The history of the settlement dates back to prehistoric times, as evidenced by the traces of Iron Age life on the castle hill. The conquest-era population of the village was testified by the finds of the Szépasszony Valley. The area of the Eger stream, which flows through the present town centre, was a swampy forest and floodplain unsuitable for human habitation a thousand years ago, so there are no archaeological remains from that period, but some speculate that the town may have been named after the alder trees in the area.
In the Árpád period, a village with a manor house and a chapel was built on the site of the later castle, at which time St. Stephen founded a bishopric and the construction of the cathedral and palace, which no longer exist, began in the 11th century. The first bishops were accompanied by Walloon master builders from Western Europe, who then built a large part of the town buildings and even helped to spread viticulture. However, the growing city could not escape the Tatars' ravages in 1241. Reconstruction work began soon afterwards, including the building and extension of the destroyed bishop's castle.
The 'résumé’ of Eger Castle and the Ottoman legacy
It is the role it played during the battles against the Ottomans that has made Eger Castle famous to this day. After the fall of Buda in 1541, Péter Perényi, a supporter and then traitor of King Ferdinand, captured Eger Castle, and the roof of the cathedral and many of the buildings and dwelling houses of the castle were destroyed by fire during the battle. After Perényi's death, 7 years later, the castle was returned to the monarch and the bishop, and King Ferdinand appointed István Dobó as castellan, who immediately set about fortifying the castle. It was thanks to this that in 1552 they managed to repulse the siege of the outnumbered Turks. The news of the triumph spread across Europe thanks to the poems of bard Sebestyén Tinódi Lantos.
In 1596, the castle was finally occupied by the Ottomans, and shortly afterwards the vilayet of Eger was formed. It was during the Ottoman thraldom that the first written sources about the red grape varieties grown in the Eger area were preserved, and the 'recipe' for red wine arrived in the area with the Rascians fleeing from the Turks. The minaret, which still stands today, was built during this period and originally belonged to the Kethuda mosque, but after the occupation it was converted into a Catholic church and demolished in the 1840s. The Turks created the first baths by exploiting the warm water springs along the stream. One of these pools is the ancestor of the Turkish Baths, which are still in operation today. The expulsion of the Ottomans took place in 1687, by which time the outer castle was condemned to demolition due to its neglected state, while the inner castle played a role in the Rákóczi War of Independence in 1703, serving as the prince's military headquarters.
Quarters and quartermasters
It is interesting to note that the walled city was once divided into quarters ('hóstya' or ‘fertály’). The etymology of the word is derived from the German word 'Hofstaat' meaning courtyard, which came to us through Slovakian mediation. Some believe that it is related to the word Hochstadt, 'upper town'. The quarters were headed by well-respected quartermasters, whose unpaid duties included keeping order in their areas and detecting fires. The Hóstyas (Cifra, Hatvani, Maklári, Rác) are still local features.
From university to Lyceum
The 18th century saw the beginning of a period of prosperity, with the Baroque town centre being built under the bishops Ferenc Barkóczy and his successor, Károly Eszterházy. The population grew and industry, trade, art and education flourished. In the first half of the century, Eger had a seminary and a law school. Barkóczy set the goal of building a university, later Eszterházy continued the work begun. The Universitas (later the Lyceum) was built in the Baroque and Zopf styles for 20 years from the 1760s, under the direction of Mátyás Gerl and later Jakab Fellner. Fellner was one of the most prominent architects of the late Baroque Zopf style in Hungary. The ornamentation of the building, from the murals to the tiled stove, was created by outstanding artists, and the observatory was designed by astronomer-mathematician Miksa Hell, who is also responsible for the camera obscura that depicts the city.
A huge, carefully collected library of 16,000 volumes (the ancestor of the present Archdiocesan Library) also enriched the institute. Originally four faculties were planned: theology, law, medicine and philosophy - a symbolic representation of which is shown on the ceiling fresco in the assembly hall of the Lyceum. Despite all this, the university was not granted a licence by Maria Theresa, and according to the Ratio Educationis of 1777, only one university could operate in the country, the one in Buda. Later Joseph II did not contribute to it either, but the institution was granted the status of a lyceum. It was not until 1949 that a college of higher education could be opened within its walls, and the institution got the name of Károly Eszterházy in 1989.
The basilica and the patron Archbishop
In the first half of the 19th century, the city suffered many disasters: fires ravaged the city centre, the southern wall of the castle collapsed, damaging houses, and an epidemic of cholera decimated the population. In 1827, János László Pyrker, former Patriarch of Venice and Dalmatian Primate, was appointed Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Eger. Being a cosmopolitan and a patron of the arts, he did much for the city. He was also involved in poetry, ran a teacher training school and a drawing school here, and donated his collection of Italian paintings to the Hungarian National Museum after it failed to have been stored in Eger. He was also responsible for the construction of the Basilica of Eger.
The cathedral was built between 1831 and 1836 - with extraordinary speed for its size, being one of the largest churches in Hungary; but it took over a hundred years to complete the interior decoration. The architect was József Hild, an outstanding figure of Hungarian Classicism, whose designs are also to be found on a number of church buildings, including the Esztergom Basilica and, in part, the St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest. Pyrker died in Vienna, but his heart rests in the crypt of the basilica, which he designed.
Dionysus in Eger
The wines of Eger have inspired many of our poets from Vörösmarty to Petőfi and Mihály Tompa; Eger and its justly famous wines have been the protagonists of many drinking-songs. There is also a considerable cellar system under the city, but the best known are the cellars of the Szépasszony Valley on the outskirts of the city. In the easily excavatable liparite tuff, the construction of cellars began in 1774 - with bishop's permission, as the area was owned by the church leader. Until the middle of the 19th century, the area was called Koháry Valley after Count István Koháry, whose soldiers were stationed at the outskirts of the town when the Ottomans were expelled. There are many variations about the origin of the name Szépasszony (beautiful woman), from pagan beliefs to the history of beautiful women of the area.
A characteristic wine of Eger, the bikavér (bull's blood), owes its name to its deep red colour. According to a legend, the defenders of Eger Castle were given courage by the wine, which the Turks believed to be the blood of a bull, but at that time red wine was not yet widespread in the area. The most famous Hungarian cuvée, or blended wine, used to be based on a large proportion of kadarka, but after the grape phylloxera of 1886, kékfrankos (blue lemberger) took over as the main ingredient. Today, strict rules define the varieties of grapes from which Egri Bikavér can be made.
Translated by Zita Aknai