Cemetery visit

The second of November is the day of the dead in Hungary, perfectly described by fellow blogger Dumneazu. Here in the village everyone gets up and starts out to the cemetery, puts the graves in order, lights candles, lives social life, and observes which grave is not put in order and has no candle lit on it. That it was like this already seventy years ago is well attested by the photo below. I received it of one of the girls on it, now an eighty years old lady and the only one who still lives of the three. She gave it so that I publish it on the site of the local civil organization that I edit in voluntary work.

I had also planned a similar time travel for the day of the dead. Not to the village, however, but some sixty kilometers to here, to Velence, a fishing village on the shore of the lake of the same name. To a grave we had never seen.

We were also worrying a bit whether we would find the grave, but it was unnecessary. When entering the cemetery through the back gate, it was right there, isolated from the rest of the graves, and covered with fresh flowers, in spite of the fact that the deceased has never had any relative in Hungary.

We put the flowers aside for a moment to spell out the inscription of the gravestone.

ázsiai török szerzetes
sz. 1836
megh. 1892. május 22.
Áldás és béke hamvaira
Asian Turkic monk
born 1836
died 22 May 1892.
Blessing and peace on him

Who was this Muslim “monk” who, at the end of the 19th century when Hungary had no Muslim inhabitants, was buried under a Turkish gravepost in a Christian cemetery, and whose grave is always covered with fresh flowers?

In the past hundred years only one or two articles referred to this tomb, and even they mostly in local newspapers. It was only in 2001 that literary historian Iván Sándor Kovács published his splendid summary and collection of documents on Mollah Sadik and on the other “dervish”, the orientalist Ármin Vámbéry who had invited him to Hungary: Batu kán pesti rokonai, Vámbéry Ármin és tatárja, Csagatai Izsák (The relatives of Batu Khan in Budapest: Ármin Vámbéry and “his Tatarman” Izsák Csagatai).

Ármin Vámbéry, one of the greatest Hungarian Orientalists – whom we have also remembered among the great Hungarian scholars of Oriental studies on the site dedicated to Aurel Stein – arrived to Istanbul in 1857, at the age of twenty-five. There with the support of the émigré officers of the recently lost Hungarian war of independence (1848-49) he was employed as a teacher of French in the houses of the Turkish aristocracy. With his incredible talent for languages he quickly and perfectly mastered Turkish and Persian, and also established a lot of valuable connections. In 1861 he set on his famous travel, during which he, disguised as a wise dervish, arrived to Central Asia, to the emirates of Khiva and Bokhara before all other European researchers. There he studied local Turkic dialects and collected manuscripts. He incurred danger of death several times, but his extraordinary proficiency in the religion, scholarship and even calligraphy of Islam saved him on each occasion. He returned to Europe in 1864, where the descriptions of his travels published both in English and in Hungarian immediately made him famous all over the world.

Don’t be fooled like the emir of Bokhara was by the aspect of this poor dervish. This photo was not taken in some caravanserai of Turkestan by some traveling French photographer, an adventurous colleague of Sébah and Jouillier, Jules Richard, Blocqueville and Sevruguin working in the Turkish and Persian courts. No, the photo was taken in a London studio, and then Vámbéry immediately changed his dervish’s clothes for an evening dress to visit Lord Palmerston of whom he was a confident advisor in Oriental matters.

Besides experiences, knowledge of languages and manuscripts Vámbéry also brought something or rather someone else from Central Asia: a young mullah of Khiva named Ishak, or in Hungarian Izsák. They had travelled together from Khiva as far as Istanbul. It was only there that Vámbéry exposed himself, telling that he intended to go home to the infidel Frengistan instead of Mecca. Izsák, who by that time considered Vámbéry as his master and teacher, did not want to part him, but in spite of all his fears he decided to follow him.

Izsák remained in Hungary and within a short time he perfectly mastered Hungarian. He was Vámbéry’s servant, librarian of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and even the “Tatar teacher” of Vámbéry’s friends József Budenz and Áron Szilády. For at that time he was the only one in Europe to speak Turkic languages, including his Uzbek mother tongue as well as Chagatay, the literary language of Central Asian Turks, and the Turkic scholars of Hungary were enthusiastic to draw on this never-hoped-for source.

Contemporary science of languages still professed the Turkic origin of Hungarian language. One had to wait some twenty years until the outbreak of the so-called “Ugrian-Turkic war”, the passionate scholarly debate in which Vámbéry was opposed by his former friend Budenz, and which made the theory of the exclusive Finno-Ugrian origin official for a century. Only recent scholarship has rehabilitated Vámbéry to a certain extent by saying that the Finno-Ugrian substratum of Hungarian language was enriched during the centuries of nomadic life in the steppe by such a great amount of Turkic elements both in its vocabulary and its grammar that it brought fundamental changes to the language.

“Vámbéry’s Tatarman was a great sensation”, writes Iván Sándor Kovács. “As if the young Veinemöinen came to visit Professor Elias Lönrot and his colleagues while compiling the Kalevala, or as if one of Ulysses’ sailors held a presentation of knotting at the Dutch Naval Academy.”

The “Vámbéry circle” even convinced Izsák to translate and publish folk tales from various Central Asian languages under the pen name “Izsák Csagatai”. But the highlight of his literary work is a never published manuscript, now preserved in the Manuscript Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which is the Chagatay language translation of the great poet János Arany’s ballad Legend of the Miracle Stag, in Chagatay Adshdib suygunnun hikayeti, that is, The story of the wonderful antelope.

This beautiful archaic ballad of Arany is the paraphrase of the nomadic myth of origin of the Hungarian people as it was preserved in the 13th-century Gesta Hunnorum et Hungarorum by Simon of Kéza. It was published on 20 March 1864. Vámbéry arrived to Budapest two months later, presenting Izsák to Budenz and Szilády, who immediately had the idea to surprise Arany with the “retranslation” of the ballad into an ancient Turkic dialect as it should have sounded centuries earlier in their belief. With their help Izsák completed the translation within some months, creating a poem whose rhythm, rhymes and alliterations perfectly matched the Hungarian ones:


Száll a madár ágrul ágra
Száll az ének szájrul szájra
Fű kizöldül ó sírhanton
Bajnok ébred hősi lanton

(The bird flies from branch to branch
the song flies from mouth to mouth:
the grass grows green on ancient graves
the warrior revives on the heroic lute)


Shakhadin shakhaga uchadi kushlar
Aghizdin aghizda baradi sözler:
Görlerning üstüne chikadi otlar
Turar söz ishittip jirinnen pahlvanlar

(Birds fly from tree to tree
words go from mouth to mouth:
warriors have left this world long ago
but beautiful words have remained of their deeds)

I have sent a copy of the manuscript with its modern Turkish transcription to my Uzbek translator friend Timur, asking him to prepare a modern – and possibly commented – transliteration of his compatriot’s poem. Of course Timur, in a good Oriental habit, does not work in haste. As soon as he will be ready, we will publish his version here.

Even if Izsák changed his Turkic clothes for European ones, and also mastered German and French besides Hungarian, nevertheless he did not change his faith, although even the Archbishop of Hungary tried to convert him when receiving him on audience. In 1889, when Nasreddin, Shah of Persia on his European tour arrived to Hungary – his visit was described in detail in Chapter 15 of Küzdelmeim by Vámbéry himself – it was Vámbéry to give the welcoming speech in Persian, but immediately after that Izsák also hurried to assure the Shah that he had not betrayed his Muslim faith even after so many years spent among the giaours. This episode was even remembered by the Shah in his travel diary, translated to Hungarian by the great Iranologist Sándor Kégl in the 1895 edition of Budapesti Szemle.

Izsák’s flawlessly preserved faith is also attested by his gravepost with the Turkish crescent moon. Vámbéry obtained a special permission of the Ministry of the Interior to have a place given to him in the Christian cemetery of Velence and to have the hodsha of the Bosnian battalion in Budapest – this is the period of the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina – come and celebrate the funerals according to Islamic rite.

But why was he buried just in Velence? The beautiful obituary of Mihály Balla in the 23 May 1892 edition of Budapesti Hírlap, which begins like “An unique person died yesterday in the village of Velence: Mollah Izsák, «the Tatarman of Vámbéry», the first Central Asian «true believer» to come to Europe since Dshingiz Khan”, gives a simple reason: “He died in cardiac dilatation after having spent so long time in the clinic of Professor Korányi. To Velence, where he died, he had gone to recover his health.” Nevertheless, the “Turkish grave” was soon encircled by legends in the village, and a common element of all was that Izsák married a local girl who now sleeps her eternal dream somewhere in the Catholic cemetery.

The most beautiful among the several legends is the one collected by József Reményi from 71 years old fisherman Márton Malmos and published in the 4 September 1965 issue of Élet és Irodalom.

That man was called Árpád Mollah Sadik. He adopted the name Árpád [the name of the leader of the Hungarian tribes conquering the Carpathian Basin in 895] when he came here, because he liked to stay here and remained here. To tell the truth, he was a treasure-hunter.

To begin it at the beginning, when the Turks left these parts [in 1686, after the reconquest of Hungary], they buried incredible amounts of gold and silver. Whole barrels full of gold, pearls and all kind of precious things were hidden in the ground and in the cellars. Later some Turks came back to search for the treasures. Old people say that they even found a lot of them.

Once there came three Turks. They told that there had to be a stone dog here, where was it? Nobody knew. Later some old people recalled that when the Turks left these parts, they indeed left a stone dog here. It was a big sitting dog with an inscription on the forefront: “Twist me, you won’t regret.” People only laughed at it, who has ever heard of such a thing, twisting a dog? They urged each other, but nobody did it. The stone dog was just thrown about, from one furrow to the other, and later it was forgotten by everyone.

However, the three Turks were looking for exactly this stone dog. They did not resign themselves to its lack, they were seeking it day and night. And after a long time they found it one morning under the Warm Mountain. It was fully covered by the weed. The three Turks threw themselves on the earth, this is how they pray at home. And then one of them twisted the tail of the dog, and lo, a great amount of gold poured out of it. Three baskets were filled with it.

I do not know what they did with that much of gold, but one of the Turks told that he liked to stay here so much that he would remain here forever. Even if he had so much money that he could have wandered all over the world, but no. And he began to call himself Árpád. Because, you know, Hungarians and Turks had been one and the same people some time ago, but later they quarreled on the possession of the castle of Buda. Well, this is how Árpád Mollah Sadik came here. He married a girl in Velence, and lived happily until his death. This is how I heard it from my father himself.

One of the beauties of this legend is that the “stone dog” – similarly to the “stone sheep” keeping treasures in other Hungarian folk tales – almost certainly preserves the memory of the typical ram-shaped graveposts like those seen in the cemetery of Julfa. Similar ones must have been there also in the Muslim cemeteries of Hungary during the Ottoman occupation (1526-1686). By the time of Izsák’s funerals these cemeteries had been destroyed since long, but folk memory preserved their peculiar shape and the appearance of the “Turk” in Velence reactivated their memory. To them it has recalled an episode of the common Hungarian-Turkish history, even if not such an ancient one like the ballad of the wonderful antelope translated into Chagatay.

1 comentario:

Studiolum dijo...

“His grave is always covered with fresh flowers”, I wrote. And around this time, the Day of the Dead, also with candles, as this nice post shows it.