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Kamyanets-Podilsky  an ancient fortress, a stone flower

 

It is a most formidable, strong fortress whose walls are cut out of solid rock.
The fortress stands at the top of a precipitous cliff and there is no other fortress like
it to be found in the realm of Poland or in the lands of the Swedes and the Czechs,
or in the state of Holland, or in the mountains of Germany.

Evlia Celebi, a seventeenth-century Turkish traveller and geographer

 

A stone flower on the rock  that is how the early twentieth-century Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrayinka called Kamyanets-Podilsky, and this poetic description does fit the image of this old town very well.

It is one of those places for the description of which it is so difficult to find proper words, and one is reduced to making a banal statement of the youve-got-to-see-it-to-get-the-right-impression kind. Even looking  another inevitable trite remark  at good-quality, artistic photographs will not produce an impression adequate to the one you get when you walk its streets.

The fortress sits on the pedestal of the rocky island in a tight loop of the River Smotrych which runs through a scenic canyon. It is known that the fortress was founded in the twelfth century and then grew over the centuries into an impregnable stronghold, with new fortifications added and old ones strengthened at each new stage in the development of the art of fortification. Eventually, it has become an architectural marvel, so fittingly described by Lesya Ukaryinka as a stone flower.

There is a fairy-tale quality to Kamyanets, an air of the bygone times, a feel of mystery. When you arrive there for the first time, you find yourself in a magic world of curtain walls and mighty towers. The canyon through which the River Smotrych rolls its waters is a perfect setting for this medieval town with its two-thousand-year old Roman bridge, churches, a Gothic city hall. A minaret with the statue of the Virgin on its top, the only such minaret in the world, magnifies the fairy-tale effect.

 

Kamyanets-Podilsky happens to be one of the oldest towns in Ukraine. There are several legends about its foundation that have come down to us from the olden times. One of them runs like this. Once upon a time, four brothers, nephews of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Olgerd, went on a hunt in the forest which lay not far from the place where Kamyanets now stands. During the hunt, they saw a magnificent deer and tried to stalk it. The deer ran away but the brothers followed it. Inadvertently, the deer brought them to a place of fascinating beauty, complete with a river, a canyon and a towering rock. They were so enchanted by the place that they had a town and fortress built there.

Olgerd is a historical personage but the available archeological and historical evidence suggests that a settlement appeared there in much earlier times. People of the mysterious Trypillya culture are believed to have been the first settlers millennia ago. About two thousand years ago, the Dacians (Dacia  in antiquity, the area of the Carpathian Mountains and Transylvania) who fought against the Romans, had a fortress of their own at the place where Kamyanets now stands. Or so some historians say they did. Others claim it was the Romans who built it. Anyway, there is a bridge in Kamyanets which is believed to be about two thousand years old.

Archeologists have unearthed a number of artifacts in Kamyanets which date from the eleventh or even earlier times and which are a solid proof that there was a Kyivan Rus-Ukrainian settlement there about that time. The heart of the town, Stare misto with its Stara fortetsya, or fortress, has retained much of its medieval character. The fortress sits at the height of over 20 metres above the ground and is a majestic sight. In fact, the town of Kamyanets-Podilsky (the name can be translated as A stone place in the Land of Podillya) that grew around the fortress is associated with the ancient fortress which seems to be a natural growth, a continuation of the rock on which it stands.

 

The earliest written mention of Kamyanets dates to 1060, or to 1062. It is to be found in the Armenian chronicles. Kamyanets emerged at the crossroads of trade routes. The local guilds of artisans and craftsmen built fortifications at their own expense and some of the surviving towers are called Honcharna (Potters), Riznytska (Butchers), Slyusarka (Smiths) and Kushnirska (Furriers). The fortress was under siege many times but fell to the enemies only twice  in 1393, thanks to a treachery, it was taken by the Lithuanian Duke Witovt, and in 1672 it was stormed and occupied by the Turks whose forces numbered 60 times more soldiers than there were the defenders.

In 1621, the Turkish Sultan Osman II arrived at Kamyanets at the head of his army with an intention of capturing it, but was so intimidated by the sight of its formidable walls and towers that he retreated without making even an attempt to lay siege to the fortress. He is said to have asked one of his courtiers, Who has built this town?, and the answer was, Allah Himself. That figures, said the overwhelmed sultan. He built it and now let Him try to storm it, if He so desires.

The canyon through which the River Smotrych runs may have been cut in rock by the river itself, or it could have been created by some other geological processes, as long ago as at the time when the territory of the present-day Ukraine was still the bottom of the primordial ocean.

When I took a walk through Kamyanets, there was a haze hanging over the river. The light haze did not conceal the bright green sea of greenery coming right up to the rock on which the fortress stands. I could discern roofs of modest houses at the bottom of the canyon. Some of the houses stood so close to the rock they seemed glued to it. Narrow, meandering paths were the only access to them. When I took a walk there, I saw children playing, old people looking after them. I got into conversation with an old woman. Its an unusual place to live at, I said, so close to the cliff. Oh, its perfectly all right, she replied. You can live pretty much anywhere. You just get accustomed to it. I would not care to live anywhere else, its so quiet and nice here.

 

Crossing a suspension bridge, you get to a wooden church, and right behind it you find the fortress perched on a cliff. The sight that opens is so exciting that you realize it was absolutely worth travelling 450 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Kyiv to Kamyanets just for this. I had a strange mix of emotions looking at the gray stones of the fortress  wonderment, amazement and almost childish excitement of having been transported to the land of dreams. My emotions were so stirred up that a little wild flower I saw growing at the foot of the defensive wall moved me almost to tears.

Everything around the fortress is special as well. The bridge is thought to have been built by the Roman forces of the Roman Emperor Trajan when he was waging war against the Dacians.

I could not help wondering whether the Roman fortress looked as impressive as the one I was looking at. The site is indeed most suitable for a fortress and the one that stood in front of me looked the very embodiment of the idea of a medieval stronghold. They say it is not only very impressive but also built at the cutting edge of the medieval fortification technology.

 

In addition to being a stronghold in the military sense, Kamyanets was a bulwark of Christianity. In the first half of the seventeenth century there were 11 Orthodox churches, 9 Catholic churches and 4 Armenian churches in Kamyanets. The three biggest communities in town were Ukrainian, Polish and Armenian ones. The coat of arms of the Polish community had St George on it; the Ukrainians had St Mykolay on their coat of arms, and the Armenians put The Lamb, symbolizing the Christ on the coat of arms of their community. The Polish community grew in size after Poland got the upper hand over Lithuania in Podillya. The struggle for Kamyanets between Poland and Lithuania lasted for more than thirty years; the town changed hands seven times until the Poles proved to be a stronger side.

In the seventeenth century the Turks invaded Podillya and took possession of Kamyanets. In spite of the numerically overwhelming odds, it took the Turks a mighty effort to capture the town. So important was the capture of Kamyanets for the Turks that the Emperor Mahomet IV himself took the trouble to travel all the way from the capital to ride into the subjugated town. The Turks kept Kamyanets for 27 years and today the minaret that was built close to the Church of St Peter and St Paul which was turned into a mosque, reminds us of the Turkish imperial ambitions. A peace treaty signed between Poland and the Ottoman Empire ceded Kamyanets to the Poles who entered the town without any fighting. They did not destroy the minaret  instead they put a statue of the Virgin Mary on its top.

In 1793, after a partition of Poland, Podillya found itself under the domination of Russia. The fortress gradually lost its military significance and was used as a prison. It was only in the twentieth century that Ukraine took Podillya back into its fold.

In the old part of town and in the fortress, most of the architectural landmarks date from the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which give Kamyanets its unique appearance.

 

More photos

Text by Lesya Hryhoriva

Photos and design by Yury Buslenko

 

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