Friday, July 31, 2009


Budapest formed on the eastern bank of the Danube around the slopes of what is now called Gellért hill, the highest point in the region. The hill takes its name from St. Gerard, Hungary’s first bishop, martyred by being thrown off the cliffs there. From Gellért it is easy to look across the river, which here flows North to South, in order to scan the East—whence came wave upon wave of nomadic peoples who, for the locals, were always a threat. Here rose one fortification after the other, not least the Castle of Buda, and as that name implies, this settlement was called Buda after the Magyars, who were one of those dangerous invaders, renamed the place after one of their leaders. In later times, as population grew, it eventually spilled across the water. The city across the way was Pest. And, again in due time (1872), the two settlements united to form Budapest, the capital of Hungary.

The city was originally built by the Celts. Yes. If you’re a Central European, you’re a bit of an Irishman, and not just on St. Patrick’s day. The Celts called the settlement Ak-Ink (abundant water). After the Roman expansion eastward eventually incorporated the region (Pannonia) into the Empire, the Romans transformed that name into Aquincum. The Magyars came in the ninth century of our era. Throughout its history, Budapest was, in a quite genuine sense, a border between West and East, the Danube itself a natural line on the map of successive cultures. But in the center of Budapest, which is the river, there is an island which, as it were, makes the center of the center. It is called St. Margaret’s Island. And it was on that island, poised between two worlds, betwixt the East and the West, Catholicism and Protestantism, the traditional and the modern, in the border zone, as it were, that my mother gave birth to her first child seventy-three years ago today. My father, a Catholic and a professional soldier, was stationed in Budapest at the time; the Army maintained a military hospital on St. Margaret’s Island which my mother, a Protestant, was therefore privileged to use. This explains the circumstances of my birth. Or was there something else afoot?—such as, for instance, that this island, in pagan times, had been known as The Island of the Rabbits? It’s true. And I just learned this important fact today, delighted—delighted because I’m a great fan of the rabbits and, on my walks, always count them and consider myself very lucky if I see thirteen or more…

Yes. Budapest is another cradle of Ghulf genes. The coat of arms that kicks things off today is that of Budapest, of course, incorporating in its image the crown of Hungary with its characteristic leaning cross, two castles, Buda’s and Pest’s, separated by the Danube’s azure. As one discovers in delving into heraldry and ancient artifacts, universes of controversy open. The cross was most likely tilted in an accident, but one finds dozens of conflicting stories. The lions, I assume, were presciently chosen because the heralds of the nineteenth century knew that I’d be born under the sign of Leo. Alternatively, the winged lion was part of the original seal of Buda; Pest’s own coat-of-arms bore a griffin, not a lion. In combining the two, the high council responsible for this matter, later, after long and heated debates, eventually replaced the griffin with another, if wing-less, lion for better balance.

The photographs show St. Margaret’s Island. In the first the island is the green mass touched by the bridge in the foreground (St. Margaret’s Bridge). The island’s lovely water tower—at its foot is a grand outdoor theater—is the only visible structure. The second bridge, in the distance, is Árpád Bridge, named after the Magyar chieftain who founded Hungary. The view is from Pest, thus from the East looking North. Behind us on the eastern shore is the Parliament. Across the way and roughly equidistant is Buda Castle. The second photo shows one of the fountains in one of the parks of this large island. The hospital where I was born has long since been transformed into a health resort.

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful city. Someday I will go there. Did you know there is a Hungarian link at Les Bluets? One of my favorite colleagues is of Hungarian descent - she actually speaks fluent Hungarian - she's the lady with whom I'm now giving English lessons to student midwives. Our new head midwife, who is actually an old Bluets midwife, is also of Hungarian origine. As fate would have it, I helped her daughter nurse her new baby for the very first time. And of course our fearless leader, Nicholas Sarkozy, (not Michel Carré, herr director of Les Bluets)is a Gyula Gyulafia look-a-like candidate. Yes, yes, I swear, look closely you'll see. We just didn't know Gyula when he was young enough to be president of France.


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