To the uninitiated visitor traveling across Hortobágy, upon beholding the vast grassy plain one's first impression is that there is virtually nothing there, just an endless horizon. The scene is only occasionally broken up by a sweep-pole well, an inn or homestead, or a small grove of trees or bushes. What is it, after all, that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee saw in it when in 1999 they inscribed this National Park on the World Heritage List? Hortobágy is a cultural landscape worked by a community of herdsmen that is an outstanding example of harmonious cooperation between man and nature based on traditional and thoughtful land use for two thousand years. It is Europe's largest contiguous natural grassy plain that was not brought into existence as the result of forest clearance, but instead through human activity, and it has managed to preserve its biodiversity as well.
The most famous of Hungarian plains has become a paradigm, and it may even be said that it has been renowned and appreciated on the international level for longer than here at home. In December of 1967, twenty-two world famous scientists, within the framework of the Pro Natura campaign, requested in a memorandum that the Hungarian government safeguard Hortobágy's outstanding natural and historio-cultural value in the form of a national park. As a result of this, Hungary's first national park was created in 1973 on 51 thousand hectares, an area that today has grown to 82 thousand hectares - making it the country's largest contiguous protected area. The entire extent of the Hortobágy National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and furthermore nearly one third of it is a wetland habitat of international importance, whose preservation is further guaranteed by the Ramsari Convention.
Upon viewing this parched, alkaline plain it is hard to believe that water played a crucial role in the formation of this landscape's face. The majority of Hortobágy's shallow depressions were, from the end of the ice age until the middle of the 19th century, part of the flood plains of the Tisza and Berettyó Rivers. Water from these rivers often inundated the area, the alluvial deposits covering the ground with a fertile layer of soil. In some places the water remained throughout the year, creating boggy areas, pools, and systems of marshes. The conquering ancestors of the Hungarian people found an enormous landscape covered with swamps, alkali flats and meadows here.
The presence of man in the area may be verified from as early as the Neolithic Era, and the majority of the kurgans (or Cumanian mounds in the local vernacular) were erected during the course of the Copper and Bronze Ages. The kurgans are man made, and are surpassingly important formations from the point of view of landscape, archeology, botany, zoology and cultural history - they were dwelling sites, tumuli, watch-posts and boundary markers. Their size varies; the majority of them are nearly round ovals, and they are from 20 to 90 meters in diameter with a relative height ranging between ˝ to 12 meters.
The development of villages in the Middle Ages signified man's most pronounced intrusion on this landscape - but today only a few church ruins testify to this period. Inns to service travelers along the important commercial routes across the Hungarian Plain (for example, the Salt Road, which carried the wealth from the Transylvanian salt mines) were built, in the 17th century for the most part, every ten to twelve kilometers. Bridges to ease travel during the wet season were also constructed at this time. A famous successor and the most famous example of these is the Nine-Arch Bridge, which was built in 1827, and has since become one of the symbols of Hortobágy. The sweep-pole wells, originally used for watering the herds, have likewise become recognized as a symbol of the Hungarian Plain.
The year 1846 brought about the most significant change in the life of the Plain; river control projects were begun on the Tisza. Subsequently the river was stripped of its bends and forced between levees, so that on one hand it no longer deposited its fertile silt on the flats of Hortobágy, and on the other it could not directly feed its backwaters or the more distant marshland areas anymore. This led to the expansion of the alkali flats. Endeavors have been made since the 1950s to solve this problem with further interventions, by providing Hortobágy with a network of canals.
Natural habitats - saline grass and pastureland, loess plains, as well as flood plain forests and groves - constitute a significant proportion of the area, These, in addition to a mosaic of soil conditions, and along with wetlands comprised of marshes, ponds and backwaters, have provided for an area of rich flora and fauna here. A relatively small proportion of the area is covered with man-made aquatic habitats (the total area of fishponds is 6 thousand hectares), but despite this they are of great significance, since collectively they compose one of the world's largest systems of man-made fishponds.
When we speak of Hortobágy's fauna, perhaps everyone first thinks of the wild Hungarian longhorns and Hungarian sheep that have been domesticated through stockbreeding, as well as mangalica pigs and Nonius horses. Yet Hortobágy may thank its characteristic bird life for its outstanding international importance. The marshes and fishponds are a site of European significance for the nesting and migration of birds. So far the presence of 342 species of bird has been registered here, 152 of which nest within the National Park. 95 percent of the cranes migrating through Hungary continue on after resting in Hortobágy. The largest flock of cranes ever noted spending the night here numbered 55 thousand. The migration of cranes and wild geese is one of the most beautiful and internationally renowned sights of the bird life here. This is also the habitat of Central Europe's largest stock of spoonbills and numerous other species of heron, wood ibises and cormorants, as well as a rather important hatching and migration site for many species of songbirds.