07 April 2014

Lost islands of Budapest

Once a friend of mine, who is a history-geography teacher just like me, told me there was a competition in their school. One of the questions was: How many Danubian islands are there in Budapest? He told me what he tought the correct answer would be, which was an irrationally big number, and asked me if it is true. I told him: it depends. What do you call an island? 

In my opinion, island is a peace of land, which is completely surrounded by a body of water all the time. Not just a few months of the year, but the whole year. I told my friend, there are a very few islands in Budapest meeting this criteria. 

We have to wind back the clock till the dawn of written history. By the Budapest section it means the time when the first Roman legionaries settled down next to the Danuvios river. Until this time there was no human impact on the Danube valley. No dredging, no locks, no stone embankments and no bridges.

So at the beginning of the first century all Danubian islands started up as natural. Hungarian historians and archaeologists together with geographers created this map, representing all the islands they could find. I'm not sure the landscape looked like this archipelago back then. Some of these Danubian branches only had water in them in times of the highest flood. 

There are just too much islands speculated by the mapmakers, and we would be sitting here tomorrow if i would speak of all of them. That's why I had to select the most important and interesting ones for this workshop. I guess even after the sorting out, plenty remained. Let's see their position on the Budapest map!

Many of these islands have German names. I would like to use this terminology when possible, because the English translations sounds quite unnatural in this region. We will be heading from the north to the south and from the Roman to the Modern age. 

Fürdő Island

If a fairy would come to me, telling me I could wish to be on three long lost island, my second choice would be the Fürdő Island. We will talk about the third one later.

The Fürdő Island was a small, but one of the most important island in Budapest. There are legends about a bridge which connected the two sides of the river in the Roman Age. It was situated between Aquincum and Transaquincum, a fort on the left bank, in the Barbaricum. This bridge was used to transport military troops from one side to the other against the Sarmatians and the Quadi tribes. This bridge had pillars on the Fürdő Island. And it also had a Roman bath, from which its name came.

This Roman bath was destroyed later, not by Barbarians, but the Danube. The icy flood of 1775 devastated the whole island, peeling off the trees. Only a sand and gravel shoal remainded, visible only at low water. Fortunately József Szabó, a geologist visited this island many times between 1854-1857 and described the 42 C sulphurous springs and the wooden piles of the bridge. He wrote the last description of the Fürdő Island, due to the river regulation works it was completely excavated in 1874.

Only the hot springs remained, they support thermal water for the Dagály baths next to the Árpád bridge.


Sturgeons used to breed on this famous floodplain meadow. Every year when these mighty fish came up from the Black Sea to spawn Hungarian fishermen prepared their fish-forks (not nets - you can not catch a 1,5 ton fish with a net) and boats. For hundreds of years they awaited the sturgeons on the same spot, the Vizafogó. Only old maps can prove, this place was actually an island. The morphology and the bend of the side branch leaves no doubt of the origin.

The left banks of the Danube next to the Margaret Island is still called Vizafogó, populated not by sturgeons but people living in ten-storeyed block buildings.

The town of Pest on an island and the ferry of Kerepes.

Standing on the important traffic junction of Blaha Lujza tér it is impossible to imagine the 800 years old landscape. In the middle of a traffic jam, under the street where people hurry from the subway to the tram and to Budapest's most busy bus lines it is hard to recall the wide Danube branch underneath the greenish willow trees, where the lazy ferryman slowly sets off in his boot from his tatched house to carry through the carts of peasants and the horsed lords travelling towards Eastern Hungary.

Old charters from the Middle Ages prove Kerepes was an important ferry. King Géza granted the revenues and incomes of both ferries (Kerepes and Pest) to the church of Buda.
„...tributum fori Geysa et tributum portus Pest et Kerepes, navium etiam cum vino sive cum salibus ascendentium sive cum aliis venalibus descendentium eidem ecclesie"
So no one could get off from taxpaying using the other river branch with their ships packed full of wine and salt.

Later this arm of the Danube became more and more shallow, until it remained only a sewage ditch for the eastern suburbs of Pest. The last time the Danube flowed here was the catastrophic flood in the year 1838. After the river has been devastated the city the council decided to fill in the filthy Rákos ditch.

The Painters Island/ Klein Ofner Insel/ Mahler Insel/Festő-sziget

When the St. Margaret Island became a famous garden and recreation area under the hands of Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary in the 19th century its little sister, the Small Budai Island remained a wildness. With ducks mosquitos and dense shrubs growing on the muddy island.

It fell prey to the river regulation works of the St. Margaret Island when it was enlarged to reach the newly built Margaret bridge. Part of it was excavated, other part was included in the swollen Margaret Island. As you see in 1920 only the silhouette remained in shapes of the trees.

The graceful spool-shaped St. Margaret Island was transformed into its man-made shape and not a single sign reminds us of the gone Painter Island.

People's island/Volksinsel/Népsziget

Népsziget could be much more than a suburban island of northern Pest. It used to be a wilderness, once it was called Mosquito Island. This island became part of the left bank when engineers decided to build another winter haven for the ships of Buda and Pest. The other was on the opposite side, the Dockyard Island. A dam was build to the northern tip of the island closing the river arm from the icy floods. Except fot this enclosure the place still has the shape of an island from above.

First the ships moved in this haven for winter later dockyards, repair shops, warehouses and a crane factory was established. This became Budapest's most industrious island. It could have been different. Budapest received the rights to host the 7th Summer Olympic Games in 1920. After the war this right was given to Antwerp, but the Hungarians did not give up. They made plans to arrange the 1928 Summer Olympic Games - on this island! Unfortunately the dutch capital was granted with this opportunities.

Népsziget could have been a center of sports in Budapest, but nowdays it only hosts dismantled factories, still awaiting for a new utilization.

Palotai Island

This was the northermost island of Budapest. The island used to be 620 meter long, and 90 meter wide and had the area of 4,6 hectar. Situated between the People's Island (Volksinsel) and the Szentendrei Island ( Sankt Andrä Insel) it used to be a famous beach for rowers and campers between the two world wars. If we compare the five maps and aerial photos of the Island, it becomes quite clear, that something has happened just before 1953.

A, 1785. B, 1929. C, 1953 D, 1980s E, 2005.

The small island suddenly became part of the mainland, grass grew in the river bed. The Danube arm shrunk, to the size of a creek. The final blow came in the 1980s, when the Norhern Budapest Sewer Works was constructed on the core of the small Palotai Island. The forest was wiped out, the ground was levelled, and raised over the high water mark.

Nothing remained except for a little penninsula, north from the People's Island. There were plans to recover a section of the Danube there, but nowdays they dump disposals into the river arm.
The Kopaszi shoal

As the Danube left the hill of St. Gellért it formed a wide riverbed, extending over 1,2 kilometers in width. The Danube was divided in two branches near Lágymányos, forming the great Csepel Island. Only one shoal emerged from this shallow water, the Kopaszi-zátony. This shoal is notorius in Budapest, because the ice of the Danube was stuck here in 1838. The ice formed a solid dam on the river, and this dam tarnsformed the Danube into a reservoir for a couple of days. Frozen to the bottom, this dam has swollen the river making it leaving its bed and devastating Buda and Pest.

First aim of the river regulation works was to narrow this section with the Kopaszi Dam so the ice could stuck here no more. It separated a lake from the river which was slowly filled with garbage, litter and debris.

Nowdays the ELTE University is located over the Kopaszi shoal, which once destroyed the city.

Háros Island

As we are reaching the end of my presentation i still remember the fairy offering me three long-gone islands to visit. Háros is the third one. You should ask why don't I just simply go there, it is part of the right river bank, and the island still exists. My answer would be, Háros is a property of the Hungarian Army, it is strictly forbidden to go in there. Sometimes they let people in once a year. Man should write a paper mail to a colonel with all of your confidential personal information included. This colonel decides if you are permitted to enter or not. Usually you receive the answer: not.

Háros is an interesting example how the island names change with time. In the Medieval Era Háros was closer to the left bank, the Csepel Island side. They called it Csőt Island back then, name taken from the village on the opposite bank. As the river changed its course, The island got closer to the right bank, and its name changed to Háros, again taken from the village on the opposite side.

Recently - thanks to the strict army policy - Háros has changed from a practice ground to a jungle. Yes, a jungle, with dense shrubs, tall trees and even lianes. So if one enters here illegally may get lost.

Only three islands remained in Budapest, the Óbudai Island, world-famous for the Sziget festival, the St. Margaret Island, and the little Szerelem (Love) island next to Háros. I do not count the Csepel Island, because it is mostly outside of Budapest and it is not really an island.

So not all islands are lost!

No comments:

Post a Comment