The Ottoman Legacy in Hungary? Baths and Food (Mostly)

The 150-year Ottoman occupation had a modest cultural impact on Hungary, but it continues to shape everyday life in several notable ways.

In Hungary, the 1526 Battle of Mohács is often viewed as the most tragic in the country’s history. The once-powerful Hungarian Kingdom lost its independence for centuries after the 60,000-strong Ottoman army, headed by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, decimated Hungarian troops on August 29th. Shortly afterward, the Ottoman Empire annexed much of the country. For the next 150 years, Hungary became the westernmost territory of an empire that was at the height of its power, extending as far as North Africa, Egypt, the Middle East, and Iraq. Nearly half a millennium later, one might wonder: What’s the legacy of this Ottoman period?

With the initial Ottoman advance, Hungary descended into chaos and turned into a militarized zone. It became a buffer between two major powers, the Ottomans and the Habsburg Empire, which controlled the western parts of Hungary (despite several attempts, the Ottomans never captured Vienna, the nearby Habsburg capital). The political and religious elite fled to Habsburg Hungary, but life for Hungarian peasants, who were tied to the land, was miserable. Soldiers from both sides — Ottomans and Hungarians — regularly looted, overtaxed, and robbed the villages with impunity. By the end of the 17th century, whole swaths of Ottoman Hungary were deserted.

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The memorial park in Mohács where the Ottoman army defeated Hungary in 1526 and soon afterward annexed the country. Photo: magyarnemzetiparkok.hu

Being a faraway place and a military frontier meant that the Ottomans didn’t integrate most of Hungary into the Empire. They meddled little in the internal affairs of smaller towns and villages and largely left them to self-govern. This wasn’t the case in other Ottoman territories; for example, in the Balkan countries, where they ruled for nearly 500 years, many people even converted to Islam.

However, there were a handful of bigger cities in Hungary where the Ottomans did settle in for the long term and established administrative or religious institutions. The city of Buda — the hilly side of today’s Budapest — was the center of the Ottoman provinces. Some Hungarian residents remained, but the majority of the population consisted of Turkish soldiers and a collection of artisans, shopkeepers, religious leaders, merchants, and servants. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, Turkish, Slavic, Hungarian, and Yiddish chatter filled the winding streets of this 8,000-resident city.

Mosques, türbes, hammams

Mosques, mausoleums (türbe), and Turkish baths (hammam) are the most visible Ottoman remains in Hungary today. Unfortunately, few of them survived. Wars, religious hatred, and a need for building materials reduced most of these to rubble over the centuries. Of the hundreds of mosques that once stood in Hungary, less than ten exist today in some form. The biggest and most monumental is the 16th-century Mosque of Pasha Qasim in the southwest Hungarian city of Pécs. Sometimes the Ottomans simply converted Christian churches into mosques. They removed the altarpieces, hid wall paintings behind whitewash, and used the bell tower as a minaret in what is today the Matthias Church in Budapest.

Public baths were important to community life across the Ottoman Empire. Aside from personal hygiene, people went there to socialize and to treat ailments. The Ottomans took advantage of Hungary’s rich supply of thermal water — as once did the Romans — and built hammams in the cities they controlled. The governor of Buda, Sokollu Mustafa Pasha, commissioned the construction of 16 hammams, three of which are still functional today (Rudas, Király, Veli Bej). Layouts differed, but generally there was a main bathing hall topped with a cupola punctuated by small hexagonal windows. These mysterious, faintly lit, labyrinthine baths are still central to Budapest’s contemporary bathing culture and also popular among tourists.

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The arched main hall of Budapest's Rudas Baths was built in the 16th century under Sokollu Mustafa Pasha. Photo: rudasfurdo.hu

Architecturally, comparable buildings closer to the Ottoman capital in Istanbul or in less battle-scarred regions were usually grander in style and size. Historical documents do refer to a mosque that was designed by Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire, but the building was destroyed.

In an effort to revive the Ottoman legacy, the Turkish government has recently been funding restoration works of historical monuments across the former Empire, including Hungary. For example, Turkey has contributed money to elaborately renovate the 16th-century tomb of Gül Baba, an Ottoman dervish, whose octagonal mausoleum is perched atop Budapest. They also financed excavation works in Szigetvár, a Hungarian city with many Ottoman remains and where Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent died in 1566.

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The 16th-century octagonal tomb of Gül Baba, an Ottoman dervish, is perched atop Budapest.

Stuffed cabbage, strudel, and a coffee please

The Ottoman influence on food, however, has proved more enduring than its physical structures. Stuffed cabbage (töltött káposzta), for example, is a favorite winter dish across Hungary. Cabbage and meat had long been a staple food but wrapping minced meat and rice inside cabbage leaves is a 17th century novelty. Stuffed cabbage, and also stuffed peppers, likely originated from the dolma, a dish popular across the Middle East where they use grape leaves to hold the filling. Few people know that strudels also have an Ottoman Turkish ancestry: they evolved from the baklava before spreading across the Austro Hungarian Empire.

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Showing Ottoman influences, the stuffed cabbage is still a popular winter dish in Hungary.

The Ottomans were early adopters of coffee — which is native to Ethiopia and was first brewed in Yemen in the 14th century — and hence it also showed up in Hungary by the 16th century, much sooner than in Western Europe. But interestingly, it didn’t become popular until the Ottomans were actually out of the country because coffee was regarded as the drink of the enemy (lesson for future generations: sometimes it pays off to drink with the enemy).

Kadarka is often regarded as a native Hungarian red grape but it was actually Serbian and other south-Slavic settlers from the Ottoman Empire who brought kadarka grapevines to the country in the 15th century. Hungary was a white-wine country previously, but soon kadarka appeared in all wine regions. It remained a popular grape until the 1950s — it was a favorite of Franz Liszt — appreciated for its captivating spice flavors. Unfortunately, other varieties have since almost entirely replaced it (the Szekszárd wine region still makes some).

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Strudels developed from the baklava after Hungarians adopted the phyllo pastry from the Ottomans.

Many New World crops from the Americas seeped into Hungary via the Ottomans. For example, chili peppers, locally known as paprika, arrived in the late 17th century from the Balkans and went on to become the major spice in Hungarian cooking (think chicken paprikash). The farmers initially called paprika “Turkish pepper” and used it in place of the more expensive and imported black peppers. Corn was a similar case. It quickly spread across war-ravaged and impoverished Hungary as it was easier to harvest than wheat and barley without draft animals. Hungarians in Transylvania still refer to corn as “Turkish wheat.” Lecsó, a vegetable stew made from onions, peppers, tomatoes, and eggs, comes from menemen, a nearly identical Turkish breakfast dish.

Although most people don't remember fondly the Ottoman era, the examples above show that there do exist some things from this period that have positively shaped Hungarian culture and enriched the country's national cuisine.

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