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Sziget of the 19th century: Constantinople in Budapest


BME Egyetemi Napok festival kicks off today on the campus between Petőfi and Rákóczi bridges. While the area has a lot of university buildings today, for most of its history it used to be a desolate marshland, then was under water, and then became Constantinople in Budapest“, the world’s largest entertainment district in its time, an enormous enterprise that vanished without a trace in less than a year at the end of the 19th century.

In the 1870s all the area had was the railway bridge in the south, an oil refinery and a brick factory which created what is today the Feneketlen-tó. This was the decade when they made a bay on the site of the present day campus to be used as a port, but it never became popular; the ships just kept going to the other ports. By the 1890s it was abandoned, leaving behind a large lake with a small island on it.

1896 was a very important year for Hungary. The country’s thousandth birthday induced enormous celebrations, exhibitions and building projects. The latter included the architectural medley called Vajdahunyad vára and a similar, but less durable Ősbudavára. Most probably it was the later with its medieval towers and a mosque which inspired Károly Somossy to start the Constantinople in Budapest project, an enormous entertainment district based on the Turkish capital.

Somossy was born as a poor salesman’s son. He was an officer at the famous Komarom fortress during the War of Independence. After that, he worked as a waiter in a very infamous inn at present day Kálvin tér. Somossy seduced the owner’s sister and married her and so acquired a modest fortune. But the marriage didn’t work out and Somossy fled to the Netherlands from the angry family. He started working in circuses, first as a secretary, then as director. He returned to Budapest in the 1870s as a successful circus manager, but he started managing cafés and night clubs. The most famous was Orfeum, with its luxurious interior, excellent food and drinks and staff like in Hooters today. The shows at the Orfeum were also top-notch, including for example the Barrison Sisters, “The Wickedest Girls In the World”. 

Somossy became the “emperor of life”. He had his underwear washed in Vienna and got the most expensive clothes from London and Paris. He spent fortunes on parties which frequently involved a meal of lobsters on a bed of thick caviar, served on naked young ladies. There was a saying about him: he taught Pest how to party. So this is how he lived when he embarked on building up the 4.1km2 entertainment quarter “Constantinople in Budapest”.

Somossy needed debtors to build the quarter and everything went fine for a while. It was completed in just 2 months instead of the estimated 12, and opened on May 23, 1896. It was mostly reached by boat and the visitors got off near the railroad bridge. In many ways it was like today’s Sziget festival, just imagine it with a Turkish central theme. A very famous English pyrotechnician made huge contributions. Almost every other day there were fireworks and naval battles on the lake (with ships really set on fire and sunk). The huge LCDs of the time were live character displays: actors on large barges portrayed various historical figures in front of painted backgrounds.

The Constantinople theme was everywhere. Minarets, mosques, bazaars and even Hagia Sophia was replicated using cheap building materials but delicate decorations. The bay itself was renamed Golden Horn and the district had place names like Istanbul, Galata and High Porte. There were camels and donkeys, markets with lots of Turkish products. A photographer had Turkish costumes the visitors could wear to have their photo taken. Harems were also present, but they offered no sexual services. (Constantinople in Budapest was strictly family-friendly, open for all ages, unlike Somossy’s Orfeum.) They even had a Turkish military band who certainly played the kick-ass Ceddin Deden song.

Of course there were non-Turkish performances as well, for example famous Dankó Pista and other Gypsy bands. There was a huge theater where Austrian, German, Italian and French companies performed. There were street performers like in Sziget as well. A cinematograph, a technological innovation of the time was shown. And of course lots of coffee houses, restaurants, inns and the like.

Today, nothing remains from “Constantinople”. At first the enterprise looked promising, but the number of visitors slowly dwindled, partly because the novelty wore off, but mostly because of the huge number of mosquitoes that summer. The Konstantinápoly Budapesten company and Somossy himself went bankrupt. He died as a poor man in 1902.


In 1903 the government rebought the area from Somossy’s moneylenders and started building for the Royal József university here. The old lake (the Golden Horn) disappeared completely only after WWII, when building rubbles were dumped in it. Most buildings of today’s campus were built after this. Today, district XI. is the most populous of Budapest’s district and although no longer an entertainment district, it is home to the world’s best club, A38 and Zöld Pardon.

BME Egyetemi Napok offers music and partying for three days where Constantinople used to be. Highlights include Ivan & the Parazol, Kaukázus, Brains, Jurij, Tankcsapda and the last day is absolute nostalgia day with Kerozin, Kozmix and H.P Baxxter (the blonde guy from Scooter). More info here.


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About the author

János Gömöri

János lives in Budapest. He is interested in music, history, coding and linguistics.

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