The Intelligence of Ármy Vámbéry

Norman Stone chronicles the colourful but shadowy life of a lame Hungarian orphan who grew up to become a polyglot Orientalist with friends in high places. Having set out to prove the links between the Hungarian and Turkish languages, he soon became embroiled in the Great Game, working for ‘The Times’ and on the payroll of the British secret service

In the later 18th century, the age of national revivals, bright sparks in Hungary wondered where they had come from, and a formidable scholarly tradition got going.

Hungarians knew that they had linguistic and cultural connections far to the east, and in Central Asia, but where? A pioneer was one Sándor Csoma of Kőrös (1784–1842), a boy of poor but genteel background in Transylvania; he won a scholarship – for which he had to do manual labour – to the local Calvinist academy, and went on to Göttingen, the Protestant university in Hanover, where he studied Oriental languages. He took himself east and, being almost penniless, had to travel on a ship exposed to the plague; but helpful British acquaintances kept him going, and he reached Tibet. There he acquired the language, compiled its first dictionary, and was honoured by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, of which he became librarian (he has a statue in Calcutta, and in 1933 was declared a Buddhist saint by the Japanese).

Csoma stands at the start of a very rich seam. The next monumental Hungaro-Asiatic figure was Arminius (Ármin) Vámbéry (1832–1913), again a man who collaborated with the British and was invited to dine at Windsor with Queen Victoria (and to spend the night). Edward VII, godfather to his son, awarded him a decoration just short of a knighthood. But he had begun life as a lame Jewish orphan, in a town literally called “place on the Danube where market day is Wednesday” (Dunaszerdahely). And it was the Turkish connection that launched him.

Hungarians had a curious relationship with the Turks. Hungary, or most of it, was an Ottoman frontier province for almost two centuries, roughly between 1500 and 1700, when the Habsburgs took over. Before the Turkish conquest, she had fallen into near-anarchy, and Turkish rule, with fair taxes and predictable justice, was far from being unpopular. A considerable number of Hungarians had made a good career in Istanbul, men such as Urbán, designer of the great guns that bombarded the city’s walls in 1453, and İbrahim Müteferrika, who introduced printing in 1727; later on, in the Crimean War, hundreds of Hungarian (and Italian) officers joined the Ottoman army.

No doubt much of this was just opportunism, but there was also a shadowy historical bond between Hungarians and Turks. The Byzantines had called Hungary “Western Turkey”, and there was an obvious linguistic resemblance between Turkish and Hungarian: grammar and syntax have wobbly parallels, and some of the more rudimentary words clearly have the same root (yüzmek/úszni for “swim”, eyer/nyereg for “saddle”, çadır/sátor for “tent”, and the famous sentence, “there is an apple in my pocket”, which is much the same in both languages).

Even as the Habsburgs’ conquest of Hungary was going ahead, there were great rebellions against them, and a Hungarian contingent was present on the Turkish side at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. The rebels were mainly Protestant, and Calvinist at that. Here was another area in which Hungary was unique: elsewhere in Central Europe, and especially in Bohemia, the Habsburgs and the Counter-Reformation had extirpated Protestantism except for a few enclaves. They did not get away with it in Hungary, thanks to the Turks, who were of course indifferent to the quarrels of Christian sects. When Protestants and Catholics asked the Pasha of Buda to mediate as to which should be given a church, he assigned the nave to the one and the aisle to the other.

With a safe base in eastern Hungary, Protestantism survived, and the Habsburgs had to come to terms. It was the basis of Hungarian nationalism later on, because the Calvinist schools especially encouraged literacy, as was shown in Sándor Csoma’s case. Grim-faced, back-of-beyond clergymen and squires kept the language going, with three-hour sermons, and by 1825, with some of the great aristocrats on side, Hungarian was quite quickly modernised. There was another contribution: from the Jews. This was where Vámbéry came in.

He was born Hermann Bamberger in 1831, son of a rabbi who died of cholera when he was a baby. His mother remarried, but with many children the family remained very poor, and a bout of tuberculosis left Hermann lame. After leaving the Jewish school at 11, he went to the Protestant one, hoping to become a doctor, but had to settle for an apprenticeship with a tailor. He was clever enough to be taken on, at 13, as private tutor to a well-off family who taught him worldly manners. He attended the local Piarist school, serving at early Mass because his memory was good enough for him to remember the Latin. Hungarian nationalists looked with favour on Jews, who were quite willing to assimilate, and a great many Jews at the time regarded their own religion as a nuisance. Hermann Bamberger changed his name to Ármin Vámbéry, as Stern turned into Szterényi or Weiss into Fehér. When he was 17 the Hungarian rebellion of 1848–49 was crushed by the Austrians and Russians, and its leader, Louis (or Lajos) Kossuth, escaped to Turkey. Vámbéry’s linguistic gifts were obvious early on, and he had already started learning Ottoman Turkish, memorising, first, 20 words a day, then a hundred. He survived as an itinerant teacher and was taken on as tutor by a rich family, applying himself to Arabic and Russian in his spare time. He saw a future for himself as an interpreter, and approached prominent men in Hungary and Vienna, all of whom were helpful, the more so as Vámbéry by now had learned how to deal with grandees.

With his journey paid for by Baron József Eötvös, in 1857 he set off for Istanbul, where there was a network of (quarrelsome) Hungarian émigrés. He survived, first, as a cook’s lodger in Pera, then in a cold, damp cellar of the Hungarian Association. To make ends meet he sang Ottoman ballads in the meyhanes, wearing Turkish costume and calling himself, eventually, Reshid Efendi. Then he climbed, went over to Stamboul, the old city, and was taken up by a pasha’s family, to teach the sons Western ways.

At first the women were suspicious, but he was a superb mimic, made them laugh and was accepted. He met everyone, including the future Sultan Abdülhamid II, and could easily have settled down in Istanbul with a distinguished career, as so many others did (an army commander of 1848 became governor of Aleppo). But he had not forgotten his patriotic mission. He went back to Budapest and explained what he was about. Vámbéry was good at getting money when he needed it, and a Count Dessewffy, president of the Academy of Sciences, sorted it out, together with an absurd letter, in Latin, to “the Khans and Beys of the Tatars”, which would have got Vámbéry killed on the spot – they were by now very wary indeed of Christian interlopers, seen as Russian spies. With more appropriate introductions from Ottoman dignitaries, he set off for Persia in 1862 – he had picked up that language as well – and stayed in the Ottoman embassy. There he got to know Central Asians who had gone to Mecca for the hadj. They were Sunnis, and in Shia Iran they needed Ottoman protection. They somehow suspected that Vámbéry was not what he purported to be, and guessed that he was a religious mystic, with (in effect) a vow of poverty. The word for that is dervish (or in a different context fakir). In their company he headed north. His nationalism had impelled him to identify what Hungarian had in common with the languages of those parts, but he was drawn into something else, namely “the Great Game”, the alleged Russian attempt to challenge the British, via Afghanistan, in India.

The journey lasted six months and was very dangerous. There were deserts to cross, with bandits, extreme thirst and sandstorms. Vámbéry and his companions were holy beggars, dependent on charity for survival, but rumours went about that “hadjis” returning from Mecca had concealed treasure, and it was difficult to find boatmen who would take them across the Caspian without being well paid. All the while Vámbéry kept up his alias as a Turkish dervish, past Russians already suspicious of interlopers; and at the end of the road were emirs, in Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva, who put foreigners to death or threw them into a snake pit. However, Vámbéry had the presence of mind and the panache for which Budapest Jews are famous and passed himself off.

He encountered the Emir of Khiva, who took an interest in him, and they discussed the possible links between the languages. Sorrowfully they concluded that there was nothing much in it – the music perhaps? The emir produced a court orchestra which made native noises. Vámbéry was asked to sing some of his own native music and produced excerpts from Don Giovanni. He went back via Samarkand and the tomb of Tamerlane to Iran, returned to Budapest and then got himself to England. British representatives in Tehran had become very interested in his activities. Russian railway-building had gone ahead, and within a few years the Russians had taken over Central Asia – Samarkand in 1868, Khiva in 1873. The British were alarmed.

There were fears for India if the Tsar’s soldiers reached Afghanistan. Vámbéry had expected a welcome in Budapest when he came back with a Central Asian mullah in tow called “Csagatai Izsák” and much information as to the eastern, Chagatay, branch of Turkish. He was very disappointed to be ignored: Hungarians were only interested in this sort of thing if a count had been involved (later on, a Zichy explored the Caucasus, a Széchenyi climbed Kilimanjaro, and “the English patient” was an Almásy). The contrast with England, where David Livingstone, Richard Burton or Henry Morton Stanley were given special trains and lionised, was impressive, so off Vámbéry went, in June 1864.

An initial lecture to the Royal Geographical Society was an enormous success, the more so as, when asked to show how he had passed himself off as a dervish, Vámbéry, no doubt in evening dress, imitated a holy man’s blessing to perfection. He soon took to journalism for The Times, and he could knock out articles in other languages as well. In England other Hungarians have brought off feats of this class: Peter (Lord) Bauer as master of under-developed economics, Sir George Solti, as well as Arthur Koestler come immediately to mind. The trick in Vámbéry’s case was to combine scholarship, humour and conviction with charisma. It also counted that in those days Hungarians had a very good press, thanks to the liberalism they had advertised in 1848, and the oppression they had subsequently had from the reactionary Habsburgs and the even more reactionary Russians. Vámbéry met Dickens (they regularly lunched at the Athenaeum) and he seems to have inspired Matthew Arnold’s most famous poem, Sohrab and Rustum. When he wrote his Travels in Central Asia, the publishers were Byron’s and Scott’s John Murray, the firm to be published by, though they drove a hard bargain. The Travels sold 24,000 copies.

Then it was back to Budapest, where Emperor Franz Joseph and all that was best in Hungary wanted Vámbéry as professor of Oriental languages. But then came a nonsense familiar to anyone working in academe, where the mediocrities circled the wagons (Thomas Carlyle applied for the chair of history at Aberdeen, got references from Goethe and Schlegel and was turned down). Once Vámbéry had the chair, after a fight, he then faced criticism that he was too much the showman. His outstanding student was Ignác Goldziher, probably the best Orientologist of all time, an austere observant Jew who seems to have been put off by Vámbéry’s adventurous life and glamorous connections: he turned on his former teacher, calling him a charlatan.

Maybe, too, Vámbéry found teaching an unglamorous chore. At any rate, there is not too much scholarly creativity associated with his later life, although he stands at the start of a very grand tradition of Oriental scholarship in Hungary, from Goldziher through Gyula Germanus to, in our own time, István Vásáry, Pál Fodor, János Hóváry (recently retired as ambassador in Ankara) and the historian Gábor Ágoston (who learned Turkish as a bus driver in Istanbul and now writes learnedly from Washington as to where the Ottoman army got saltpetre from).

What does make Vámbéry’s later career stand out, and earned him grand invitations and Edward VII’s decoration, is his role in British Intelligence. His dislike of Russia, going back to what he had seen of Tsarist troops on the Danube in 1849, and no doubt further fuelled by the Central Asians’ apprehension, went together with loyalty to the Ottoman Empire.

On his first journey to Britain, Vámbéry had given his interlocutors solid information on Central Asia, and the whole question of containing Russia came up in the later 1870s. Balkan revolts eventually provoked Russian intervention in 1877, and around that time reports reached London through missionaries that the Turks were massacring innocent Bulgarians. William Ewart Gladstone, the grand old man of Victorian Liberalism, denounced the Turks in speeches around the country. Low churchmen and nonconformists, the Liberal bedrock, became worked up, and a Russian network was influential. The Foreign Office and the embassy in Istanbul had their agents on the ground, and knew that this was not a simple black-and-white story.

Vámbéry told them that the problem in Bulgaria lay with Circassians and Tatars, who had been driven by the Russians from their native lands in hundreds of thousands and settled in Bulgaria or eastern Anatolia (or the hilly Düzce region halfway between Ankara and Istanbul, where you can still see Caucasian houses). The prospect of a Balkan Christian rising made them fear, not wrongly, that they would be driven out again.

The British ambassador to Turkey frankly told Lord Salisbury, the foreign secretary, that Gladstone was lying. The upshot was that the British supported the new sultan, Abdülhamid, who also used Vámbéry, and the Russians had to accept a limited victory at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Thereafter there were Anglo-Russian clashes in Afghanistan and Iran, and in each case Vámbéry was present. The Russians hated him. In the 1890s he saw much of Abdülhamid and defended Islamic traditions with vigour. His good offices were used by Theodor Herzl when he tried to get Abdülhamid to turn Palestine into a sort of Jewish version of the Lebanon, but Vámbéry’s heart was not in it. He would probably have agreed with the chief editor of the Budapest Jewish Chronicle, that “there is only one word in Hungary for Zionism – treachery”, and insofar as he ever thought about the matter, would have said that Jews did better in Muslim societies than elsewhere.

Vámbéry’s scholarly work, demonstrating that Hungarian contained Turkish elements rather than Finno-Ugric ones, falls in and out of favour. In English the best book on the subject is by another extraordinary scholar, CA Macartney, whose The Magyars in the Ninth Century refers to it. Such controversies are now not of much interest except to philologists. But Vámbéry survives in the superb accounts he wrote of his life: The Story of My Struggles (1904) is one of the outstanding Anglo-Hungarian books. He was one of the great Orientalists, and he would have been very bewildered to find educated Turks today using that word in a pejorative sense. u

Norman Stone’s most recent books are ‘Hungary: A Short History’ (Profile Books, 2018) and ‘Turkey: A Short History’ (Thames & Hudson, 2014)

The images in this article are from the website vambery.mtak.hu, published by the Oriental Collection of the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to mark the centenary of Vámbéry’s death

To read the full article, purchase Issue 58

Issue 58, Anatolia’s Far Pavilion
£12.00 / $15.48 / 82.41 TL
Other Highlights from Cornucopia 58
Buy the issue
Issue 58, Anatolia’s Far Pavilion
£12.00 / $15.48 / 82.41 TL
Related Destinations