First recorded: the Romans (who built an early road along the Danube), then the Magyars in 896. Their leader Arpad is considered the great founder of Hungary and he and the leaders of the other six founding tribes are commemorated in Budapest’s Millennium Monument—erected for the country’s 1000th birthday. Sturdy guys, these. Love the faces!
The influence of the Romans is still felt in the Balkans more than 2000 years later. The Romanian language is one of the romance languages—most akin to Italian—though it is more easily understood in its written rather than spoken form to people who know those languages. The Hungarian parliament, which wanted to emphasize its links to the Holy Roman Empire, used Latin as its official language until the 1840s.
In the 13th century, Eastern Europe was overrun by the Mongols—the Golden Horde—who swept westward from Central Asia almost as far Vienna. (This genetic infusion may explain the extra root on one of my wisdom teeth, which my endodontist says occurs most often among Asian people.) I see an echo of this influence in the costumes of the men in the horsemanship demonstration pictured above, which took place near Kalocsa, Hungary. As a few men in the distance herded sheep, the vision of ancient warriors thundering across the plain was vivid.
Starting in the 16th century, Hungary came under the influence of the Austrian Habsburgs, becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the losing side of World War I, Hungary was stripped of more than seventy percent of its territory—including Transylvania, which went to Romania, and northern areas that went to Slovakia. The Transylvanian village Fiatfalva (now Filias) and northern town Dobsina (at the edge of the Slovak Paradise National Park) were, as best I can reconstruct, the birthplaces of my paternal grandfather and grandmother, respectively.
Other countries in the region—Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia—were subjected to repeated assaults by the Ottoman Turks, and many hilltop forts and fortifications remain that take advantage of natural rock formations—like Belogradchik in Bulgaria, pictured here. Built by the Romans and added to by the Bulgarians, the Byzantines, and the Turks, it covers many acres.
In World War II came the Nazi occupation, promptly followed by the Soviets, whose heavy hand is everywhere evident. Shortly after their withdrawal almost 25 years ago, came the Yugoslav civil war. National Geographic (I think) published a version of this exact scene of hope and rebirth, which I photographed in heavily damaged Vukovar, Croatia.