Wikijunior:Ancient Civilizations/Magyar

The Magyars


Who were they?


The Magyars were ancient ancestors of the people of modern-day Hungary. Over 1000 years ago, they lived in the far north. They were nomads, wandering from place to place in search of grazing land. They lived in cold northern regions then traveled southward. They were tent-dwellers. They hunted game in the forests and fished in rivers. They may have grown crops such as wheat for food. They moved southward settling in several areas before making a permanent home in the Great European Plain. The Great Plain was also called the Carpathian Basin. It is now the modern-day European nation of Hungary.

In their wandering, the Magyars learned from other peoples about agriculture and horse breeding. They became excellent horsemen. They used special Central Asian-style bows for fighting from horseback.

They were feared by other peoples of the time. They were such fierce warriors they were sometimes called Turks or Ongri. But they were not related to Turks as some believe. In modern times they are known as Hungarians, but they still refer to themselves Magyars (magyarok). They founded the present-day country of Hungary. Most people living in Hungary today are of ancient Magyar ancestry.

The Magyars were organized as family clans within tribes. The tribes were led south to the Great Plain of Europe by Grand Prince Arpad in the late 9th century. There were 10 tribes called the Ten Magyars or Ten Arrows. They crossed the Carpathian Mountains and settled in their permanent homeland. The people already living there were mostly Slavs. The Magyars drove out many, but some were allowed to stay and live under Magyar rule.  

Arpad’s descendants ruled for over 400 years. When his great-grandson Vajk became king, he made many changes to Magyar life. He became a Christian and changed his name to Stephen. He established the Christian Kingdom of Hungary. The pagan practice of worshipping many gods was outlawed. Stephen built Hungary’s power and prestige in Europe. He made Hungary an important European country.

Where did they live?


Ancient Magyars lived far to the north in a region that is now part of modern-day Russia. They migrated southward to what is now central Russia. The early Magyars may have wandered into lands near the Volga River in present-day Kazan. During this time they possibly learned about agriculture from the Bulgar-Turks. Many Hungarian words about agriculture and raising livestock have Turkic roots.

In the 9th century, the Magyars were driven westward by Turkish tribes. They went to lands near the Danube, then over the Carpathian Mountains into the Great Plains (modern day Hungary).

The new Magyar homeland was surrounded by peoples of different origins and histories. They were unrelated to the Magyars. Their languages were strange and unfamiliar. They were Germanic, Slavic, Hunnic, Turkic, and Greek. The neighboring peoples disliked the Magyars. They blamed them for destroying churches and monasteries. Hostilities and conflicts were common, especially with the Turks.

The Great Plain was a great flat area surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains and the Alps. It was landlocked, meaning there was no access to the sea. The hills and mountains were forested. There were small low lying, marshy areas called fens. The soil was rich and good for agriculture.  



Magyars lived in tribes made up of family clans. There were 7 tribes of 108 clans. Before the migration, the 7 tribes were called the Seven Arrows (Hetumoge). They were led by a spiritual ruler (kende) and a chief military commander (gyula). The 7 were later joined by 3 Turkic tribes to form the Ten Arrows (On-ogur).

The chief military commander of the Ten Arrows was Arpad. In the late 9th century, it was Arpad who led his people into the Great Plains. The Magyars were feared by people of the surrounding kingdoms. There was strife and hostility, but eventually, treaties and alliances were made with neighboring kingdoms.

In the year 1000, Stephen was crowned king. He established the Christian Kingdom of Hungary. He changed his pagan name from Vajk to Stephen, a Christian name. King Stephen chose Western Christianity (Catholicism) as the religion of Hungary. His choice linked Hungary to the other Christian kingdoms of Europe.

King Stephen believed Christianity would play an important part in Hungary’s future. He had many churches and monasteries built. He brought priests from other countries to preach God’s word. King Stephen was named Saint Stephen by the Catholic Church. In Hungarian his name is Szent Istvan Kiraly.

King Stephen ruled Hungary from the year 1000 until his death in 1083. It was a time of peace and prosperity. The Magyars had left their nomadic past behind. They became settled Europeans. Hungary became more connected to its neighbors. It became less connected to Asian culture. After Stephen died, Hungary remained strong for another 1000 years. However, frequent fighting and skirmishes with enemies weakened the Kingdom. By the year 1300, Hungary had declined. But, fifty years later Hungary’s power was restored by King Louis the Great.

The next threat to Hungary came from the Ottoman Turks led by Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1526, the Turks defeated King Louis II. The Turks remained in Hungary until the 1600s. They destroyed towns and farmlands. Rich, fertile land that had once provided crops and grains became swamps where nothing could grow. People named it puszta meaning “wasteland” or “barren place”.

In modern times, the government has reclaimed and restored the land making it fertile again. Now wheat is grown and harvested. Hilly areas are planted with vineyards and orchards. Salty areas are pastures for sheep. Instead of wasteland, the word pusza now refers to farmland.

What did their buildings look like?


Hungary has many beautiful buildings. There are churches, abbeys, monasteries, basilicas, mosques, and castles. Some are recent. Others were built on centuries-old ruins.

Little remains of the plain stone structures of pagan times. Pagan temples and shrines were built into hills or set into the ground. Some were small, free-standing buildings. They were destroyed by early Christians who built churches on the ruins. Stone and other materials from the destroyed temples were used in building churches. Later, rather than destroying the temples, Christians made them into churches. They were converted and consecrated (declared sacred) as houses of worship.  

Basilicas are special churches granted privileges by the leader, or Pope, of the Roman Catholic Church. The Basilica of Saint Stephen was the principal church of the rulers of Hungary. In the Middle Ages, the crown jewels and the holy crown of Hungary were kept there. Many Hungarian kings were buried there. Inside are beautiful marble sculptures. There are 2 large bell towers with 6 bells. One bell is Hungary’s largest, weighing 9 tons.

Esztergom Basilica is built on Castle Hill near the Danube River. Esztergom is said to be the birthplace of St. Stephen. He was crowned there. It is said to be the largest church in Hungary. It has tall columns in front with a large central dome. There are two smaller domes on the sides. Many religious art works, and holy relics are kept in its Christian Museum. It was originally built in the 12th century. Later, it was destroyed by the Turks and had to be rebuilt. There are 440 steps leading to the central dome.

Pannonhalma Abbey is an early Christian building founded in the 10th century. It is one of the oldest historical monuments in Hungary. It is still in use today.

A Muslim mosque is a place of worship for people who follow the Islamic religion. Mosques were built in Hungary by the Turks. Christians converted the Turkish mosques to churches after the Turks left. The Mosque of Pasha Qasim in Pécs was converted to a church in 1702. It has an octagonal shape (drum) with small windows on all 8 sides. It is covered by a dome. Inside, Ottoman decoration and inscriptions remain alongside Christian statues and artwork.  

Budapest’s Cave Church is located at the foot of Gellért Hill. One part of the church is a natural cave (grotto) and the other part is man-made. It has a small chapel with warm water bubbling up at the entrance. A Magyar hermit called Iván once lived in the cave. He believed the waters could heal the sick. A group of Magyar pilgrims was inspired to build a shrine there. It was consecrated as a Christian church in 1926.

Egar Castle has stood since the mid-13th century. Egar was once a Magyar tribal town. The castle sits on a hill. It is famous because the larger Ottoman army was defeated there by the smaller Magyar army. Egar Castle Museum has an important exhibition of ancient weapons.

The Millennium Monument in Pest commemorates the 1000th anniversary of the settlement of the Magyars in Hungary. A tall pillar stands in the center. There is a winged statue on top. Around the plaza are statues of riders, horses, and chariots representing Hungarian history.  

Some of the buildings in Hungary are Turkish bath houses. They were built near thermal (heated) springs. Inside a bath house is a pool of mineral-rich warm water. People go there for health reasons and to relax. Király Bath is said to be the oldest bath still in use today. It has an octagonal pool and a domed roof. There are small circular holes in the roof to let in light.

What did they wear?


Magyars used materials from plants and animals to make clothing. Women were skilled in spinning, weaving, and making cloth. Sheep wool and flax fiber was made into yarn and thread, then braided or woven into cloth. Animal hides could be made into leather for boots and belts. Some clothing was made of fur or leather. Peasant clothing was made mostly of sheepskin.

Flax was a plant used to make linen cloth. The stalks of flax plants were soaked in water, then spread out to dry. The stalks were beaten with a stick to soften them so the fibers could be pulled apart. The fine, soft fibers were brushed to prepare for thread-making and weaving. Shirts, trousers, and underwear were woven from linen. Often women dressed in white linen clothing. They carried tubs from camp to camp to keep their white clothes clean.

Wool from sheep was used to make thick, strong material called “felt”. Few tools were needed. Heat and moisture were applied to the raw wool. The wool was rubbed to bind the fibers and make the felt strong. Making felt was an important aspect of Magyar life. King Stephen wrote laws for people to follow when making felt. Felt was used to make a warm coat called a szűr.

Magyar clothing was designed for working, riding horses, movement, and protection. Some clothing was worn to show wealth or importance. Wealthy clan women decorated their clothing with objects made of precious metals like gold and silver. They used small decorative disks to hold their hair in braids. They wore high caps and headdresses.

Warriors wore loose clothing for ease of movement. Tunics opened down the front or fastened at the neck. Some warriors wore ear rings. A bow and other weapons needed to move freely, so no jewelry could be worn below the belt. Metal clasps were used to secure leather.

Magyar warriors had several articles made for protection. They wore pointed helmets and carried round shields. Boots were made of leather. A small flat bag called a tursoly was worn on the belt. It was meant to carry small items and often, protected the rider’s leg in battle. A slightly curved sword was carried in a sheath attached to the belt.  

Women wore long, loose dresses or tunics called caftans. When putting up and taking down tents, women needed to move freely. Women’s skirts were made with openings on the sides for riding horses.

The szűr was a type of felt coat worn by Magyars. It was an important piece of clothing for shepherds, farmers, and peasants. It provided protection from sun, wind, and cold. At night it was used as a pillow and cover. The large collar covered the wearer when it rained. Magyar herdsmen had worn the szűr as far back as the Middle Ages.

A szűr was worn over the shoulders as a cape. It was often decorated with colorful, embroidered (sewn) leaves and flowers. Decorative felt cut-outs (appliqués) were sewn on.  Older men wore a szűr decorated with black. A szűr for a young man was colorful. The szűr was worn when attending church and weddings.

One form of this coat had sleeves. It was a szűr-mantle. Sometimes the sleeves were sewn at the ends, so small utensils could be kept in them. Often, there were no sleeves.

A suba was protective outer-wear made of leather and wool. It was a round cloak made from 12 sheepskins. A suba was decorated and worn for festivals. Shepherds wore a suba and a cap called a süveg as protection from the weather. A suba could be used as a seat or bed. Sometimes a suba served as a surface for eating or drying meat.

Another important garment was a sleeved, sheepskin jacket called a ködmön. It either reached to above the waist or down to mid-thigh. A man’s ködmön often had a high neck. The neck of a woman’s ködmön was often cut out and worn over a shawl. Women’s were richly embroidered. The bottom and front of ködmön jackets were trimmed with fur. Some flared out from the waist, suitable for riding a horse.  

Herdsmen made their own simple leather garments. The hátibőr (back hide) was made of a single sheepskin. The two hind legs tied at the waist. The two front legs tied at the neck. It covered only the back.

A chest warmer (mejjes) consisted of two parts—one worn on the back, the other on the chest. It was closed on both sides. Sometimes the skin was sewn up on one side and fastened with buttons on the other side. Some were embroidered on the front. Both men and women wore chest warmers.

As villages grew, clothing was made in homes. When many people make the same item at home, it is called a cottage industry. Specialized workers, such as tanners, furriers, and boot-makers also worked from home. Later in the Middle Ages, workers formed guilds. A guild is an association of people who do the same job. Guild members protect their special knowledge of how to make their product.   

What did they eat?


Ancient Magyars ate meat from animals and food made from grains. They raised sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. They were pastoral nomads, moving from place to place to feed their herds. They used horses in winter to break the snow on the steppes. The old vegetation underneath was collected as fodder (feed). This practice allowed them to use the steppes year-round to feed their animals. They hunted wild boar and other animals. Fishing and gathering wild plants did not provide as much food as animals and grains.

Ancient Magyars raided settlements to get food. When travelling for raids in enemy territory, they carried ingredients to make stew. They brought dried cubes of meat cooked with onions. It was fast and easy to add water for soup or stew at the campsite. Magyar stew was called gulyás (goulash). It was cooked in a large metal pot (cauldron) over the fire.

Today, goulash is the national dish of Hungary. It is seasoned with a bright red spice called paprika. Paprika was first used by poor people in the 16th century to keep food from spoiling. They could not afford expensive spices from Asia so they used paprika instead. It soon became popular with everyone.

Paprika became an essential ingredient in Hungarian cooking. It is made from dried red peppers. But it can be made from any color or shape of pepper. The peppers are harvested and hung up to dry. Then the dried peppers are ground up. One special pepper used for Hungarian paprika grows only in Hungary. A town called Szeged is the paprika capital of Hungary.

To soften the flavor of paprika and other spices, people use a thick, heavy sour cream (tejföl). It is a topping on goulash and other dishes. Langos a deep-fried potato dough is topped with sour cream and grated cheese.

Another popular, hearty stew, Lecso is made with chorizo sausage, stewed tomatoes, and onions. It is flavored with paprika. Fozelek is a snack of baked or fried vegetables. The vegetables are mixed into white sauce made of flour and fat.

Fisherman's soup (halászlé) is a mixture of several kinds of poached fish, such as carp, catfish, perch, or pike. It is cooked in a cauldron over an open fire. It is seasoned with sweet and hot paprika. 

What did their writing look like?


Ancient Magyars were pagans before becoming Christians. They believed in many gods and worshipped nature. They developed a unique kind of writing using rovás. Rovás were letters based on the sounds Magyars used when speaking.

Rovás letters are unlike any other known writing. The word refers to carving letters. Rovás were usually carved on wooden sticks or rocks. Ancient rovás writing has been found carved on stone objects and in old churches.

The letters and numbers had straight lines and were written right to left. The letter “M” looked like a backwards B except for having straight lines. “A” looked like a backwards P with straight lines. “V” looked like a capital M. “K” looked like a diamond. The first letter of a person’s name was drawn with thicker lines.

Magyars adopted Latin for writing when they became Christians. Even after abandoning paganism, Magyar shepherds used a rovás-stick to count their sheep.

What did they believe?


It is said Magyar pagans believed their gods lived in a Tree of Life. Leaves were the Upper World. The tree trunk was the Middle World. Humans and fantasy creatures lived in the tree trunk. Beneath the ground was the Underworld where bad spirits lived.

Parents of all the gods were Isten and Istenanya. The father god was Isten who watched humans in the Middle World of earth. Istenanya was the mother goddess who controlled the moon, fertility, and childbirth.  

An important figure in Magyar religion was the shaman who was believed to have magical powers. People born with birth defects were chosen to be shamans. People believed shamans had special powers. They could climb the Tree of Life, talk to animals, and had super-human strength. The ancient Magyar religion has disappeared, but shamans still practice today in Hungary. They keep the old folktales and ancient customs alive.

Magyars believed in the Legend of the White Stag. It tells how the Magyar people began with twin brothers Hunnor and Magor. Their father was King Nimrod who ruled over a great ancient land. The sons, like their father, were skilled hunters. Once while hunting in the forest, they saw a beautiful white stag. They chased it through the forest and countryside. The stag led them into a beautiful land where it jumped into a river and disappeared.  

Hunnor and Magor were heart-broken. When they returned, they told their father of the wondrous white stag. Their father built a temple to honor the stag. The brothers returned to their studies, so they could become great knights and rulers.

One day while wandering, they saw beautiful young women dancing and celebrating the White Stag. The two most beautiful young women were daughters of King Dula. The princes took them away and married them. They settled in a bountiful land. Their people prospered and their numbers grew. From these first people arose two great nations, the Huns and the Magyars. Both were bound together through this founding legend.

Are some of them famous today?


Many talented and creative Hungarian people are descendants of the Magyars. There are well-known entertainers, writers, actors, artists, and musicians.

William Fox was born in Hungary and moved to the United States. He was a Hollywood producer. He made his first film in 1914. He founded 20th Century Fox Studios in the 1920s. His work made many actors famous. His films influenced the lives of millions of people. Another movie producer was Adolph Zukor who founded Paramount Pictures. He was one of the fathers of the Hollywood film industry. Today Paramount is the fourth oldest surviving film studio in the world.

The actor Bela Lugosi was famous for playing Count Dracula in the movie Dracula. He became one of the most well known American stars.

The Great Houdini was a famous magician and escape artist. He was born in Budapest, Hungary. He performed all over the world.

Magda Szabó is the most translated Hungarian author. Her works have been translated into 30 different languages. Another Hungarian writer, Imre Kertész, was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Joseph Pulitzer was a world famous newspaper publisher. He crusaded against illegal practices in big business. He founded the Columbia School of Journalism. The Pulitzer Prizes for excellence are named in his honor.

The Hungarian Lipizzan horses are trained in Hungary. They were originally bred for battle. They could leap high into the air over attackers. They defended their rider and saddle from the enemy foot soldiers. Today the Lipizzans live on a farm in Szilvasvarad above the Great Hungarian Plain. They travel all over the world giving shows and demonstrations of their special abilities.

What is left of them today?


Evidence of the ancient Magyar people has been found by archeologists. Visitors to the Hungarian National Museum can view Magyar artifacts. Items on display include sabers, bows, arrow-heads, stirrups, and metal buttons. There is decorative jewelry made by Magyar gold-smiths and silver-smiths. There are weapons made by Magyar black-smiths.  

The Crown of St. Stephen is displayed in Budapest’s Parliament building. St. Stephen’s crown is a famous symbol of Hungary’s nationhood. It was taken to America’s Fort Knox for safety during World War II. It was returned to the people of Hungary in 1978.

Esztergom Basilica has a museum that holds many ancient Magyar relics. The largest church in Hungary, it sits on the site of an earlier 12th century cathedral. Parts of the original church can be seen by visitors.

Evidence of the Magyar past can be seen in Hungarian clothing, music, dance, and even pets.

Some modern Hungarian clothing styles and decorations are similar to those of Magyar times. Suba and szur coats are still worn. Vests are often embroidered (adorned) with bright patterns, but modern embroidery patterns vary. Each region has its own unique pattern.

Hungarian folk music has roots in Magyar history. Sometimes called “peasant music,” folk songs were collected by composer Béla Bartók in the early 20th century. He was a musicologist, a person who studies music. He traveled to the Carpathian Basin to record songs on Thomas Edison’s recording machine.

Franz Liszt was a famous Hungarian composer. He wrote joyful rhapsodies based on popular gypsy and folk music. His piano compositions made Hungarian folk music known worldwide.

Kaláka is a folk music group from Budapest . They organize folk music festivals to entertain people. Muzsikás is another Hungarian folk music group. They travel to many countries to perform their music. This group also plays classical works by Béla Bartók

Many Hungarian dances come from Magyar times: dances for couples, dances for men alone (solo), jumping dances, and shepherd dances. They are accompanied by old style folk music. The Hungarian heyduck dance was a “weapons dance” performed by warriors. They danced while whirling weapons to practice their battle skills.

Historians believe Magyar tribes were expert dog breeders. The Hungarian Vizsla breed may have entered the Carpathian Basin with the Magyar tribes. The Vizsla (Hungarian Pointer) is one of the oldest breed of hunting dogs in the world. Vizsla means alert and responsive. Archeologists have found an ancient stone image showing a Magyar hunter with his Vizsla and his falcon. The Vizsla was highly valued by Hungarian nobility

Kuvasz dogs are snow white. They were bred by the Magyars to guard livestock. They were brought to Hungary in the Middle Ages. Patient and courageous, they were prized by Hungarian nobles. It is said that King Matthias I trusted his Kuvasz companions more than his palace guards.

The Hungarian Greyhound (Magyar Agár) was known as far back as the 8th century. It was used for hunting and coursing. Coursing is the sport of hunting game, such as rabbits, using sight rather than scent.  



American Kennel Club. (n.d.) Kuvasz dog breed information.

Appold, J. (2018, Septemer 20). Béla Bartók and the Importance of Folk Music. NLS Music Notes. Archery Historian. Magyar.

Balassa, I. & Guyla, O. (1979).  Hungarian ethnography and folklore (M. Bales and K. Bales, Trans.). Digital Library of Hungarian Studies.

Barking Royality. (2021).

Bond, S. (2017, October 7). Were pagan temples all smashed or just converted into Christian ones? Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Ones? (

Budapest. (n.d.).

Budapest Guide. (2015, February 27). St. Stephen’s Basilica. Saint Stephen's Basilica - Budapest Travel Guide (

Hungary. (1990). [Web Archive] Library of Congress, Item DA Pam 550-165.

Ducksters. (2021). Geography for Kids: Hungary. Ducksters.

Fermor, P.L. (1986). Between the woods and the water, on foot to Constantinople: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gate. Journey across Europe Book ). New York Review Books.

Fredrich, K. (n.d.). The oldest relic of runic writing in the Carpathian Basin (K. Bartha, Trans.). https://magyarmegmaradasert_hu/in-english/our-language/1636

Hungarian National Museum. Department of Archeology. (n.d.). Arpadian Collection..

Hungarian National Museum. Department of Archeology. (n.d.). The Hungarian conquest period collection.

Kerkay, E. (2015, March 30). Origin and history of the Hungarian dress. American Hungarian Museum.

Kiddle Encyclopedia (n.d.). Stephen I of Hungary facts for kids.

Kiddle Encyclopedia (July 16, 2021).  Runes facts for kids.

Langer, W. (Ed.). (1952). An encyclopedia of world history. The Riverside Press.

Leder, S. (2005, January.) Nomadic and settled peoples in steppe landscapes and within statehood (F. Lenehan, Trans.). Scientia Halensis, 1/05, 19-22.

Magyar, A. (2010). The ancient Magyar Rovás. Our language. Ancient Magyar Rovás (

Mamacos, K. (2020, June 3). Travel n History. Hungarian mythology-famous folklore, gods & mythological Figures.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cape 1840-70 Hungarian.

Mother Earth Travel. History of Hungary. History of Hungary (

Nelson, D.T. (2012). "Béla Bartók: The Father of Ethnomusicology," Musical Offerings: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 2. DOI: 10.15385/jmo.2012.3.2.2.

Pferde Ungarns. (n.d.). Lipizzan Stud Szilvásvárad (

Popescu, Julian. (2001). Major World Nations, Hungary. Chelsea House Publishers.

Progressive Productions kft. (May 20, 2020). Hungarians in Hollywood. Stories of Hungarian Filmmakers who became world famous in the Hollywood film industry. https://progressiveproductions.en/insights/hungary/hungarians-in-hollywood

Shishlina, N. (2001). Early Herders of the Eurasian Steppe. Expedition Magazine 43.1. Penn Museum.

Smith, C. (Ed.). (August, 2001). Before and after the end of time: Architecture and the year 1000. Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

Stalcup. A. (2005). Hungary, Enchantment of the World Second Series. Children’s Press. A division of Scholastic Inc.

Stevedon 7791. (2021, March 18). Magyaros (Hungarian food) from gulya to dobosh. Sanddtravels.

Székely-Hungarian Rovás. (2021, June 6).

U. S. Embassy in Hungary. (n.d.). Return of the Holy Crown of St Stephen.

West, W. (1913). The ancient world, from the earliest times to 800 A.D. Norwood Press.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 17). Hungarian prehistory. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 16). Hungarian folk music. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, October 25). List of Hungarian Nobel laureates. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 10). Magyar tribes. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, August 24). Matthias Church. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 15). Old Hungarian script. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, October 17). Stephen I of Hungary. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Willey, N. (2014, May 31). 10 more forgotten ancient religions.

Yannucci, L. (2021). Hungarian Children's Songs - Hungary - Mama Lisa's World: Children's Songs, Nursery Rhymes and Traditional Music from Around the World