This Day in Jewish History

1913: A Limping Hungarian Spy for the British on the Asians Dies

Linguist extraordinaire Armin Vambery learned over 20 Turkish dialects, among other things, driven by his curiosity over Hungarian's origin.

Armin Vambery, short dark hair receding on top of his head, full mustache and short beard, dressed in white highish-collared shirt and darker jacket, black & white photograph.
K. Koller, Wikimedia Commons

On September 15, 1913, Armin Vambery, a Hungarian adventurer and linguist who went boldly into realms of Asia that contemporary Europeans feared, died, at the age of 81.

Vambery was part of a short list of 19th-century, Central European Jews who, chameleon-like, used their linguistic agility and personal charm to travel to other regions and penetrate their cultures in an era when doing so required significant derring-do. Other examples of the type include the writer Lev Nissimbaum (aka Kurban Said) and Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, both of whom, like Vambery, assumed other identities and involved themselves in international intrigue.

He was born Hermann Bamberger, on March 19, 1832 in Szentgyorgy, Hungary (today Svaty Jur, Slovakia). His early schooling was Jewish – heder and yeshiva. From age 8, he attended the Protestant school in the town of Dunaszerdahely, where Hermann had moved with his mother after the death of his father when he was 1.

Whether because of a congenital problem, polio or a dislocated hip – sources vary – Hermann was lame in one leg. According to historian Ernst Pawel, he weaned himself off his crutches after his mother sent him off to fend for himself at age 12, although he continued to use a walking stick.

That’s also when he stopped attending school, despite the skill he demonstrated in acquiring languages. By one account, Vambery was proficient in Hungarian, Latin, French and German by age 16, and was already learning English and a variety of Slavic and Scandinavian languages.

Who is a Hungarian?

Vambery’s abiding goal throughout his life was to learn the origins of the Hungarian language. His hunch was that Hungarian and Turkish shared a common ancestor, as opposed to the prevalent opinion, that Hungarian was connected to Finnish. (He decided it was; most other scholars still don't agree).

After teaching himself formal Ottoman Turkish, Vambery traveled to Constantinople, where he found work as a tutor among the families of the royal court. It was during this time that he met and became friends with Abdul Hamid, later the Ottoman sultan.

Vambery translated scholarly texts from Turkish into Hungarian, and was recognized for his work with membership in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 1858, he published a German-Turkish dictionary, with 14,000 entries. Along the way, it is said that he also mastered some 20 different dialects of Turkish.

In 1861, he received a grant of 1,000 florins from the Hungarian Academy to pursue his philological interests, and he set off for the east, apparently the first time a contemporary European had visited Central Asia.

Vambery thought it was prudent to go in the guise of a Muslim, and disguised himself as a Sunni dervish named Rashid Efendi.

The story of Rashid Efendi

His journey over the next three years took Ambery from Constantinople to Trebizond and then across Persia, from which he headed north to Khiva and through Bukhara, going as far east as Samarkand.

He was concerned enough about being identified as non-Muslim (or just foreign) that he did not take notes openly, and kept strychnine sewed inside his robes in the event he thought suicide was preferable to being tortured.

Yet his power of recall was such that on his return to Europe, Ambery went to London and wrote up an account of his travels in both Hungarian and English. It was published in 1865 as “Travels in Central Asia.”

Though he had never earned a university degree, Vambery, was appointed the first professor of Oriental languages at the University of Pest, in Hungary. He also found himself welcome among the British social and diplomatic elite (Hungarian high society was less open to a Jewish parvenu such as him.) Not only that, but the declassification of official British records a decade ago reveals that Ambery began working as a spy for the Foreign Office, helping it in its competition with imperial Russia for influence in the Ottoman Empire.

Theodor Herzl’s diaries, too, speak of “Uncle Vambery’s sympathy for the Zionist cause, and his efforts to arrange a meeting between Herzl and the Ottoman sultan." The one encounter he did help set up, however, did not yield any concrete results.

Historians differ over the question of whether Vambery ever converted – whether to Islam or Christianity, or perhaps both. Jacob Landau says there is no evidence he did either.