The Dramatic History of the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle in Ukraine: From Castle to Prison
It has been claimed that Kamianets-Podilskyi is the city with the most places of architectural interest in Ukraine after Kyiv and Lviv. This city is located on the Smotrych River in western Ukraine, and is believed by some scholars to have been established by the Dacians during the Dacian Wars. It has also been speculated that this city was originally known as Petridava or Klepidava ( petra and lapis meaning stone in Greek and Latin respectively, whilst dava was the Dacian word for city). One is able to say with more certainty that the city was in existence during the Middle Ages - and it was during this time that the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle, the city’s best-known structure, was built.
The Foundation of the Castle and its Early History
The city of Kamianets-Podilskyi is said to have been first mentioned in an Armenian chronicle dating to the 11th century AD. During this period, the city belonged to the Halych principality, which was a part of the Kyivan Rus’. It was under these rulers that the first castle/fortress/citadel, which was made of wood, was built during the 13th century and the Mongols under Batu Khan attacked the city and destroyed the castle. The city of Kamianets-Podilskyi became part of the Mongol Empire for the next century.
A lithograph depicting the Kamianets-Podilskyi castle walls with a settlement underneath, which still exists today. ( Public Domain )
The Mongol overlords were driven out from Kamianets-Podilskyi in 1362 following their defeat at the Battle of Blue Waters by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It has been recorded that during the governorship of a Lithuanian prince, Fyodor Koriatovych, at the end of the 14th century, that a stone castle was built. According to a legend, whilst Fyodor and his brothers were out hunting a deer they stumbled upon an island surrounded by a deep canyon. Recognizing the defensive potential of this site, the Lithuanian princes decided to build a castle there.
This castle was strengthened and modernized over the centuries before attaining its present form in 1621, when the city was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
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Contributions to the Castle
It is said that the strengthening of the castle was made possible thanks to the donations of the minor gentry, merchants, and even the papacy. These contributions gave the castle a unique identity. For example, the tower to the first left of the entrance of the castle is known as the ‘Papal Tower,’ as the “alms of St. Peter” were sent by Pope Julius II for its construction during the early 16th century. Another tower, built during the early 15th century, is called the ‘Tenchinskaya Tower.’
Seven of the Kamianets-Podilskyi castle's original twelve towers dominate over the surrounding Smotrych River canyon landscape. ( Public Domain )
This tower is said to have been named after Jan Tęczyński, a castellan of Krakow who visited Kamianets-Podilskyi. In 1621, the castle was modernized by an engineer by the name of Theophilus Schaumberg so that it could withstand artillery fire.
Besieging the Castle
Throughout its history, it is said that the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle was besieged numerous times, but was captured only twice. The first was in 1393, when discord amongst the castle’s garrison allowed Vitowt (Vytautas the Great), the Grand Duke of Lithuania, to capture it from Prince Fyodor.
Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas the Great and Lithuanian Grand Duchess Anna. ( Public Domain )
The second time the castle fell was to the Ottoman Turks in 1672. The Turkish victory has been attributed to the sheer numerical superiority of the Turks (said to have outnumbered the castle’s defenders by 60 times). Nevertheless, the castles near impregnability gave rise to a popular legend.
According to this legend, the Ottoman sultan, Osman II, came to Kamianets-Podilskyi with the intention of subduing it. When he arrived at the city, Osman asked one of his generals, “Who built this city?” to which the general answered, “God himself.” The sultan then remarked, “Then let God Himself conquer this city.” and ordered a retreat, knowing that it was impossible for him to attain victory.
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Painting of the Ottoman troops besieging the Kamianets-Podilskyi castle. ( Public Domain )
In 1699, Kamianets-Podilskyi returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, after almost three decades of Ottoman rule. About a century later, the city became part of the Russian Empire. By this time, however, the castle had lost its defensive role, and was used primarily as a military prison. One of its most famous inmates was Ustim Karmelyuk, a Ukrainian peasant outlaw who lived between the 18th and 19th century, and is often referred to as the “Ukrainian Robin Hood.” He was imprisoned in the ‘Papal Tower’ three times.
Ustim Karmelyuk, also known as the “Ukrainian Robin Hood” was one of the famous inmates in the Kamianets-Podilskyi castle. ( Public Domain )
With the rich history and legends surrounding the Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle, it is not surprising that its new role is as a popular tourist attraction.
Featured image: Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle. Photo source: ( Public Domain )
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