His­tor­i­cal Be­larus: Cas­tle Com­plexes

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Li Shasha, Wang Wei Edited by Scott Bray, David Ball

The Mir Cas­tle Com­plex and the Ni­asviž Cas­tle, both UNESCO World Her­itage sites, en­able one to feel more in touch with the his­tory and cul­ture of Be­larus.

Nearly ev­ery city, ev­ery country has a rep­re­sen­ta­tive build­ing, be it an an­cient build­ing or a novel and mag­nif­i­cent mod­ern struc­ture. One can think of that struc­ture as a city or country’s call­ing card, like the pyra­mids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, Paris’ Eif­fel Tower, and the Burj Al Arab Ho­tel of Dubai. Build­ings are like the soul of a city, a record of its de­vel­op­ment and wit­ness to its rises and falls, and even an in­di­ca­tor of its fu­ture.

Con­struc­tion of the Goth­ic­styled Mir Cas­tle be­gan at the end of the 15th cen­tury. It was sub­se­quently ex­tended and re­con­structed, first in the Re­nais­sance and then in the Baroque style. Af­ter be­ing aban­doned for nearly a cen­tury and suf­fer­ing se­vere dam­age dur­ing the Napoleonic pe­riod (reign: 1804–1814), the cas­tle was re­stored at the end of the 19th cen­tury, with the ad­di­tion of a num­ber of other el­e­ments. Its present form is a graphic tes­ti­mony to its of­ten tur­bu­lent his­tory. In 2000, the Mir Cas­tle Com­plex was in­scribed on the UNESCO World Her­itage List, the first World Her­itage site in Be­larus. The Mir Cas­tle Com­plex and the Ni­asviž Cas­tle, another Be­larus­sian UNESCO World Her­itage site, en­able one to feel more in touch with the his­tory and cul­ture of Be­larus.

Mir Cas­tle

The Cas­tle it­self was named “Mir” in the Tar­tar lan­guage means “ruler” and “leader.” At the end of the 14th cen­tury, many pow­ers con­tended for hege­mony in Be­larus. Fa­mous cousins Vy­tau­tas (c. 1350–1430) and Skir­gaila (c. 1353–1397) re­spec­tively sought help from their neigh­bours in the scram­ble for power. When the Cru­sades en­tered Lithua­nia dur­ing their east­ward ex­pe­di­tion in 1395, the two had, as recorded in Ger­man an­nals, de­stroyed Grodno, burned down towns, 2,200 pris­on­ers, 1,600 horses and cap­tured many slaves. Grand Duke Vy­tau­tas re­ceived the

sup­port of the Tar­tars dur­ing those bat­tles. To ex­press his grat­i­tude, he in­vited them to live on the land, hence the many places bear­ing Tar­tar names, in­clud­ing Mir Cas­tle.

In the his­tory of hu­man ar­chi­tec­ture, Mir Cas­tle shines as a mas­ter­piece. It was first built near Mir Vil­lage in the early 16th cen­tury by Duke Ilinich in re­place of a wooden farm and sur­round­ing build­ings in the 15th cen­tury. It was a strik­ingly Gothic struc­ture at the time. In 1568, the ownership of Mir Cas­tle fell to Duke Radzi­wils due to the in­sta­bil­ity within the regime, and the cas­tle was ren­o­vated in a Re­nais­sance style, with an artis­tic three-story palace built at the east and north faces of the cas­tle.

Mir Cas­tle was built as a stan­dard quad­ran­gle with a tower on ev­ery cor­ner. While the tow­ers are of the same struc­ture—a tetra­he­dral body and oc­tag­o­nal top, each is dec­o­rated dif­fer­ently giv­ing the cas­tle an un­con­ven­tional look. Among the tow­ers, the fifth tower can drop or raise a sus­pen­sion bridge to guard from gun­fire. There are two rows of round holes on each wall to pro­vide fir­ing cover, and shells can be fired from tower. The cas­tle is pri­mar­ily made of lime­stone, metal and wood seen in its lime­stone gate, gilded and sil­ver-plated dec­o­ra­tions, el­e­gant ar­cades and long cor­ri­dors. Dur­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions, there have also been a large num­ber of ce­ramic tiles with plant and geo­met­ric pat­terns found in the area.

Dur­ing the reign of Napoléon Bon­a­parte (1804–1814) and his recurring wars, the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment was se­verely dam­aged and Mir Cas­tle al­most fell into ruin. It re­mained aban­doned un­til the end of the 19th cen­tury, when it was ren­o­vated and sold to a ty­coon. Shortly af­ter, World War II (1939–1945) erupted. As the Ger­man in­va­sion of the Soviet Union went in full swing, Mir Cas­tle was oc­cu­pied by the Nazis. Af­ter the war, Be­larus re­stored Mir Cas­tle, de­vel­op­ing the land­scape around the cas­tle to form an ar­chi­tec­tural com­plex.

Now, in the quiet town of Mir, most vis­i­tors are drawn by the beau­ti­ful cas­tle and the placid moat around it. Com­pared with its coun­ter­parts in Western Europe, Mir Cas­tle, with its Or­tho­dox el­e­ments, has its own unique charm. A leg­end about the cas­tle goes that there was once no wa­ter around the cas­tle. The castel­lan, believ­ing that the cas­tle should be en­closed by lake wa­ter for fire pre­ven­tion and pic­turesque scenery, or­dered all the ap­ple trees to the left of the cas­tle to be cut down in or­der to dig a lake. This was dur­ing spring, when ap­ple trees are cov­ered in blos­soms. As the trees were cut down, those flow­ers fell like rosy clouds to the bot­tom of the lake. From that year on, no castel­lan met with a good fate or had a male heir. Com­mon­ers of the time said it was from the ap­ple trees’ curse.

The present- day Mir Cas­tle, from the sec­ond floor on up, has been re­built us­ing the rub­ble from the flames of war. To re­main “old as ever,” restora­tion of Mir Cas­tle has moved slowly, and the com­plex is still un­der con­stant re­pair. Step­ping into the cas­tle, one can see the ar­mour, ap­pli­ances and some re­al­is­tic pup­pets used by the no­bil­ity. The dis­play of its bed­rooms and din­ing halls in­stil a real ex­pe­ri­ence of the liv­ing en­vi­ron­ment at that time.

It’s not just the main build­ing— the tow­ers are worth see­ing as well. Roughly the size of a round ta­ble, it can take one more time and phys­i­cal strength to climb those steep and nar­row stairs. Tak­ing that slow climb up with a hand on the wall, there are times when you grasp empty space where a door, sealed with iron bars, is opened some­where on the wall. With each floor hav­ing a height of 5-6 me­tres and walls over one me­tre thick, the whole tower was a mil­i­tary fortress in its own right. Fur­ther guard­ing the cas­tle each em­bra­sure had a small outer out­let and a large in­ner out­let used as loop­holes. These em­bra­sures were enough to cover ev­ery cor­ner of the cas­tle. De­spite their small porthole, these em­bra­sures could cover ev­ery cor­ner out­side the cas­tle.

Minsk, the Tur­bu­lent Cap­i­tal

Minsk, the home of Mir Cas­tle, has a his­tory of nearly a thou­sand years. In the mid-12th cen­tury, the city be­came the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural cen­tre of the Prin­ci­pal­ity of Minsk which had first been es­tab­lished by the Polotsk Dy­nasty. Minsk is lo­cated in Eastern Europe, on the south­east­ern slope of the Minsk Hills and by the up­per reaches of the Ne­man River. A new city cen­tre formed around the city’s com­mer­cial mar­kets in the 16th cen­tury, con­tain­ing many stone-built

pub­lic and res­i­den­tial build­ings, around which many Catholic and Or­tho­dox churches were con­structed. From the mid-17th cen­tury to the early 18th cen­tury, the Pol­ish-rus­sian War and the Great North­ern War brought mas­sive dev­as­ta­tion and loss of life to the city. Af­ter 1793, Minsk was ruled by Rus­sia and be­came the cen­tre of the Minsk Gover­norate. Dur­ing the first half of the 19th cen­tury, the city con­tin­ued to de­velop and pros­per, nur­tur­ing many out­stand­ing painters, mu­si­cians, writ­ers and per­form­ers, in­clud­ing the fa­mous com­poser Stanisław Mo­niuszko (1819–1872) and painter Wa­lenty Wańkow­icz (1799–1842).

Dur­ing World War II (1939–1945), Minsk was de­stroyed again in siege and nearly razed to the ground. Af­ter World War II, the peo­ple of Minsk re­built the city from its ru­ins, cen­tred on the Svis­lach River. The old streets in the cen­tral area of the city were com­pletely de­mol­ished, and many wide streets and parks were built in a checker­board pat­tern in its place. In ad­di­tion, many new land­mark build­ings were built. A sub­way was opened in Minsk in 1984, and a new air­port was put into use in 1989.

The value of in­dus­trial out­put in Minsk ac­counts for more than a quar­ter of the en­tire country’s out­put. The city’s main in­dus­trial sec­tors are ma­chin­ery man­u­fac­tur­ing, light in­dus­try and the food in­dus­try, among which heavy- duty ve­hi­cles, wheeled trac­tors and pre­ci­sion ma­chine tools are the most prom­i­nent. Its lum­ber pro­cess­ing and build­ing ma­te­ri­als in­dus­tries have also de­vel­oped. An im­por­tant hub for rail­ways and air transportation, the cap­i­tal is also ac­ces­si­ble to many other ci­ties via high­ways. The city boasts many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties like the Na­tional Academy of Sciences of Be­larus and the Be­laru­sian State Univer­sity, as well as sev­eral mu­se­ums. There are also fa­mous cir­cuses, opera houses and bal­let the­atres. Like other Slavic peo­ples, Be­laru­sians are fond of art, and many artists were born in the country. In Minsk, watch­ing shows has be­come an in­te­gral part of daily life. Ex­cept­ing its na­tional va­ca­tion (around July–au­gust), all kinds of art per­for­mances are put on stage nightly in the­atres big and small, as well as up­scale restau­rants. Bal­let, sym­phony, opera, drama, ice bal­let, pop con­certs, jazz, folk songs and dances, cir­cus acts—nearly ev­ery form of stage art can be found in Minsk, and are of high stan­dard.

Pure An­cient Slavs

As early as the sixth cen­tury, the Slavs were di­vided into the East, West, and South Slavs. The East Slavs were dis­trib­uted along the mid­dle and up­per reaches of the Dnieper River, the up­per reaches of the Oka and Volga rivers, and the Western Dv­ina River, and were the an­ces­tors of Rus­sians, Be­laru­sians and Ukraini­ans.

In AD 862, ow­ing to fre­quent civil wars that had weak­ened all the tribes, Rurik, head of the Varangians (or Rus), was be­seeched to govern the East Slavs. Rurik as­cended the throne in Nov­gorod, es­tab­lish­ing the first king­dom of Rus, the Rurik Dy­nasty which ruled for more than 700 years.

Af­ter Rurik’s death, his blood re­la­tion Oleg suc­ceeded the throne as Rurik’s son was still young, and led the Rurik Dy­nasty to oc­cupy cer­tain strate­gic ar­eas like Smolensk and Polotsk. In AD 882, Oleg cap­tured the city of Kiev and moved the cap­i­tal of Rus to the city, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of Kievan Rus. In AD 911, Oleg con­quered the sur­round­ing Slav duchies and non-slav tribes, form­ing a country dom­i­nated by the East Slavs. In AD 972, Vladimir I suc­ceeded as the grand duke, ad­vanc­ing Kievan Rus to its zenith dur­ing his reign (AD 980–1015), ren­der­ing it a great power in Eastern Europe.

In the sec­ond half of the 11th cen­tury, Kievan Rus be­gan to dis­solve ow­ing to di­min­ish­ing na­tional power, con­tin­u­ous civil wars and recurring for­eign in­va­sions. In 1240, Kievan Rus was con­quered by the Mon­gol Em­pire, be­com­ing a vas­sal of the Golden Horde (also known as the Kipchak Khanate) founded by Batu Khan, grand­son of Genghis Khan. At the same time,

the states un­der Kievan Rus were in­vaded and con­quered by Poland and Lithua­nia. By the 14th cen­tury Kievan Rus was di­vided into North­east and South­west Rus.

With its cap­i­tal lo­cated in Sarai on the Volga River, the Golden Horde had di­rect con­trol over North­east Rus. The Grand Duchy of Moscow evolved into the cen­tre of the North­east Rus, while the Grand Duke of Moscow lever­aged his po­si­tion as the tax agent of the Golden Horde to grad­u­ally unite the peo­ples of North­east Rus and ex­pel the Tar­tar Mon­go­lians, thus es­tab­lish­ing Rus­sia. Due to be­ing ruled by the Tar­tar Mon­go­lians for some 240 years, Rus­sia later took on heavy Eastern in­flu­ences in its po­lit­i­cal and so­cial sys­tems.

Parts of the South­west Rus were in­de­pen­dent of the Golden Horde and thus felt less of an im­pact. In the late 13th cen­tury, the Duchy of Lithua­nia rose and ex­panded east­ward. Seek­ing refuge from the op­pres­sion of the Tar­tar Mon­go­lians, some Rus duchies in­cor­po­rated into Lithua­nia, but re­mained rel­a­tively in­de­pen­dent. Their orig­i­nal Rus lan­guage, cul­ture, cus­toms and re­li­gious be­liefs were largely pre­served. Sub­jects of those Rus duchies have been known as “Be­laru­sians” roughly since the late years of the Golden Horde.

Ni­asviž Cas­tle

Ni­asviž Cas­tle, a res­i­den­tial cas­tle of the Radzi­wiłł fam­ily in Ni­asviž, Be­larus, is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Euro­pean build­ings from the 16th-17th cen­turies. Lo­cated in cen­tral Be­larus, the cas­tle was first built in the 16th cen­tury and from the 16th-19th cen­turies, the com­plex formed the ur­ban cen­tre of the city.

From the end of the 11th cen­tury un­til the early 12th cen­tury, many duchies in Be­larus de­clared in­de­pen­dence from the rule of the Kievan Rus. From the 14th cen­tury to 18th cen­tury, the ter­ri­tory of Be­larus be­longed to the Grand Duchy of Lithua­nia and later to the Pol­ish– Lithua­nian Com­mon­wealth. The Radzi­wiłł fam­ily— one of the most il­lus­tri­ous fam­i­lies in the country— played a ma­jor role in the Pol­ish– Lithua­nian Com­mon­wealth, nur­tur­ing many well-known fig­ures in Euro­pean sci­en­tific, artis­tic, tech­no­log­i­cal and ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory.

Ni­asviž Cas­tle in­cludes bed­cham­bers, a church and other sights, and is com­posed of 10 in­ter­con­nected build­ings which form a hexag­o­nal com­plex sur­rounded by solid walls set be­side a lake within 100 hectares of gar­dens. The cas­tle also served as a mil­i­tary struc­ture, show­cas­ing ar­chi­tec­tural styles from sev­eral dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal pe­ri­ods and is one of the only sur­viv­ing fa­mous me­dieval no­bles’ res­i­dences in Europe. The cas­tle’s 12 halls house nearly 20,000 arte­facts, in­clud­ing rare manuscripts, early edi­tions of books, works of art, silks, coins, medals, fur­ni­ture and an­cient Euro­pean, Ara­bic, Ja­panese and Chi­nese weapons. An or­nate Catholic Church de­signed by the Ital­ian ar­chi­tect Gian Maria Bernar­doni (1541–1605) in the 16th cen­tury is con­nected with the cas­tle and con­tains the coffins of mem­bers of the Radzi­wiłł fam­ily.

The cas­tle com­plex is a ma­jor her­itage site in Be­larus and was listed by UNESCO as a World Her­itage Site in 2005. Nowa­days, the cas­tle still stands qui­etly, al­low­ing vis­i­tors to en­joy its tran­quil­lity whilst learn­ing about the his­tory of the build­ing and ex­pe­ri­ence its im­pres­sive ar­chi­tec­ture.

The Mir Cas­tle built in the early 16th cen­tury

Na­tional Li­brary of Be­larus in Minsk

Ni­asviž Cas­tle

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