The reception of the Ottomans and the idea of Europe in southern Slovakia

Author: Attila KovácsComenius University in Bratislava

The Historical facts about the Ottoman presence in Central Europe

A major part of the territory of today’s Slovakia, known in this historical period as Upper Hungary (hun. Felső-Magyarország, slov. Horná zem or Horné Uhorsko) became part of the Ottoman borderlands. Some regions of the southern part of Upper Hungary were incorporated into the Ottoman administration and became the districts (tur. sanjak)(1) of three Ottoman provinces: Budin Eyalet (hung. Buda, slov. Budín, 1541-1686), Eğri Eyalet (hung. Eger, slov. Jáger, 1596-1687), Uyvar Eyalet (hung. Érsekújvár, slov. Nové Zámky, 1663-1685, see Image 2). Some major cities and castles of what is today southern Slovakia came under the Ottoman rule and the region became a buffer zone between the Ottoman Empire and the Hungarian Kingdom and later the Habsburg Empire, which, after the battle of Mohács (1526), absorbed the Hungarian Kingdom into its territory.

Central Europe and its borders around 1572. The red line shows the current borders of Slovakia and Hungary (source: Wikipedia)

Slovakian and Hungarian receptions of the Ottoman past

The “Turkish occupation” (hung. török hódoltság, slov. turecké ) plays an important role in both Slovak and Hungarian historical narratives. For Central Europeans, Muslim Turks and the Ottoman Empire were exemplary representatives of the “Orientals”. Slovak and Hungarian folk songs, sayings, stories, and poems are full of Turkish, or anti-Turkish images. The Ottoman-Turkish “other” became a counterpoint to the traditional “Christian” European and/or to the new nineteenth century national Slovak and Hungarian identities.

In the case of the Slovak national narrative, various references to Turks have been widely employed with increasing intensity particulary from the late 18th and early 19th century by some Slovak historians and writers, in order to create and strengthen new Slovak identity, mainly in relation to Hungarians (Magyars), but also to Austrians and Czechs. Although the Ottoman threat was no longer a contemporary reality at that time, the ability to withstand foreign invasion was instrumental in the works of Slovak writers, such as Samo Chalupka, the author of the well-known epic poem of Beat him to death! (Mor ho!) or Jozef Ignác Bajza, the author of the first Slovak novel. Both figures, having been always included in the standard school curricula of history and Slovak literature. The nineteenth and twentieth century difficulties and dilemmas encountered during the emancipation of the Slovaks from Hungarian and Austrian rule were thus displayed via historical and mythical themes relating to the “Turkish threat.” So the Ottoman past became an integral, but not a major chapter of the Slovak national history and plays a minor role in the creation of today’s Slovak national identity unless the politicians revive it. The recent employment of the Ottomans’ Orientalist image while pointing to their ruthless and anti-Christian character can be documented in the initiative to reclaim Europe as Christian and victorious by the representatives of Christian-Democrat Party (KDH) and the far-right Kotleba People’s Party – Our Slovakia (Kotleba Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko)(2) .

The Hungarian case is completely different. In the relation to the Ottoman past Hungarian national narrative is facing a crucial dilemma trapped between the two major conceptions. On the one hand there is an idea of being “different” or “alone” in Europe, based on the facts that Hungarians came to Central Europe “from the East” and Hungarian is not an Indo-European language (unlike majority of other European languages). Therefore, the language (and the national literature) have had an exceptional position in the construction of Hungarian identity. In the nineteenth century during the period of national revival there was a major debate about the origins of the Hungarian language between those who favoured the linguistic explanation of the Ugro-Finic origin of the Hungarians and their opponents, who sought to connect the linguistic arguments to a political context and argued the Turkic origins of Hungarians. Both in their own peculiar way participated in the more complex way of understanding the Turks and their Ottoman legacy. The supporters of the Turkic origins established a nationalist movement based on the idea of Turanism. According to that ideology, Hungarians and Turks are “relatives and brothers”. The Pan-Turanism was created to rive Pan-Slavism and became a part of the Ideology of the Hungarian far right. On the other hand, the Ottoman-Turkish “other” determined by the “tragic battle of Mohács” in Hungarian collective historical awareness, historiography, literature and popular beliefs became the major reference point defining Hungarians as “Europeans” and “Christians” and Hungary as “the last fortress of European Christianity against the Turkish-Muslim treat”. In the Hungarian literature of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in the works of Bálint Balassi, Miklós Zrínyi, Sebestény Tinódi Lantos and others, the “Turks” are the “main enemy”. The situation rapidly changed during the era of national revival. The enmity to Turks, who no longer were a military threat for the Central Part of the Kingdom of Hungary, was soon replaced by the enmity to “Germans”, i.e. Austrians. The Hungarian litterateurs of the nineteenth and twentieth century, such as Zsigmod Kemény, Mór Jókai, Zsigmod Móricz, Géza Gárdonyi and many others, portrayed the “Turks” in two different ways. Yes, there are still the soldiers and commanders of a foreign army, despots and the Muslim “others” enslaving women and children, but on the other hand many Turks are the “noble Orientals”, educated, loving poetry, bringing paprika and peaches to Hungary, speaking the language and even sharing some values with their Hungarian friends. According to this dilemma Hungarian identity has been seen as a Christian and European bridge “between the East and the West”.

The memory of the Ottomans among Slovaks and Hungarians in southern Slovakia

This complex Hungarian national narrative that both includes and distances itself from the Turks is shared also by the current Hungarian minority (a half a million by size) living in southern Slovakia, partly on the territory of the former Ottoman presence. For them the Ottoman period is an important part of “their history” co-defining the identity of Hungarians in Slovakia as a linguistically different minority and also as a part of the whole Hungarian nation in the context of its Europeanness. This narrative is a part of the school curriculum (mainly of history and Hungarian literature and language) in the Hungarian language elementary schools and gymnasia in Slovakia. As a consequence of that, in the case of the landmarks and heritage sites connected to the Ottoman period located in the villages and towns with a Hungarian majority or a strong minority presence, the Ottoman past is a major part of the local and national narrative and is reflected in the form of cultural events, memorials etc. We can illustrate this well using two contrasting cases. The first one is related to the small Hungarian majority town of Fiľakovo (hung. Fülek, tur. Filek) in central-south Slovakia. The town and the castle were under the Ottoman rule for the several decades. The Castle museum is reflecting that by organizing “Turkish evenings” (see Image 3), “Castle games” with the participation of “Ottoman troops” and other festivals focused on the local and regional youth(3) , hence diluting the image of Ottomans as solely ruthless and Anti-Christian.

The second case is the small Hungarian majority town of Štúrovo (hung. Párkány, tur. Ciğerdelen Parkani) in south-western Slovakia, for 150 years part of the Ottoman Sanjak of Estergon. Next to the town is the location of a major battle between the Ottomans and their Hungarian vassal Imre Thököly (the prince of Upper Hungary) and a Habsburg-German-Polish coalition in the year 1683 ended by the victory of Christian coalition led by Polish King Jan III Sobieski. In the year of 2008 a memorial (see image 4) showing a mounted statue of Sobieski and celebrating the Christian victory was elected by the city council. According to the 4 language (Slovak, Hungarian, Polish and German) inscription: “We came, we saw and God was victorious! Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland, the rescuer of Europe, on this place, on October 9, 1683, won over the Turkish overpower, bringing Hungary and the occupied territories to a definitive liberation.”

Štúrovo – Jan III Sobieski memorial (photo by author)

The Ottoman era in Slovakia was widely thematised by historians-orientalist as Ján Kopčan or Ján Blaskovics and the “Turkish” artefacts, mainly weapons and military equipment, form a regular part of the historical exhibitions in Slovakian museums. The military image is also a part of the school curricula of history and Slovak literature; however it isn’t an issue of crucial importance with respect to Slovak nation-building, which saw Hungarians as its main opponents. Yet the Ottomans became a part of the local interpretations of the past where Slovaks living in southern Slovakia participate. They visit and even organise cultural events as mentioned in the cases of Štúrovo or Fiľakovo. The process of integrating the Ottoman past into local memory, similar to ‘noble Orientals’ of some of the Hungarians is for instance seen in some subcultures as “Slovak Janissary troops” a historical fencing association(4) . Conversely, the ruthless “Turks” were “re-discovered” by some far right and Islamophobic groups and movements seeking an image of the “new enemy”. An illustrative example is the Mea Patria (slov. Moja vlasť, eng. My homeland), a youth movement defining themselves as “conservative, Slovak, European and Christian”. In 2017, with the support of some Christian-Democrats, they organised a gathering to remember the 365th anniversary of the battle of Veľké Vozokany (hung. Nagyvezekény), a Hungarian victory over the Ottomans in the August of 1652. In the battle four members of a major Hungarian aristocratic family, the Esterházys died. The battlefield was marked by a large obelisk erected in 1734, commemorating the victory and the sacrifice of the four brothers. In 1896 it was replaced by the memorial we can see today: a bronze sculpture of a lion crushing a Turkish battle flag (see image 5). In their own words the Mea Patria is “an organisation dedicated to the European identity” remembered “the Christian victory” next to the memorial to warn, that “today, our beautiful Europe is again the target of aggressive Islamic expansion.”

However, the historians show that the far right espousing the agenda of Christian othering cannot escape the local identity claims where both Turks as enemies and allies and idealised Orientals are not easily dissociated. According to the contemporary records, a part of the Turkish army defeated at the Battle of Veľké Vozokany was composed of soldiers recruited from amongst the local military entrepreneurs. Who, then stood for Europe, perhaps depends on whether we imagine Turks as fighters for being the European ‘Other’, or the political interests in resolving who could win the Turk for themselves.



1 The Ottoman districts on the territory of today’s Slovakia were: Sanjak of Estergon (hung. Esztergom, slov. Ostrihom), Sanjak of Novigrad (hung. Nógrád, slov. Novohrad), Sanjak of Filek (hung. Fülek, slov. Fiľakovo, its center was Rim Sonbat, hung. Rimasombat, slov. Rimavská Sobota), Sanjak of Leve (hung. Léva, slov. Levice), Sanjak of Holok (hung. Galgóc, slov. Hlohovec), Sanjak of Şaşvar (hung. Sasvár, slov. Šaštín) and Sanjak of Litra (hung. Nyitra, slov. Nitra).

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About the author

Dr. Attila Kovács graduated in religious studies and history at Masaryk University in Brno (Czech Republic), holds doctorate in religious studies from Comenius University in Bratislava, and habilitated in ethnology at the same institution.