Hungary is a country that doesn’t quite fit the mould of most European countries linguistically and culturally, but it does have a lot in common with Turkic history.
Hungarians have long lived in central Europe bordering the turbulent Balkans. They are mostly Catholic Christians and their state is now also a member of the European Union like many other countries of Eastern and Central Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Hungarians have one unique difference from other European states. They consider themselves neither Slavic or Germanic like many nations in Europe. Western and Central Europe are usually dominated by nations speaking Germanic or the Romance (Latin) languages while the Balkans are dominated by Slavic, Balkan Romance, Albanian and Modern Greek linked linguistics.
Between Slavic and Germanic nations, Hungarians, whose linguistic features have many similarities to the languages of Turkic-origin nations, have a connection toward Central Asia and its mostly Turkic inhabitants. There is a fierce debate on whether the Hungarian language is Turkic or not. Some believe that disagreements over the root of the Hungarian language have been in part influenced by politics.
The current Hungarian leadership under Viktor Orban took his country towards gaining observer status at the Organisation of Turkic States in 2014.
”Hungarians consider themselves late descendants of Attila, of Hun-Turkic origin, and Hungarian is a relative of Turkic languages,” said the Hungarian prime minister in 2018 during a meeting of the the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, which changed its name to the Organisation of Turkic States last year.
Orban went further, declaring that Hungarians are “Kipchak Turks” and “were also proud” of its Turkic origin despite the fact that “their opponents in Europe mocked them as barbarian Huns and Attila's people".
Huns, Attila and Hungarians
There is a strong opinion that Hungary as a word etymologically derived from the Huns.
While there is a debate on the origins of both the Huns and Attila in the academic world, everyone agrees that Atilla was the most powerful leader of the Hunnic empire, which covered vast lands of the Eurasian plateau, dominating central Europe, particularly the territories of present-day Hungary, Austria and Ukraine.
Defeating Roman armies in different eras, Attilla posed a serious challenge to both capitals of the empire, Constantinople and Rome. In 452, he was in northern Italy, which had no effective force to protect itself from Attila as his powerful army devastated the Italian peninsula.
After meeting with the bishop of Rome, Leo I, who would later become the pope, he decided to withdraw from Italy without taking over Rome. Since then, historians have proposed different theories on Attila’s mysterious withdrawal, but there is no real explanation for Attilla’s unwillingness to take over the Roman capital, something many military leaders had long desired.
Despite the absence of a consensus over who the Huns were, many signs indicate that their military, political, cultural, religious and linguistic orientations have more similarities to the Turkic nations than to others. Some sources identify them as proto-Turks.
For many Hungarians, the Huns are their forefathers and some historical accountsalso speak in that direction. Some DNA samples from modern Hungarians also confirm the Hunnic connection, showing that Hungarian genes have strong Central Asian elements.
Hungary’s Turkic connection
The first Hungarian king, Arpad, who was able to join most Hungarian tribes, has an interesting name. Arpad, which means barley in Hungarian, is pronounced in Turkish as arpa, showing a connection to the Turkic language. According to Hungarian tradition and recent studies, he was a descendant of Attila.
Another interesting fact about Arpad is his historical perception by his contemporaries. Eastern Roman (Byzantium) Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus regarded him and his people as Turkic, calling his kingdom as Western Tourkia to distinguish them from the Khazars, a large Turkic khanate in current parts of Russia, Caucasia and Central Asia, which was called Eastern Tourkia.
In Turkish, Tourkia is pronounced Turkiye, which is the current name of Turkiye with its capital Ankara. Arpad’s helmet and his armament, depicted by current Hungarians, also have many similarities to nomadic Turkic leaders’ military clothing.
Despite many commonalities between Hungarians and Turkic nations, after largely converting into Christianity, Hungarians had fierce battles with the Muslim Ottoman Turks between the 14th and 16th centuries across Eastern and Central Europe.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Ottoman Turks made some of their bloody battles not only with European Crusader armies but also other Turkic-origin states like the Timurid Empire, Aq Qoyunlu and later Safavids.
What modern nation-building tells us
While Hungarians have long felt that they have strong non-Western roots, with the emergence of nation-states across Europe, they discovered that they needed some unique elements to distinguish themselves from their surrounding states like the Habsburg-led Austrian Empire and other Slavic-dominated nations like Russia and Bulgaria.
During the 19th century, under different occupations from different directions, that need had become more obvious.
While in the past, Hungarians fought with the Ottomans, some Hungarian elites felt that the Ottomans - which granted a large autonomy to Hungary even under direct Ottoman rule back in the 16th and 17th centuries - might be a better option than the rule of Austrians, Germans and Russians.
Beyond allying themselves with the Ottomans, some Hungarian scholars and statesmen started believing that introducing a historical narrative based on Hungary’s Turkic origins to their people might be the best medicine against Slavic and Germanic nationalistic influences.
Among them, Armin Vambery, an influential Jewish-Hungarian scholar and Turkologist, occupies a special place. Vambery strongly believed in Hungarian-Turkic connections from language to other cultural and historical aspects.
He was one of the promoters of the idea of Turanism or pan-Turkism, the cultural and possibly political unity of Turkic nations from the Balkans to Central Asia.
Like Friedrich Max Muller, the famous German philologist, Vambery believed that the Hungarian language had strong connections with the Ural-Altaic group, under which many Turkic languages were categorised. The term Turanian languages and the concept Turan was first developed by Muller in the 19th century.
It’s interesting that prior to any modern Turkish nation-state, first of which emerged after the Turkish Independence War in 1923 in Turkiye, Vambery, a Hungarian scholar, passionately defended pan-Turkic ideas. He was not alone in Hungary, where Turkology studies developed much earlier than any other Turkic-speaking countries including the Ottoman Empire.
Vambery traveled to the Ottoman Empire as well as Central Asia to research Turkic cultures and languages, establishing strong connections with both Ottoman and Central Asian Turkic elites. Vambery and some other Hungarian elites strongly believed that pan-Turkism was a better political prescription for Hungary against both pan-Slavism and pan-Germanism.
After more than a hundred years, following Vambery’s death, there are strong indications that proponents of pro-Turkic theory bore fruit in Hungary, where there is now a popular movement, which seeks to emphasise the country’s Turkic origins. The country’s current leader Orban’s various statements regarding Hungary’s Turkic origins also show the movement’s strength in the country.
Despite some controversial elements, Hungarian Turanism also appears to be an influential movement for which some political parties in Hungary have sympathies to varying degrees.
Before being an observer nation to the Organisation of Turkic States, Hungary hosted the second Great Kurultaj, a traditional gathering of different nomadic Turkic groups, in 2008. The first Kurultaj was held in 2007 in Kazakhstan, which many Turks believe to be their ancestral fatherland.
Since then, the Great Turkic Kurultaj has been held in Bugac, a Hungarian city, several times. In 2015, the event was organised by the Hungarian Turan Foundation backed by Turkiye’s TIKA (Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency).