Victor Gaetan is a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Register, focusing on international issues. He also writes for Foreign Affairs magazine and the Washington Examiner. He contributed to Catholic News Service for several years. The Catholic Press Association of North America has given his articles four first place awards, including Individual Excellence, over the last five years. Gaetan received a license (B.A.) in Ottoman and Byzantine Studies from Sorbonne University in Paris, an M.A. from the Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy, and a Ph.D. in Ideology in Literature from Tufts University.
One hundred years ago, a village priest added a white marble plaque to St Maria Church’s facade out in a field in southern Hungary.
Not fluent in Arabic or Hungarian, I can’t read it, but a friend translated: “In 1566…Sultan Suleyman’s princely heart and intestines were buried in this place…God’s mercy be upon him.”
That Suleyman the Magnificent died in his tent of natural causes—as his army closed in on the Szigetvar fortress blocking their march to Vienna—is established fact.
Suleyman was one of Turkey’s greatest leaders. Under his 46-year rule, the Ottoman Empire doubled in size, extending into Europe, Asia, and Africa.
There’s now a push for Suleyman discoveries around Szigetvar by 2016, the 450th anniversary of his death.
Most interesting, this project reflects a new geo-strategic relationship between Hungary and Turkey. It also flags significant political dissatisfaction in Hungary with European Union (EU) regulation and Western relativism.
Over 80,000 Turkish troops attacked the Szigetvar fortress expecting a quick victory, but some 2,500 Habsburg soldiers, led by Croatian nobleman Nikola Šubić Zrinski, held them off for over a month. When all was lost, Zrinski led his last men outside in suicidal defiance, resulting in thousands of Turkish fatalities.
According to 17th century French cleric Cardinal de Richleau, the battle saved western civilization because Ottoman troops lost time and manpower — as well as their all-powerful sultan — and so, cancelled the campaign against Vienna, capital of the Habsburg Empire.
Legend says, Suleyman’s body was mummified while his internal organs went in a gold box, buried where he died. The sultan’s death was kept secret for seven weeks. His heir, Selim II, eventually erected a monument there.
In 1689, Habsburg soldiers re-conquered Szigetvar and, it is said, destroyed Suleyman’s monument in revenge.
In 1994, the Turkish government financed a Friendship Park near St Maria’s, including a giant bust of Suleyman for his 500th birthday year (Zrinski’s bust was added later).
The latest claim, from a historian in Istanbul, is that the royal organs were buried inside Szigetvar fortress near an existing mosque — one already scheduled for restoration on the Turkish dime.
Although National Geographic cites two experts who dispute this legend — and even the lead Hungarian archeologist thinks a wooden box would have been used, thus, long gone — the search continues for at least three reasons: Turkey’s leadership is promoting a Neo-Ottoman agenda; Sultan Suleyman has tremendous appeal, a boon for tourism in the area; and both countries are tightening relations in reaction against the West.
The Turkish government is supporting several Ottoman restoration projects in Hungary. Historical pride is one explanation but these markers also give Turkey certain claims on a place.
For example, President Abdullah Gül emphatically declared Turkey would defend the tomb of Süleyman Shah who died in 1086 in Aleppo, Syria as national ground if the site was threatened. In Kosovo, a monument marks where Sultan Murad’s internal organs were buried after a 14th century battle in which he died. Today it’s a sacred site.
So, slightly more reliable evidence of Suleyman’s physical presence in Hungary will create a shrine, overnight.
Hungarians can be expected to promote this line of inquiry to draw visitors. Suleyman is a big draw. One of the most popular TV dramas in both countries is “The Magnificent Century” featuring Suleyman and his favorite wife (and Selim’s mother), Roxelana — the Ukrainian daughter of an Orthodox priest, she was kidnapped by Tartars in Crimea and sold to the sultan’s court.
But there’s another explanation for this project.
Hungary and Turanism
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary has proved to be a very independent nation, unwilling to toe the line dictated by the EU — although it has been a member since 2004.
In 2011, Orban led a successful effort to rewrite the country’s Constitution, describing it as a Christian nation where life is protected from conception (although abortion is still legal) — a popular move in a country 61% Catholic.
Elected for a third term last April, Orban promotes the need for Hungary to establish global relations beyond Europe. On a visit last December to Istanbul, he signed a new trade pact aiming to double trade by 2020. Like Turkey, Orban is building nuclear reactors financed by Russia for 10 billion Euro — raising EU eyebrows.
As well, the idea that Hungarian roots share pre-Christian history with Turkey has seized the popular and political imaginations of many in this nation of 10 million people.
Rediscovering ancient ties with Turkey, and points east, is also a way of expressing admiration for traditional societies — countries that value tradition and traditional ways of life.
The search for Suleyman’s heart, whether discovered or not, is linked to Hungarian dissatisfaction with relativistic Europe and exploration of a dramatic past, around shared Turkic blood.
Hungary is a nation on expedition.