The city of sunshine, Szeged

The city of Szeged is rich not only in the number of hours of sunshine. Throughout its history, it has often faced hostile armies and River Tisza. However, the city's richness is mainly due to the hard work and resilience of its people, which also required a bit of serendipity. Szeged is the destination of our latest local history adventure.

Salty business


The name of Szeged first appeared in documents at the beginning of the 12th century (Ciggedin), but it is almost certain that the settlement did not originate at that time, as it was referred to as a centre of salt transport.

King St. Stephen of Hungary designated the settlement as a national depot, where salt from Transylvania was transported. The salt depot in Szeged was one of the main sources of payment for the country and the royal treasury. In fact, it was from here that the churches and national institutions obtained their annual supplies, initially in salt, of course.


The settlement, which was beginning to flourish, was not spared by the Tartar invasion. The devastated Szeged was rebuilt under Béla IV, and the castle was built as a result. It is interesting to note that the castle of Szeged was built instead of the castle of Csongrád, which was destroyed by the Tartars. In order to find the exact location of the castle, they carried out drillings. The research shows that the castle was once a separate, prominent elevation surrounded by streamlets. It is believed to have been a fortress with wooden fences and watchtowers. (During the flood of 1879, the courtyard and its huge ramparts of the still-standing castle were used to house the displaced population.)

A broken signet


Szeged was a free royal city as of the early 15th century, but in 1566, the Ottoman army arrived. The people of Szeged were liberated from the Ottoman misery only on 23 October 1686. After that, the reconstruction of the city could begin, the settlement wanted to regain its free royal status with all the privileges that it entailed, but the chancellery did not approve this request.
It is true that previous kings had granted Szeged a number of privileges, but over the years, these charters were lost. In order to prove these rights, a signet would have been needed to prove that Szeged was once a free royal city.
The problem was that the only inscription on the smaller signet that survived from the 15th century was 'Sigillum . Minus . Civitatis Zegedini'. The larger signet had been lost - there was no other inscription on it either – so in 1691 the council had a new signet engraved, which now included the words 'Liberae Ac Regiae' (Free Royal). The people of Szeged attached great importance to this inscription, even though the indication "Free Royal" had not previously appeared on the signets of Esztergom or Buda.
As the new signet and the reference to the lost larger one did not convince royal administrators, the city had recourse to fraud. In 1704, a signet was fished out of the Tisza “by chance”, and although it was broken, it corresponded requirements, as it bore a fragment of the evidential inscription: 'Sigillum. Regiae ... gediensis. A. 1200."
Seeing the signet, the eager officials determined that it was the lost large old seal of the city, and so King Charles III of Hungary (and Holy Roman Emperor) restored Szeged to its old privileges on 21 May 1719.
The historian János Reizner later concluded that it was indeed a forgery of the period, most tellingly because of the Arabic numerals of 1200, the absence of any abrasion marks on the signet and, finally, the clearly Baroque decoration of the object.
After the Charter was issued, an even brighter era began in the life of the city. The military administration ceased to exist, and objects used for military purposes began to be dismantled. From 1720 onwards, national fairs were held regularly, with weekly markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The already lively commercial life was thus further strengthened, and shipping traffic on the Maros, Tisza and Danube was boosted, which had a beneficial effect on the development of the timber and shipbuilding industries. A further boost came later with the emergence of railways.

Szeged will be more beautiful than it was

The inhabitants of Szeged had to endure several difficult days caused by floods. They probably did not presume how many human lives would be torn apart in March 1879, how their beloved city would disappear in a couple of hours. However, the omens were not encouraging. Looking at the history of the flood, it is clear that the maximum water level in the spring was not taken into account when the Tisza was regulated and the flood plains and protective embankments were designated. There had already been major floods before, but they did not deal with circular embanking during the protection against flooding. It is also true that the costs of organising the large-scale industrial and economic exhibition planned in Szeged in 1876 diverted resources from flood protection. In the spring of 1876, the situation was severe for months, and the area was then saved from the flooding only at the cost of night and day protection. The experts had already seen that a disaster was threatening the city, yet they did not take the necessary steps. At Christmas 1878, the ice at the foot of the railway bridge was piled up due to debacles. The boatmen of the Royal Hungarian River Engineering Office broke up the ice and released the loose ice sheets. Because of the rainy weather of the preceding months, the water level had not fallen significantly by February 1879, and there were reports of further flooding in the upper sections of the Tisza.

"Time seemed endless by the time dawn broke. But why was it dawning? Dawn found Szeged no more, only its ruins." - This is how Kálmán Mikszáth described the moments of the Szeged flood of 1879.

arviz.JPGOn 11 March 1879, at 11 p.m., a hurricane-force wind rose and at 1.30 a.m. on 12 March, the rabbit dam built on the railway embankment burst and the water entered the city. The bells rang the alarm, and the population fled to high ground, to the roofs of high-rise buildings and to Újszeged, and from there to the villages in the surrounding area. The large body of water flooded first Rókus and Upper Town, and then spread over the whole town. Of the 60 000 inhabitants, 150 lost their lives and only 265 of the 5 458 houses of Szeged remained intact. On 17 March, Franz Joseph I, Kálmán Tisza and the ministers visited the ruined city. It was then that the King said these words of encouragement: 'Szeged will be more beautiful than it was'.



Thirty-five countries rushed to aid Szeged, with nations from Europe to America and Asia offering their help. The names of the sections of today's Szeged Grand Boulevard refer to the European capitals that donated (London, Moscow, Brussels, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Rome).

After the destruction, the city was rebuilt in an unusual way, using the principles of modern urban planning. The concept, which was attached to Lajos Lechner’s name and was implemented with state and international support, created the conditions for the development of a modern city. The primary task of the reconstruction was to remove the water that had caused major problems in the city. With the construction of a pile-plank wall and continuous pumping, many buildings were saved from collapse. "No stinking puddles were allowed to form despite the heat", thus epidemics did not cause another strike to the inhabitants.
The rebuilding of the city began in 1880, and particular attention was paid to the method of construction, which had to meet stricter requirements, especially regarding to the stability of the buildings. It was important to preserve the atmosphere of the old parts of the city and the traditional sunbeam ornaments. The heights, types and materials of the houses that could be built were also determined.


During the post-flood reconstruction, the rural character of Szeged began to change, and attention turned more to urban development, industrialisation, and the development of trade, education and other service sectors. There were few public buildings in Szeged before the water. Apart from the town hall and the public school, public institutions were usually housed in buildings that were not fit for purpose. After the completion of the city planning works, the town hall was renovated according to the plans of Ödön Lechner and Gyula Pártos. The new theatre (designed by Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer), the Vigadó of Újszeged (designed by Andor Halmay), the bandstand on Stefánia Square, the Finance Directorate, the Post Office Headquarters, the Palace of the Court of Justice and the "Csillag" (Star) prison, as well as the Palace of Culture were also built.
The reconstruction also provided the opportunity to pave the roads of the city, and the first permanent bridge was built, designed by the tender-winning company of Gustave Eiffel.
However, the most important was undoubtedly the construction of flood-prevention systems. Under Lechner's direction, 16 million cubic metres of soil were moved to build a 10-metre-high embankment, which effectively protected the city.
From the tragedy of Szeged, this is how the most modern city in the region was built, and it still proudly wears that title today.

Translated by Zita Aknai


Reizner János: Szeged története


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