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Walking with the Ancient Romans in Szombathely

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One of the oldest towns in Hungary, Szombathely may lack the rich and vibrant history of Kőszeg or the spa culture of Sárvár, yet has something truly special: remnants of the Roman Empire. 

Today’s Szombathely was built on the Roman settlement of Savaria, founded in around AD 50. Although there were several Roman settlements in today’s Hungary – towns like Pécs, Buda and Sopron were all built on them – Savaria was the first to be officially designated a town, by Emperor Claudius. The Amber Road, a famed ancient trade route running from Northern Europe to the Mediterranean Sea, needed a hub in the western region of Pannonia, the Roman province in today’s Western Hungary and this gave a considerable boost to the growth of Savaria, which lay by the Road.

Churches, bathhouses and other public buildings were erected. Though later brought up in Italy, St. Martin, one of the great saints of medieval Europe, was also born in this town. The Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin brought about the downfall of Savaria. Legend has it that the town was captured by the troops of Attila the Hun though in fact, an earthquake might have helped him by chasing the residents out of town and back to Italy. 

Iseum Savarianese, Szombathely

No wonder visitors to today’s Szombathely are intrigued by the ancient relics, which are found in abundance in the town. A good look around these ancient remains takes a day or two. Amongst the oldest and most extensive museums in Hungary outside Budapest, the Savaria Museum boasts a breathtakingly rich Roman collection – but the most famous landmark of the period here is the Iseum. The Savaria Iseum – a Temple of Isis – is one of the largest such buildings in the world: there are only two known bigger examples, one in Alexandria and another in Rome.

Isis was the best-known goddess of ancient Egypt and represented many positive concepts including femininity, motherly love and navigation. It is no wonder her cult reached even the remote corners of the Roman Empire, from Egypt to places like Pannonia. Marble carvings of the sanctuary were discovered accidentally; the archaeological explorations commenced in 1955. What makes the Iseum truly unique is that it has been renovated and now houses an exhibition on the history of religion, the Iseum Savariense Archaeological Workshop and Repository, which showcases the most exciting findings of the 1955–1963 and 2001–2010 excavations, the facade reliefs, religious sculptures and various ritual paraphernalia. Visitors get a deeper insight into the Cult of Isis as well as the history of religion during the Roman era in Pannonia. Also on display is a private collection assembled by two brothers on their journey to Egypt in 1908 – the perfect foundation for understanding the worship of the goddess.

The Iseum offers a very special urban exhibition space, directly below the OTP bank branch office on Fő tér, revealing parts of the streets of the old southern Roman city, including the 6-metre-wide main street and the sewer system beneath. Visitors to the branch can enjoy the exciting view of the Roman streets and sewer canals through the glass floor of the bank’s waiting area while queuing. Fő tér is the centre of Szombathely – a visit here must include marvelling at the beautiful Art Nouveau-style palace that once served as the headquarters of the Szombathely Savings Bank Association and now houses a shopping centre. 

You can visit the largest single remaining complex in ancient Savaria in the Ruin Garden, which is right by the cathedral and was named after renowned the Hungarian Pannonia researcher, István Járdányi-Paulovics. This is the site where a monumental palace, visited by several Roman Emperors, once stood. The archaeological excavations that begun in 1932 unearthed Roman streets, private and public buildings, workshops, pottery kilns and even a breathtaking mosaic. In the Ruin Garden, you can walk along the basaltpaved road once used by legions of Roman soldiers, see the ruins of the Mercurius sanctuary, the palace and the octagonal bathhouse, as well as an exhibition of relics of Roman pottery. 

On Berzsenyi Dániel tér near the Ruin Garden, you can visit Sala Terrena, a spectacular indoor exhibition featuring even more Roman treasures. The ground floor ceremonial hall of the Episcopal Palace is quite a spectacle in itself, decorated with exquisite paintings of classical scenes. It also serves as a lapidarium with building slabs of the ancient Savaria on display, unearthed during the construction works on the church complex and the demolition of the medieval castle. The remnants of columns and sculptures, as well as inscribed tombstones, were first exhibited here in the Episcopal Palace in 1784, making the Sala Terrana the first archaeological lapidarium and museum in Hungary. The exhibitions in the various rooms of the Episcopal Palace, this late baroque palace that is among the most magnificent landmarks in Szombathely, are most definitely worth a visit. 

The cemetery in Szombathely is the oldest and longest-serving such facility in the country and was the burial site of Roman citizens of Savaria and early Christian inhabitants. The house where St. Martin was born also stood here, and the St. Martin Visitor Centre erected here has a good collection of Roman and early Christian relics. Those who would like to delve into the everyday life of the Roman era even deeper should save some time for the Historical Theme Park, where they will get a taste of life in Roman Pannonia, in authentic period settings.

However, it is not only about classical times here: if you feel you are filled to the brim with Roman times, Szombathely still has a choice of museums and attractions from other periods to offer. To name but a few: the Schmidt Collection, the Szombathely Gallery, the Szily János Diocesan Collection and Visitor Centre and the magnificent cathedral will all entertain and excite you. Still not entirely convinced? Well, how about a pedalo ride on Csónakázó Lake? A visit to the open-air ethnographic museum of Vas county, the Vasi Skanzen? Or maybe the great outdoors in the breathtaking natural settings of the Kámon Arboretum and Ecotourism Centre?