The Dervish in Disguise

My Turkish friend in Istanbul insists that Hungarians are just another Turkish tribe; at least, that’s what they were taught at school. No wonder the ‘madjar’ tourist gets a most favourable treatment in the bazaar. However, Hungarian textbooks still teach that, until the defeat of the Hungarians by the Suleiman the Magnificent at Mohács in 1526, Hungary was as prosperous as England and all our subsequent misery and decline is to be blamed on the 150-year Turkish yoke. Hungarian heroism in fighting the “pagan” Turks is a matter of national pride.

The person who shed light on the ongoing debate about our Turkish roots was a charismatic figure of Hungarian social science, Ármin Vámbéry.  He was known in Muslim countries as Rasid Effendi, meaning the honourable man of letters. His 81-year lifespan was a testament to will over circumstances.  Armed with a sense of mission, raw talent and iron will, he overcame the barriers of poverty and handicap to attain great achievements.

Right after his birth in 1832 his father died of cholera, and since Jews were exempt from birth certificates, he was never sure of his birthday. He was brought up as Hermann Wamberger in Dunaszerdahely (Dunajska Streda, Slovakia), a city of orthodox Jews at the time. At the age of three he contracted inflammatory arthritis of the hip and became lame in his left leg for the rest of his life. From then on his life was a series of struggles as his 400-page autobiography published in 1905, The Story of My Struggles, suggests.

Thanks to his exceptional memorization skills he soon excelled as a polyglot genius during his haphazard schooling at the local yeshiva and then at Calvinist and Catholic grammar schools in Bratislava. He earned his bread and tuition by tutoring from a very early age but after getting frustrated by the humiliation he had to suffer due to his poverty and Jewishness he soon left formal education and became his own tutor learning one language after another. By the age of 25 he spoke almost as many languages as the number of his years.

Vámbéry became obsessed with learning Turkish which became the turning point of his life and career. At a time when the Finno-Ugrian origin of our ancient tongue was still not proven scientifically, he soon found influential sponsors among the literary elite and set off to Turkey to study.  During his four-year stay in Istanbul he not only mastered his knowledge of Turkish to perfection but through his erudite knowledge of the Koran he made his way to the highest circles of the Ottoman Court. Driven by an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge he decided to search for the Asian roots of Hungarians, which he assumed were in the steppes of Central Asia.

What later brought him world fame and confirmed him as the top authority in matters of the Orient was his 9-month long sojourn in 1863 to the kaganates of Central Asia; the ruins of the great empire from the 14th century of Timur Lenk (Tamerlane). A journey to the forbidden cities of Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva could have been a suicide mission.  However, Vámbéry cleverly disguised himself as a Sunni dervish and mingled among the pilgrims of a caravan returning from Mecca to their homeland. So successful was his camouflage that he not only gained the trust of his fellow hadjis but managed to escape the interrogation of the emirs and even lectured them on the interpretation of the Koran. There was only one incident when he was almost found out on the way back in Afghanistan when the crown prince noticed that he was tapping his leg to the rhythm of the western-type military music. Ultimately he achieved what he wanted and collected enormous ethnographic and linguistic material from these ancient societies before they vanished a few decades later due to Russian conquest.

Upon his return to Pest he encountered difficulties in proving his theory of the Turkish origin of the Hungarian language since by then the defenders of the Finno-Ugrian line had won the battle. Shattered in his failure, but still resolute, he went to London where he published Travels in Central Asia.  This brought him not only fame but access to the British political elite, including Queen Victoria. Through these connections he warned the British of the imminent Russian expansion in Central Asia and thus their threat to British interests in India.

At the age of 35 he became chair of Turkology at Budapest University where he would work until retirement in 1904 at the age of 72. Taking no political role or jobs he managed to maintain his integrity as a professor who educated younger generations of Orientology students.  Despite his quiet life as an academic he continued to be consulted by British Prime Ministers and Turkish Sultans.

Vivid ethnographic descriptions and authentic insights into Asian culture make Vámbéry’s work engaging even today. His clarity and charisma make his life’s work most enviable to any travel writer, most certainly this one.