By Yuri Chernyakevich
Few realise that foreigners once called Belarus ‘a land of castles’. In the days of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, several towns and settlements had their own castles and fortifications. Being situated at the centre of Europe and on the crossroads of trading routes, Belarus was the arena for numerous battles, inspiring the construction of fortresses. As many as 120 castles once stood, or more, with the first walled fortifications built between Brest and Mogilev in the early 13th century.
Sadly, the Livonian War, the 1812 War and the two world wars of the 20th century, reduced most of these unique architectural monuments to ashes. Those that have survived continue to impress tourists and Belarusians with their majesty and beauty. The castles of Mir and Nesvizh (both on the UNESCO World Heritage List) are most well-known, but tourists are also attracted by the ancient fortifications in Grodno, Lida, Novogrudok, Krevo, Golshany and other Belarusian cities.
Of course, not all Belarusian castles are in the same condition as Nesvizh and Mir, needing restoration. Accordingly, the state’s Castles of Belarus programme — recently adopted by the Council of Ministers — aims to restore around 40 sites, funding ongoing conservation. By 2018, Kamenets Tower should have a new roof, and Sapegi Palace-and-Park Estate (in the Pruzhany District’s Ruzhany) will have its East Wing restored, to house a museum. In addition, Gedimin’s Lida Castle and the castle once belonging to the Kishki and Radziwill families (in the Novogrudok District’s Lyubcha) will be restored.
Belarus’ Culture Ministry, overseeing the work, is particularly excited about the restoration of Grodno’s Stary (Old) Castle, which is found near the EU border; foreign tourists visit there even more often than to Minsk. “We hope that — after restoration — the Old Castle will look as it did in the time of Stefan Bathory: the Great Duke and King of the Rzech Pospolita,” explains Igor Chernyavsky, the Head of the Culture Ministry’s Department of Historical-Cultural Legacy Protection and Restoration. “We plan to open a large museum there, featuring items from Vytautas’ times and from the 13th century: the age in which the first stone forts were built in Belarus.”
Of course, not all ancient fortifications will be able to regain their former appearance, as Mr. Chernyavsky explains. “We lack documentary proof for all castles and, of course, architects cannot invent or introduce their own vision. With this in mind, the fighting galleries won’t be restored at Krevo Castle, as we know nothing of them. However, the remains of such a gallery exist along Lida Castle’s southern wall, so we can restore this to its original form.”
Among other partially preserved castles being conserved are those in Novogrudok, Krevo (Smorgon District), Golshany (Oshmyany District) and Bykhov. “Even semi-destroyed castles — ruins really — attract tourists,” adds Mr. Chernyavsky. “With this in mind, we’ll conserve these sites. It’s quite possible that investors — domestic and foreign — will one day show interest in our ancient sites and will fund full reconstruction, to attract tourists.”
The Culture Ministry is treating the restoration of historical sites very seriously, using historical data and involving technical experts and historians, with the aim of keeping sites authentic. This involves recreating construction materials — such as making bricks to ‘old recipes’; those used at the Avgustovsky Canal, and Mir and Nesvizh castles were manufactured at a Belarusian factory.
Of course, it would be a challenge indeed to restore every such site across Belarus quickly. However, the efforts of recent years indicate that a new period is beginning: a time of true renaissance.