Great Fire of Buda

A huge fire destroyed Buda 300 years ago, in 1723, which affected almost every house in the Castle. The disaster occurred on Easter Sunday, March 28, 1723, and the 400 mazas of gunpowder stored in the rondella at the Fehérvár gate also exploded in the fire, further increasing the destruction.

Buda barely recovered from the siege of 1686, when after 145 years the Christian troops recaptured the city from the Turks. Even then, there was huge destruction, the Turkish population fled, the mostly German-speaking residents who moved in their place began to rebuild the city, and a military barracks was located in the southern part of the Castle, on the site of the former royal palace. The Castle was then – and for a good century and a half – a military area, which is why a large amount of military equipment was stored here.

The fire broke out on March 28, 1723, around 5.15 in the afternoon. It is an important moment that it was Easter Sunday, i.e. a large part of the population took part in the Resurrection Day procession, and on their way back they saw that the fire was already raging around the Vienna Gate. The wind blowing in an unfavorable direction further spread the fire, and around 5.30 the flames reached the washer of the Fehérvár gate, and the gunpowder explosion occurred.

The contemporary newspaper Wienerisches Diarium – described the fire:

“At 5 o’clock there was the greatest despair, nothing but crackling and shouting was heard, as if the last judgment had come. This was exacerbated by the fact that the gunpowder tower at the Fehérvár bastion flew into the air with 400 mash of gunpowder, the debris covered everything in the area, there was a terrible detonation and there was a gap in the place of the tower through which you could comfortably walk in and out. The entire Castle, Rác- and Víziváros, and even Pest shook so much that stoves, doors, windows and cellars collapsed in most places.”

The combined effects of the fire and the explosion were devastating, the roof structure of the Assumption Church and the altar were destroyed, and almost every window in the city was broken, not only in the Castle, but also in the Water City. The explosion also collapsed the walls of the surrounding houses and even a piece of the castle wall.

In addition to the citizens of Buda, the army and carpenters from the Pest side also took part in controlling the fire, but they did not achieve much success, the city practically burned down in two hours, but the fire raged for several more days. There were also fatal victims of the disaster who were injured during the firefighting and rescue operations. According to contemporary news reports, 2 soldiers and 10 civilians were fatally wounded, while 10 were missing and 32 people were more seriously injured.

The townspeople didn’t even have a chance to protect their houses, since fire protection was taken care of in a very rudimentary way at that time. The rules and regulations, as Simon Katalin The Buda fire of 1723 presents in his study, they focused more on prevention. There was no volunteer or professional fire department in Buda at that time, the rules made firefighting the task of the guilds, stipulating which guild and who within it was responsible for what. Those designated for firefighting brought their own equipment and tools, and even though all firefighting equipment was stored at the town hall, there were cars with doors, and in principle every house had to have a barrel of water in case of firefighting, but this system cannot be compared to the efficiency of the trained fire department. In addition, the military could also be deployed in case of fire, as happened in 1723.

It is very interesting what theories have been created about the causes of the fire. The already cited study considers three possibilities. For a long time, the idea that the cause of the fire was a lightning strike, which unfortunately hit the washer that stored the gunpowder (remember, the lightning arrestor was not created until a quarter of a century later by Benjamin Franklin), and that caused the fire, persisted for a long time. However, as the already cited study points out, the fire was detected before the explosion, moreover, in other parts of the Castle, so the fire caused the explosion rather than the other way around.

Knowing the houses of the time and the living conditions of the time, it is a minor miracle, or rather the discipline of the people of that time, that a huge fire did not break out every week or every year. In the beginning, an open flame was used for almost everything, the light was provided by candles or perhaps slightly more closed oil lamps, cooking was done on an open stove, and heat was also provided by fire. All of this in houses where most of the buildings were made of wood, the roofs were covered with shingles, and inside the houses there were piles of straw, hay and other combustible materials. All it took was one thoughtless move, one blown candle, and the disaster was over. That is why very strict rules applied to the storage of wood and straw, and to keeping fire (King Szent István already exempted fire keepers from going to church).

The possibility of a domestic accident is strengthened by the fact that, according to contemporary witnesses, the flames broke out at the cooper Silvester Edl in Buben Gassé (now Kard utca). (It is interesting that the great Taban fire of 1810 also broke out due to the mistake of a careless cooper.)

In 1723, it is quite possible that an unattended candle or other human error caused the disaster, but a third possibility arises, namely a pre-planned sabotage by a foreign power.

The Turkish wars ended not long before, 9 years earlier, the relationship with the Turkish empire was not cloudless. That is why the possibility, which was already raised by contemporaries, is interesting. A few weeks after the fire, Bács county sent an interrogation protocol to the city of Buda, in which they requested the arrest of a former resident of Buda. The report revealed that a captured arsonist was interrogated in the county of Bács, who was originally a Turk, lived under the name Mehmet, but came to the country as a prisoner of war earlier, was baptized here, and took the name József. Later, according to his account, this Mehmet was recruited into an arsonist group organized by the Turkish government, whose members were tasked with setting fire to as many Hungarian cities as possible (there were actually fires in other cities at the time). According to the captured Mehmet, the group was headed by a Turk named Mustafa, who, moreover, was actually in Buda at the time of the Buda fire.

During the interrogation, Mehmet also said that, according to his knowledge, the whole action was financed by a Turkish merchant living in Buda, Ahmet. However, Ahmet was not captured. Today, of course, it is impossible to know whether Buda was really destroyed by Turkish agents in 1723, or whether the tragedy was caused by an accident.

Damage assessment and reconstruction could only begin much later. The first official inspection took place almost two weeks after the fire, on April 12, according to which, out of the 264 houses surveyed, 148 were completely destroyed, the roofs of 21 houses were destroyed, while 3 houses were half burnt. A third of the houses, a total of 72 buildings, remained intact, and the movables also suffered enormous damage. Perhaps the greatest loss was suffered by the pharmacist Franz Joseph Seyller, as his expensive medicine stock was also burned, so his damage was estimated at HUF 6,000, while the value of a house in Buda was only a few hundred HUF.

Donations were started throughout the empire for the reconstruction, and various discounts were available. King Károly waived the 30th duty on materials needed for construction. This mostly affected the building wood, although the king called on the people of Buda to use stone instead and cover the houses with tiles, but not many people actually had the money for that.

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