My Trip to Pecs, Hungary

Anyone who knows me knows I am fascinated by religion. I’m not religious, not in any way, but I love learning about religion and I especially like visiting religious sites. I’ve seen ancient Zoroastrian temples in Kazakhstan, the Registan in Uzbekistan, I’ve been to the Python Temple in Ouidah, Benin, Confucian temples in China,  I’ve seen Voodoo/Catholic ceremonies in Latin America, I’ve seen the Hagia Sophia, Notre Dame, the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, Newgrange, Ireland, and oh! I could go on and on. This stuff never stops grabbing my attention. 



Recently I decided to take a solo trip to Hungary. While Googling “must see Hungary” I went way, way down a rabbit hole and found a traveler’s blog talking about her visit to an early Christian mausoleum in the Transdanubia region of the country. For those of you not familiar with the geography of Hungary, never fear! I’m here to help. Trans – across, Danube – (the river) so across the river-. Hungary is kinda sorta in the shape of a rectangle. Now, imagine drawing a vertical line right down the middle of it. Now, move that line just a little over to the left. Okay, your line is the Danube river and everything to the left is the region on Transdanubia. They have southern Transdanubia, western Transdanubia, eastern Transdanubia, and northern Transdanubia. The mausoleum is in southern Transdanubia very near to the Croatian border.

A mausoleum from the late Roman Empire??? That is my idea of a vacation destination! I was on my way! I’m currently living in Bratislava, Slovakia and the town is a 6 hour train ride away so I broke it up with a stop in Budapest. I’ll write about that in a separate post. 

So, the mausoleum is in a small town called Pecs. It’s the ancient cultural center of Hungary. Archaeologists trace humans living in the area back 6,000 years ago, those were the Celts. Romans claimed the land and started a city named Sopianae in the 2nd century, the 300s. 

It was shortly after this that Emperor Constantine had his famous dream/vision. What dream was this? Remember, hopefully you remember from middle school social studies class that the Christians haven’t always been the oppressors that they are today. They used to be the oppressed. We’re talking about just a few hundred years after the Jesus guy lived and the stories of his greatness were getting bigger and bigger. The official religion of the Roman empire was polytheistic and you’ve all heard the stories. You know: Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, Vulcan, those guys… and Christians??? They were the weirdos. They were just some freakish cult. But! They gained in popularity over the years and at one point the Emperor, Constantine, was in a war and had a vision. He saw his soldiers fighting under the cross, the sign of Christianity. He made his soldiers paint crosses on their shields and sew crosses on their flags and oh!

They won the battle! I’m sure it had nothing to do with their fighting skills at all, nope, it was a miracle! Jesus saved them! Or… that’s how Constantine saw it. After that he legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, he banned the persecution of Christians, he even converted to Christianity himself.

After this Christianity spread quickly throughout the empire. It’s called top down spread. We see this all the time. The way I describe it to my students is: When they idolize some movie or pop star and want to dress like them. That’s top down fashion. Or when you start listening to a new type of music just because someone you think is cool likes them. That’s top down thinking. Well, when you convert to a new religion just because your emperor did that’s top down religious  conversion and we see it in history all the time. Lots of people did it. I see this behavior in my own child often. My husband and I are atheists. We’ve taught our teen daughter more about world religions than just about any teen I know but we don’t actually attend any weekly services. Well, I’ve seen my kid make friends with Muslims and suddenly tell me she wants to convert to Islam, then make friends with Christians and tell me she wants to convert to Christianity, then make friends with atheists and suddenly lose all interest in the supernatural, then make friends with a different group of Christians and start talking about converting again. We humans are social creatures. We want to belong. If the group is Christian then we want to be Christian. If the group is Muslim then we want to be Muslim. In the early years of this millennium Christianity was just beginning to become the cool kids’ faith in Rome.   

Christianity became the cool religion to be in the Roman empire by the 4th century.  During that time Sopianae became the provincial capital and a major center for Christianity in the Roman empire. 

This is the time period the mausoleum I saw is from. Archeologists have it placed between the years 370-380 CE. You can clearly see the Christian themes painted on the walls. We have Adam and Eve with the Tree of Knowledge and Daniel in the lion’s den in the forefront. To set the scene for you I was underground. The ancient Romans built these mausoleums underground and then built a small chapel/prayer room over the burial room. The chapel was destroyed likely over a thousand years later during the Ottoman invasion but the mausoleum was left mostly intact. This is so cool to me! I knos some people want to go to the beach or Disney World on vacation but this is my idea or a dream vacation. Give me some obsucre history fact and I’m there! 


Across the street from the mausoleum was a super cool cemetery. It was built as a large burial site but few bodies were found at it. Once again, researchers believe this is due to barbarian invasions. They began building awesome burial sites but then were forced to abandon them when they fell under attack. 

It’s difficult for me to choose my most favorite topics to study. I consider myself a Renaissance person. I love mathematics, and science, and photography, and gardening, and geopolitics, and history, and the list goes on and on. I can’t even limit myself to a certain time period in history. I love it all! I just love learning! Oh! I love learning! But, I guess, I do love learning about death customs around the world. That’s in my top three favorite topics. Death and dying and how different cultures celebrate or commemorate it. So I will absolutely take a 6 hour train ride to visit an almost 1,000 year old mausoleum. I have very few regrets in life, very few, I’m a live life to the fullest kind of woman, but one of the few regrets I do have is missing out on a Tibetan sky burial when we were in Larung Gar. It was difficult to get in and out of and our ride was already on the way when we were told a burial was going to happen. 

Charlemagne arrived in the area in 791 and claimed it for the Holy Roman Empire. Wait. What? Holy Roman Empire?? What the heck is that? Think of everyone’s favorite modern day US politician and his “Make America Great Again” slogan, well ya’ know what? That shit ain’t nuthin’ new. Politicians have been making their land great again for as long as politicians have been politickin’. The Holy Roman Empire is only one example of it. The western part of the Roman Empire had collapsed in 476 and here we were hundreds of years later and new leaders were trying to rebuild it. They were Making Rome Great Again! I could go on a hour long tangent here of all the Make X Greats Agains of history but that’s another post for another time. 

By the 9th century the area was a Frankish vassal state known as Quinque Basilicae, five basilicas. Remember, it was a major center for Christianity. Around the year 1000 the area was settled by Magyars. 

In the year 1009 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pecs was founded. In 1076 a Benedictine monastery was founded in Pecs. This was during the height of the spread of Benedictine monasteries. By 1181 Pecs had a hospital and in 1238 a Dominican monastery was opened. In 1367 King Louis the Great of Hungary opened the first university of Hungary in Pecs and it still serves as a university today serving around 34,000 students. 

The next big thing was the rise of the Ottomans! In the year 1526 the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent, conquered Pecs. Between 1526 and 1543 there was a whole bunch of political back and forth over who should lead Hungary but in June of 1543 it was clear the Ottomans were in control of Transdanubia. The occupied Pecs and turned it into a proper Ottoman city complete with mosques, Turkish baths, madrasas (Islamic school), and minarets (that tall tower thing Muslims do the call to prayer from). 


When the Ottomans invaded the Hungarians attempted to fight them off from this fort. Parts of it still stand today. It was pretty cool to see. I was most impressed with the round doorways. I’ve seen an awful lot of old fortresses but I don’t remember seeing round doorways before. 


Then, in October of 1686 Louis of Baden, the chief commander of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire’s Imperial Army, re-conquered Pecs for the Christian world. After nearly 143 years of Muslim rule, Pecs was under Christian rule once again. 

They converted the mosque of Pasha Qasim the Victorious into a Catholic church. I went in for a visit and was not disappointed. First, I’ve been to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul which was originally an Eastern Orthodox church, then converted to a Catholic church, then a Muslim mosque, then a museum, and now it’s a mosque again. So it was fun for me to see a mosque converted into a Catholic church. They left some of the original Arabic art and writings on the wall. That made me happy. The best part though was the ever so hokey mural they have on the second floor wall. Oh how my grandma would have loved it! It’s a tribute to the Crusades. It’s got triumphant looking Christian crusaders with their red cross banners and a sad looking Muslim. And of course there’s a glorious rainbow over the whole thing! One thing I will never understand about religion is how they can take such a horrific thing as the massacre of almost 2 million people and turn it into a cute painting with a rainbow and slap it on the wall of church. And I’m what? Supposed to be inspired by it? 

What else was cool? Oh yes! I saw this small chapel built in 1697 dedicated to the end of the Black Plague. I went as a kind of last minute type of thing. It was near the fortress ruins and someone told me if you’re there you might as well walk up to this old chapel. It’s pretty. They didn’t bother to tell me it is an active pilgrimage site. I got there and there were ancient people dropping to their knees and crying while I’m just there snapping photos. 


There’s also this beautiful middle ages cathedral built right next to the old Roman empire wall. They have a cute park built next to it. 


Pecs also has the oldest confectionery in Hungary. I was a little surprised by how not fancy it was. It’s been open and serving cakes since 1798. I was really excited to go there. I was unimpressed. 

I ate at this restaurant and encountered one of the nicest people I met in the country. I didn’t catch his name but he was my server and he was lovely. We chatted about atheism and geopolitics while I ate crispy duck with risotto and drank Dictatdor 12 rum. It’s very popular here in this part of Europe. 

Last but not least I stayed in a wellness spa and had no intentions of taking advantage of it. I was there for history after all. But in the end I caved, went to the mall and bought myself a swimsuit, and hopped in the hot tub, and oh my god! I am so glad I did! It was the best hot tub experience of my life. I’ve been in a LOT of hot tubs before and this one was the best. I’d take another 6 hour train ride just for that hot tub. But here’s the real story: I met a terribly rude man while sitting in the hot tub. He was from London and had come to Hungary for the wellness spa with his wife. They hadn’t left the hotel in three days. He asked what brought me there and I said the history. He asked “What history?” and as if you didn’t already know I kinda like history and I got really excited and started telling him all about everything I had seen and then what did he do? He insulted me. He asked “What is with you Americans and your obsession with history? Oh yes, it’s because you don’t have any history of your own. Your country is so young you have to study everyone else’s.” 

At this point there were so many thoughts running through my head. Dude, you do know there are historians all around the world right? There are historians in France. There are historians in China. There are historians in Ghana. There are even historians in England. But do you know what I did? I took some deep breaths and told him I had had a long day and wanted to relax.  If you know me then you know what a big deal this is. It took a lot for me to not argue with him. what a jerk he was. I guess I’m finally learning it’s not worth wasting my breath and losing my chill on arguing with strangers. I gave it up online a few years ago and I’m getting better and better about it IRL. I was on vacation after all! I wasn’t going to let a fool ruin my evening.