How trade routes created a city – Debrecen in Hungary…

Inland Waterways, Maritime History and Museums, Markets — By on September 27, 2015 at 10:13 PM
Debrecen's produce market is fed by rich agricultural region.

Debrecen’s produce market is fed by rich agricultural region.

How trade routes created a city – Debrecen in Hungary – that lacked the other typical medieval ingredients for success

By James Brewer

How is it that a city grew up at this spot in the first place? The question is posed of Debrecen, which is today the second largest city of Hungary.

Medieval cities were built close to rivers because of transport needs, or near mountains which could provide building materials. Debrecen had neither of these advantages.  The closest mountain, the Tokaj mountain (the Tokaj region is today noted for its wine production) is 100 km away, and the closest river is 30 km away.

Phoenix dominates Debrecen's coat of arms

Phoenix crowns  Debrecen’s coat of arms

During an introductory tour of the city for students from home and abroad attending Debrecen University summer school, Dr István Rácz of the Department of British Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, at the University, explained that the city grew thanks to its position at the meeting point of three long international trade routes, thus becoming a very important marketplace. The routes were from Vienna to Bucharest, from the Balkans to St Petersburg, and from Istanbul to Poland.

Debrecen is at another junction, too, said Dr Rácz, and that is of three kinds of soil: black clay, which is very good for growing crops; to the north, sand for growing fruit; and to the west, the Hortobágy, with its meadows which are ideal for keeping animals, and famed through the ages for its sheep, cattle and horses.

Debrecen is proud of the word Civis, a Roman word related to the affirmation of the rights of citizenship. It was applied to a person involved in agriculture, who produces his own goods, and trades. Cicero used the phrase civis romanus sum (I am a Roman citizen) to denote the entitlement of a Roman citizen to immunity from arbitrary treatment and unfair punishment.

Among the cross-cultural currents of earlier times were the friendly relations initiated by the great King (Saint) Stephen, who died in 1038,  with Byzantium. Stephen had a Varangian Guard in imitation of the Byzantine Emperor, and his son and heir married a Byzantine princess. He applied directly to Rome for recognition as the first King of Christian Hungary, independent of German and Byzantine Emperors.

Aquaticum Spa. Photo courtesy Debrecen Tourinform.

Aquaticum Spa. Photo courtesy Debrecen Tourinform.

Later, Princess Piroska (about 1088-1134) of Hungary was forced by her uncle King Kálmán to marry Byzantine Emperor John II Comnenus. Piroska was the daughter of King Ladislas I, and in Constantinople adopted the name Irene. For her piety she was made Saint Irene Prisca of the Greek Orthodox Church. She is buried in Istanbul in the Zeyrek Cami which was known in Byzantine times as the Monastery of St Saviour Pantocrator.

Byzantine Emperor Manuel Comnenos (1143-1180) invaded Hungary 10 times in 22 years but failed to gain control.

Until the early 13th century, Debrecen was a village but, a century later had grown to become a manorial centre. In 1361 Debrecen was given the status of a market town and further privileges were granted in 1405, including the right to have two national fairs a year and to build a wall around the town.

During the 15th century the town gained further privileges, resulting in the formation of trade guilds and the arrival of rich merchants.  The town – 230 km from Budapest – was officially declared to be part of the Transylvania principality, but had to pay taxes both to the Turks and the Austrians to keep the peace. At the end of the seventeenth century, when the Turks had been ousted, the Habsburgs were the major power.

Dr István Rácz.

Dr István Rácz.

Debrecen was in 1797 called “the biggest village in the whole of Europe” (in fact it was the biggest town in Hungary although not the capital with a population of 30, 000) by scholar and traveller Robert Townson. In his book Travels in Hungary Townson (c 1762-1827), who was baptised at Richmond, Surrey, wrote that if it were necessary to compare Debrecen to any other place, “I think it is like the island of Great Britain. Wide area, rich; but conservative, and although by itself, but it is strongly isolated in a certain sense.”

Its coat of arms features the Phoenix, symbolising constant renewal, and is most vibrantly expressed in a mosaic consisting of 180, 000 pieces of Venetian glass on the main square.  Like the phoenix, Debrecen rose from the ashes several times when its wooden buildings caught fire.

In the late 1800s, factories were built, and banks and insurance companies opened offices. The city was heavily bombed in World War II, but in December 1944 in the Provisional National Assembly met in the Great Church, paving the way for the Communist regime and making Debrecen capital of the country.

The city has been rebuilt, making the most of green spaces, and with its geothermal resources, along with the neighbouring Hortobágy, part of the Great Plain (Puszta), there is a comprehensive tourist offering. Debrecen has a spa culture of two centuries. The waters are high in mineral content , and there is a substantial spa in the Nagyerdei  (Big Forest) Park, which is a short tram, bicycle or taxi ride or even walk from the city centre.

The city is just a two and a half hour flight from London (Luton), boasts lots of sunshine (1, 982 hours per year) and is the largest conference centre, outside Budapest, in the country.

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