Artefact of the Month

Count Jenő Zichy and the Caucasian “Cradle” of Magyardom

January, 2019



The golden age in the search for Hungary’s ancestral home came during the 19th- century time of national awakening, when scholarly interest in kindred groups the Magyars may have left behind as they migrated west was fed by the new trend toward reform, coupled with a heightened public apetite for romanticism.  Unlike theories that proposed a kinship with Turko-Tatar, Finno-Ugric, or Sumerian peoples, the idea of a homeland in the Caucasus pinned Hungarian origins not to an ethnic group or language, but to a geographical area.  The notion of a Caucasian “cradle” of Magyardom was widespread, prompting the appearance of numerous related studies, newspaper articles, photographs, paintings, and works of literature.

Count Jenő Zichy (1837–1906), noted 19th-century industrial policy maker, chairman of the National Industrial Council, and coordinator of lower-level industrial education in Hungary, dedicated much of his energy outside the field of politics to the study of the geographical origins of the Magyar people, organising and funding several scientific expeditions to the Caucasus in search of a connection.

1. kép
1. kép

Zichy’s activities and romantic ideas regarding the cradle of Magyardom should be interpreted as part of an overarching process of cultural nation-building.  With his expeditions, the count hoped to clarify the debate surrounding ancient Hungarian history, visiting first the Caucasus in 1895, then Turkestan in 1896.  Later, his Central Asian collections would be displayed for the Millennial Exhibition (in the Kalotaszeg Reformed Church in “Millennial Village”) under the title Vestiges of Ancient Magyardom.
While neither of Zichy’s first two expeditions lacked for professional participation, it was the third for which particularly careful preparations were made:  prior to departure, the count made a study not only of contemporary ethnological literature, but also of relevant material from the holdings of European museum collections. He also enlisted the aid of some of the greatest domestic experts of the age, including ethnographer János Jankó, linguist Károly Pápay, and archeologist Béla Pósta. The third expedition, which targeted presumed stop-off points along the Magyar migration route, proved an enormous undertaking, leading to debates and professional conflicts on such a scale that from 1898 onward, Zichy, under pressure from the scholars in his group, agreed to replace the Turko-Tatar line of investigation with a search for traces of a Finno-Ugric connection, and to have each scientist continue his efforts in a different area. With work completed in the Caucasus, Western Siberia, and the Finno-Ugric and Tartar lands of the Volga River Basin, Zichy moved on to Mongolia and China, while Jankó continued to the lands of the Khanty people and Pápay – whose field was the languages of Turko-Tatar peoples – to the homeland of the Chuvash.


Although Zichy’s ideas and conclusions did not prove correct in every regard, the material he brought home was of tremendous scientific value.  As a result of his expeditions, between 1897 and 1920, the Ethnography Department at the Hungarian National Museum acquired an unparalleled collection of approximately 3000 artefacts (objects of utility, clothing, etc.) and 100 photographs, all gathered in the field.  Added to these were several paintings from Zichy’s private collection, transferred to the Ethnography Deparment from the property of the Metropolitan Government of Budapest in 1922.

The painter, Munich-born Carl Wutke, was a participant in the first Zichy undertaking, for which he committed to canvas numerous images of both expedition party members, and the landscapes they encountered.  Among the paintings, for example, are a scene of the expedition beneath the Great Wall of China and a landscape created in Dagestan entitled “Hunnia” (a Magyarised name for the geographic area).  In addition to landscapes and genre paintings of the Caucasus and parts of Asia, the collection includes one enormous oil painting of Count Jenő Zichy himself, standing, in full height.  Dated 1903, this latter work was featured in an exhibition entitled “Hungary in Georgia” held by the Hungarian Foreign Ministry in Tbilisi in 2017.  The painting was fully restored for the occasion.

Zsuzsanna Tasnádi



Illustration 1-2.
Count Jenő Zichy in expedition garb
Oil on canvas, 234x135 cm, j. n., 1903, R 25252
Details of the painting before (photo credit:  Krisztina Sarnyai) and after (photo credit:  Ágnes Dicső) restoration

Illustration 3.
Carl Wutke: Landscape with expedition party
Oil on canvas, marked at lower left, 103x206 cm, R 10644a, detail (photo credit:  Krisztina Sarnyai)