Apparently, the Hungarian origins can be traced back to Ancient Mesopotamia and the Sumerians: they are also related to the Scythians, Huns and Avars.[1] Further linguistic evidence links the Magyars to the Finno-Ugrian people who lived between the Baltic Sea and the Ural Mountains. The linguistic similarity of the Magyar language to the Finno-Ugrian family of languages has been a major clue to identifying the Magyar origins. It seems likely that the Magyars themselves came to the Ural region, from which in c2000 BC the Finns broke away to settle in the Baltic area. However, additional evidence has also pointed to the Turanian Plain, now called Turkestan in central Asia.[2]

Magyar Migration Route


Modern Turkestan stretches from the Caspian Sea eastward to Lake Baikal, which is the same area the Scythians occupied. The older Sumerians had also lived in that area, prior to migrating to Mesopotamia. The Sumerians invented cunei form writing, which is also related to Ural-Altaic languages. Apparently cuneiform writing was used by the Hungarians long before their arrival in the Carpathian Basin. Such observations lead to the Magyars having passed their language, enriched by Sumerian, to the Finns, Estonians, and be the foundation of the Hungarian language.

Another linkage relates the Magyars to the Uygurs of the Xinjiang province of China. The Uygurs are 7m people with a Caucasian appearance, who have a Turkic language. They live in the Tarim Basin and a chain of oases between the forbidding Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. Unsurprisingly, the area parallels the old Silk Road. At the Uygurs' northern border is the Dzungarian Basin, a steppe-like region where dry grain - farming is practiced. Judging from their language clues, the original Magyar home was densely forested and the Magyars lived a primitive hunting and fishing existence. Archeological finds of Sumerian origin found in the Carpathian Basin, indicate that the Hungarians' ancestors, the Huns, Avars, and Szekleys, settled in the Carpathian basin as early as c350 AD. About the same time, the Magyars migrated west across the Urals, and then southward toward the Russian steppes where they met the Turks and Iranians, or Persians. At this point the Magyars appear to have become animal herders north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus.


After the Western Roman Empire collapsed under attack by the Germanic tribes invaders continued to migrate into Europe. Among the first to arrive were the Huns, who built up a powerful empire under Attila. It is now widely believed that the origin of the name "Hungary" does not come from the Huns, but originated in c650. The Magyar tribes were part of a Bulgar alliance called On-Ogour, which in Turkish meant "Ten Arrows" or tribes, and this was the source of the name Hungary. After Hunnish rule faded, The Germanic Ostrogoths and then the Lombards followed the Huns into Eastern Europe, while the Gepids moved into the eastern Carpathian Basin. In c565 the Turkish Avars had founded the Avar Khaganate in the area of Hungary and had dominated the region attacking their neighbours, until Charlemagne finally defeated the Avars in 796.

In c800, the seven Magyar tribes had settled near the Sea of Azov and contributed 20,000 men to a Khazar army. In 836 a Magyar army allied with the Bulgars and attacked a Byzantine fleet near the mouth of the Danube River. In ensuing decades they took control of large areas of southern Russia, raiding Slav settlements for booty and slaves. The seven tribes of Magyars were then grazing their herds on the open steppes near the Urals and the Caucasus mountains. They lived on meat, mares' milk, and fish. Like the Mongols, they spent most of their lives and conducted their raids on horseback armed with a short composite bow.

Pechenegs & neighbours: c1015


In c850, after clashes with both the Turkish Khazars on the Volga and the powerful Turkish Pechenegs, the Magyars decided to move again.[3] Evidently the Magyars were joined by several Turkish tribes under Magyar control. In 862, the Magyars raided the eastern Frankish Empire, for the next half-century the Magyars were the scourge of Europe. This area was then nominally under Frankish rule, but had been sparsely populated since Charlemagne’s destruction of the Avars. The Magyars were able to move into Hungary virtually unopposed and eventually wrested the region from Frankish control. Although the lands of Hungary were relatively uncontested, the Magyars became involved in a war between Byzantium and Bulgaria. The Byzantines bribed them to attack the Bulgars, which they did with initial success under Álmos.



Magyar loyalty was to a family clan with multiple clans in a tribe, but only the tribal leaders selected the Magyar chiefs. The early Magyars had two leaders as a dual-monarchy and a man called Kurszán was elected as the kende, or religious leader, while Álmos was the gyula the war chief. Álmos died and was succeeded by his son Árpád, who was elected Grand Prince of the seven Magyar tribal federation in c898. However, Kurszán was murdered with his entourage in Austria by the Franks in 904, and Árpád was left in unchallenged power as the man who led the Magyars to Hungary. In 895, Árpád defeated the Bulgarian King Simeon I, but in 896 Simeon made an alliance with the Pechenegs, who drove the Magyars up the Danube valley into the region now known as Hungary. In 907, the Magyars defeated the Bavarians in Slovakia at the Battle of Bratislava. At the apex of his power, Árpád died and was followed by Zoltán, who was recognised as Kende, redefined as a king, or grand prince.

In 895-896, the Magyar tribes occupied the Carpathian Basin and nationalised the Avar and Slavic populations living there. Their territory was the Danube basin surrounded by the Transylvanian and Carpathian mountain ranges but with access eastward to Bulgarian and Byzantine territories, and westward to Italy and the rest of Europe. It was a virtual fortress from which they could raid east, west and south with almost total impunity. They inflicted dreadful damage on Europe until they finally began to settle in Hungary. After a serious defeat in Germany by Heinrich I, König von Deutschland called the Fowler, in 933, the Magyars attacked Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire, reaching the walls of Constantinople. The Byzantines paid them a bribe for 15 years to stop their attacks.

There were 33 Magyar raids in 898-955, into Italy, Germany, France, Burgundy; they reached the Atlantic coast and crossed the Pyrenees into Spain. However, beginning in 947, Germany under Otto I (the Great) began to expand into Hungary’s sphere of influence, re-taking Bavaria, invading western Hungarian settlements, subduing the Czechs and in 951, conquering Italy, where Otto had himself crowned King in place of the Magyar vassal Berengar II. On 10 August 955, the Magyars were convincingly defeated by the German Emperor Otto I. Otto destroyed the entire Magyar army at the decisive, day-long Battle of Lechfeld. According to legend, only seven Magyar men escaped to Hungary. But Germany had suffered too heavily to take advantage of the victory and there was an uneasy peace for 15 years. Peace with Byzantium had also encouraged trade and cultural relations.

Saint Stephen



The Magyars actually settled in Hungary and adopted western feudalism during the reign of Géza Árpád (972-997). Géza was the grandson of the first Árpád, who had won his position over the other the tribal chieftains, and adopted western Christianity. Christianity had flourished, as Catholic missionaries arrived from Germany and in 973 Géza and all his household were baptised, and a formal peace concluded with Emperor Otto I. Géza's son, István, was Hungary's first king chosen with the blessing of the Pope in 1000 and was he later canonized as a saint.[4] Because of St István's efforts to establish both the church and the state, he is considered to be the founder of Hungary.

In 996 István married Gisela, the sister of Kaiser Heinrich II, St. A war of succession after Geza’s death the following year was won by István with a mixed army of Hungarians and Bavarian heavy cavalry. To forestall Christian countries warring on Hungary as a nation of “heathen barbarians”, István applied directly to Rome for recognition as the first King of Christian Hungary, independent of both the German and Byzantine Emperors. István freed slaves and established churches, encouraging his nobles to do the same. He re-distributed land, minted silver coinage, and laid the foundation of a legal system. Friendly relations were begun with Byzantium (the Hungarian royal crown was Byzantine-made), and István's son, Imre, and heir married Argyra, a Byzantine princess and István had his own Varangian Guard in imitation of the Byzantine Emperor.

In 1014, István aided the Byzantine Emperor Basil II in his war against Bulgaria, and later repelled German and Pecheneg invasions. Latin became the court language, and Hungarian almost vanished from official records. István died in 1038, and was canonised in 1073. After his death wars of succession disrupted Hungary with foreign involvement until the early 1200s. Hungary lost independence to foreigners to the extent of doing homage, at various times, to both Western and Byzantine Emperors. Despite the conflicts, Hungary grew in population, prosperity and territory.

The Kingdom of Croatia was annexed and administered by a Ban (viceroy). Monks came from Germany, Italy and France, raised cultural standards, and improved the farming of crops and vines. Gold, silver and salt were mined and new towns were founded. Despite the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos' (1143-1180) ten invasions in 22 years in his failed attempt to impose Byzantine sovereignty Hungarian independence remained secure.


The early population of Hungary was made up of three major components. The freemen were descendents of the original Magyar invaders, and were nobles in all but name. They had the feudal duty of bearing arms and were exempt from taxation. The invaders had, however, been considerably diluted by the descendants of earlier freedmen (freed slaves) and of immigrants who had also become assimilated into the Magyar state.

In the middle of the 12th century, Otto, Bishop of Friesing wrote:

  • "These Magyars do not have an attractive face; they are hollow-eyed, of small stature, their language and morals are barbaric; so that we must blame Fate, or admire Divine patience that has given such a beautiful country to these people who are more like monsters."
  • "Their village dwellings are rather miserable: they are built of reed, occasionally of timber, and still less frequently of stone. In summer and autumn they live in tents."
  • "When the king goes to war, they all follow without argument. One in ten, or one in eight villagers – or more if necessary – are despatched to the war with full equipment. Those who stay behind cultivate the land."
  • "The king’s person is surrounded by foreigners; there are quite a few, and they are called dignitaries. Only their dignitaries and the aliens copy our people’s warfare and the shine of or armour."

In 1122 the nobles rose up and forced the Golden Bull – Hungary’s equivalent of Magna Carta – on King András II, for his abuses of royal power. After András died in 1235, his son Béla IV did what he could to restore royal authority but his efforts were blocked by the Mongol invasion of 1241.

The Mongols almost completely destroyed the Hungarian army, and ravaged the countryside from east to west. Béla barely escaped, and Hungary was only saved from destruction when the Mongol Khan, Batu, returned home with his armies, possiblt to contest the succession on the death of the Great Khan, Ogedei. The population was halved in twelve months, through massacre, plague and starvation. Bela repaired the damage, built a chain of border fortresses, and called in colonists to repopulate the country.

With the death of Andreij III in 1301, the Arpad dynasty came to an end. The throne was then taken over by foreign descendants of Hungarian princesses. Hungary continued to be ruled by foreigners for centuries to come. By the 1440’s the Turks had occupied large areas of the northern Balkans. Ladislas V of Hungary (Wladislaw VI of Poland) was defeated and killed at the battle of Varna. However, his successor Janos Hunyadi kept Hungary free from Turkish rule. In 1526 King Lajos II Jagiello met defeat and death against the Turkish army of Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent at the battle of Mohacs (near Belgrade). Half of Hungary now paid homage to the Turks and the rest was absorbed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted until the First World War.

Magyar Army

Like most nomadic steppe-dwellers, the early Magyars were light cavalry, armed with a composite bow of wood, horn and sinew.[5] They also used the curved sabre, light spears, and less often the mace. The sabre was distinguished by turned-down quillons and a curved hilt. The aristocracy wore finely crafted metal armour (probably lamellar), which was favourably commented upon by those of other nations.  Less exalted Magyars probably wore leather lamellar or thick felt for protection. The Magyar helmet seems to have been of similar design to those of their Turkic neighbours – spangenhelms of conical shape, possibly with a spike at the crown. Shields were apparently rare. The Magyar saddle was light and comfortable, and was widely copied, and stirrups helped with stability and control. Endrey states that they were great archers, and they had a “superb military organization”, a claim that is borne out by their success against some of the most professional armies of their time. He states that Heinrich I the Fowler, after being defeated by the Magyars in 924, copied their light cavalry and was thus able to defeat them in his turn in 933.

They favoured light, mobile tactics, showering arrows from a distance, and feigned retreats, turning to annihilate the enemy when they were strung out in pursuit. However, contact with western European warfare and the changing needs of a society no longer based on a nomadic lifestyle brought a new orientation. In the 11th century Geza I and Stephen I recruited heavy cavalry from Bavaria and used them with great effect against the native Hungarian troops of their rivals. Also, after the Mongol invasion of 1241, Bela IV replaced light archers with a smaller force of heavy cavalry.


1              Adapted from Hungarian prehistory at,; David W. Koeller, Russia and Eastern Europe Chronology, The Magyars at,; Steven Lowe, The Magyars of Hungary at,; Hungary at,; Hungarian History at,; Ministry of Local Governments and Regional Development Republic of Hungary, Tourism Unit, History at,

2              The maps are from Hungarian prehistory at,, and Pechenegs at,

3              See Pechenegs at, The Pechenegs defeated the Khazars and took over the area of southern Russia and the Ukraine. They had established a powerful kingdom by 900, as reported by the Constantine Porphyrogenitus in 950 in De Administrando Imperio.

4              Stephen I of Hungary at,

5              See Steven Lowe, The Magyars of Hungary at,

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