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Where empires ebb and flow

FEW PLACES REVEAL THE MANY LAYERS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY LIKE THE DANUBE WATERFRONT OF BUDAPEST. This week Romkje and I, along with other evangelical leaders, visited the Hungarian capital for a cluster of meetings relating to the spreading networks and partnerships across the continent.

Budapest, one of our favourite cities, is split by the Danube into hilly Buda on the western bank and pancake-flat Pest opposite. Several majestic bridges, each with its own history of construction, destruction and reconstruction, stitch the two cities together.

One evening last week we walked together across the Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Bridge back to our lodgings on the Buda side. On our right, we could look upstream towards the beautiful Chain Bridge, lit up like a string of pearls. Beyond the bridge lay Margaret Island, like a giant battleship anchored midstream. Opposite the island on the Buda side, the Roman ruins of Aquincum marked the north-eastern boundary of the once-mighty Roman Empire. The local inhabitants then were mainly Celtic tribes.

Later the Magyars or Hungarian tribes emerged from the east to settle permanently in this region. Their history was displayed in the national museum housed in Buda Castle on the fortified hill ahead of us to our right. The Magyars had arrived as shamanistic pagans late in the ninth century, over a hundred years before Christianity arrived.

Straight ahead of us, at the foot of the steep green slopes of an imposing hill overlooking the whole city, was an impressive semi-circular monument to St Gell√©rt. Invited to Hungary by the first Christian king, Istv√°n (Stephen), to tutor his son, Gell√©rt (Gerald) was a Benedictine abbot born in Venice. After the king died in 1038, pagan opponents tried to quench the poor fellow’s evangelistic activities by rolling him in a barrel-studded with nails pointing inwards-down this very hill into the river! Today that hill bears the name of the martyr: Gell√©rt-hegy (Gerald’s Hill).

Yet Gell√©rt’s message of a God and Saviour helped usher in the first Golden Age of Buda and Pest, when churches and monasteries were established. Two centuries later, destruction and slaughter arrived with the brief but terrible Tartar hit-and-run invasion. The Hungarians built the Castle Hill defences after this traumatic phase.

Below us on the Buda side, just downstream from the bridge, was the great cupola of the Rudas Turkish bath, witness to the high-water mark of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries. The ten-metre-span dome spanning an octagonal bath is the largest Turkish cupola in Europe, and recalled an age when mosques outnumbered churches in the city.

The Baroque architecture of the parish church of Pest we passed at the start of the Erzsébet Bridge, was evidence of the recovery of Christendom after a century and a half of Islam. Under Hapsburg rule, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire peaked in the late nineteenth century, at one time stretching from modern Poland to the Croatian coastline. The famous Hotel Gellért, its gracious art nouveau architecture clearly visible downstream from our bridge, was completed just as the First World War-and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire-ended

High above us to the left on top of Gellért-hegy was the Citadel occupied by Nazi troops attempting to establish the Third Reich. A short distance behind us was the largest synagogue in Europe and the site of the Jewish ghetto, from which 600,000 Jews were sent to their death in Auschwitz and other camps. The SS troops themselves met a grisly death holed up in tunnels under Castle Hill when the Red Army arrived early in 1945. Thus began 45 years of the Soviet Empire, during which the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was brutally suppressed.

From the Erzsébet Bridge we could look upstream along the eastern bank to see the illuminated dome of the neo-gothic Parliament buildings in the middle distance, now proudly flying the European Union flag alongside the Hungarian tricolour. Closer to us, dominating the Pest foreshore, were two large icons of the American Empire, the Intercontinental and Marriot Hotels.

Empires come and empires go, but Gell√©rt’s memory lives on in Budapest. The one unshakeable Kingdom (Hebrews 11:28) is that of the God and Saviour he proclaimed at the cost of his life a thousand years ago.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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