Although the area has been inhabited since the Stone Age, its history essentially began around 1009, when King Szent István (reign: 997-1038) founded a bishopric here. The ecclesiastical buildings were built on the plateau of a limestone hill on the eastern bank of the Eger-patak [Eger Stream]. According to local legend, the king himself oversaw the construction work from an adjacent hill. This place is still called the ‘Király Széke’ [King’s Seat].
In addition to performing episcopal duties, the bishops also engaged in economic and military activities. Moreover, they played an important role in the dissemination of medieval culture and art. Monastic orders as well as renowned foreign artists and architects were invited to settle here, which contributed to the urbanization of the area. The importance of the place increased, which is supported by the fact that King Imre was buried here in 1204 instead of the Royal Basilica of Székesfehérvár. Bishops were often featured on both the national and international arenas. One of the prominent figures of the Hungarian Renaissance ecclesiastical scene was Bishop Tamás Bakóczi, who received the most votes after Cardinal Medici in the 1513 papal election.
Perched on a hill above the old town, Egri vár [Castle of Eger] was developed from the ecclesiastical center founded by King Szent István. In 1248, after the Mongol invasion, with the permission of King Béla IV (reign: 1235-1270), Bishop Lampert of Eger set about building a fortress to ensure the protection of the ecclesiastical buildings. In the 15th century, the cathedral fortress was further expanded with a bishop’s palace. The design of the palace followed the taste of the royal court and everything about it meant to accommodate the luxurious episcopal lifestyle.
In the middle of the 16th century, during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in Hungary, the role of the episcopal complex changed from a fortified cathedral to a border stronghold to protect the mining towns in the northern part of the country. The Ottoman army reached the castle on the 9th of September in 1552. The defenders of the castle, which barely numbered 1800 people, had to face the besieging army, which had an estimated 45,000 soldiers. Similarly, the castle had only 4 siege cannons and 15 field cannons, as opposed to the 20 and more than 100 pieces of the attacking Ottoman army. However, the Ottoman supremacy in armaments and number of troops had no chance against the stout resistance of the defenders lead by their captain István Dobó. After 38 days of desperate struggle on both sides, on the 17th of October, the Ottoman forces gave up the siege and returned to their winter camp. The triumph of the defenders in the 1552 siege of Eger was a crucial event in 16th-century Hungary: for the first time a Hungarian castle was able to defend itself against the might of the Ottoman forces. News of Eger’s stout standing spread quickly throughout Europe and shook the belief in the invincibility of the Ottoman forces.
The second Ottoman campaign against the castle in 1596 was led by Sultan Mohamed III himself. On the 20th of September, the Ottoman army surrounded Eger with unprecedented force, nearly 100,000 soldiers, and began the systematic destruction of the castle walls with more than 120 siege cannons. In contrast, the castle’s 3,400 defenders had only seven cannons. A few days later, the Ottomans had already occupied the town surrounding the castle. They pushed on, and soon captured the outer bailey as well. Subsequently, in addition to continuous shelling, the besiegers tried to demolish the remaining bastions of the inner bailey by blasting. On 12th of October, the weakened and hopeless guards gave up the castle. With this further victory, the Ottomans were able to strengthen their power over the newly conquered territories.
In 1684, an international alliance against the Ottomans, the Holy League, was formed and waged a war with the aim of expelling the Ottomans from Europe. Ultimately, Eger was liberated in 1687. The military importance of the castle declined after the Ottoman occupation. In 1702, the Imperial Chamber ordered the demolition of the entire castle to save on the high operating costs. Fortunately, due to practical difficulties and high costs, only the outer bailey was demolished.
Today, the Gothic episcopal palace, which was István Dobó’s headquarter during the siege of 1552, houses the Egri vár története [History of Eger Castle] exhibition. The collection covers the period from the founding of the ecclesiastical center by King Szent István to the Rákóczi-szabadságharc [Rákóczi’s War of Independence] (1703-1711). On the ground floor of the palace, the Hősök terme [Hero’s Hall] is dominated by the tomb of Dobó, surrounded by huge statues as if guarding the memory of the captain. However, the tomb is empty, as he was buried on his family estate in Dobóruszka (Ruská).
Passing the remains of the 11th-century cathedral, visitors can reach the intertwined system of underground halls and passageways of the 16th-century Kazamata [Casemate] through the Setét kapu [Dark Gate]. The exhibits placed here use mock-ups and interactive displays to illustrate the castle’s evolution over time: from the ecclesiastical center through the fortified cathedral to the modern medieval fortress created to accommodate artillery warfare. One of the castle’s most popular exhibitions is also located here: it is dedicated to the most famous literary work inspired by the 1552 siege, Géza Gárdonyi’s historic novel ‘Egri Csillagok’ [Stars of Eger – Title of the English version: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon] (1901). After exploring the peculiarities of the siege, in the Panoptikum [Vax Museum] of the dungeon, visitors can meet the main figures of the event face to face.
Furthermore, the Múlt-kirakó [Past Puzzle] exhibition presents archaeological finds from the entire area of Heves County, covering the period from the Stone Age to the era of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. While, the Fegyvermustra [Weaponry] collection explores the historical development of Eastern and Western weapons from the Middle Ages to First World War, with special attention to the Ottoman armaments and their Hungarian counterparts.
The highest point of the castle is Kálvária-domb [Calvary Hill], topped by three crosses. In 1828, the then archbishop, Pyrker, wanted to establish a place of pilgrimage in the castle. The hill soon became a favorite of pilgrims, and it was flatteringly mentioned as the most ornate church in Eger due to its wonderful panorama. Peculiarity of the site is that it has only seven Stations of the Cross instead of the usual 14. This suggests that the pre-16th century configuration was applied.
The ornamental tomb Géza Gárdonyi can be found in the remote part of the castle, on the Bebek-bástya [Bebek bastion]. According to his wishes, his headstone is inscribed with the words that have since become legendary: “Csak a teste!” [Only his body]. His novel about the castle was born in a nearby house, which today functions as the Gárdonyi Géza emlékház [Memorial House of Géza Gárdonyi].
The focal point of the city is Dobó-tér [Dobó Square]. Lined with restaurants and cafés, it is a favorite meeting place for locals and tourists alike. With the Egri vár in the background, an impressive monument of István Dobó (1907) dominates the middle of this square. The central element of Alajos Stróbl’s composition is the captain wielding his sword, there is a warrior on his right, and a woman throwing a stone on his other side. Further exploring the winding lanes and hidden courtyards of the old town, visitors can admire the Baroque architecture of Eger. One of the most beautiful Baroque wrought-iron gates in Hungary is located in the County Hall. Henrik Fazola made these gates known as Fazola-kapuk [Fazola Gates] in 1761, as well as many other wrought iron artifacts in the city.
The most unusual museum in the town is the Kopcsik Cukormáz Múzeum [Kopcsik Fondant Museum]. It is a collection of 150 masterpieces made of sugar by Lajos Kopcsik, ten-time Culinary Olympics winner and Guinness World Recorder master confectioner from Eger. The main attraction of the museum is the jaw-dropping Baroque Room in which everything, from the floor and wallpaper through the furniture to the smallest object, is made of sugar.
The second largest religious building in Hungary, the Egri Főszékesegyház [Metropolitan Cathedral of Eger], is dedicated St John the Apostle and Evangelist, St. Michael and the Immaculate Conception. The imposing building was designed by a great architect of the time, József Hild, and was consecrated in 1837. The sculptures in the church are the work of a Venetian sculpture, Marco Casagrande. The sculptures along the staircase in front of the cathedral depict the kings Szent István and Szent László, and the apostles Peter and Paul. While the facade of the cathedral is decorated with his statue composition of Faith-Hope-Love and angel statues of Divine Truth and Divine Love. The decoration of the interiors took about 120 years. A striking painting on one of the side altars portrays King Szent István as he offers the Holy Crown, which represents the country, for the protection of Virgin Mary. The fresco of the Dome, depicting the Apocalypse, is the work of István Takács, a painter from Mezőkövesd. Next to the cathedral, the exhibitions of the Baroque Érseki Palota [Archbishop’s Palace] provide an insight into the everyday life of archbishops. There are two beautiful Baroque churches in the city center: the Minorita templom [Minorite Church] and the Ciszterci templom [Cistercian Church]. The Minorita templom (1771) is dedicated to St. Antony of Padua. The building is unique among Hungarian Baroque churches, as the facade between the two towers is not flat, but slightly convex. The interior frescoes, obviously, depict scenes from the life St. Anthony. The Ciszterci templom (1743) is dedicated to St Bernard. Fortunately, its entire 18th-century furnishings have survived to this day.
Going further back in time, some monuments from Ottoman times have also remained in the city, such as the solitary minaret and Turkish baths. The slender Minaret, probably the only one with a Christian cross on top, was built in 1596. It originally belonged to a mosque that was demolished in 1841. Visitors who want to enjoy the view from its small balcony have to climb 97 steps in a very narrow space. Not recommended for people with mobility, confinement or height issues. The remains of the Ottoman Valide Szultána gőzfürdő [steam baths] can be found among the restaurants and shops of a lively pedestrian street. Nearby, visitors can have a real time travel experience in the still operating Török fürdő [Turkish Bath]. The oldest pool in the complex, Török medence [Turkish Pool], was built in 1610. However, the most beautiful pool is the Nagy tükörmedence [Big Mirror Pool] with its glittering gold dome. The pool is not only charming but its water is also healthy, fed by its own spring of radon medicinal water.