Hungary was ruled by the Ottoman Turks from 1541 until 1699, with Budapest being taken by the Habsburgs in the1686 battle of Buda. We find the Turkish legacy in some of Budapest’s lovely baths, its cuisine, its influence on the Hungarian language. Following the Ottoman expulsion came some local customs – striking Turkish effigies with sticks and celebrating winter’s end by burning and drowning such effigies. It is within this historical context that the ownership and funding by the Turkish government of Gul Baba’s tomb in the centre of Budapest, and its maintenance by locals, can be appreciated as a gesture of goodwill and international cooperation.

Our apartment in Buda on the bank of the Danube lay directly across from the water tower on Margaret Island, so I figured that after a short trek to Margit hid I must be very close – I recalled from my map that the utca (a sweet word for "little street") to the tomb looked very close to there. A fingernail away if you were hanging on to the map by your fingertips.

At the Margit hid public transport station, having given the WC attendant a good tip as he rolled his tobacco, I felt it not an imposition to ask directions. "Hol van Gul Baba utca?" I inserted a couple of pleasantries, like excuse me, and please sir, but given my excruciating pronunciation, I was surprised to be understood. He scratched his head, in the universal body language of not knowing the answer, but politely escorted me to a co-worker. The first attendant shuffling along in slippers had left his post vacant, a queue of uncomfortable ladies awaiting his return.

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The torch now passed to a man eager to help but he too didn’t know the whereabouts of this little utca. He left his kiosk unattended, conferring with other booth keepers and soon there was warm debate, fingers pointing every which way, all talking at once. The consensus: the tomb was to be found – high up and far away.

Eventually, I found myself being led, literally, by the hand out of the station and along nearby Leo Frankel ut (big street). Altogether a walk of not less than 10 minutes, this man’s workstation unattended. Once he stopped a passerby to ask her advice. We walked companionably along, but not silently: my guide could not accept that I couldn’t speak his language, so every couple of minutes would politely add a sentence or two of Hungarian small talk, and so I’d nod. It seemed the only gracious thing to do.

I did understand one question: "American?" When I answered "Canadian" he replied, I deduced, that he had a cousin living in Toronto many years. I surmised the relative had been one of thousands of Hungarians who had sought refuge in Canada after the 1956 Uprising. My guide helped me cross the busy street, holding up his hand like a traffic cop to stop an oncoming bus.

At last he spotted the steep, cobbled street which could be seen winding its way up into the Buda Hills of the Rózsadomb and pointed it out proudly. I was of course very grateful but unable to convey this except by repeating köszönöm (thank you) many times, reinforcing it with szépen (very much), smiling broadly and hoping he understood. I considered offering some money but decided against doing so, lest he take offence. But my chance guide did understand – this gentleman from another age lifted my hand, raising it to his lips – not a real kiss, no real contact, and said "Csókolom, lady." He clicked his heels out there on Leo Frankel street, at the foot of little Gul Baba utca, as if we were a gentleman and lady somewhere far back in time.

In the middle of crowded modern Budapest, Gul Baba utca is a street from an old picture book: so narrow and steep its grade looks vertical. It winds its way upwards, heavy cobblestones lining the way. Such chunky stones would wreak havoc in rain or snow, but in this summer heat the stones shimmer innocently beneath wrought-iron balconies, flowering vines, geraniums and roses. The homes range from medieval to modern, their condition from tumbledown to immaculate. I take my time getting to the top; I have no choice given the challenge of the climb.

Gul Baba was known as Father of the Roses, a reference to his mystical knowledge. Here in Budapest a glimpse of Istanbul. A tiled fountain spilling out fresh water, in a key-shaped terrace, beds of different kinds of roses all in bloom and perfuming the air. The views from the terraces of the river and mountains are wonderful: the Duna, the bridges, bits of the Castle, Margaret Island…

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The tomb (turbe) was built by the Ottomans following the taking of Buda in 1541, undamaged when the Habsburgs captured the area in 1686 and later converted into a chapel. Later yet, when the property was owned by a Mr. János Wagner, access was given to Muslim pilgrims: this mausoleum the northernmost sacred site for Muslims.

In 1885, the Ottoman government commissioned a Hungarian engineer to restore the tomb and, when work was completed in 1914, the tomb was declared a national monument. The site has undergone much restoration, most recently in 2018, and remains Turkish property. I understand that Gul Baba’s turquoise became a symbol of Turkish Hungarian reconciliation and friendship.

The mausoleum housing the tomb is a traditional octagonal Turkish building, the final resting place of the revered dervish who gave his name to the Rózsadomb. The building is graced with a crescent moon and gold star. Inside, Turkish carpets and prayer mats surround the tomb itself, containing Gul Baba’s remains.

Legends surrounding Gul Baba, or Father of the Roses, abound: that he was Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s chief advisor as his wisdom was so profound; that he was a great soldier, mystic and poet; that he planted the rose in Buda; that he died during the first Muslim religious ceremony in Buda after its capture in 1541; that Suleiman himself helped bear Gul Baba’s coffin to this final resting place.

Without the kindness of strangers, I would never have experienced this lovely spot. The next day I found myself at the nearby Király Bath, also built by the Ottomans, but that’s another story.

For information about visiting the Gul Baba tomb see:
http://www.museum.hu/museum/27/Tomb_of_Gul_Baba_and_Rosegarden/actual


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