Historical Belarus: Castle Complexes
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.
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, 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