Its story in a nutshell
Debrecen was already inhabited in ancient times, traces of which are proven by the so-called Devil's Trench system (near the Csereerdő stop), which was part of the then defensive rampart. In the Middle Ages, the settlement gained the status of a market town. Its development was closely linked to obtaining a fair permit. From the very beginning, the settlement was characterized by artisanal and animal husbandry activities. Due to its geographical location, it often found itself in a difficult situation, and the city managed to survive by supporting the expanding Ottomans, the Austrians and Rákóczi. Perhaps this also contributed to the open thinking of its citizens, which made the population inclusive towards new ideas.
The idea of the Calvinist Reformation soon spread among the citizens of the merchant city, and the construction of a school network developed to the best of their ability was begun. The Debrecen Reformed College, founded in 1538, is the oldest continuously operating higher education institution in the country as the legal predecessor of the University of Debrecen. It was at this time that civic thinking could emerge, uniting the moral values of the Reformed religion with the pragmatically puritanical conception of life of those living here. By the middle of the 16th century, the entire population had become Protestant, so it is no coincidence that the city became famous as “Calvinist Rome”. Debrecen played a decisive role twice in the history of Hungary, first becoming the capital of the country in January 1849. Kossuth declared the dethronement of the Habsburg-Lorraine house and the independence of Hungary in the Great Reformed Church. In 1944, it became the capital of the country again, the Provisional National Assembly met here, and the Provisional National Government also functioned here for a hundred days. After Trianon, it became a near-border town, and as a railway junction, it continued to trade briskly and continues to do so today.
A walk in Piac Street
The main street of Debrecen is undoubtedly Piac Street, named after the markets held here. As of the 18th century, the trading houses dominated the street, but at the same time it beautifully preserved the characteristic face of Debrecen, which was urbanized at the turn of the century. If we start from the Main Station towards the city centre, the Reformed Small Church of Debrecen will soon appear. It was built in the Baroque style originally, it was later, in 1876, reconstructed in the Neo-Romanesque style; this transformation still defines its appearance. Well, not only that. Indeed, what is immediately apparent is its truncation. The Truncated Church used to wear an onion-like helmet, first damaged in 1907 by a massive windstorm. Anyone who knows the winds of the Great Plain can know that these winds do not come into town just once in a while. When the dome of the church was destroyed again, local architects were reconciled to the situation and restored it with a bastion-like design.
The County Hall building is also located in the main street, on the other side. On the wall of the building richly decorated with elements of the Hungarian Art Nouveau, we can admire the pyro-granite ceramics of the Zsolnay factory of Pécs. The city handed over the former Fejérló restaurant and its plot of land for the construction of the building free of charge. The demolition of the inn, which was transformed into a county hall, was finally decided in 1908 by the county. The design competition for the new headquarters was won by Zoltán Bálint and Lajos Jámbor, architects from the capital.
Then there is the hotel called Grand Hotel Aranybika, which has nothing to do with the bulls of the Great Plain, much more with the Bika family. The land of the Bika family - an old family from Debrecen – was bought by the city at an auction, with the aim of building a hotel here. First, it boasted with a hotel designed by Imre Steindl. However, due to increased demands, it was demolished in 1913 to allow a more grandiose one to be built in its place. Finally, the eclectic style building was built in 1915, based on the plans of Alfréd Hajós and Lajos Villányi.
At the end of the street, the Great Church stands, whose silhouette rises like a compass in the main street of the city. According to archaeological excavations, a church stood here already as early as in the 13th century. Owing to architect Mihály Péchy, its form can still be seen today. Construction of the neoclassical style church began in 1805 and was completed in 1827. By its size, it is the largest Reformed church in the country and it can accommodate nearly two thousand people. Its cultural and historical significance is also enormous: Kossuth read the Declaration of Independence here, making it one of the most important national monuments in Hungary.
We cannot forget about the College either. In 1538, when the town converted to the Protestant faith, it took over the former parish school of the city, which soon developed into a secondary grammar school. The operation of the school was funded by the city from the beginning. At the time of the Counter-Reformation, Maria Theresa forbade the city to financially support the school, and the institution maintained itself from donations. Its building first burned down in 1562, later in 1802 again. The building, which can still be seen today, was built in the Classicist style between 1804 and 1816, according to the plans of Mihály Péchy, who also designed the Great Church. Its large library, with a stock of half a million volumes, is the largest collection of the Hungarian Reformed Church. The library preserves 1,600 rarities from the memories of old Hungarian literature, but of course the manuscripts of its famous students can also be found among the precious pieces of the collection. The prayer hall opposite the library made a home for the parliament that held meetings here in 1849, and copperplates on the benches still indicate the seats of each member.
On the Hortobágy
From the market the Hortobágy Bridge Fair comes to many people’s minds. The bridge fair was created as one of the fairs in Debrecen, although the exact time of its creation is not known, and it is not known as a bridge fair. This is perhaps no wonder, as it was not originally kept on the bridge, but on the "Gulyaszél". Over the years, the market moved almost unnoticed next to the bridge, in 1825 only horses were given and bought, and by 1846 cattle had changed owners there. However, it was not until 1892 that the Debrecen Council decided on a regular bi-annual animal fair and its location at the bridge. The heyday of bridge fairs was undoubtedly during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Besides the animal fair, it was also famous as a stall vendors’ market, where masters of Debrecen, hat-makers, tailors, boot-makers and gingerbread sellers offered their goods. In the years before World War II, bridge fairs lost their importance as animal husbandry also changed. And after the war it was not even kept for a long time; the tradition was only renewed in 1960, but without an animal fair. The Nine-Hole Bridge is not only the denominator of the fair, but also a symbol of Hortobágy.
How many places, figures and stories from Debrecen there would be to be mentioned here. They are like the one that happened to little Lőrinc Szabó at Arthur Löfkovits's watch shop. "When I was eight years old, walking down the main street for the first day, I misread the sign of a watchmaker. ‘Giant and jeweller’ – I read the sign, and the knowledge that I live in a city where giants live held me spellbound for long weeks ... Then of course the disappointment, the terrible disappointment turned out. Debrecen would have a whole volume if I wrote my biography."
Surely, this countryside, inhabited by giants in spirit, deserves an entire volume.
Translated by Zita Aknai
A 600 éves Debrecen - Debrecen város kialakulása, fejlődése és földrajza, Központi Statisztikai Hivatal Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Igazgatósága, 1961.