17 March 2014

Disappearing high-water marks in Budapest


"And shall your children ask ye tomorrow  
what this stone is in your temple,  
thus shall ye say unto them:  
Let the last generation hear  
that the waters of the Danube reached this high.."  

The last comprehensive study on the high-water marks of Budapest was completed in 1977. György Rajna’s “Flood tables in Budapest” was published only two years later, in 1979, in the 21st volume of Tanulmányok Budapest Múltjából (Studies from the Past of Budapest). This short span of time was enough to force the author to add a short addendum, that during these two years two flood tables of 1838 disappeared from two buildings in Ferencváros, and two other were demolished together with the house in Újpest. 35 years have passed since the publication of this study. What has been the fate of the carefully collected and documented tables? This is what I tried to survey. 

A nice example of the rescue of a flood table: Ferencváros, Bokréta utca 32.

The study of György Rajna documented all the high-water marks located in Greater Budapest, beginning with the oldest example from 1732 at Havas utca 4, and continuing to the last, standardized flood tables of 1945, called to life by the ice flood caused in Csillaghegy and Újpest by the blowing up of the Northern Railway Bridge. The youngest flood table was set up in 1979 in memory of the flood of 1965. The most valuable part of the study is the appendix, which includes all the tables, 139 by number. Not only the existing ones, but also the demolished and missing copies, which the author was aware of. The appendix also publishes the exact address, inscription, appearance, size, and sometimes even the height from the street level and from the sea level.

From the 139 collected tables 81 were set up in memory of the largest ever flood in the capital, in March 1838. These are also the ones which were most fixed in the collective memory of the inhabitants of Budapest. Everyone is familiar with the fingers carved in stone, which show on a line, next to an inscription in Gothic, Cyrillic or Latin letters, written in Hungarian, German or Serbian. It is almost impossible to determine how many were made of them in that time. In the dynamic pace of development of the city, the disappearing of the tables began already in the 19th century, when the one-story city became the second center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Their placement on the walls of the rebuilt and remaining buildings probably began already in 1838. It cannot be pointed out whether they were placed out on a central command. On the contrary, the different shape, inscription and text of the flood tables might suggest that each of them was prepared and set up on a private initiative. It is also possible that it was a contemporary fashion trend, which swept over all the settlements along the Danube. The lowest high-water marks can be studied at knee height: for example, the one in Nagytétény is at the height of 53 cm, but the one in Dessewffy utca in the 6th district is also not much higher. They might have gone to this level due to a later filling up of the street, but it is sure that it was not usual to set up tables lower than that. This is why the areas of Pest which remained free of the flood, like the environment of the Basilica, the Franciscan Square and the Liberty Square, are without flood tables. The highest-level table is on the Orthodox church in Szerb utca, where even measuring the 270 cms from the contemporary street level might not have been an easy task.

The placement of the high-water marks of 1838 was not ended in the 19th century. We know that some of them were set up on their modern place in the 20th century. Such is the one built in the wall of the Technical University, which is definitely secondary, for in 1838, before the building of the Kopaszi embankment, the Danube was still waving there. What is more, even in the new millennium there were masons who could boast of having built in such tables in the wall of a new building. How is this possible?

It would be nice if it returned to the Óbuda synagogue! (now in the Danube Museum, Esztergom)

In the Donauinseln blog we have continued since 2011 the census of the remaining high-water marks of Budapest. We have documented not only the tables in their original places, but we also managed to come across a good number of them in collections and exhibitions. The archive photos of two of them were found in the Fortepan.hu site. Photographing the tables was often quite difficult. In the inner courtyard of the house at Kinizsi street 31 we could only get in after two years (ca. 8×30 minutes of waiting). There were also a couple of frustration, especially in the nicely restored old buildings, like a house in Corvin square, or another in Mókus street. The former is now a back office of a hotel, where the metal table of the 1876 flood was nicely maintained, but the 1838 one, still documented by György Rajna, already disappeared. The latter is now a greatly renovated music school, where, however, not even one of the three former flood tables, visited with high hopes, has survived. Sometimes we took part on a Hungarian-language and a German-language mass for the sake of a flood table, and sometimes we had to beg at the reception that we did not come to steal, we are only interested in the flood table in Papnövelde street indeed. Almost all the Jewish Museum in Dohány street was ransacked for us because of an article appeared in the Magyar Nemzet, where the rabbi unfortunately not informed that the Hebrew-language flood table was not there, but in the Danube Museum in Esztergom. Sometimes we also had a pleasant surprise, like when in the completely rebuilt Ferencváros district a flood table was put back nearly on its original place on a few years old building. I wonder why they failed to do so elsewhere.

We do not know whether since Rajna’s survey anybody checked the fate of the remaining flood tables. The survey of the Danubian Islands was also not complete, as for the time being we had to postpone the reviewing of the store rooms of such collections, which perhaps do not even exist, or their name was altered since 1977. The Kiscelli Múzeum answered that they have some tables, but their exact place of origin and number is uncertain. Some flood tables were exhibited in the Danube Museum in Esztergom, where they probably got them as a heritage from the Hydrographic Ministery. The study of Rajna did not mention the unparalleled Hebrew-language table formerly on the Óbuda synagogue: fortunately it was also unearthed.

The number of existing, destroyed and exhibited flood tables by districts in 1977 and 2014

I have summarized the changes of the past 37 years by districts in Budapest (completed with the four ones disappeared until the publication in 1979). The appendix of György Rajna’s study of 1977 contained 81 tables in memory of the 1838 flood. Seven of them are from unknown place: these were already then preserved in collections. Among the 74 ones identifiable by exact street and house number 41 (55%) were found in their original locations, 27 (36%) were destroyed, but the latter number is probably just a fragment of the untraceable tables destroyed before that. The collections preserved 6 pieces, which could be geographically identified.

The vigilant reader will notice that by 2014 we became richer with one table, the one placed on Rákóczi street 41, which did not figure in the list of 1977. Unfortunately, I could not figure out whether it was placed there from a collection, or it is a reproduction. At the moment, we see 34 flood tables (45%) in their original places. Not all of them are easy to visit: many of them are in doorways, churches, cloisters, enclosed yards. It is sad that in 37 years their number decreased by 10%, as 8 of them disappeared, and only one new was “created”.

Existing (green), in collections (blue) and all the known destroyed flood tables (red)

If we place on a map all the flood tables mentioned in Rajna’s study, we can have a good overview of the city rehabilitation works of the last century. The most serious damages, just like in 1838, were done in Ferencváros and Óbuda. Complete quarters were effaced by the name of urban development. The small town Óbuda, so much beloved by the great writer Krúdy, was replaced by socialist high-rise blocks, and many tables fell victim also to the new road system cut at the end of Árpád bridge. In Ferencváros, the war, the revolution of 1956 and the city rehabilitation caused irreparable damage. Both of the two flood tables left to the south of Üllői street were replaced on less than 10-year old buildings.

The 5th district has best situation. Here 10 flood tables have been left, and György Rajna does not know about disappeared ones. However, it is quite sure that there had to be more than that, since during the development of the Elizabeth bridge and Kossuth Lajos street many of the old buildings were destroyed around 1900.

In general, we can say that the churches offered the best chance of survival to the tables. There is only one exception, the 1st district Greek street orthodox church, whose place could not be determined. And the greatest danger has threatened the single-storey suburb buildings, of which only a few have survived, such as the doorway of the Salétrom street Presbyterian parish.

Place of flood tables and the maximum inundation in the map of contemporary Budapest.

György Rajna ended his studies with a thougt which is still valid today:

“The flood tables mark great natural disasters which affected the life of all the capital thus their preservation for the posterity is our first-range obligation. The correct solution can be seen at the 2nd district Gyorskocsi street 44, where the flood table of the former, demolished house was placed in a secondary way on the wall of the modern building. […] Unvortunately, a significant portion of the flood tables of theh demolished houses disappear, or are crushed. The protection of these tables should be regulated by decree. The attention of the protection of monuments and district council bodies should be drawn to them, in basis of the detailed inventory attached to my study. They should repare their injuries, and in case of a reconstruction, the original table should be placed on the wall of the new building at the original level with a suitable reference text, or sent to the relevant museum for storage and display.”

The Danubian Islands blog seeks to ensure that the removed flood tables, now laying in dusty store-rooms of public collections, if their original place is known, get back on the buildings standing there, with a geodetic leveling, since they were integral parts of the image of the city. A table returned in this way could become the pride of the community, the street and all Budapest. It would be good if they got back to their original locations from a museum store not visited by anybody.


This article is the continuation of our collection “Memorial plaques of the ice flood of 1838 in Budapest”, where you can browse the tables mentioned here. The second most beautiful collection is in Esztergom, where the tables are concentrated on a much smalle area.

And thanks to György Rajna for having painstakingly compiled his study published in 1979, which will be a great starting point for those wishing to deepen in this topics.

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