23 January 2017
A picture is worth a thousand words but a word, too, might conjure up a thousand images. One-to-one correspondences between words and objects are exceedingly rare, if not non-existent. Beyond that, however, the power of alphabets, syllabaries and ideographs is well-documented; such was the motivation for orthographic reform during the 20th century from Norway to North Korea. The Latin alphabet can provide a sense of false familiarity, making it seem as if Somali is easier for an English learner to pick up than would be Persian, despite the fact that the latter shares far more structural similarities to English than the former. However, it is not just Latin characters that are imbued with a magical power to draw close and imbue a sense of solidarity. The systems colloquially referred to as runes, too, have often been instrumentalised with much the same goal in mind.
Technically, the word rune is applied exclusively to the writing systems of Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet. There are various different versions of Germanic runes. While there are various different types of runes, all are derived from the Old Italic scripts. They were largely replaced by the Latin alphabet after Christianisation in 700CE, but their usage persisted in highly specialised contexts until the 19th century. The study of runes, known as runology, began in Scandinavia as early as the 16th century, albeit more within the realm of theology, the occult and mysticism than what we would conceive of as linguistics. The study took a more scientific turn throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, as a number of collection items at the British Library demonstrate. These include Johan Göransson’s Bautil (143.g.19) or his Is Atlinga (4408.g.6) which seek to locate runes within the history of writing systems, including the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets.
As with so many other terms, runes have undergone a popular semantic widening. The word is also applied to other writing systems that bear a visual similarity to Germanic runes. One such system is Old Turkic writing, employed by communities in Siberia and eastern Eurasia in the first millennium CE. Also known as the Orkhon Script (after the Orkhon Valley where Old Turkic stelae were found near the Yenisei River by Nikolai Yadrintsev in 1889), it has been claimed to be a descendent of Aramaic, Tamgas and Chinese ideographs. The oldest inscriptions in old Turkic script date from the 8th century CE. It was later used by Uighur scribes, prior to its replacement by the Old Uighur script (which is directly related to Sogdian and Aramaic).
Runic Turkic alphabet from Hüseyin Namık Orkun, Eski Türk Yazıtları (Ankara, 1986) OIF 909.049
Old Turkic is unique for the manner in which some letters have various sounds, determined according to the rule of vowel harmony, a feature of Turkic, Mongolic and Finno-Ugric languages. In Turkey, the old Turkic alphabet found particular resonance with secularist nationalists interested in emphasizing the pre-Islamic culture of the Turks. Examples abound from the writer Hüseyin Namık Orkun, who wrote a number of nationalist-tinted histories of the Turks. His Eski Türk Yazıtları provides extensive information on the origin and study of the inscriptions, as well as their transcription and contents. Not only does he call the alphabet in which these texts are written the Rünik Türk Alfabesi, the “Runic Turkish Alphabet”, but he also connected these to the “Pecheneg” inscriptions of Nagy Szent Miklos, establishing a pre-historic link between the Hungarians and the Turks.
Runic Kül Tegin transcription from Eski Türk Yazıtları
Indeed, Hungarian studies of runes have proven to be the most durable and profitable. Commonly referred to as rovásírás in Hungarian, they are occasionally linked to the Szekler communities in Transylvania, an ethnic sub-group of Hungarians. In recent years, rovásírás has experienced a resurgence, both popular and scholarly. On the one hand, academics have taken a new interest in the old Hungarian script, occasionally called runes as well. It is sometimes linked to the late Khazars, a Caucasian Turkic group of the 8th to 11th centuries, as explored in Gábor Hosszú’s Heritage of Scribes: The Relation of Rovas Scripts to Eurasian Writing Systems (Budapest, 2012; YD.2015.a.2560).
The old Hungarian script has also captured the imagination of many Hungarian nationalists, and has given rise to new publishing and typography ventures, such as the New Testament pictured above or of Géza Gárdonyi’s Egri Csillágok (Szolnok, 2011; YF.2015.a.25655), pictured below, a fictional account of Hungarian resistance to Ottoman rule.
The term rune has proven to be highly versatile in both popular and scholarly imaginations. From the study of northern Europe’s intellectual history, the term has been adopted and adapted to a myriad of other contexts and needs. Today, it fills a political as well as academic role, adding yet another building block to the construction of a Eurasian identity that refocuses the mythical origins of various modern nations in the heart of the Eurasian landmass.
Above: A wreath at Szeged University in the colours of the Hungarian flag with a banner in rovásírás; below: A handmade sign above an entrance in Miskolc, Hungary, with an inscription against the Treaty of Trianon (1919) in Hungarian in both Latin characters and rovásírás (Photos by Michael Erdman).
Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
06 April 2016
Having spent years in Constantinople, learning over 20 Turkic dialects and studying the Quran and Muslim customs, Ármin Vámbéry was well respected in the Ottoman Empire. Aged 31, this entirely self-made Hungarian orientalist undertook a perilous journey incognito into the very midst of Central Asia, where few Westerners had set foot since the 1600s. His main purpose was to establish the origin and connections of the Hungarian language. Vámbéry thought it a good idea to assume a false identity, convinced that as a European he would not be able to move around freely and explore the region’s languages.
Armin Vambery in dervish dress in the 1860s (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)
Setting off from Tehran in late March 1863 Vámbéry, or rather ‘dervish Reshid’, joined a group of pilgrims returning from Mecca. He told them he had long dreamed of a pilgrimage to the sacred places of Islam in Khiva, Bukhara and Samarkand, and hiked with them for six months, making heartfelt friendships in the process.
Map of the travels of Ármin Vámbéry in Central Asia (Image by Lepeltier.ludovic. CC-BY-SA, from Wikimedia Commons)
When no camel, donkey or cart was at his disposal, he made use of his own two feet, though lame in one leg from infantile paralysis. As poor pilgrims his party were offered provisions in most places en route and also received alms, which helped pay for their transport or frequent and often arbitrary customs duties.
Vámbéry must have endured extreme tension whenever an encounter with new people was looming. In low moments he feared that even the sufferings inflicted by the hostile desert were preferable to the dangers that humans might pose. Stories of foreigners being imprisoned, tortured or executed were common, and Vámbéry was so convinced of this danger that he kept strychnine pills sewn into his modest attire.
Whenever anyone accused him of not being who he claimed, which happened with alarming regularity, our adventurer somehow wriggled out of the situation. Despite his best efforts to alter his European appearance, many picked up on some unexplained peculiarity about his person and he was time and again suspected of being a secret envoy for the Sultan, or worse, a spy (or a European). Every town had its informant, so he had to appear before many a local ruler and answer challenging queries into his being a genuine hadji. The breadth of his knowledge saved him and occasionally he even turned these difficult conversations to his advantage, returning with useful gifts.
‘I swear you are an Englishman!’ In: Ármin Vámbéry, Közép-ázsiai utazás… (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24. and available online.
In Bukhara’s bazaar, Vámbéry noticed some goods labelled with the names of Manchester and Birmingham, which gave him a warm feeling, as if meeting a compatriot in such a distant land, but he was afraid that showing his delight might give him away. At the book market he spotted precious manuscripts that could have filled major gaps in oriental studies in the West. Sadly he could not buy more than a small handful of them, partly for lack of finance, but also because he feared a display of enthusiasm for secular knowledge would place him under more suspicion.
In Samarkand some friendly locals offered to accompany him all the way back to Mecca, where he said he was returning. It ‘would have been slightly awkward for all parties if we then ended up on the shores of the Thames instead of the Kaaba’. Therefore, for his return journey via Afghanistan, he attached himself to several successive caravans where he enjoyed less attention. Once back in Persia he could finally bid farewell to his dervish disguise.
Exactly a year after his expedition had begun, Vámbéry left Tehran again, this time for Europe. He took with him a ‘Tatar’ mullah called Iskhak, originally from Khiva. Iskhak was the only person to whom Vámbéry had revealed his true identity, although not until safely back in Tehran. The two had grown so close while travelling together that Iskhak decided to start a new life in the Hungarian capital instead of going on to Mecca. He learnt the language and worked at the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Mihály Kovács. Portrait of Ármin Vámbéry. 1861 (CC-PD, from Wikimedia Commons)
Vámbéry may not have discovered the exact origin of the Hungarian language, but he brought back a wealth of new information about the places he visited, which he first published in English as part of his Travels in Central Asia. The book, along with the fascinating and by all accounts highly entertaining lectures he gave around Britain earned him much academic acclaim and fame, and the doors of élite society were suddenly thrown open to him. He also became a professor and an honorary member of the Academy in Budapest despite never having a university degree.
Two extracts from an report about one of Vámbéry’s lectures, The Leeds Mercury, 19 March 1866, p. 3 (from the British Newspaper Archive)
In fact he gained such trust in Britain that he was later employed by the Foreign Office as a secret agent in the Near East. Undoubtedly, this was in no small part thanks to his (mostly) skilful impersonations, enhanced by outstanding linguistic ability and charismatic demeanour.
Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections
References / Further reading:
Ármin Vámbéry, Travels in Central Asia, being the account of a journey from Teheran across the Turkoman Desert on the Eastern shore of the Caspian to Khiva, Bokhara, and Samarcand, performed in the year 1863. (London, 1864.) 2354.d.1.
Hungarian edition: Közép-ázsiai utazás, melyet a Magyar Tudományos Akademia megbizásából 1863-ban Teheránból a Turkman sivatagon át a Kaspi tenger keleti partján Khivába, Bokharába és Szamarkandba tett / és leirt Vámbéry Ármin, a Magyar Tud. Akadémia tagja. (Pest, 1865). 10077.e.24.
French translation: Voyages d'un Faux Derviche dans l'Asie Centrale de Téhéran à Khiva. (Paris, 1867). 10057.aa.22. and 12206.k.20.(2.)
Ármin Vámbéry, Sketches of Central Asia: additional chapters on my travels, adventures, and on the ethnology of Central Asia. (London, 1868). 2354.e.15. and B.18.d.5
German translation: Skizzen aus Mittelasien. Ergänzungen zu meiner Reise in Mittelasien .... (Leipzig, 1868). 10057.ee.18. and available online
Russian translation: Очерки Средней Азіи… (Moscow, 1868) 1609/5266. and available online
23 October 2015
On this day in 1956 a peaceful demonstration organised by students took place in the Hungarian capital, demanding reforms of the oppressive communist regime. Soon broad sections of the population joined the cause, and soon the rattle of gunfire and the clatter of tanks resounded in the streets of Budapest and other cities.
A flag with a hole on the 1956 monument outside the building of Parliament in Budapest. Communist insignia were torn or cut from flags during the October 23 demonstrations, an iconic image from the days of the Revolution. (Image by Ian Pitchford. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 From Wikimedia Commons)
The Revolution only lasted for 13 days, until 4th November, yet it became a symbol of fearless defiance against dictatorship behind the Iron Curtain. In a few days, Hungarians achieved what could only be dreamt of for many years beforehand. On the first evening Stalin’s six-tonne statue was toppled, with only his boots left on the pedestal.
Four days later a new, democratic government was formed by the reformist Imre Nagy, and without much delay negotiations started about the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The secret police was disbanded, political prisoners were freed, previously banned political parties were allowed to reorganise and preparations were started to hold free elections. The fact that Hungary was also determined to leave the Warsaw Pact and declare its neutrality hastened the tragic end of the Revolution. The Soviets responded with resolute ruthlessness, as it was not in their nature to stand by and watch one of their satellites leave orbit and create a gaping hole in the buffer zone towards the West.
Soviet tank in Budapest, 1956. (Image by the CIA (PD). From Wikimedia Commons)
The British Library holds a substantial collection relating to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, a wealth of resources for academic or personal research. Collecting started shortly after the first refugees arrived in Great Britain. Almost 200,000 had fled their homeland and were given asylum in 35 countries worldwide after the brutal crushing of the Revolution. The earliest items received were leaflets and manifestos:
- [A collection of leaflets issued by the Forradalmi Bizottmány and other bodies during the Hungarian revolution of 1956] ([Budapest], 1956). Cup.504.ee.3.
- [A collection of pamphlets dealing with events in Hungary in the autumn of 1956]. Cup.401.i.10.
Some of these are quite rare as even the possession of such ‘incendiary’ items was prohibited for over three decades.
Left, a flyer demanding free elections and calling to arms and strikes to gain independence. Right, an open letter to Soviet troops, in Russian, saying they were deceived when given orders to fight fascists in Hungary and that they should not shoot at demonstrators but withdraw. Cup.401.i.10.
Other sources include post-1989 publications of secret police archives, minutes of Communist party leadership sessions in 1956-1957, and documents from the British Foreign Office. It is also interesting to explore the domestic and international press coverage of the revolt, both in contemporary newspapers and compilations published retrospectively. The latter come partly from radio broadcasts including those by the BBC and Radio Free Europe. The Revolution generated a broad spectrum of sympathetic reactions in world politics and foreign public opinion, from neighbouring Yugoslavia to India, and from the International Commission of Jurists in The Hague to the United Nations in New York. Inside Hungary, however, it was too little too late for those supporting views or reports to have any real effect. On 4th November Soviet tanks returned and power was restored to the Moscow-backed faction, who methodically rounded up participants still in the country and had them condemned to lengthy imprisonment or death. One of those executed was Prime Minister Imre Nagy.
Plaque in Budapest to commemorate Imre Nagy and his associates. With the exception of G. Losonczy, who died in prison earlier, they were hanged and buried in an unmarked grave in 1958. (Image by Andor Derzsi Elekes. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. From Wikimedia Commons)
Key figures of the Revolution are the subject of many works, as are its lesser-known martyrs, and the victims of reprisals. Documents of secret trials and protracted systematic revenge have largely been brought to light by now.
In an attempt to recalibrate people’s minds and to discourage any notion of opposition, the propaganda machine was also put to work. Amongst its copious output were the so-called ‘white books’, in which the communist puppet government painted its own version of events, denouncing the uprising as counter-revolutionary and criminal. These unassuming-looking booklets were translated into several languages to ensure that the endorsed account was accessible to foreign audiences as well. In addition to the Hungarian original we also have the English and Russian editions in our collection.
The legacy of 1956 was kept alive by émigré circles in the West, who published tirelessly and had clandestine support links to the dissenter movements growing from the early 1970s back home. Beside theoretical and commemorative writings, the literary heritage of both groups testifies to the immense impact the Revolution made on people’s lives.
Numerous survivors have had their diaries or memoirs printed, imparting some truly poignant stories.
Memorial to a young freedom fighter in Budapest’s Corvin köz, one of the hubs of armed resistance. Many teenagers were among the active participants in clashes against the Soviet Red Army. Image by Andreas Poeschek. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. From Wikimedia Commons
Ildi Wollner, Curator, East-Central European Collections
15 November 2013
When preparing for my autumn trekking in the High Tatras, a mountain range that stretches between Poland and Slovakia, I came across the name of the English traveller Robert Townson (1762–1827), who was also a scholar and scientist. He was one of the first foreign visitors to that region. His book Travels in Hungary, with a short account of Vienna in the year 1793 (London, 1797; 982.i.6) includes a chapter on the Tatra Mountains, entitled ‘Excursions in the Alps’.
The Tatras cover an area of 785 square kilometres. In comparison with the massive Alps in Western Europe the Tatras are a tiny range called by the French “pocket mountains”. Nevertheless, the Tatras, which are part of the long Carpathian chain, are the highest mountains in Central Europe. Undoubtedly, Townson called the Tatras ‘Alps’ because of their alpine character with rocky peaks, grazing pastures, rushing streams and splashing waterfalls. Townson explored the Tatras’ flora and fauna, and was also the first to take height measurements of some of their mountains using the barometric method.
The area, inhabited for centuries by the Slavs, Germans and Hungarians, produced a distinctive culture known as the Góral, meaning highlanders. This culture has survived to the present day due to the area’s geographic isolation. Until the end of the 19th century the only means of transport on the Polish side was horse-drawn carts. It took two days to travel a distance of 105 km from Kraków to Zakopane. The Tatras were discovered for their beauty as early as the 16th century but only in the second half of the 19th century was the region developed as a popular tourist destination.
Due to the remoteness of the Tatra region there was no designated border between Poland and the Kingdom of Hungary until the late 18th century (Slovakia had been part of the Hungarian domain since the 9th century), so the mountains were a no man’s land. The Polish Kingdom was partitioned by its neighbours Russia, Prussia and Austria in the course of three decades, and finally lost its independence in 1795. The Polish side of the Tatras fell to the Austrian partition.
In 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was established and the mountains became an agreed border between the two states of the monarchy; however, the border itself was not demarcated. Before long this led to territorial disputes. Over the centuries the lands around the Tatras belonged to Hungarian and Polish settlers. In 1889 Count Władysław Zamoyski purchased Zakopane and the surrounding areas. This was the source of conflict over the ownership of those lands that culminated in the International Arbitration Court in Graz. Subsequently in 1902 the Court demarcated the Austro-Hungarian border which after the First World War became the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The breathtaking scenery, clean air and unique culture of the Tatras attracted numerous visitors to the area from all three partitions of Poland. Zakopane became an intellectual and cultural centre at the beginning of the 20th century and since then has been a magnet for many artists, writers and musicians. Stanisław Witkiewicz, writer, painter and architect, created the Zakopane style in architecture that shaped the distinctive character of the previously small village. Karol Szymanowski, one of the greatest Polish composers of the 20th century, lived in Zakopane, and his music was influenced by the folk music of the Tatra highlanders.
Magda Szkuta, Curator of Polish Studies
Karol Szymanowski's museum in Villa Atma. Image from Wikimedia Commons).
23 September 2013
With a new film about Princess Diana in cinemas, I am reminded of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, consort of Emperor Franz Josef. Elisabeth can in many ways be seen as a 19th-century Diana: both were beautiful and charismatic women, who made unhappy royal marriages and met violent deaths. Both inspired devotion and controversy in equal measure in life, and a romantic mythology has developed around both of them since their deaths.
Films have fed the mythology in both cases. Among many films featuring Elisabeth the classic, if romanticised, 1950s “Sissi” trilogy starring Romy Schneider are the best known. A fictionalised Diana reached the screen almost as soon as she appeared in the public eye: two TV movies about her ‘royal romance’ with Prince Charles appeared in 1981. Her marital problems, divorce and death have all been subjected to the same treatment in the 32 years since.
So how alike were Diana and Elisabeth? Both married very young (Elisabeth was only 16) after what were seen as fairytale romances. Both marriages were unhappy and both couples’ affections unequally matched, although Elisabeth’s marriage to a man whose adoration she could never fully reciprocate was the opposite of Diana’s experience. Both felt ill at ease in their husband’s families – especially Elisabeth who found the rigid protocol of the Austrian court difficult after her informal upbringing – and disliked many of the royal duties expected of them.
Another thing both women shared was a love of fashion and beauty. Many people who become fascinated by Elisabeth are initially captivated by one of Winterhalter’s famous portraits of her, while the media interest in the sale of Diana’s dresses earlier this year shows how central her role as fashion icon remains. Elisabeth’s extreme cult of beauty, however, had a darker side: her obsession with keeping her slim figure led to an extreme diet regime which some modern commentators have interpreted as a form of eating disorder, something of course which also affected Diana.
Winterhalter's most famous portrait of Elisabeth, in the Hofburg Palace, Vienna. (Image from Wikimedia Commons). You can see Romy Schneider recreating the picture in the 1956 film here
On a more positive note, both were passionate about the causes they espoused. Elisabeth was a powerful advocate for the rights of her Hungarian subjects, and was influential in making Hungary, where she remains a much-loved figure, an equal partner with Austria in the Hapsburg empire. Diana’s name is still strongly associated with the charities she supported, particularly the campaign to ban landmines.
Of course there are many differences between the two, due not least to the very different times they lived in. Elisabeth had a largely distant relationship with her children, in contrast to Diana’s closeness to her sons, and it was easier for her to escape the public eye in a world without paparazzi. Elisabeth’s life was marked by greater extremes of obsession and unhappiness. She also lived much longer than Diana, although her death was equally senseless: at the age of 60 she was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist who was determined to kill some representative of royalty without much caring who. Elisabeth was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Perhaps what really links the two women, more than any true likeness in character, is a public perception of them as tragic beauties and the idea of a royal fairytale gone wrong. Whatever the real similarities and differences, Elisabeth and Diana will no doubt continue to fascinate us – and their stories will continue to be told on film.
Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies
Hamann, Brigitte. Elisabeth : Kaiserin wider Willen (Wien, 1982) X.809/54755. (English translation The Reluctant Empress (New York, 1986) 87/20136.)
Daimler, Renate Diana & Sisi : zwei Frauen - ein Schicksal (Wien, 1998) YA.2002.a.6564.
Sinclair, Andrew Death by fame : a life of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria (London, 1999) YC.2001.a.4952
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