Balázs Orbán, in the Great Travelers from the Past Series

Great Travelers (and Travel Writers) of the Past: Balázs Orbán

Balázs Orbán, writer and ethnographer, traveler and travel writer, is regarded in Transylvania and Hungary as the “greatest Székely”. Best known for his monumental work, Description of Székely Land, he was a traveler with a keen sense of observation, and meticulous research skills. His work reflects these skills, showcasing in detail the landscape and people he writes about.

His Life

Balázs Orbán was born on February 3rd, 1829, in Lengyelfalva near Székelyudvarhely, Transylvania. He studied at the Reformed college in Székelyudvarhely. He left school at 17 to travel with his parents to Constantinople, where his Greek grandmother who built a palace for the family. But by the time they reached Turkey, the grandmother had died. The family received close to nothing from the inheritance. Instead of living in the palace his grandmother built for them they struggled. Balázs learned to be a watchmaker to earn money and help out.

Balázs Orbán, the world traveler – and travel writer

By the time he was twenty, Balázs Orbán has already set out on his first large trip. He traveled through the Middle East, visiting Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and part of the Balkans.

During his trip he took notes, and after returning he wrote his first book, Travels in the Orient. Published in six volumes in Cluj, the book contained his archaeological, ethnographic, and historical observations.

Balázs Orbán, the Revolutionary

He was living abroad, in Turkey, when he heard about the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Using his own money, he organized an army in Constantinople and set out to help his people. However, before they even arrived in Hungary, the Revolution was crushed.

Since he couldn’t fight, Balázs Orbán helped the Hungarian emigrants who fled to Turkey. Between 1849 and 1852 he lived with Kossuth and his followers in the area surroundings in Kiutahia. (Kossuth was the main leader of the Revolution)

When the Austrian government requested extradition of the Hungarian revolutionaries from Turkey, Orbán fled to London. There, he spent his time in the British Museum and in libraries.

Eventually, he moved to the islands of Jersey and Guernesey. There, he met and became close friends with Victor Hugo and his family. He learned photography from his children, a skill he used later on in his career. He was one of the pioneers of photography in Hungary.

In 1855, he returned to his parents in Constantinople and lived with them until 1959. By then, the political situation in Hungary became more favorable, so he returned to his homeland. He became a farmer and notary in Szejkefürdő. From 1861 he was temporary chief clerk in a larger town, Udvarhelyszék, and from 1867 he was chief clerk of Cluj.

In 1887, he became a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. His inaugural speech was about the origin and institutions of the Székelys.

Description of Székely Land

After returning home, Balázs Orbán realized that he did not know his homeland and his people. To rectify this, he began an enormous project: between 1862 and 1868 he traveled through Székely Land mostly on foot, sometimes in a cart or on horseback. He described what he saw, heard, experienced, adding facts and stories he found in old documents to his descriptions. As an amateur photographer, he enriched his descriptions with photographs.

This is how his life work was born, the Description Of Székely Land From A Historical, Archeological, Natural History And Folklore Point Of View. The book is still the most valuable monograph of this landscape.

They originally published it in six volumes, between 1868 and 1873. It had 356 illustrations, of which approximately 150-160 original recordings survived to this day.

His accurate collection of materials, descriptions of old buildings, castles, statues, written memories and customs he describes are often the only sources available today from an ethnographic and historical point of view.

His work contributed to the strengthening of the historical knowledge of the Székely people and is still a valuable scientific source to this day.

The book was republished often in Hungary, but banned in Romania during the communist years

Although I own a version on this book and reference it often (when writing about Rupea Citadel, for example), I haven’t seen a copy until my early twenties. Specifically because I grew up in Romania during Communist times, when the book was banned in the country.

However, in Hungary they republished it several times. But since we couldn’t leave the country, we didn’t have access to it.

How I snuck a copy of the book across the border

After the fall of communism in Romania, in 1991, the borders opened, and we could travel to the neighboring countries. In the same time, the Hungarian government started a program to help Hungarians from the neighboring countries learn more about their own history. Through this program they invited Hungarian teachers from Transylvania to visit to Budapest. They included several college courses about Hungarian history in this trip, something they knew we didn’t learn in school. I was one of the teachers who went on this trip, with another Réka, my senior, also a Hungarian teacher.

That was the trip when I first saw Orbán’s book, the Description of Székely Land. And not only saw it. Our school received a gift copy of it. We were extremely grateful, however, we still had a problem bringing it home. We had to sneak it across the border since it was still banned in Romania.

I volunteered for the job. I hid the extremely large book in in my dirty laundry, under some feminine hygiene stuff strewn around seemingly haphazardly in my suitcase. Just as I expected, after seeing a Hungarian name they couldn’t even pronounce on my Romanian passport, the border patrol guys asked me to open my suitcase. I only hesitated enough to give the impression of being embarrassed by my personal items thrown in. Seeing my messy suitcase, with underwear on top, they didn’t touch it. Instead, they asked me to dig through it so they could see what else was there. And of course, I knew how to dig to only show more clothes, and nothing else.

Years later, I brought a different edition across many borders from Transylvania to the US. No one asked me to dig through my dirty laundry this time.

I never understood why the old Communist Government banned this book in Romania

After reading the monumental work, I never figured out why it was banned in my home country for so long. I couldn’t find anything derogatory written in it about Romanians, I couldn’t see anything where Transylvania should or should not belong. I would’ve made a bad cenzor, I’m sure.

Eventually, someone in the new Romanian government must have read it and decided it should’t be banned. Or simply censorship seized to exist in Romania after the communism, because they published the book there, too.

Orbán’s other works

Although he is best known for his Description of Székely Land, Balázs Orbán published many historical studies and newspaper articles, as well. He also contributed to the chapter dealing with Székely Land in the Hungarian Folk Poetry Collection, compiled with János Kriza, Elek Benedek and Jób Sebesi in 1882.

Apart from his writings, he also helped his people, especially when it came to education. In 1976 and 1890, he established a foundation to help poor students.

His memory

Balázs Orbán died without an heir in Budapest on April 19, 1890. According to his last will, he was buried on his estate in Szejkefürdő, Transylvania. Not only once, but three times.

In 1908, his family crypt was destroyed, so he was reburied the second time. However, the new crypt didn’t last long either, collapsing during a landslide. Therefore, a third funeral took place in 1921. This grave remained unmarked until 1932, but after the Second World War it too began to fall into disrepair. Finally, the monument we see today dates from 1969.

A walkway passing through over ten (14 to be exact) Székely gates leads to it. The gate closest to the monument originally stood in front of the entrance to Balázs Orbán’s summer residence in Szejkefürdő.

The figure of Balázs Orbán is closely related to the Székely Land. His pioneering work not only includes the description of Székely Land, but also played an important role in the creation of historical and literary photo-documents in Transylvania.

In Transylvania, especially in and around Székelyudvarhely, his people celebrate the memory of Balázs Orbán every year on the anniversary of his birthday, on February 3.

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