after 1990 by the memorial wall with the tryzub in Ukrainian. And the symbolic space formed by the official memorial columns is readily filled by the neighboring population with their landmarks: roadside crosses, open air market, the inn furnished as a folk museum.

A further folk landmark on the nearby Tatar Pass, in the folk sculpture park at the former Hungarian-Bukovinian border

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