Case Study: Pokoliszaj Castle

The Pokoliszaj Castle is located near the Romanian border in Hungary. Built in the 1200s, the castle has always had a peculiar history and is commonly known as the “Inverted Castle”. You’ll find out why in a moment.

Believed to have been built sometime during the reign of King Béla IV (1235-1270), Pokoliszaj sits atop a craggy hill. The surrounding area is thickly forested, mountainous, and has always been sparsely populated. The region is near Transylvania in neighboring Romania. Folklore has always abounded concerning the Pokoliszaj area back long before the castle was built. Old tales of man-eating ogres stalking the forests, the silhouettes of human figures seen at night, sleep paralysis, and accounts of strange, half human half-animal monsters have been recorded in the area since before the Christianization of the Hungarians in the 10th century.

Though the position of the castle is easily defensible, it remains unclear to most mainstream historians why the castle was built. The area was even more lightly populated in the 13th century and the Pokoliszaj region was not threatened enough by invasion to warrant the building of such a substantial stronghold. The outer walls are roughly hexagonal in shape with four primary towers. The inner bailey is divided up into many small sections by internal walls and watchtowers. A circular wall surrounds the inner bailey, in which sits the two largest buildings of the castle: the keep and the church. Aside from these two buildings, the only other structure still standing is a small stone outbuilding of the church.


Pokoliszaj Castle’s exterior wall

Why Pokoliszaj is called the “Inverted Castle” is because the castle’s fortifications are all turned inward rather than outward. That is to say, the castle’s outer walls have crenellations on both sides of the ramparts and an unusual number of inward-facing arrow loops. The main gate to the castle is flipped around. Projecting guard towers that normally flank the outer gate instead flank the inner gate.

All these quirks, combined with the five watchtowers of the main keep—which are only tall enough to provide line-of-sight to the interior of the castle—makes this castle look as if it was built to keep things in, rather than keep people out.

This is all speculation as nothing of yet has been conclusively proven. But, the story doesn’t stop there.

In the inner bailey with the keep and chapel is a small stone outbuilding, which is now ruined. The only thing in this outbuilding was a deep hole, about four feet in diameter. This mysterious hole lies at the physical and figurative center of the castle.


Could this be a gate to the underworld?

This fabled Pit of Pokoliszaj has for centuries been believed to be either bottomless or a gateway to the underworld. In the past, condemned criminals have been thrown down the pit. The stories say their terrified screams could be heard long after the prisoners should have hit the bottom. The Pokoliszaj pit remains unexplored with no photographs of its bottom.

Worse yet, local legends tell that nightmarish creatures would crawl out from the pit. Pokoliszaj is the source, it seems, of the regions sinister reputation. Various countermeasures were devised over the centuries, from offering sacrifices, plugging the hole, to annual hunts by the local warriors. None worked until Béla built the castle.

The purpose of the castle is obvious from studying the keep. The group, the Pokoliszaj Preservation Society based in nearby Debrecen, has been influential in consolidating all the legends concerning Pokoliszaj and studying the castle. Of great interest to them has been the keep. The castle’s church, while an excellent example of early Gothic architecture, was almost completely destroyed in a fire.


The interior of Pokoliszaj chapel

The keep is four stories tall with a sizable undercroft. The first two floors seemed to have been devoted solely to barracks-style living spaces for perhaps a hundred men. Wooden outbuildings would have held even more men, but these are almost completely gone. 

The upper two floors of the keep are filled with numerous hallways that twist and turn in no coherent pattern like a maze. All along the hall are heavy doors which lead to small, unadorned cells. Many of doors are scratched on the inside and so are the walls of the cells. Initial analysis has revealed that the dirt coating the cells is partially dried blood.

None of the rooms stand out from each other, except for an unusually large room at the top of the tower on the fourth floor.

This room is called the Bride’s Room because of a metal engraved plate found there that depicts a woman in a long gown and a veil that covers her face. While the cells measure 4 feet by 7 feet, the Bride’s Room measures 1,000 square feet with three accompanying side rooms for storage and hygiene. The room was comfortably furnished, with a four-poster bed, couch and table, and tapestries—many of which are now completely destroyed except small fragments. Though it is still clear this was a cell due to the fact that the door locks only on the outside.


The bride’s bed

It appears Pokoliszaj Castle had a very dignified guest. A guest that wasn’t allowed to leave.

The story is that the castle was inhabited by an unnamed order of monastic knights who watched over the cursed hole. Whenever a monster would be spit out of the abyss, it would presumably either be killed or imprisoned. Another telling has it that the knights would eventually go insane—even transform into hideous shapes—after their long vigil over the pit and they would be imprisoned in the keep’s many cells.

Around fifty iron coffins have been found in the keep’s undercroft. These coffins were most likely additional means to restrain the castle’s unusual inmates. A wood engraving found by the preservation society shows ten tall, naked humanoid figures with unusually long nails being bound and sealed in the coffins.

For all we know, the knights were successful for many years until the appearance of the mysterious “bride”. Apparently, early in the morning after All Saint’s Eve sometime in the late 13th or early 14th centuries, a knight discovered the veiled bride laying unconscious on the precipice of the pit. She was brought up and locked in the storage room that would eventually become her bedchamber.

Nothing is known about the bride. She apparently never gave the knights any information about her origins or purpose. No one knows her name to this day. But it is clear the knights treated her with respect, even if they remained suspicious or fearful.

However, at some uncertain time years later, a local popular version of the Pokoliszaj myth tells how the bride gave birth to her son. This son, described as a pale white skin boy who grew to manhood in hours, brought about the destruction of the castle by releasing his mother and all the other prisoners of Pokoliszaj.

It is true all the cells were found open, many of the doors on busted hinges. This may be due to time or force, we do not know. The iron coffins previously mentioned had their lids thrown off by extreme force from the inside.

It is clear something happened at Pokoliszaj Castle that brought it to its end.

There must have been a large-scale escape of some kind. But what caused it is unknown and no contemporary sources mention the castle. It is known a fire destroyed the church around 1450. It was never rebuilt afterwards, indicating 1450 as the date the castle fell. It could be that the castle was attacked by enemy forces unaware of the castle’s true inhabitants. It is known from 15th century Ottoman chronicles that Turkish armies avoided the region when attacking Hungary.

Pokoliszaj Castle was always a forgotten place, even in the 13th century when it was built. There are few records of its existence. One is a letter from the chief architect to Bela reporting delays in construction. The exact date of the letter is unknown. Another reference comes from a list of royally-controlled castles in Hungary from 1435. The name “Pokoliszaj” appears at the end and it has a strange little mark beside it, like an asterisk. What this means is anyone’s guess.

Pokoliszaj Castle was left to rot for centuries until the conservation society formed in 1989 to keep the castle from falling into total ruin. The Pokoliszaj Preservation Society played a large part in uncovering the castle’s story, and thus they contributed a large amount of material to this post.

Even with all the preservation society’s efforts, mysterious shroud the castle. What lies at the bottom of the pit? How much of the legends are true? Did this “bride” character really exist, and if so, who was she and what hand did she have in the castle’s fall? If the stories are true, then we are looking at Europe’s first ever supermax prison. It also begs the question: where is the bride now?

Who knows when these questions will be answered. There is a lot of room for conjecture. Are we looking at a former prison to monstrous beings or a completely misunderstood, secluded castle that fell to invaders sometime in the 15th century.

What do you think?