Monday, March 2, 2015


The first time I remember learning about Hungary was from my dad. No, it wasn’t a geography or social studies lesson where we sat around a globe like a Norman Rockwell painting. No, it came in the form of the timeless “dad joke.” See, the key proponent of dad jokes is the pun, as in Me: Dad, where’s Greece? Dad: Under my car. Or this classic one: Me: Dad, I’m hungry. Dad: Hi, Hungary. Now, can you say that in Hungarian? And then my education just got better from there. 

It’s widely believed that the name Hungary is stemmed from the Turkic words on-ogur, which means “ten arrows.” Before Hungary was united, several nomadic tribes roamed these lands. The word Hunni, which refers to the Huns (yes, as in Attila the Hun), is based on a Latin spelling.  However, the name the Hungarians give to their own county is Magyarország, or “land of the Magyars.” According to important Hungarian historical accounts, Magyar was the forefather of the Hungarians. Interestingly enough, Magyar’s brother Hunor was thought to be an important ancestor of the Huns.  

Lake Balaton
Hungary lies in Eastern and Central Europe. A landlocked country, it is surrounded by Slovakia to the north, Ukraine to the northeast, Romania to the east, Serbia to the south, Croatia and Slovenia to the southwest, and Austria to the northwest.  The famous Danube (as in “Blue Danube Waltz” by Austrian composer Johann Strauss II whose paternal great-grandfather was a Hungarian Jew) runs through the country and directly through the capital city of Budapest.  The lesser famous Tisza River is also very important to Hungarian geography.  Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Central Europe, which lies in the western region of the country. Nearby Lake Hévíz is the largest thermal lake in the world. Because of this, Lake Hévíz is thought to have medicinal properties beneficial to patients with rheumatoid and other joint/muscle ailments. 

1956 Uprising in Budapest
As I mentioned earlier, this land was originally inhabited by several roaming tribes of people who later united themselves, and Hungary was born in 895. It soon began to integrate itself into Western Christian Europe. Hungary changed to a feudal state and adopted Latin as its official language (which remained the official language until as late as 1844). Hungary has a long and moderately complicated history of being invaded and counter-invaded by a whole slew of people wanting to take over their land. For nearly 150 years, the Hungarians engaged in battles with the Ottoman Empire during the 1500s and 1600s.  These wars took a rather dismal toll on the country, completely changing its make-up. During the mid-1800s, the Hungarians battled it out with the Habsburg Empire, resulting in a couple of years of instability due to a revolution. During the latter part of the 1800s through the end of WWI, Hungary was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was not small by any means: it was the second largest in area (behind Russia) and third in population (behind Russia and Germany). Austro-Hungarian soldiers fought alongside German soldiers in WWI and again during WWII.  After WWII, the Soviets controlled Hungary in hopes of making it another communist state, an extended hand of Russia. The Rákosi government in Hungary pretty much formed itself as a clone to Stalin regime.  Hungary joined the Warsaw Pact in 1955, which was basically a peace treaty among all the communist countries in Europe, and by the next year, massive protests led to huge riots in Budapest known as the 1956 Revolution. (There’s a lesser-known musical written by two members of ABBA called Chess, and part of the lyrics briefly refers to this uprising.) After the fall of communism in 1989 and the breakup of most of the Eastern Bloc, Hungary did exert itself upon the open markets and have its first multi-party elections. There has certainly been some turmoil and periods of instability, but they are working toward change; Hungary is still trying to find more stable footing economically and politically. 

Budapest is the capital and largest city in Hungary. In fact, it’s one of the larger cities in the European Union. Originally a Celtic settlement that became a Roman capital, the Mongols then came and tore it all to pieces. After it was rebuilt, it became an important art and cultural center in Europe.  No matter who was controlling the country at the time, Budapest remained an important global city.  The city as we know it was actually three separate cities at one time: Buda and Óbuda on the western bank of the Danube River and Pest on the eastern bank. When these cities were unified, it became Budapest. Not only is Budapest a major center for Hungarian government, it is also a center for higher education, the financial and banking sector, tourism, performing arts, museums, fashion, media, and cuisine. 

Peppers and paprika is very important to Hungarian cuisine.
Although Hungary’s economy was pretty shaky after the economic recession of 2008, it seems to have reached more stability today.  It has been a member of the World Trade Organization and the European Union for many years now, which helps economically to a degree.  The main industries that drive Hungary’s economy are chemicals and pharmaceuticals, processed foods, mining, metallurgy, textiles, and construction materials. Their agricultural products tend to be a variety of grains and seeds, tuber vegetables, meat, and dairy products. 

Christianity has played a major role in Hungary’s history. However, the denominations have changed throughout the years to include Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, and even Orthodox Christianity (which is mostly practiced by some of the smaller ethnic groups). At one time, there were a significant number of Hungarian Jews, but many escaped during WWII.  There are pockets of other religions practiced throughout the country, such as Jehoveh’s Witnesses and Muslims.  Although the country itself declares no official religion, less than half of the people believe in an existence of God, and about 19% consider themselves atheist or agnostic. 

Szia = Hi
Ninety-nine percent of the people here speak Hungarian as a first language with a very small percentage speaking it as a second language.  It’s a unique language belonging to the Uralic language family. It’s unrelated to any language family around it but is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. Hungary does also recognize several minority languages including Croatian, German, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Ukrainian.  English and German tend to be the most popular foreign languages studied in Hungary.  

Hungary is widely known for its contributions to the science, mathematics, and technology fields. Here’s a short list of influential Hungarians in these fields: Wolfgang von Kempelen (speaking machine); János Irinyi (noiseless match); Ányos Jedlik (electric motor); Donát Bánki and János Csonka (carburetor); Tivadar Puskás (telephone exchange); Károly Ereky (coined the word biotechnology); Albert Szent-Györgyi (discovered Vitamin C, Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine 1937); Kálmán Tihanyi (co-invented the cathode ray tube and completely electric TV, later invented the thermographic camera and plasma TV); Loránd Eötvös (discovered surface tension); Leó Szilárd (hypothesized nuclear chain reaction which led the way to the atomic bomb, later came up with the nuclear reactor and the electron microscope); Dennis Gabor (holography, Nobel Prize winner in Physics 1971); László Biró (ballpoint pen); and Ernö Rubik (Rubik’s Cube) among many others.

And all I can say is that I’ve already started cooking for Hungary, because there are just too many great recipes to pass up.

Up next: art and literature

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