10. Settling in (10th c) and before

St Stephen had been the first Christian King of Hungary, but the country's history does not begin with him. He could build on the success of his father Duke Géza, the first ruler to impose firm central control over a people who, until then, had been more a confederation of clans - willing to cooperate in war, but little else - than a unified nation.

Géza had also established peaceful relations with the Western Empire of Otto the Great (the hand of whose niece Gisella of Bavaria he obtained for his son Stephen) and ended hostilities with the Byzantine Empire. And he was the first to invite missionary priests, from Germany, to Hungary; yet, although he had his son baptised by them, he himself was not - he is said to have claimed to be mighty enough to worship as many gods as he liked.

Until Géza took them in hand the Hungarians had been given to a lifestyle that combined agriculture and animal husbandry with Viking-style raiding campaigns - conducted on horses rather than in boats - towards more settled lands to their west and south. In the first half of the 10th c. they had regularly raided westwards as far afield as today's France - even raiding beyond the Pyrenees on occasion - until they suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of Otto the Great near Augsburg in 955. Raids towards Byzantine lands only ceased after 970.

The Hungarians - seven tribes made up of some eighty-odd clans of nomadic and pastoral people, numbering perhaps 100 to 200 thousand in all - had by AD 900 occupied all of the sparsely populated Carpathian Basin, where they had arrived in 895 led by Árpád, son of Álmos (and great-grandfather of Géza), whom they had elected supreme chief before setting out to cross the Carpathians from the east by the Verecke Pass. (NB: pronounce the c and k separately in Verecke!)

At that time they had been living in the region north of the Black Sea (today's Southern Ukraine), from where they are known to have been raiding the Frankish Empire, across what is today Poland, by about 862. Later they were making war on the Bulgarians on behalf of Byzantium. Indeed, they had only set out to cross the Carpathians when they did because, to get the Hungarians off their backs, the Bulgarians had incited the Petshenegs, who lived even further east, to attack the Hungarians from the rear.

Before that. . . nobody really knows. Dominican friars sent east by Béla IV in 1235, just before the Mongol invasion, reported finding a numerous people who spoke recognisable Hungarian, somewhere out there beyond the Volga in the wastes of what is today Russia. But who and wherever these may have been by 1239 - when a second mission tried to reach them - the Mongols had wiped them out, leaving not a trace of these distant cousins.

So, all we have to go on is linguistic evidence. This suggests that the ancestors of the Hungarians had roamed widely in the open spaces west - at some stage splitting off from the ancestors of the Finns and of the Estonians - and, earlier, east of the Urals, had been in contact with both Iranian and Turkic speaking peoples, and had set out, perhaps, from the region of the Altai Mountains in the third millennium BC.

And indeed, to this day it is its language, and the distinctive outlook and culture that this engenders and supports, that differentiates Hungary from the Slavonic and Germanic countries that surround it, rather than merely its geographic position (let alone any untennable crackpot hypothesis that would posit some kind of genetically determined racial purity).

For this reason, what went before in the Carpathian Basin - the Avars, the Huns, the Romans (who left a ruined amphitheatre, some broken statuary, and the traces of roads in their province of Pannonia), and sundry prehistoric peoples who occupied some or all of it in earlier ages - is only of marginal relevance to the history of Hungary, and not touched upon in the present account of it.

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