Hungarian speleology keeps count of nearly 4,000 caves in the country, located in the Aggtelek Karst, the Bükk Mountains, the Buda Hills, the Pilis, the Bakony and the Mecsek. The deepest cave is the Bányász cave in the Bükk, which extends 303 metres into the depths. The longest is the Pál Valley cave system, which meanders for more than 32 km in the belly of the Buda Hills, a distance even greater than the Baradla-Domica cave system.
Brlog, Pest, Oduoskw
For Stone Age people, caves were a safe place to live, but in the Bronze and Iron Ages they became temporary shelters and people sometimes built huts in the immediate vicinity of caves (this latter type of dwelling survived until the end of the 20th century in the form of cave dwellings). The etymology of the word 'barlang' (cave) goes back to the time of the conquest, when our ancestors began to use the Slavic words 'brlog' and 'pest' to describe this unknown natural phenomenon. The former is similar to our word for cave, but the latter has been lost to oblivion, only a few geographical names refer to it, such as Büdös-pest in Miskolc, and some people believe it is also related to the name of the city of Pest.
Names of caves also appear in medieval language records, the first being Oduoskw, or Odvas stone, in the founding charter of the abbey of Bakonybél, dating from 1037 but forged around 1230. In the 15th century, the Dominican friar Petrus Ransanus, in his work on the history of Hungary, was the first to mention two caves scientifically: the deadly-vapour cavern of Szliácsfürdő, and the ice cave of Drevnyik Hill near the castle of Szepes. The codex was intended to be one of Matthias' Corvinas, but the death of the monarch meant that it was not ultimately deposited in the famous library. Epithoma rerum Hungaricarum is nowadays part of the collection of the National Széchényi Library.
"In Hungary, there are the following wondrous things: (...) beyond the river Tisza there is a cave where steam escapes, dangerous for all living creatures, for if poisoned there they die instantly; near Szepes, there are rocks where drops of water freeze in summer." - Ransanus: A brief summary of the history of the Hungarians
Mysterious dragon bones
Bones found in caves have long captured people's imagination, for example, the aforementioned Ransanus also reports dragon remains.
"There are caves in Transylvania with many intact dragon skulls and bones, but it is not known exactly where and how these monsters came to be here, especially as there are no such animals in the area, although some believe that they were brought here by the flow of the water during the Flood from Africa or elsewhere where dragons live; I was given a dragon head as a gift, which I will keep partly as a credit to the cause and partly as a memento to show to my compatriots." - Ransanus: A brief summary of the history of the Hungarians
In 1672, János Hain, a physician from Eperjes, bought dragon bones from local farmers, which he believed to have healing powers, collected in the caves of Deményfalva, and reported on it in his writings and copper engravings. These were, as we now know, the bones of cave bears and cave lions, and Hain's engravings are the world's first depictions of prehistoric remains. The dragon story was so popular that in 1719 the rector of Késmárk, György Buchholtz, a great connoisseur of the Tatras, wanted the whole creature to be excavated. His younger brother Jakab Buchholtz was one of the first cave explorers, specialising in the Northern Hungary region.
In the 18th century, the Evangelical pastor and polymath Mátyás Bél also dealt with caves in his geographic works illustrated with engravings and divided into counties, Hungariae Antiquae et Novae Prodromus of 1723 and Notitia Hungariae novae historico-geographica, a four-volume work published from 1735 to 1742, the latter encyclopaedic work unfortunately unfinished, with six other volumes in manuscript.
Outlook on Baradla
The Baradla Cave is the best-known stalactite cave in Hungary, with its natural entrance in the pit of an imposing rock at Aggtelek. Formed in limestone 200-230 million years ago, the passages stretch for 30 km across the Slovakian border and are known in full as the Baradla-Domica cave system. Mátyás Bél mentions in the manuscript of his Notitia volume on Gömör County that the huge cave is still unexplored, although several people, including György Buchholtz, have visited it, but no descriptions were made.
Episcopal engineer József Sartory and János Farkas drew up the first map and a detailed description of the Baradla in 1794, but they have disappeared over time, although a copy of the map is kept in the National Széchényi Library. In 1801, Mihály Csokonai Vitéz also visited the cave, and the adventurous trip had a great impact on the poet. In 1825, Imre Vass, a land-surveyor and one of the outstanding explorers of the Baradla, reached Jósvafő, the formation now known as the Theatre Hall, on the main branch of the cave; he later gave a detailed account of his discovery, with a map appendix entitled The description of the Aggtelek cave with its black area, its pedological plan and its longitudinal section.
Cave exploration as an interdisciplinary
It was during this period that Adolf Schmidl, an Austrian-born geographer and professor at the University of Technology, began his scientific activities. His research in the Monarchy covered a wide range of subjects, including the Karst, the Baradla Cave and the Bihar Mountains. Until his death, he worked for the science of Hungarian geography, even learnt Hungarian. In the middle of the 19th century, interest in cave life also increased, cave biology was introduced in Hungary, and Flóris Rómer, the father of Hungarian archaeology, drew attention to the possibilities offered by history and archaeology in connection with cave research.
The Dobsina ice cave was discovered in the 1870s and was already known to the local inhabitants, who used to extract ice from its outer parts in summer as well. In 1873, the Hungarian Carpathian Association was founded, the first Hungarian tourist association, and tourists became interested in caves, and the association regularly published materials on cave exploration. At the end of the century, stone tools were found in Miskolc, as reported by Ottó Herman, and bones and tools from Neanderthals were discovered in the Krapina cave now in Croatia. Subsequently, archaeological excavations were also carried out in caves, pioneered by the geologist Ottokár Kadič, the father of Hungarian cave exploration, who explored the caves of the Bükk Mountains.
Great discoveries and unique finds
In 1910, the cave research experts were organised, as the Speleologist Committee of the Hungarian Geological Society was founded with 38 members, chaired by Károly Siegmeth, and Ottokár Kadič was the lecturer. Within a few years, the number of members had increased so much that the organisation had to be transformed from a committee into a department. In addition to fieldwork, a journal and other publications were launched, scientific events were organised and a unified cave register was established.
In 1919, enthusiastic tourists exploring the Paul Valley Cave founded the first amateur organisation, the Speleologist Department of the Pannonia Tourist Association, a project supported by Ottokar Kadič as well. Shortly afterwards, the Budapest University Tourist Association (BETE) was founded, whose member, Péter Kaffka, a student at the University of Technology, discovered the Jósvafő section of the Baradla, and later on, the Tengerszem Hotel in Jósvafő was built according to his plans.
In 1926, the Hungarian Speleologist Society was founded, with Jenő Cholnoky as president and Ottokár Kadič as secretary. Jenő Cholnoky is one of the most outstanding Hungarian geographers and a university professor, one of his specialities was the natural geography of Lake Balaton; his works have aroused the interest of many people in geography. In the 1930s, several hollow formations were discovered in the Buda Hills, including the Szemlő-hegyi cave, which was explored by Hubert Kessler. Hubert Kessler was the director of Baradla from 1935 to 1945, and was the first person to descend to the 91-metre depth of the Vecsembükk dolina with the BETE expedition. With a vertical extent of 234 metres, this dolina is the third deepest cavern in Hungary.
In 1932, János Dancza found the first Hungarian prehistoric bones of Neanderthals, a 25-35 year-old woman and a 3 year-old child, in the Suba Hole near Cserépfalu in the Bükk Mountains. The rich artefacts included numerous animal remains, including cave bears, wild horses and mammoths, as well as stone tools.
In 1936, the Speleologist Department of the Friends of Nature Tourist Association was formed, which later became the Red Meteor Speleologist Department. During this period, the Baradla Cave, the Pál Valley Cave and the Tapolca Lake Cave were developed for tourism.
Translated by Zita Aknai