The village of Zemplén (Zemplin) is located at the confluence of the Latorca, Ondava, Tapoly, and the Ó-Bodrog rivers, in Slovakia. It is the place where the Bodrog river is born. The settlement was the first village to give a name to the medieval County of Zemplén in the Kingdom of Hungary.
Its name can be derived from the Slavic “zemľn” (grad), meaning a castle built of land. The extremely advantageous place where the castle was built was already inhabited in prehistoric times. The confluence of rivers gave Zemplén strategic importance. The Castle Hill also provided important protection and shelter for humans and animals, especially when the area was turned into a sea during floods and all living things had to flee to a higher place. The Castle Hill of Zemplén was already called the “mine of historical antiques” in the last century. Indeed, this fact has been proven by excavations in recent decades.
Zemplén’s Castle Hill’s location is quite fortunate because the village church was also built here and the cemetery of the village was established here, which protected the ramparts from disintegration. Beautiful frescoes, window openings, and a 17th-century tombstone have also been unearthed in the church.
In the early Iron Age, Castle Hill was inhabited for a longer period of time. Objects found under the rampart of the earthen castle prove that it was built later – as early as the Late Iron Age, in the 1st century BC. The inner area of the earthen castle has the shape of an ellipse – its length is 230, width is 140 meters, while the area is 24,060 square meters. The rampart is 585 meters long and has a maximum height of 10 meters on the inside. This voluminous rampart – the core of which is a stone and wooden structure covered with clay – was built by the Celts, who at that time inhabited the region of the upper Tisza river.
Unfortunately, the interior of the earthen castle was destroyed so much by later constructions and by the cemetery graves of the cemetery used today that during the excavations it was not possible to determine what buildings may have stood here in the first centuries AD. However, it is assumed that the earthen castle on the Castle Hill of Zemplén may have been an important economic and political center. It is evidenced by the traces of iron processing, the coins found, and a large number of ceramic fragments and pottery kilns unearthed just below Castle Hill, not to mention the huge amount of coins.
Mainly from the 8th-9th centuries, there are more Slavic finds. At this age we can date a large-scale renovation of the fortress, then a wooden palisade was built on the rampart. At the end of the 9th century, the struggle for the possession of the fortress between the Slavs and the Hungarians took place. Probably, it was when a high-ranking warrior fell who was buried in a Roman-era mound with all splendor. His grave was formed in the former mound by digging a shaft, and then the tomb was refilled.
Among the rich artifacts in the tomb, mention should be made of the 300 gilded silverware that adorned the deceased’s clothes and horse, a silver cup from the Black Sea region, gold earrings, bracelets, necklaces, arrows, stirrups. Most importantly, a sword was found that is in the shape of the traditional style of the Árpád dynasty. It is reminiscent of a royal sword. It was this sword (depicting the Turul bird, the totem of the Árpáds) and a roll of hair that made some archaeologists come up with the theory that it was the tomb of Álmos, Árpád’s father or at least leader of a tribe. However, this theory has been strongly opposed by other researchers from the outset, disputing its claims. Yet, it can be proved that the excavated grave is the grave of an important leader who fell when the Hungarians invaded the Tisza region.
The warrior is thought to be one of the invading Magyars / Hungarians because there were only objects in the tomb that had been made outside of the Carpathian Basin. However, according to the general professional view, the richness of the tomb, the finds, and the motifs do not reach the level required by the funeral traditions of a chief at that time.
The huge Zemplén earthen castle was taken over and defended for defensive purposes by the conquering Hungarians. As a royal castle, it already played a role during the reign of King St. István / Stephen. Below the earthen castle, we find traces of cellars and cavities. The area around the earthen castle itself was covered with a thick stone wall, traces of which can still be seen today.
On the vineyard called Kertalja, there was a 10th – 11th-century cemetery, typical of the cemeteries of early Magyars of that time. There are no more items in the tombs, there is rarely a small piece of jewelry or clothing that was already the influence of Christianity. A settlement was formed around the castle, it is first mentioned as “Zemlyn” in 1214. We know from this document from 1214 that the construction was extended outside the rampart as well. The new earthen castle of Zemplén was built in the 11th century but its former significance disappeared after the Mongolian invasion of 1241.
In the 13th century, the castle of Zemplén became the seat of Zemplén County. Until 1220 it belonged to the king, later it was partly owned by the bishopric of Eger. After the Mongolian invasion, in 1258, there is a mention of the castle of Zemplén, where King Béla IV held law days. Towards the end of the 13th century, it came into the possession of the Baka Clan; but in 1321 King Károly Róbert bartered Zemplén, together with several other estates and the castle of Sárospatak. The Baka family was compensated by the Gálszécs manor, though.
At the beginning of the 14th century, until 1331, Zemplén castle became the property of Bán (Duke) Micz, then the Drugeths of Homonna gained it by a barter, who owned it until the 16th century. According to a document from 1332, the church of St. George, the patron saint of fortifications and shelters stood in the castle. It is most likely that the traces of this church could be found below the present Reformed church (which was rebuilt on the Late Gothic foundations in 1628). To date, this excavation has not taken place. The fact that Zemplén was a significant ecclesiastical center is evident from the document of 1313, which mentions Peter, an archdeacon from Zemplén.
Local tradition also speaks of a wooden church that was most likely destroyed during a great fire. Zemplén has been a market town since the beginning of the 15th century, with the right to hold fairs. Its weekly fairs were held on Saturdays. Until 1754, the noble Estates of Zemplén County assembled regularly in Zemplén. At first, these meetings were held in the castle, later a huge building was erected for this purpose – this building still stands in the middle of the village to this day.
Zemplén Castle was taken by Perényi Gábor in 1557. Soon, it was occupied by Telekessy Imre who was King Habsburg Ferdinand’s man. The settlement was looted in 1619 by the Hajdu soldiers. You can read more about Lord Perényi here:
Zemplén castle was destroyed by German soldiers around 1664, and in 1685 it was occupied by Prince Thököly Imre. It was then that the stone castle within the ramparts was destroyed, which was no longer rebuilt thereafter. In 1685 the County seat also moved to Sátoraljaújhely. After that, the settlement lost its former significance and became a simple village.
From 1685 it was the property of the Rákóczi family, later the Csáky, Dernáth, Almássy and Kazinczy families owned it, while in the 19th century it was the property of Andrássy family. At the end of the 19th century, there was still a watchtower visible, the stones of which were used to build a tower for the Calvinist church in 1872.
Now, wonderful restoration work is taking shape on this most interesting spot of Hungarian heritage.
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