Engraving depicting Ármin Vámbéry on one of his expeditions to Central Asia. From Central-asien (Central Asia), by Friedrich von Hellwald (Leipzig: Spamer, 1874). (General Research Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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Vámbéry, Ármin

(1832–1913), explorer, ethnographer, diplomat, and spy. Born Hermann Wamberger (Bamberger) in Szenthyörgy, Ármin Vámbéry attended heder and yeshiva as well as the Protestant elementary school in Dunaszerdahely from age eight. He was a tailor’s apprentice for a short time. Due to a dislocated hip, his left leg was paralyzed when he was a small child; he used crutches and later a walking stick for the rest of his life. He never completed high school.

While living in poverty and working as a tutor, Vámbéry grew interested in languages and mastered several, including particular eastern Turkic forms that were thought to be related to Hungarian. Although his scholarly research was rooted in his desire to explore the origins of Hungary, the offshoots of his explorations—his works on the eastern Turks—marked his real contributions as a scholar. In 1857, he traveled to Constantinople with the support of Baron József Eötvös and stayed there for four years, teaching languages and becoming familiar with the customs and peculiarities of Eastern life. His Turkish supporters called him Reshid Effendi, and this became his name in the Muslim world.

In 1858, Vámbéry published a German–Turkish dictionary containing 14,000 words. It was at this time that he adopted the name Ármin Vámbéry, without ever formally changing his given name. He also published several studies on the history of Turkish–Hungarian relations, based on Turkish source material. In 1860, he became a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Science, and in autumn 1861 he returned to Pest to prepare for an expedition to Central Asia and Persia in search of original Hungarian sources.

Vámbéry set out at the end of 1861 with the financial support of the Hungarian Academy of Science. Since traveling was dangerous for Europeans, he disguised himself as a Muslim dervish. He spent three months in Tehran, where he rewrote and supplemented notes he had taken secretly during his trip. After arriving back to Pest in May 1864, he recorded the details of his trip and produced pioneering material on the geography and ethnography of Central Asia as well as about his primary field, eastern Turkish philology. The British and Turkish governments consulted him on several occasions. The Hungarian Academy of Science elected Vámbéry to its regular membership in 1876; he became an honorary member in May 1893 and its directorial member in May 1894. In 1881, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Budapest.

From his studies of Turkish, Vámbéry concluded that the Hungarian language and people share more with Turkish than Finno-Ugrian culture. This view aroused harsh debates and ultimately was proven false. Nonetheless, Vámbéry was one of the founders of research and instruction of Oriental studies in Hungary. From 1865 until his retirement in 1904, he taught Eastern languages at the Pázmány Péter University of Pest, starting as an unsalaried lecturer (Privatdozent) and rising to an associate professor in 1868 and a full professor in 1870. In 1872, he and several colleagues founded the Hungarian Geographical Society.

Vámbéry published a remarkably large number of books, dictionaries, scholarly studies, travelogues, and journalistic writings on international and political subjects, both in Hungarian and in other languages; in fact, some of his studies were only published abroad. He also wrote two autobiographical sketches: Vámbéry. His Life and Adventures Written by Himself (London, 1884) and The Story of My Struggles (London, 1904). An enlarged edition of the latter was published in Hungarian, titled Küzdelmeim (My Struggles; 1905). His son, Rusztem Vámbéry (1872–1948), was an expert in law and sociology and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Science.

In the interest of his scholarly research, Vámbéry converted to Islam around 1861; later, back in Europe, he became a Protestant for practical reasons. The humiliations he suffered due to his Jewish origins both as a child and an adult made him bitter all his life. However, he never denied his Jewish commitment and was one of the first followers of the Zionist movement in Hungary. In the court of Constantinople he strongly supported Theodor Herzl’s aspirations; Herzl, in turn, referred to Vámbéry in code as “Uncle Schlesinger.”

Suggested Reading

Lory Alder and Richard Dalby, The Dervish of Windsor Castle: The Life of Arminius Vambery (London, 1979); Ignác Goldziher, “Vámbéry Ármin tiszteleti tag emlékezete,” Emlékbeszédek 17/b (Budapest, 1915); György Hazai, Ármin Vámbéry, 1832–1913: A Bibliography (Budapest, 1963); Oszkár Jászi, “Vámbéry,” Huszadik Század 28 (1914): 375–378; Bernát Munkácsi, “Vámbéry Ármin tudományos munkássága,” Budapesti Szemle 162 (1915): 87–112, 274; Róbert Simon, “Goldziher és Vámbéry (Két választás Magyarországon),” in Goldziher Ignác, pp. 177–203 (Budapest, 2000); Vámbéry Ármin emlékezete (Budapest, 1986), includes a bibliography.



Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó