Hungarian researchers in the Caucasus

A glance at the map will convince anyone that the foreground to the Caucasus on the north is a place of strategic importance in the east-west migration on the Eurasian steppe. The Caspian Sea and the Urals force the steppe to taper, so the ethnic groups of the great migrations, including the Huns and Avars must have moved towards their western destinations along here. When their empire collapsed, some of their groups returned to this area.

In Hungarian prehistory, this area has salient importance in the ethnogenesis of the Magyars. This is where the Don−Kuban Urheimat/homeland could be located, to which area the Magyars moved together with Oghur Turks in the 5th century, and later shifted to a more intensive livestock breeding and agricultural way of life within the Khazar Empire. As is appropriate for a newcomer group, they rendered frontier defence services in the north and got into contact with the Alanis in the south. The story of the Hungarian chronicles referring to the princely Alani−Magyar marriages might have taken place here: the daughters of Dula, the chieftain of the Alanis were kidnapped in the swamps of Maeotis i.e. the Sea of Azov and later became wives to Hunor and Magor.

At any rate, in this area the Hungarians came in touch with Hunnish fragments, Onoghurs, Sabirs, Turks, Turk-Khazars, Bulghars, Alanis and other ethnic groups before moving on to Etelköz from where a Pecheneg attack chased them off westward together with the Khabars to the Carpathian Basin in 895.

It is no surprise that our forefathers took an interest in the area. Supported by the Hungarian King Béla IV, a Dominican monk called Otto left with some companions around 1232 to search for the Magyars mentioned by the chronicles. He reached his goal. Most probably he met Hungarians living close to the Caucasus and also mentioned by emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (959), who also noted that they communicated with the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin through envoys (Róna-Tas 1996: 57).

Friar Julian and his companions set out on an expedition in 1235 on information received from Otto’s company. They no longer found Otto’s Hungarians, so they turned northward and came across another Magyar group along the Volga (Glatz 1996).

From then up to the late 18th century no Hungarian research took place in the Caucasus. When in the late 18th, early 19th century the Hungarian national awareness was strengthening, the search for the original homeland and the Asian relatives came to the fore in public discourse. The first scholar to reach the area was János Besse of Ógyalla who arrived in the Caucasus in 1829. Besse, who was convinced that the original homeland of the Magyars was here, climbed the Elbrus and came to know several ethnic groups, but did not find valuable information on the Magyars (Vásáry 1972).

Fig. 1. Map of the migration of the ancient Magyars from Róna-Tas, A. (1997), Hungarians and Europe in the Early Middle Ages, Budapest: CEU press, p. 323)

Count Jenő Zichy led an expedition to the Caucasus and Central Asia in 1895. Though the count cherished some hopes, the members of the expedition had other goals than finding Caucasian Magyars at the end of the 19th century (Erdélyi 2000: 274−285). Their work was aggravated by their lack of knowledge of Russian which was the language of communication already at that time, and of course they did not know any of the innumerable Caucasian languages. True, one of the members of the expedition, Gábor Bálint of Szentkatolna did write a short descriptive grammar of the Kabard language, he did not really speak it.

Let it suffice to say of the language relations of the area that in the North Caucasus a vertical language structuring prevails. The tongues of the steppe and the lower regions became the lingua franca in the lower pastures where the multilingual shepherds traded and settled for winter. Before the Russians conquered the area, it was predominated by Turks: by Azeris in the South Caucasus, Noghays in the northwest and the middle, and Kumyks in the northeast. The influence of the Turkic people was enhanced by their more advanced political organization, so in the North Caucasus Turkification was powerful and remained strongly perceivable even for a decade after the Russian revolution.

The exploration of the Caucasus by Hungarians could have started, but the Russian revolution of 1905 and then World War I radically changed the situation in Hungary and made individual research very hard. Until the end of World War II the archeologist Nándor Fettich was the only scholar to get as far as Tbilisi.

After World War II scientific and cultural contacts began to be built with Georgia and Armenia on the southern side of the Caucasus, but the outcome was nowhere near what the Zichy expedition had envisioned. In 1966 István Erdélyi visited several museums and research centres in Azerbaijan, Daghestan, Georgia and Northern Ossetia, and later Chechenia. In 1978 he led a small research team to Northern Ossetia, the Kabard-Balkar Autonomous Respublic and the Kuban valley (Erdélyi 2000).

Károly Czeglédy, head of the Arabic Philolgical Department of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, wanted to organize a department section for Caucasian studies (Czeglédy 1955). The main research interests of the researchers were, however, Armenian (Ödön Schütz) and Georgian (Erzsébet Tompos, Márton Istvánovits, Mária Bíró) culture. Cultural historian Lajos Tardy was also mainly intrigued by Georgian themes (Tardy 1971, 1973, 1988).

There were a few more study trips of lesser significance, but since the Zichy expedition no major research or fieldwork has been carried out in this area despite its salient relevance to Hungarian studies. The majority of actual research or fieldwork was targeted at the southern side of the Caucasus, too.

This research background may illumine the real importance of my earlier Azeri research (Sipos 2004, 2006, 2009) and our expeditions aimed at the comparative research of Karachay-Balkar folk music in the Caucasus and in Turkey.

Our investigations are particularly gainful as there is a lack of thorough studies or books on Karachay folk music in general, and many typical tunes are also missing in Omar Otarov’s Karachay-Balkar tune collection of 2001. No musical publication has ever appeared on the folk music of the Karachay-Balkars in Turkey.