Byzantine Christianity and the Magyars in the period of their migration

“In his account of the military organization of the Turks (= Magyars), the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Sage repeatedly compares the Magyars with the Bulgarians, and in doing so emphasises that the customs of the Magyars differed from those of the Bulgarians only in so far as the latter had embraced the Christian religion and, adapting themselves to Byzantine morals, had abandoned both their savage and nomadic characteristics and their paganism.’ By this he alludes to the fact, on the one hand, that the Bulgarian prince Boris and his people had become Christians as early as 864, which means that they had merged in the community of Christian peoples, and to the negative fact, on the other hand, that the Magyars, whom he had come to know during the war in 894-95 but who, at the time of his work was written (between 904-912), were already living in their present country, had not as yet been converted. Indeed, according to one or two remarks in Arabic and Persic records, the Magyars had been heathens before occupying their country. Archeologic remains and Magyar folk-traditions also seem to point in this direction. There are, however, some signs that they had come into contact with Christianity before they took possession of their land.


(…) It has long been proved by linguistics that the Magyar language is of Finno-Ugric origin, its nearest relatives being the Voguls and Ostjaks, who belong to the Finno-Ugric group. So the Magyars formerly lived with their Ugric relatives in Western Siberia east of the Ural Mountains, by the rivers Iset, Tobol and Pysma. And, since linguistics has determined that the Hungarian language at an early period adopted loanwords of Bulgaro-Turkish character, it seems probable that the Ugric Magyars had met Bulgaro-Turks in West Siberia, and moved on with them in the fifth century to the north shores of the Black Sea, where they make their first appearance in archeologic survivals and in Muslim and Byzantine records. As the early Magyar organization and ethnic character shows Turkish features, and since many of their names of tribes, persons, and dignities are of Turkish origin, we must assume that the Magyars of Finno-Ugric extraction were subject to strong Turkish influence. At the period of the formation of the Hungarian nation, that is, in the fifth to the ninth centuries, Turkish tribes and peoples largely occupied the territories through which the Magyars migrated between the West Siberian slope of the Urals and the estuary of the Danube, so it is among them that we have to look for such peoples as took part in the formation of the Hungarian nation or exercised a strong influence upon them. Therefore, in studying the most ancient history of the Magyars, the peoples which lived on the plains of South Russia before the ninth century must be taken into account. We come to the same result if we start from information supplied by Byzantine records. In these sources the Magyars are mentioned by three different names (beside some archaistic ones). These names are: Ούγγροι, Ούννοι, Τούρκοι. The first, meaning the Magyars only, comes from the Onogur (Greek Ονόγουροι), which includes the Ogur element. The second (Ούννοι) refers (beside the Magyars) not strictly to the Huns only, but to other peoples as well. The same applies to Τούρκοι which, before referring to the Magyars, served as a name for other peoples also. Thus, whatever might have been the reason for the application of these names to the Magyars, investigations must take into consideration all peoples called Ούννοι and Τούρκοι, or whose names include the element Ogur. In the regions where the Magyars had been wandering from the fifth to the ninth century, when they occupied their territory, and where the peoples lived which may have taken part in the formation of the Magyar nation, or which may have had different influences on the Magyars during the process of their formation, three cultural spheres came into contact one with another. Around the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus, the influence of the Muslim, Persic and Arabic predominated. From the North, the Norsemen and Slavs (= Russians) were expanding towards the South, while the Black Sea and its Northern shores belonged to the Byzantine sphere. The peoples of this territory were thus subject to Christian influence from Byzantium only, that is, from the peoples belonging to Byzantine Christianity. The problem whether the Magyars, or the peoples taking part in their formation were, or might be, influenced by Christianity during their wanderings can be understood only if we give an account of the story of Byzantine conversion throughout the Caucasus and along the northern shore of the Black Sea in the ninth century with particular regard to the Turkish peoples.

(…) Christianity reached the line of the Caucasus in the course of the fourth century.


In the fifth the work of conversion was for a while impeded by conflicts with the barbarians, but the next century saw great progress. Conversion-propaganda was an organic part of Emperor Justinian’s political conception, which aimed at restoring the Roman World Empire. The efforts to assure and expand the Eastern frontiers of the empire were the natural complements of the battles fought in the West. True to old Roman traditions, the Byzantine Empire strove to build up a system of vassal-states for the defense of its frontiers The auxiliary troops provided by these peoples increased the de- fensive power of the Empire, and might besides be compelled to fight against other barbarian peoples. The policy of conversion, an indispensable element of the efforts to surround the Byzantine Empire by a whole chain of allied and Christianized “frontier states,” also served this defensive policy and imperialistic purpose. Thus the Byzantine missionaries were serving not only the Empire of God but also the Roman Empire which, in Byzantine opinion, meant the same thing. As a result of their activity, barbarian princes from remote countries came to the Byzantine Court to be baptized and overwhelmed with presents and distinctions from the Emperor, to return to their countries and there represent the Christian religion as well as the interests of the Byzantine Empire.

(…) Conversion activity was very successful everywhere among the peoples along the frontier of the Empire, and its influence was also felt among the “Huns” on the northern shores of the Black Sea. In sixth-century Byzantine records the word “Hun” is, as we know, a collective name including different Turkish peoples, as e.g., the Ogur tribes driven from the Ural towards the Caucasus and the Sea of Azov by the great stream of migration of the nations after the collapse of Attila’s empire. Thus when “Huns” living on this territory are mentioned, it means primarily the Ogurs, Utigurs, Cutrigurs, Onogurs and the Bulgars.

Many foreign elements are met with in the Byzantine Empire of the sixth century. The army was full of barbarians who fought partly in separate divisions, partly dispersed in Byzantine troops. As members of the Byzantine forces they were, of course, Christians. Beside the barbarians conquered, or taken prisoners and settled in the Empire in the course of wars, many foreigners voluntarly joined the Byzantine forces, and after being christened, often rose to high positions in the army or at the Imperial court. There were some Huns among them. Some Huns serving in the forces are even mentioned by their names in contemporary records, so for example Akum, “magister militum” of Illyricum in 536. He had been lifted from the baptismal font by Emperor Justinian himself, that is, the Emperor was his god- father.

(…) Archeological finds constitute evidence for closer contact of the Cutrigurs with Byzantine Christianity. As a result of more recent investigations, Avar finds in Hungary consist of two different components. One of them includes Byzantine traditions and Christian elements. Thus, it seems most probable that these come from the Cutrigurs whom the stream of migration had carried away to the territory between the Danube and the Tisza, but who had previously, for about a century, lived on the northern shores of the Black Sea, where they had opportunity to come into contact with Byzantine Christianity.


(…) it may be established that traces of Christian Missionary activities among Turkish peoples are to be found everywhere on the territories between the Caspian and the Danube from the fourth to the eighth century. Among the Turkish peoples living east of the Caucasus, the heresy of the Manichaeans and Nestorians made conquests while the orthodox Church converted the “Huns” living North of the Caucasus and the northern shores of the Black Sea, and the Bulgars. Since the Magyars too must have lived between the Caucasus and the Don at the time, Byzantine missionary work among “Huns” and Bulgars -who apparently played an important role in the formation of the Magyar people- makes it in itself probable that the Magyar tribes had also come into contact with Christianity.

(…) Now if we compare the data of the list referring to the bishoprics belonging to the Crimean Gothic Metropolitanate with those of other sources, the situation is this: in the second half of the seventh century a great change had set in on the northern shores of the Black Sea. The Khazars, pressing toward the East, overthrew the Bulgarian Empire by Lake Maeotis, and some of the Bulgarian tribes were compelled to move on westwards where they occupy their present country by the Danube. The Khazars occupied the town of Phanagoria (Tamatarcha) as early as about 689 and Bosporus was the residence of the representative of the Khazar Khagan. The Khazars at that time ruled not only over the land by the river Kuban but also over the eastern shores of the Crimean Peninsula. The Crimean Goths kept their independence for some time, but the Khazar Khagan took the town of Doros in 787. Thus, only the western part of the peninsula remained under Byzantine rule. This probably accounts for the fact that the Patriarch of Constantinople raised the bishopric of the then independent Goths to the rank of metropolis, with seven subor- dinate bishoprics. Two of them (Itil and Tamatarcha) bear, as we have seen, beyond question the names of towns. A further one, Terek, is likewise a geographic name, while the rest – the bishoprics of the Kotshirs, Khvalisians, Onogurs and Huns, have tribal names. From this fact we must draw the conclusion that the four latter bishoprics had no permanent residences, and must have been active on territories of half-nomadic peoples. This again means that they were missionary bishoprics whose converting activities were directed by bishops. We have seen in one of the above mentioned records the term επίσκοπος Ουννίας instead of o Ούννων and when, in the middle of the tenth century, the Constantinopolitan Patriarch consecrates the first bishop of the Magyars expressly in order to do missionary work among his compatriots, the Byzantine record mentions the new bishop by the name of επίσκοπος Τουρκίας. All these data prove that in the eighth century an intensive missionary work was being done among the Magyars, or, better, among the Onogurs, component elements of the later Magyars. We are not informed as to its later course and resultant, but, at any rate, we must suppose that part of the Magyars at that time had become acquainted more closely with the tenets of Christianity.

The details of the formation of the Magyar people and of the long centuries of their wanderings are unknown.

(…) Some decades later we find a Hungarian troop in Crimea which met the apostle Cyrill in 861 near the town of Cherson.

(…) There is a record giving evidence that the Magyars had come into contact with the Slav apostles before the occupation of their land.

(…) As to the identity of the Magyar king, or, better, leader, or where and when the meeting took place, we can only conjecture. One thing is certain; it must have happened before 884, that is, previous to Methodius’s death. We know that, before occupying their land, the Magyars repeatedly visited the western regions in 862 and 881, and so some of the Magyar leaders may have heard Slav apostles teaching the principles of Christianity. If the Magyars had really brought the word “kereszt” (=cross) into their new country, it is a further evidence that they had come into contact with Christianity – also through Slavs – before the occupation of the land.


(…) it can be established that the Byzantine Church, in the course of its intensive missionary work among Turkish peoples, had tried, as early as the beginning of the sixth century, to convert the “Huns”‘ who lived near Bosporus. In the name of one of these Hun leaders we discovered the people’s name: “Magyar.” The fact that there had been Christians among the Bulgarian princes at the beginning of the seventh century is significant, for the Magyars had, in all probability, belonged to the Onogur- Bulgar Empire by the Maeotis. The Onogur missionary bishopric made conversions also among the Magyars in the eighth century, and at the beginning of the ninth the Magyars came into contact with young Slavic Christianity. Considering furthermore that the Mag- yars had been living for centuries in lands surrounded from all sides by Christian peoples and bishoprics, it seems even more probable that when they occupied their new country they had known Christianity, and thus the Byzantine Church had prepared their con- version to the Christian religion which they adopted in their new land.”

(Source: “Byzantine Christianity and the Magyars in the period of their migration”, by Gyula Moravcsik)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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