Where Transcarpathia Begins

14 January 2011, 10:52


Since ancient times Transcarpathia was, as a rule, a passive, rather than active, entity in historical processes. Initially, lands in this region were conquered and granted as presents. Later, with the emergence of European nationalisms, the issue of owning Transcarpathia moved from the feudal to the ideological plane. Everyone who staked a claim to these territories had to find or invent historical justification for their expansion. Hungary did an extremely good job of it. It first worked out a heroic conception under which the tribes led by Almosh and his son Arpad crossed the Veretsky Pass. Later, this conception was buttressed with a patently mythical eagle which allegedly dropped a sword to Almosh from the sky precisely in the Carpathians. This meant that Hungary supposedly began at the Carpathian ridges. Hungarians greatly assimilate the local population, trying to turn it into gens fidelissima (Latin for “the most loyal people. — Ed.) and impose on it the vision of Rus’-Ugric identity as opposed to Ukrainian one. This conception turned out to be so efficient that even today when post-colonial wounds would have to have healed in Transcarpathia by all accounts, sculptures of bronze eagles, the symbols of Hungarian statehood, are being restored in the local castles, while monuments marking hanfoglalás, i.e., the Hungarians’ arrival in their native land, are being erected as far away as on the border with Lviv oblast.

Fighting myths is an ungrateful thing, because you have to prove that the facts in question are unreal, which is not an easy thing to do with regard to something that is a millennium away from now. However, archeology is indeed very helpful here, and it should not be underestimated: in a number of cases archeological finds demolished established stereotypes. The Institute of Carpathian Studies, which is part of Uzhhorod National University, launched a comprehensive investigation into the question of Hungarians’ arrival in Transcarpathia. The results turned out to be sensational, because they explode the conception of the medieval history of this land. Ihor Prokhnenko, senior researcher at the institute, has told The Ukrainian Week about this research.



Each country typically tries to make its history better than it really was and paint the past in more heroic colors. This situation is also true of the medieval history of Transcarpathia. Scholars working in the countries which at different times included this region as its part have been trying to put forward their concepts which are not always true to reality. An important source of myth-making is also the tourist industry, which consciously presents monuments, especially castles, older than they are. The real academic historical picture typically exists on a totally different plane. Therefore, it is extremely important today to distinguish between the politicized, tourist and academic history of Transcarpathia. Working on the latter type, painstaking efforts need to be made to clean it of the inclusions of the former two versions.

Let us turn, for example, to the issue of Hungarians’ arrival in Transcarpathia. These events are given the most detailed account in one written source, Gesta Hungarorum, a chronicle about the origins of Hungarians. It was written at the turn of the 13th century by the anonymous notary of King Bela III of Hungary. The author describes the heroic history of Hungarians: the raid of their tribes headed by Almosh, who came all the way to Kyiv; the defeat of Prince Oleh’s army; their raid through the territory that was later included in the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia; and further incursion into what is now Transcarpathia.

The historical plot suggested by Gesta Hungarorum satisfied scholars in different countries. The Hungarians embrace it because it depicts their ancestors’ alleged glorious conquest of Transcarpathia, including such ancient settlements as Ung (Uzhhorod) and Borzhava (village Variievo, Berehove raion), and the execution of a local Slavic prince, Laborcy. Our scholars liked a different fact: if Hungarians came to these territories in the late 9th century and waged war against Laborcy, this means that a Transcarpathian Slavic principality existed there at the time.

However, archeological data suggested a totally different picture. Uzhhorod National University, more specifically its Institute of Carpathian Studies, launched a series of archeological missions to make a search for ancient Slavic settlements, the centers of the “Transcarpathian” principality mentioned by the anonymous author of Gesta Hungarorum. According to one account, Ung was located where the Uzhhorod Castle is. However, the layers that would date back to the 8th through the 9th centuries are missing here, while the medieval level is dated to the 10th century at the earliest. Therefore, there was no fortified settlement on the castle hill at the moment of the alleged Hungarian arrival.

Another possible localization of Ung refers to the village Horiany near Uzhhorod where the famed rotund church is located which some researchers date to the 9th or the 10th centuries in order to explain the existence of Ung. However, excavations have shown that there was no settlement in Horiany whatsoever. If the center of the principality had been located there, there would be a powerful cultural layer remaining from this period. Meanwhile, what was found in the fairly large area were only neolithic objects, fragments of late Bronze Age ceramics, as well as modeled objects and pottery dated to the 3rd and the 4th centuries A.D. The medieval settlements began to be populated in the 12th century. Therefore, there was no center of any principality here, and Ung is a mythical entity.

Another fortified settlement, Borzhava, was, according to the anonymous writer, conquered by the army of Arpad, the son of Almosh, in 903 after a several-day siege. The archeological mission I mentioned broke through the rampart of the settlement in two places. The excavations show that the Borzhava settlement was built in the late 11th century A.D. Therefore, the Hungarians could not conquer Borzhava simply because it did not exist in 903.

To sum up, the armed conflict between the Hungarians and the Slavs described in the Hungarian chronicle was invented, while Prince Laborcy is a legendary figure that has a place exclusively in myths and fiction.

Moreover, there is no compelling archeological evidence that the Hungarians headed by Almosh in the late 9th century crossed Transcarpathia. The likely route used by the chief of this nomadic people was the Danube corridor (the territory between Southern Carpathians and the Danube) which nomads used since time immemorial.

The myth about Almosh’s tribes going through the Veretsky Pass was a serious distortion of true historical facts. It led to a general practice of categorizing all settlements as Slavic ones and all burial grounds of nomads as those of ancient Hungarians. In reality, the situation was somewhat more complicated. All individual burial places and sepulchers of nomads that were previously dated to the time of Almosh’s troops’ invasion of Transcarpathia turned out to be at least 80 years older. The burial complexes contained things that Hungarian warriors simply could not have, because they were made much later, for example, Arabic coins, dirhams dated to the second half of the 10th century. In order to explain this fact, Hungarian scholars put forward a hypothesis that this money reached these localities through trade. However, coins were found only in 23 places in the northern part of the Carpathian-Danube area, exclusively in the burial grounds of nomads. They were punctured and turned into decorations, which means they were no longer used for trade. Their location, purpose, and, most importantly, dating and origin suggest that they belongs to the Pechenegs, rather than Hungarians, who were migrating from the Black Sea area in the late 10th century A.D. Furthermore, this was not a mere case of migration but a flight from a pogrom via a fairly unpopular route which led through a challenging mountain pass.

As is known, the Pechenegs dared to attack the army of Kyivan Prince Sviatoslav in the early 980s and killed him at the Dnieper rapids when he was on his way back with a small unit from Bulgaria. The things that were taken away from the prince’s Norman armed force were found in large quantities in Transcarpathia and adjacent territories, parts of Slovakia and Hungary. The Norman style was especially evident in Svaliava, Berehove, and Zemplin finds which were previously considered to be of purely Hungarian origin. The area along the upstream stretch of the Tysa River is place with high concentration of burial grounds made nomadic horsemen. They put there Norman-style swords, which were obtained as the trophies after the defeat of the prince’s detachment. The rulers of Rus’ must have delivered a series of blows against the Pechenegs as revenge for Sviatoslav, forcing them to flee beyond the Carpathians.

These same Pecheneg forces made aggressive attacks on the Slavic Tiverians and destroyed the settlements Ekimauci and Alcedar, which is supported by archeological finds. When these nomadic tribes sensed danger that was coming from Kyiv, they retreated over the Carpathians, leaving behind material and monetary depositaries with trophy decorations and Arab coins. These depositaries permit contemporary researchers to trace the route of their flight — from Volhynia to Galicia and over the Veretsky Pass to Khust and further on to the West.

The Pechenegs, rather than Hungarians, settled in the territory from Bratislava to Transcarpathia in the 10th century. Foreign scholars mention in their works that the monuments found in these areas have non-Hungarian character. They are associated with the Kabars who joined Almosh’s tribes in the late 9th century. The temporal indicators of nomads’ burial grounds point to the need for a revision of these theses and a realization that neither ancient Hungarians, nor any other tribes crossed the Veretsky Pass, while the monuments perceived by scholars as purely Hungarian and dated to the early 10th century were, in fact, late 10th-century objects of Pecheneg origin.

Therefore, despite a significant Slavic population in Trascarpathia, there was no state entity (principality) in the 8th through the 9th century there, while people led peaceful and measured existence until the arrival of the Pechenegs. Hungarian tribes headed by Almosh did not cross the Veretsky Pass. The territory of contemporary Transcarpathia was made part of the Hungarian kingdom in the 11th century, and Hungarian colonization most likely proceeded from the west rather than east.

The hypothesis we suggest should lead to an entire series of revisions of the medieval history of Transcarpathia and adjacent territories. Clearly, all of this cannot be done overnight. Hungarians have to recognize the penetration of the Pechenegs and abandon the story of the heroic defeat of Slavic settlements near the upstream Tysa River.

The more complicated issues to be solved here include the identification of Transcarpathia’s population which lived here before the arrival of the Pechenegs. A large number of scholars believe these were the tribes of White Croatians. However, a number of researchers that have taken a close look at the special features of burial rituals and house construction find parallels with the Dulibians in Volhynia — this is the most likely area from which the Slavs came to Transcarpathia. An even more challenging task is figuring out whether the lands in question were part of a polity, and if so, which polity it was.

We hope to answer these questions in the near future.

The bottoms of the earthenware Slavic pots found in a sepulcher in the village of Cherveniovo (Mukachiv raion) that date back to the 8th or 9th century

Stirrup and other finds from the late 10th-century Pecheneg necropolis in the village Choma (Berehove raion)





  • 6th century A.D. — several groups of the Slavs move from Volhynia and begin to settle in Transcarpathia
  • Second half of the 10th century A.D. — Pecheneg detachments conquer the Tiverian settlements of Ekimauci and Alcedar
  • The 980s — the Pechenegs kill Kyivan Prince Sviatoslav at the Dnieper rapids
  • Late 10th century — following the attacks of Kyivan princes, some Pecheneg tribes flee beyond the Carpathians, which is confirmed by a number of depositories in Volhynia and Subcarpathia
  • Late 12th century to the early 13th century — Anonymus writes Gesta Hungarorum






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