The Hungarian nation traces its history to the Magyars, a pagan Finno-Ugric tribe that arose in central Russia and spoke a language that evolved into modern Hungarian. Historians dispute the exact location of the early Magyars' original homeland, but it is likely to be an area between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains. In ancient times, the Magyars probably lived as nomadic tent-dwelling hunters and fishers. Some scholars argue that they engaged in agriculture beginning in the second millennium B.C.
Before the fifth century A.D., the Magyars' ancestors gradually migrated southward onto the Russian steppes, where they wandered into the lands near the Volga River bend, at present-day Kazan, as nomadic herders. Later, probably under pressure from hostile tribes to the east, they migrated to the area between the Don and lower Dnepr rivers. There they lived close to, and perhaps were dominated by, the Bulgar-Turks from about the fifth to the seventh century. During this period, the Magyars became a semisedentary people who lived by raising cattle and sheep, planting crops, and fishing. The Bulgar-Turkish influence on the Magyars was significant, especially in agriculture. Most Hungarian words dealing with agriculture and animal husbandry have Turkic roots. By contrast, the etymology of the word Hungary has been traced to a Slavicized form of the Turkic words on ogur, meaning "ten arrows," which may have referred to the number of Magyar tribes.
The Magyars lived on lands controlled by the Khazars (a Turkish people whose realm stretched from the lower Volga and the lower Don rivers to the Caucasus) from about the seventh to the ninth century, when they freed themselves from Khazar rule. The Khazars attempted to reconquer the Magyars both by themselves and with the help of the Pechenegs, another Turkish tribe. This tribe drove the Magyars from their homes westward to lands between the Dnepr and lower Danube rivers in 889. In 895 the Magyars joined Byzantine armies under Emperor Leo VI in a war against the Bulgars. However, the Bulgars emerged victorious. Their allies, the Pechenegs, attacked the weakened Magyars and forced them westward yet again in 895 or 896. This migration took the Magyars over the Carpathian Mountains and into the basin drained by the Danube and Tisza rivers, a region that corresponds roughly to present-day Hungary. Romans, Goths, Huns, Slavs, and other peoples had previously occupied the region, but at the time of the Magyar migration, the land was inhabited only by a sparse population of Slavs, numbering about 200,000.
Tradition holds that the Magyar clan chiefs chose a chieftain named Árpad to lead the migration and that they swore by sipping from a cup of their commingled blood to accept Árpad's male descendants as the Magyars' hereditary chieftains. The Magyars probably knew of the lands in the Carpathian Basin because from 892 to 894 Magyar mercenaries had fought there for King Arnulph of East Francia in a struggle with the duke of Moravia. Estimates are that about 400,000 people made up the exodus, in seven Magyar, one Kabar, and other smaller tribes.
The Carpathian Basin and parts of Transylvania southsouthwest of the basin had been settled for thousands of years before the Magyars' arrival. A rich Bronze Age culture thrived there until horsemen from the steppes destroyed it in the middle of the thirteenth century B.C. Celts later occupied parts of the land, and in the first century A.D. the Romans conquered and divided it between the imperial provinces of Pannonia and Dacia. In the fourth century, the Goths ousted the Romans, and Attila the Hun later made the Carpathian Basin the hub of his short-lived empire. Thereafter, Avars, Bulgars, Germans, and Slavs settled the region. In the late ninth century A.D., only scattered settlements of Slavs occupied the Carpathian Basin. The Magyar forces, light cavalrymen who used Central Asian-style bows, quickly conquered the Slavs, whom they either assimilated or enslaved.
Romanian and Hungarian historians disagree about the ethnicity of Transylvania's population before the Magyars' arrival. The Romanians establish their claims to Transylvania by arguing that their Latin ancestors inhabited Transylvania and survived there through the Dark Ages. The Hungarians, by contrast, maintain that Transylvania was inhabited not by the ancestors of the Romanians but by Slavs and point out that the first mention of the Romanians' ancestors in Hungarian records, which appeared in the thirteenth century, described them as drifting herders.
SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress