A Hungarian tribe, the so called Magyarab

“The colour of the skin may change, the mother tongue may be lost, but the consciousness of belonging to the Hungarian nation may persist in a distant, foreign environment.”

                                                                                     / István Fodor, archaeologist /

It has been almost a century since the explorer, aviator and cartographer László Almásy has brought news of the Magyarab people living on the banks of the River Nile who consider themselves – as the name says – of Hungarian origin. This group has been waiting for next to the River Nile more than 450 years to get in touch with their ancestors from the River Danube.

In his book “In the air… On the sand…” (published in 1937) Almásy devoted a separate chapter to his visit on “Magyararti”, the Magyar island, which means Island of the Hungarians. The island was opposite to Wadi Halfa.

The description tells the story:

“During the afternoon I visited the Magyarab island. Almost three hundred people live there, and there is another group of similar size near Aswan [..]

[..] Strikingly light skinned and hook-nosed peoples. As soon as I saw them in a group, it was immediately clear to me that they were other than Berbers or Sudanese Arabs. Consciously and proudly, they said: “We are not Arabs! Our ancestors came from Europe and they were placed here by the Great Turkish Sultan, Soliman. They were soldiers, border guards against the Nubians [..]

[..] Our ancestors then married with Berber girls and they learned the Berber language from them, which is what we still speak aside of Arabic today . We know that there are Hungarian peoples in Europe. They are our brothers and we have always been waiting for one of them to come to us”.

Historians explains the story of these Hungarians as it follows:

Sultan Selim I. occupied Egypt in 1517 and he deployed Hungarian men as janissaries taken from Slovenia, Serbia, Transylvania and Bosnia to protect the southern border of the Ottoman Empire.

The Nubian Hungarians took possession of the island on the Nile opposite the town of Wadi Halfa, which was then called “Magyararti” in Nubian and “Jazirat ul-Magyar” in Arabic. A thriving agricultural and commercial settlement was established in this area. Due to their isolation, despite their change in religion, skin colour and language, twelve generations later, these people still proudly accept and believe in their Hungarian origin.

Abu Ramla Sahara Expedition’s meeting with the Magyarabs

After the construction of the Aswan dam, the Nile covered the island inhabited by the Hungarians by the end of 1965. Its inhabitants had to move. The government created two new cities to accommodate them. One of these new settlement was built near the Eritrean border and it was called “New Halfa”, the other was called “Wadi Halfa” and it was built a few hundred kilometres south of the original town.

The Abu Ramla Sahara Expedition also visited the latter settlement, where the Magyarabs have a separate part of the city. When the members of the Expedition showed their Hungarian passports, they immediately received warm and friendly handshakes, and the leader of community invited them to stay for a few days at his place. They met all the members of the community, and they were invited to visit: the “Hungarian Club”, the “Hungarian Travel Agency” and the “Hungarian Shipping Company”, all running by local Magyarabs. The leader of the community kept photos of the former Hungarian island on the Nile. The photos showed the moment in which they were informed to move. The pictures showed the inundated city where only the top of the tower of the mosque and palm trees were still visible, and the all-encompassing body of water covering all.

Their love for the Hungarian homeland was surprising. The attachment to Hungary we have experienced justifies István Fodor’s words quoted at the beginning of this page: “The colour of the skin may change, the Hungarian language may be lost, but the patriotic feeling and the sense of belonging to Hungary may persist in a distant, completely foreign environment”.

The Magyarab

The term “Magyarab” is a composed word made up of two words coming from two different languages, Hungarian and Nubian, meaning Hungarian tribe.

Almásy wrote about it:

“Just trust me, my Lord, Ibrahim el Magyar will do it. He said : “Magyar” just as we Hungarians pronounce the name of our nation. “

This quote is from László Almásy’s book “By Car to Sudan” (Budapest, Lampel, 1929).