The Hungary Report No. 1.04 April 22, 1995

China yields secrets
to the 1,000 year mystery
of Hungary's origins

By John Nadler Copyright (c) 1995 ]


Whether a blessing or a curse, Hungarians have always considered their 1,000-year-old nation of 10.5 million inhabitants an island and an enigma. Nearly every central European ethnicity - Poles, Czechs, Austrians - boasts either Slavic or Germanic roots. With their closest relatives thought to be the faraway Finns and Estonians, the lonesome Hungarians have occupied an ethnic oasis ever since 895 AD when marauding Magyar horseman settled on this patch of the Carpathian basin now known as Hungary.



Almost from that moment, Hungarians - or Magyars as they still call themselves - have posed the question: Who are we, and where did we come from? Today, a millenium later, Hungarian anthropologists believe they have found the answer in the most faraway of places: the Xinjiang province of north-west China. Since 1986, excavations of ancient graveyards and anthropological studies have yielded proof that this area, traditionally known as the 'Uigur' region, is the origin of the Hungarian people.


"Every journey to Xinjiang is a revelation to me," said Istvan Kiszely, the anthropologist who led the first expedition nine years ago, and returns annually. "The first time we went, we excavated a graveyard and found exactly the same anthropological objects as were found in Hungary. They had the same traditions [as 9th and 10th century Hungarians] for burying their dead. No other people had these customs. Not the Uralic people. Not the Slavic people." 1,200 graves were uncovered in Urumchi, the capital of Xinjiang.
   But according to Kiszely, the most persuasive proof of Hungary's kinship with the northern Chinese resides among the living. "In almost every sense these people are the same as Hungarians," explained Kiszely. "In the biological sense, in blood graphs, even in their folk art." According to Kiszely's investigations, the traditional clothing, motifs, and music of the Xinjiang people is remarkably similar to the unique folk styles of the Hungarian peasantry.


Other regional eccentricities of the Hungarians, ranging from heir penchant for spices in food and a sweet wine called Tokaji, also links them with the ancient Uigurs. Kiszely claims that "inscriptions" found in the Gobi desert dating back to 800 BC can be interpreted using ancient Hungarian script. But the most moving words Kiszely found in China came during his first expedition when listening to an ancient folk ballad telling of an Uigur tribe that embarked on a journey west a thousand years ago. History tells us that the ancient Uigurs were wanderers.


But almost exclusively in the east. In the 7th Century they erected the city of Karakorum, and they founded an empire in Mongolia that reigned between 744 and 840 AD. But according to the ballad Kiszely heard nine years ago, only one Uigur tribe ventured west, and the song promised its people would one day return. The locals reciting the poem were told of Kiszely's quest. "They received us as friends and relatives," Kiszely said. "This was a great moment for me." Kiszely's enthusiasm is not shared by all scholars.


The findings in Xinjiang contradict the popularly held contention that the common ancestors of the Hungarians and the Finns originated in the Ural mountains, or beyond the Urals near the Ob River. Both the Finns and Hungarians belong to the Finno-Ugric language group, and both tongues share a few common words. According to Kiszely, the ancestors of the Hungarians and the Finns traded these words - 42 in total today - when they encountered each other near the Urals sometime after the Magyar tribes left north-west China in the 7th century.


(The two peoples lived together 150 years, said Kiszely. Ample time to pick up portions of each other's vernacular.) Critics argue that academic theory linking Hungary's origins to the Urals was politically motivated. In the 19th century, the conquering Hapsburgs used it to downplay Hungary's eastern Turkish ties. A century later, the Soviets found it expedient to link Hungary's past to lands found within the USSR.


But before the mid-19th century, Hungarians gazed in the direction of Asia when pondering their past. Declared Erzsebet Toth, coordinator of the Hungarian Tibet Society: "All the ancient legends and stories connect Hungarians with the peoples of the east." In 1819, famed Hungarian ethnographer Sandor Korosi Csoma ventured as far as Tibet to find the origins of the Magyars.


He failed. And his failure is considered proof that Asian soil holds no secrets of Hungary's ancient past.According some scholars, Hungary's Asian traditions arise from its location at the east-west crossroads, and the plethora of peoples that have passed through here over the centuries. "It is hard to define: What is Hungarianism, who is a Hungarian," said Toth. "Here in Hungary dozens of nationalities have been mixed together... I don't think [Hungary's past] is reconstructable."


According to Kiszely, Korosi Csoma himself disagreed. Hungary's revered Orientalist found no Magyar skeletons in the Himalayas in the early 19th Century. But Kiszely contends he didn't go quite far enough. "Before Korosi Csoma died in 1842, his last words find the roots of the Hungarian people, go to the district of the Uigurs. [He] knew very well where to search."


Political thaw in Moscow and Beijing in the 1980s appears to have finally lifted the mist that had long hidden the 1,400-year-old horse tracks between Hungary and China. "It is amazing to me," Kiszely mused. "For 150 years [anthropology] served the government. Now I can allow myself to serve no one but the truth."But by 1915, politics again foiled this quest. A Chinese annexation kept Hungarian anthropologists out of the Xinjiang province for 79 years.

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