A Ukrainian Summer: where to go, what to do...

A trip to historic Kamianets-Podilskyi: crossroads of many cultures

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

KAMIANETS-PODILSKYI, Ukraine - Don't expect to be overwhelmed by the sites of historic Kamianets-Podilskyi as you enter it from the train station. At first you may even think that you got off at the wrong stop.

The only history that confronts the eye from that vantage point is the drab and bleak Soviet architecture in a city whose past was considered irrelevant to the building of a Communist society.

It is not until you get to the bridge that spans the mighty gorge of the meandering Smotrych River, which loops the old city and surrounds it almost completely, and view the remains of a medieval watchtower of the fortress around which the town grew, that the true magic of Kamianets-Podilskyi and its diverse ethnic past becomes evident.

By the time you have walked the cobblestone streets and passed the ruins of the ancient Armenian church and the recently restored Polish Catholic Church with its unusual Muslim minaret on your way to the restored 16th century fortress held at varying times by the Turks, the Poles and the Russians, you will come to understand that Kamianets-Podilskyi - its very soul - is the old city, and not the gray and faceless new section.

What Kamianets-Podilskyi, located in the Khmelnytskyi Oblast, offers is a look into the history of a region of Ukraine in which several cultures converged, most often in peace, but also in violent conflict.

Through the ages, the city was inhabited by Armenians, Ukrainians, Poles, Turks and Jews, with most of them making up the majority of inhabitants at one time or another. It was where the Turkish and Polish empires collided and where the Ukrainian Kozak armies attempted to carve out a niche for themselves.

Kamianets (as the residents call it) is named for the rock formations upon which it was built and the stone architecture that predominated during the city's heyday in the 15th through 18th centuries. The Smotrych River makes a tight loop around the city as it embraces it, leaving only a finger connected to the mainland. Old Kamianets is essentially a stone island upon which stone structures were constructed

A walk through the historic city begins at the Novo-Planivskyi bridge, the main road across the Smotrych River. The river that cut through the limestone to form the gorge that made for such a superb military location during the late Middle Ages is neither large nor powerful today, but the canyon it left is wide with limestone walls climbing for nearly 100 feet on one side. A 16th century lookout tower rises from the steep far slopes of the canyon. On the other side of the bridge a delicate waterfall tumbles over the limestone, aside which run a set of steps upon which visitors can descend to the floor of the canyon.

Until the latter half of the 18th century Kamianets consisted of three separate ethnic enclaves quartered in their own sections of the city. The Armenian section was the richest and the oldest until the middle of the 15th century, when the Poles absorbed the area and made the city the capital of the Podillia voievodstvo. During the 14th and 15th centuries almost 1,200 Armenian families resided here. Although traces of the Armenian influence in Kamianets still remain today, most of what you see in the old city are the results of Polish occupation.

While Poles and Ukrainians were the major inhabitants of the city through the 18th century, by the late 19th century Jews predominated. They were forced to the region, then held by Russia, by a Russian resettlement policy that did not allow Jews to live in major cities. By 1880 Jews made up nearly 70 percent of the population of Kamianets.

In the old Armenian section, which is in the midst of renovation, the extent to which culture and history mixed in medieval Kamianets is most obvious. Today that mix is represented by dozens of churches and temples of many faiths and confessions.

The most striking historic monument is the 13th century St. Nicholas Armenian Orthodox Church - the oldest Armenian church in Ukraine. What remains of the church are its walls and columns and a scattering of grave markers found in a cemetery alongside the rubble. Its bell tower, which avoided the fate of the main structure, today is the chapel of St. Stefan Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate.

A stone's throw from it one finds the first Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kamianets, built in the 13th century and also named in honor of St. Nicholas. The churchyard offers an exhilarating view of the Smotrych river gorge.

Down the road from St. Nicholas' stands the Church of the Blessed Virgin, built by the Dominican Order of the Polish Roman Catholic Church. Today it is run by the Paulus monks. The church was financed by the Polish Potocki family, who had vast territorial holdings in the Ternopil region during the 18th century.

Across from the Armenian Square, once the center of city commerce, stands the recently renovated St. Josaphat Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church.

Walking the narrow, winding roads of the old city, one comes upon striking buildings and architecture at almost every step. The old Polish city hall, the Armenian central well and, most unusual of all, the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul, a mid-16th century Gothic structure, which has a traditional Muslim minaret adjoining it.

The minaret was built by the Turks after they and a Ukrainian Kozak army led by Hetman Petro Doroshenko chased the Polish armies from the territory in 1672 and transformed the church into a mosque. In 1699 the city and the region were returned to the Poles by the Treaty of Karlowitz. Legend has it that in the treaty the Turks stipulated that the Poles could not destroy the minaret, to which the Poles adhered. Instead, they capped it with a golden statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The way the story is told today, Polish leaders pacified an outraged Polish community, which wanted all vestiges of Turkish influence on the city destroyed, by explaining that the statute atop the minaret symbolized the dominance of Catholicism over Islam.

For all of its varied history and architecture, the diamond of Kamianets remains the fortress located just past the Armenian section across the Turkish Bridge. A wooden structure stood on the location of the current stone castle as early as the 11th century when the territory belonged to the Halych principality. The fortress and the city were destroyed by Mongols on their rampage through Ukraine in 1240.

The first stone citadel was erected in the 15th and 16th centuries, when the city came under Polish rule and became the center of international trade and artisanry in the area - second only to Lviv.

The fortress that stands today is a magnificent work of restoration completed last year by the city government, with funds from the Ukrainian government, at a cost of about $1 million.

In addition to restoring the walls of the fortress and the interior grounds, city officials developed a museum that allows you to see and feel how it operated in the late Middle Ages.

As you wander through the rooms, hallways and underground tunnels, wooden replicas in period dress appear in historic scenes retelling the history of the place. To the right of the main gates you enter a room in which a soldier walks a large wheel to bring water up from the artesian well below the city. Another room features a rack on which prisoners were tortured. In the corner of the courtyard you peer into the deep debtor's hole, where those unable to repay borrowed money were kept until the debt was covered. Many, especially during bleak financial times when the hole was filled, smothered in the lower levels where those with the largest debts were held.

The citadel is the center of tourist attention twice a year: first in May, when the city celebrates Kamianets-Podilskyi Day, which features a hot air balloon festival; then in September, when an International Tournament of Knights is held, with the accent on jousting, horsemanship and swordsmanship.

The fortress, for all its appeal, is still a work in progress, which city officials admit. They acknowledge that the wooden figures and the presentation of history are still primitive and need to be refined.

But that is not the only problem that the city must confront if it wants to become a tourist mecca for Ukraine, although its potential is obvious.

A more basic roadblock the city must remove is its remoteness from a major airport. The nearest airport capable of handling international air traffic is in Lviv, some 700 kilometers away. The bulk of the foreign tourists that now visit Kamianets-Podilskyi, about 10,000 last year, come from Poland, either by train or by bus. City officials are pushing the Ministry of Tourism to work with travel agencies for the return of a once-popular tour package by train from Lviv to Kamianets-Podilskyi to Kyiv.

Another problem is the lack of Western-type hotels and service. There currently are three mid-size hotels in the city, with two more in the works, offering a total of 980 hotel rooms. Although the rooms are clean and cheap, and unlike other Ukrainian cities hot and cold running water is always available, they still have a ways to go to reach Western standards.

And even though 26 new cafes and restaurants opened in the city in the last year, there is no night life. (Those who prefer the neon and flash of discotheques should spend their time in Kyiv.)

But if you are looking to find unique architecture steeped in history, and want to glimpse Ukraine's medieval past from a point from where several major cultures met - this is the place to go.

A Ukrainian Summer

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Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 7, 2000, No. 19, Vol. LXVIII

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