By Anna Kozmina, Kyiv Post Staff Writer
Roman Olearchyk, Kyiv Post Staff Writer
Kyiv Post, Kyiv, Ukraine, Aug 7, 2003
Ukraine might not boast as many impressive medieval castles as Germany,
France, or Slovakia, but those that still stand offer vivid reminders of the
long, battle-worn history of the Steppe.
The first castles outside Kyiv that come to mind are the Sudak fortress in
Crimea, built by Italian merchants in the 14th century; the
Kamyanets-Podilsky fortress, its history inextricably linked to legendary
battles; and the Khotyn fortress, which boasts the highest castle walls in
Surrounded by a steep gorge carved by the Smotrych River, Kamyanets-Podilsky
is considered one of the most well-preserved castles in all of Europe
Photo by Daniel MacIsaac
But when it comes to fortifications, castles - with their dungeons and
drawbridges - aren't the whole story. For a historian, a plain earthen hill
can be of more interest than an impressive stone citadel.
"Ukraine has several types of fortifications, ranging from those of the
Trypillian culture in 3,000 B.C.E. to those of the Russian Empire of the
early 20th century," said archaeologist Oleksy Kurmaz of the Kyiv History
Museum (1 Volodymyrska, 228-2924). "Some of them are quite unique, and we
can be proud of them."
Cymmerian walls can still be found today around Kerch, which in ancient
times was the capital of the Bospor Kingdom. The Trojan-like walls that
stretch for hundreds of meters in Khmelnytsky Oblast have been ascribed to
the ancient Romans, and resemble the famous Hadrian's Wall in northern
England. Meanwhile, the popular paragliding hill in Khodosivka, just outside
Kyiv is, in fact, a Scythian fortification. On top of the hill, amongst the
litter and refuse, it's still possible to find remnants of ceramics dating
from the first century B.C.E.
"A fortress is beautiful in itself. It is rational, and says nothing
excessive," Kurmaz said. "With just one glance at a fortress, a specialist
can tell which culture and age it belongs to, how many people had been
living there and what kind of enemy they expected."
Even if you don't take a particular interest in military history, a tour of
ancient fortifications will open up for you a whole new perspective on these
familiar Ukrainian sites.
For those who've ever wondered about those earth mounds in the Pechersk
Lavra's botanical garden, the tiered terraces in Park Slavy or the round
towers of Pechersk, guess what: they all represent some of the remains of
the once-massive Kyiv Fortress - at one time Europe's largest fortress.
During tours, Kyiv Fortress Museum Director Vyacheslav Kulinich pays
particular attention to the enormity of the nearly 1,000-year-old fortress,
noting that sometimes size does indeed matter.
"The [Kyiv] fortress defended Kyiv without ever firing a shot," Kulinich
said. "The fortifications were simply so massive that invaders, including
Napoleon, chose to avoid attacking it."
Even centuries before the French general crossed into Russian territory, the
safety of Kyiv and its inhabitants depended completely on the integrity of
the city's fortifications, and on their ability to intimidate enemies.
During the era of the Kyivan Rus, the capital was surrounded not only by
walls, but by a complex system of smaller forts that stretched in all
directions from the city center along the Stugna, Trubizh, Desna and Ros
Rivers. Nomadic tribes rambling about the area faced tall earthen ramparts
and watchtowers guarded by locally hired mercenaries.
Nadya Trokhymchuk of the Trypillya History Museum testifies that traces of
fortifications built by Prince Volodymyr (who first introduced Christianity
to Ukraine) can still be found in the villages of Trypillya and Vytachiv -
70 kilometers south of Kyiv.
"In ancient Kyiv, the defense issues were resolved at the highest level,"
said Kurmaz. "This system was unique." The earth walls, topped with a kind
of wooden fence, were covered with clay. When the enemy approached, water
was poured on the clay, making the surface too slippery for attackers to
In addition, there were the abatis - barricades of felled trees with
sharpened boughs that faced the enemy cavalry. "The first analogues of
barbed wire," Kurmaz called them.
Kyiv stood invincible for 300 years until the Mongol-Tatar armies headed by
Batu Khan attacked in 1240. The walls were finally breached with the aid of
a Chinese innovation - the battering ram.
In the mid-17th century, the upper part of the city still lay in ruins, and
urban life concentrated in Podil. In the 15th century, with Kyiv under
Polish-Lithuanian rule, a castle was built on the Andriyivsky Uzviz to
protect Podil. A wooden castle with eight towers and two gates was erected,
and the hill on which it stood is still called "Zamkova" (castle hill).
A new series of fortifications in Kyiv took shape during the rule of Russian
Tsar Peter the Great, who personally inspected the fortifications around the
Pecherska Lavra and found them to be "in the worst possible condition."
Peter decreed that a new fortress be built. The old one was turned into a
citadel (that's where the street name Tsitadelna comes from), which was
expanded over the decades.
Construction on this new fortress was accelerated during the Napoleonic Wars
of the early 19th century. By the 1850s the fortress, connected by a series
of ramparts and trenches, covered the territory between today's Khreshchatyk
and Arsenalna metro stations, the Botanical Garden, Hospitalna St. and the
Sudak fortress, a popular site for historical re-enactment games and
festivals, has an historical museum and research center which few people
know about. Many visitors there, however, quickly learn of its 13 towers,
two churches and the mosque that have been preserved at this storied site.
Historians continue to debate when exactly the fortress was built, but the
most common version is that in the 12th-13th centuries, Genoan merchants
built a fortress on the remnants of an old Byzantine fort. At that time,
Sudak was known as Sugdea, and was at the heart of trade routes in Crimea
and the Black Sea region.
"Crimea had always been populated with nomadic tribes - Goths, Huns and
later Tatars; no colonists would dare to go inside the peninsula," explained
Serhy Zelenko, head of a privately funded marine archaeological expedition
exploring the sea bottom around the fortress. "[The Genoans] settled along
the coast building fortresses as military bases for their fleets."
The fortress museum contains an impressive collection of archeological finds
fished out of the sea. The waters around the fortress saw several battles,
as the tense relationship between the competing merchant guilds of Genoa and
Venice played itself out.
Those looking for a short, idyllic trip outside Kyiv should head southwest
of the Ukrainian capital to Kamyanets-Podilsky and its region, home to two
of the most breath-taking and well-preserved castles in the world.
Upon arriving in central Kamyanetsk-Podilsky, a city of 100,000, visitors
will be amazed by its historic center, home of many architectural landmarks,
including a 16-century Dominican monastery and church.
The region, which at one time housed military outposts marking the
boundaries of four competing powers, is widely known for its uniquely hilly
landscape where natural gorges are commonplace.
The Kamyanetsk-Podilsky and Khotyn castles, first erected as wooden outposts
of the Kyivan-Rus, have a rich history spanning more than a millennium.
Existing as they did at the intersection of Asiatic, Muslim-ruled territory
and Christian kingdoms, the castles switched hands many times, and were used
as strategic outposts along the important trade routes that linked the Far
East and Europe. After the fall of the Kyivan-Rus, both remained largely
under the control of the Galician-Volyn principality.
In the 14th century, Kamyanetsk-Podilsky castle came under Lithuanian
control for a brief period before the Poles re-claimed it in 1430. It was
subject to numerous attacks by the Tatars, Moldovans and Ottoman Turks,
finally falling into the hands of the Turks in 1672.
"Local legends talk about the masses of Turkish troops, with an enormous
amount of artillery, who prepared to lay siege to the castle," historian
Oleksy Kurmaz said.
Kurmaz explained that the fortress was guarded by mercenaries, including
"The defenders ... put out the white flag, but almost right away the
fortresses' gunpowder stores exploded for some unknown reason," Kurmaz said.
The result was an opportunity for Turkish troops to attack. "The Turkish
Sultan ordered his troops to kill all those defending the fortress."
The Sultan also made sure that all remnants of Christianity within the town
were destroyed. According to legends, the swamps around Kamyanets were paved
with Orthodox Christian icons. A Dominican church on the premises was turned
into a mosque, and a Christian boy was given a circumcision on its altar,
"This was the most vivid part of the fortress' history," Kurmaz said.
The gorges and hills surrounding the fortress are perfect for die-hard
mountain bikers. Deep and winding gorges mean nothing short of paradise for
those willing to rough-ride across the terrain. The reward, of course, is
the chance to see Kamyanets and Khotyn castles, which are located 20
The old city of Kamyanets-Podilsk is entirely encircled by a natural gorge
more than 50 meters deep in some spots, carved out of the local landscape by
a sharp loop of the Smotrych River. One of the bridges connecting the old
city with the new sections of town offers thrill seekers the chance to
bungee jump (Hr 200) at a spot that enthusiasts consider one of the best in
Connecting the old city center with the Kamyanetsk-Podilsky castle is a
stonework bridge. A cafe located right at the entrance of the bridge,
unsurprisingly named Cafe Pid Bramoyu (Cafe On the Bridge), offers visitors
the chance to sit, sip coffee and absorb the picturesque view of the castle
from the other side of the gorge before they cross over the bridge and into
For just Hr 8 (Hr 2 for children), visitors receive a guided tour inside the
castle, and the chance to enjoy several indoor exhibits that focus on the
history of the castle. Art and archaeology museums there, the most
impressive being the armory museum, house Ukraine's best collection of
medieval armor and weaponry. The castle is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For those who want to take in still more sights, the 20 kilometer trip south
to Khotyn Castle offers equally breathtaking views. Khotyn castle is located
along the Dniester River, just inside Chernivtsi Oblast, near a small town
bearing the same name.
Practically isolated from major roads and contemporary life, the fairy
tale-like Khotyn castle is best known for towering 50-meter high walls that
look out upon the wide, sweeping river as it flows south to the Black Sea.
Located alongside the Dniester River, the castle controlled a critical
water-based trade route. Originally built in the 12th century out of wood,
by the 15th century it had been completely remade in stone. Its 50 meter
walls are still considered the tallest in all of Europe, Kurmaz said.
After the breakup of the Galician-Volyn principality, Khotyn fortress was
mainly controlled by the Cossacks until the Polish established control in
the 15th century. The Turks took control of the fort the following century,
but not for long.
Despite efforts by the Turks in the early 17th century to fortify the
castle, it was conquered by a unified Slavic army that included Poles and
Ariadna Darybohova, a senior historian at the National History Museum, spoke
of the historical links and importance of the castles.
"The entire region of Kamyanetsk-Podilsky is very historically important and
a great sight for tourists," Darybohova said.
"The Khotyn castle is especially interesting, and particularly so due to the
famous battle that occurred just outside its walls in 1621. In the battle,
Cossack Hetman Petro Sahaydachny defeated the Turks and struck an important
peace agreement with them, which ultimately benefited the Poles and gave
them control over the region."
Khotyn finally came under Russian control in 1793 and was mainly used as a
prison up until the end of WWII.
Khotyn castle is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is just Hr 4.
GETTING THERE, STAYING THERE
The Kyiv Fortress and Museum is located at 24A Hospitalna and is open daily
from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Admission is Hr 4 for adults, Hr 2 for students
and Hr 1 for children. For a tour of fortifications in Kyiv, call Oleksy
Kurmaz at 216-1112.
Incidentally, the Kyiv Fortress will play host to an international
conference on the preservation of castles and other historical landmarks
from Aug. 25-31. Delegates from 25 countries including Germany, France and
Great Britain have been invited. An artillery demonstration on Aug. 26 and
historical re-enactments are set to highlight the affair. Call the fortress
(235-0146) for more information.
Sudak is now much more accessible due to the launch of new high-speed train
service from Kyiv through Dnipropetrovsk to Sevastopol. The cost for a seat
in a second-class compartment is Hr 80 round-trip. An earlier but more
expensive train (Hr 92) departs at 1:10 p.m. and reaches Sevastopol at 6:37
a.m. The later, cheaper train leaves at 8 p.m. daily, arriving at 1 p.m. the
As an alternative to the train, Aerosvit Airlines (www.aerosvit.com) offers
four weekly flights to Simferopol (from Hr 146 one-way). From Simferopol,
5-7 buses leave every 2.5 hours to and from Sudak. The cost of a one-way
ticket is Hr 20.
When staying in Sudak, consider the white Hotel Horyzont (06566-334-882). It
offers a variety of cheap rooms with breakfast included.
There are two main ways of getting to Kamyanetsk-Podilsky from Kyiv.
Overnight trains leave daily at 8:52 p.m., arriving at 7:06 a.m. (Hr 20 for
2nd class, Hr 30 for 1st). The return train leaves at 7 p.m. and arrives in
Kyiv at 5:30 a.m. Avtolux shuttle buses from Kyiv's Lybidska bus station
make numerous daily trips, too.
Kyiv's Sam tourist agency offers daily excursions to both castles starting
at $8. Tourists going for one-day excursions meet at the train station in
Kamyanetsk-Podilsky. From there, the tour explores both castles and popular
attractions in the city and returns to Kyiv via train in the evening.
For those not bringing a bike, plenty of local taxi drivers are more than
willing to take sightseers around and about the city. While they are
perfectly capable of giving excursions in either Ukrainian or Russian,
English-language tour guides can be a bit harder to find.
In K-P, the Hotel Smotrych (4 Soborna) is the best deal going for an
overnight stay. More costly than the Hotel Ukraina, the Smotrych is a
bargain: a double room with private bathroom goes for Hr 20 a night.
Only a few local guides work at the Khotyn castle, and there is no hotel in
Khotyn, but local guides at the castle and city inhabitants will be happy to
divulge the castle's history for just a few hryvnyas.
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