Leaning on the City Walls

In 1237 the Mongols conquered much of Asia and Eastern Europe and planned to do the same with Central Europe. The leader of the Mongol Army, Batu Khan sent an ultimatum to the Hungarian king (via Friar Julianus, an early Hungarian explorer) for unconditional surrender. The king, Béla IV didn't take that too seriously and thought that the mighty Hungarian Kingdom, a major power in 13th century Europe can not be defeated. He was bitterly wrong. In early 1241 the Mongols reached Hungary. When they left the next year, half of the population, about one and a half million Hungarians, were dead and the country was totally empty and in ruins.


Pest at the time was a small but important city with flourishing commerce and trade. It had a basic wall mostly made of wood planks and earth to keep out rascals, robbers and other outlaw elements. This first wall encircled the core of today's city. In 1241, when they were informed about the Mongols approaching the city decided to draw a bigger circle of defence aroud. They didn't have the time to make proper fortifications so they dug a moat, a channel with water in it, and erected a levee, an earth wall on the inner side. It didn't stop the Mongols who occupied the city, and crossed the frozen river to continue raiding Hungary. They left the city with no inhabitants, smoking ruins and two walls around it.


King Béla IV's plan was to move the city to the right side of the river, to a hill that had a large plateau on its top, steep sides to allow extra protection and laid just next to the river, on a perfect location. Building works began and by the 1260s there was a big, lively and most of all safe city: Buda. Old Pest on the left side was still almost empty but gradually and very slowly life began to move back to town. It took about 200 years for the city to reach its former glory and importance: in the 15th century Pest received extra rights from King Mátyás.


The rebuilt city didn't forget its past and somewhere between 1445 and 1471 they erected a proper stone wall on the remains of the makeshift outer wall that was ment to stop the Mongols. This new wall was thick and high, with a deep moat around it to ensure extra protection. It had three gates where people could enter and leave: one to the north, where Váci street meets Vörösmarty square, one to the east at Astoria crossing, and one to the south-east, in today's Kálvin square. The city was much smaller than the area the walls encircled but soon houses were erected on the empty lands and the city filled them from wall to wall.


The walls had only one problem: they came too late. By the time it was built firearms and cannons evolved to a previously unseen level and made the wall almost useless. The Turkish army targeted the city with heavy fire from Gellérthegy, the hill just opposite Pest, and from Buda, in the 16th and 17th century, and of course no walls could stand up against that. In the 18th century there came another disadvantage: the city grown so big that the walls literally tied it and blocked the possibilities of development. Finally, at the end of the 18th century the city government decided to get rid of the walls and break them up. All three gates were demolished, the last one in 1808. By that time the old moat was almost completely filled up to ground level and houses lined both sides of the walls. And though the walls have long since came down they still have major effect on our lives because the city still follows the original shape of the walls. Kiskörút, meaning 'small circle' leads where the old moat was before, and the buildings on its inner side lean on the remains of the walls. These remains are mostly hidden in the backyards and walls of today's houses: they mark the boundary of the properties that formed on both sides of it. It can be easily seen on this GoogleMaps image:


There are a few places though where small parts of the wall are shown to the public. This is the biggets consecutive section that can be seen in Bástya street:


The house that once stood here was bombed during WW2 and the property is empty ever since, giving us a rare and exclusive insight of what might still be hidden between neighbouring buildings.


There is a memorial on the first house of Kecskeméti street, and a small section of the wall restored in Ferenczi István street but most of the remains are lurking within today's buildings. The hotel in Kálvin square has a small part of it in their car parking garage, the post office and the second hand bookshop next to it also have some in their backyards, but I don't have to go that far to feel the wall.


A section of the wall is jammed between the house we work in and the neighboring building so our company office is literally leaning against this part of the wall. I'm happy to have a most important part of our history within hand's reach to me – kinda great feeling, you can almost smell the past centuries that makes this place magical.


So when you're in Budapest and see an open gate in a Múzeum circle house try to peek in – you don't need too much luck to catch a glimpse of the city wall in the backyard, or just a 150 years old building from the inside, it still worth seeing.