Mountains of Lebanon. Photos by Pavel Kosenko

Two things are better to write about than one. It’s better to wait a couple of days before writing about a recent discovery, because often another one appears unexpectedly, as if the former called for help to interpret each other in a way I originally had not thought of.

I am reading Amin Maalouf’s recently published family saga, the Origins which explains the choice of the title like this:

Others talk about “roots”. I do not use this word. I do not like the term “roots”, even less the image. Roots penetrate deep into the earth, wiggle in the mud, they fulfill themselves in the dark. They keep the tree in captivity since its birth, and they feed it by blackmailing in the meantime like this: “If you set free, you will die.”

The political rhetoric of roots recalls a number of unpleasant memories here in Central and Eastern Europe. I, however, always remember first the touching comment of that Turkish captain from Temesvár (today Timişoara in Romania) who fell in captivity during the Hapsburg campaign which in 1686 liberated Hungary from the Ottoman dominion, and when several years later he managed to escape, he finished his memoirs like this: “Finally I returned to Temesvár, because there are my roots.” It is odd to think that for a hundred and sixty years, from 1552 to 1716 there existed a Turkish Temesvár, where four generations of the captain’s ancestors were born. And so it is understandable that after that city was also recaptured, he could not find his place in Istanbul until his death. His roots were definitively torn out from a land where there was no return.

Maalouf, the descendant of Lebanese Arabic ancestors, does not identify his forefathers with a place. He continues like this:

With humans, the situation is different. To us the roads are important alone. Unlike the trees, the roads do not grow out of the ground. They stem from somewhere, just like we do. This is a deceptive origin, for a road never has a real origin: before the first curve already there was a previous curve somewhere in the distance, and another one before that. This is an unfathomable origin, as the road at every intersection encountered other roads which stemmed from elsewhere. If all roads crossing each other were to be taken into account, they would run a hundred times around the Earth.

However, in the case of my people exactly this must be done. I come from a tribe which has been wandering from time immemorial in a global desert. Our homelands are oases that we leave when the source is exhausted, our houses are tents clothed with stone, our nationality depends on dates and ships. Beyond the generations, the seas and the Babelian confusion of languages, only the buzz of a name binds us together.

Is a surname our homeland? Yes, it is.

Some days ago, while writing about the most ancient Slovakian language record in Csömör, I left to a later entry the discovery that in this village, on the corner of our own street I met an ancestor of mine from two centuries ago. He was just measuring the land for the Lutheran school and teacher’s house on behalf of Prince Antal Grassalkovich.

Record of the manuscript history of 1798 of the Lutheran community in Csömör on the marking off of a plot for school and teacher’s house in the spring of 1787 (from here)

Clementissimus Princeps Antonius Grasalkovitz de Gyarak, perlectis his, Dominos Inspectores Inclyti Dominii, Josephum Noli, Ioannem Foltin, adiuncto eis Magistro Murariorum Gödöllöiensi, pro exscindendo hoc fundo intravillano ad Csömör mittit; qui hoc opus etiam feliciter terminarunt […] Hac occasione etiam pro horto infra Scholam ad rivulum praetercurrentem; ut etiam pro area (humno) fundus sufficiens assignatus, excissus erat.On reading the request, the gracious Prince Antal Grassalkovich sent out his estate inspectors József Noli and János Foltin, and together with them his master builder of Gödöllő to mark off a plot. They successfully completed this task […] On that occasion, enough land was marked off also for the garden under the school running down to the creek as well as for the humno [Slovak: farmyard]

My family tradition has it that my ancestor was invited by Count Antal Grassalkovich (1694-1771) from Bohemia to Hungary in the 1740s to build the castle of Gödöllő, the first representative Baroque castle in Hungary which in 1867, due to the generosity of the nation, became the summer castle of Queen Sissy. At that time, just a few decades after the expulsion of the Turks there were not enough well trained workmen for the execution of such a large-scale work in the devastated region of Pest. Grassalkovich, who originally came from around the northern city of Nyitra/Nitra, invited the Czech master builder Schlosarik and his people who acquired enough practice on the castle buildings of the nearby Bohemia, and since then almost every male in the family has been an architect, including my father and brothers. Until the death of the last Grassalkovich they served them as master builders, and then they wandered over the country, following the jobs. At the end of the 19th century they  built a large number of historicist houses just in Temesvár as well as in Arad and Kolozsvár (Cluj), some of the most dynamically developing Hungarian cities.

When I think of what makes a community between me and my forefather, the master builder surveying the land just a corner to here, it is not the land cultivated or the house inhabited since generations, as in the case of the Turkish captain of Temesvár. Not even the common name as for Maalouf, which has changed since then, and by way of marriages has mingled with the names of other, more illustrious architect’s dynasties. But the craft. As I’m meticulously transcribing and translating the Baroque manuscript written in Latin, Old Czech and archaic Slovak and as I’m editing it into a homepage and a publication, I see him as he is just as carefully surveying the land, pulling out the cord, letting to dig the foundations about which the manuscript speaks. And if he saw how I am continuing, two centuries later, the honorable craft, I hope he would understand me, too.

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