Whatever became of Ruthenia? (and a lot of other places)

Back in the 1970s, I was in a library and picked up a 19th-Century book written by a traveler to Poland — a country that, at that time, had ceased to exist. In Krakow, he offended his Polish hosts by accepting an invitation to speak to the local branch of the Ruthenian Society. This was a terrible thing to do, his Polish friends explained, because “The Ruthenians are the Poles' deadliest enemies.”

Aside from the fact that Poland was no longer on the map because of repeated partitions by Russia (a country that disappeared for most of the 20th Century), Prussia (a country that no longer exists), and Austria — so that one is inclined to think that there were more important enemies than the Ruthenians for the Poles to worry about — I wondered who these Ruthenians were. Ruthenia today is remembered most widely as the namesake of element number 44, a platinum-group metal.

It turns out that Ruthenia was a region on the south side of the Carpathian mountains. (Today it is part of Ukraine.) But it was not to be the last place I have encountered that's no longer on the map.


Somewhere along the way, I came across a reference to Wallachia, and wondered what it had been. (It turns out it was where the Vlachs lived — should have guessed that, right?)

Actually, Wallachia — part of the Ottoman Empire, once under the control of Hungary — became a Russian protectorate and eventually joined with Moldavia to form Romania. So Wallachia is roughly the part of Romania north of the Danube. That puts it just south of Ruthenia.

The Banat

Speaking of Wallachia, it's adjacent to what used to be called “The Banat”. If you look up Banat in the dictionary, you'll find it's the territory ruled by a ban, which isn't very helpful. As there have been several such areas, which one was The Banat?

Well, it turns out that the area called The Banat is the only one of them that was never ruled by a ban. Fortunately, Wikipedia has a long article about The Banat, so I don't have to explain this here.

If you think this has nothing to do with mirages and related refraction phenomena, you're wrong. My attention was first drawn to The Banat by reading Tobias Gruber's Letters from Krain. (Never heard of Krain? That's because it's usually called Carniola.) Gruber says he first noticed mirages in the Temesvar Banat (which is the one generally called the Banat) — which takes its name from Timisoara, Romania.

Gruber's letters are full of obsolete placenames. His main observations on mirages were made on the dry bed of Lake Zirknitz, near the town of the same name (also known as Cerknica or Cirkonico), south of Laibach (better known today as Ljubljana) in (currently) Slovenia. This southern former crownland of Austria, later titular duchy, was annexed by the Hapsburgs in 1335. Gruber was a minor functionary in the Hapsburgs' Holy Roman Empire, late in the 18th Century.

It also turns out that all the various banats (such as the banats of Dalmatia and Slavonia) were once part of the Kingdom of Hungary in the Middle Ages. Later, this became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


My reading about refraction has also led me to other nearby parts of the Hapsburg Empire: Karl Koss and Emerich Graf Thun-Hohenstein made observations of dip of the horizon at Verudella, a military installation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire near Pola (now called Pula) on the Istrian Peninsula, in what's now Croatia.

Back in the early 1990s, I found myself in Bavaria, and wondered aloud whether there were still any Hapsburgs around. Indeed there were: 80-odd-year-old Otto von Hapsburg, it turned out, was a member of the European Parliament. And there was a story about him:

It seems that one day, he found himself eating lunch alone in the Parliament's cafeteria. “Where is everyone?” he asked the waiter.

“They are all in the TV room, watching the football game,” was the reply.

“Oh? Who is playing today?” asked the Hapsburg.

“Austria and Hungary,” said the waiter.

“And against whom?”

[You can read an abbreviated version on the Web in the original German, as well as one closer to the version I heard.]


What got me reading about Poland in the first place (that's how I learned about Ruthenia, remember?) was that back in the 1970s, my wife and I had been to Poland. After returning, we mentioned to a German acquaintance some of the places we had been: Frombork (formerly Frauenberg), Olsztyn (formerly Ullstein), Torun (formerly Thorn), etc.

Ja”, he said bitterly; “They changed the names of all the towns.”

© 2003, 2005 – 2007, 2011 Andrew T. Young

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