Traces of Transcarpathia’s Progress: Nyalab & Kankiv Castles

There is a clear line running through the history of Transcarpathia during the early Middle Ages. That line is the Mongol Invasion of 1241 – 1242. From the time period preceding the invasion very little castle architecture exists, nearly all fortifications were destroyed by the Mongols. In the years that followed the invasion and ravaging of Transcarpathia, Hungarian King Bela IV (1235 – 1270) issued a decree that “castles be built on suitable sites where the people may find refuge if they have to retreat from threatening dangers.” This policy led directly to the building of hilltop, stone fortresses for defensive purposes across the Kingdom of Hungary. Castles soon began to dot strongpoints in Transcarpathia, a critical region for securing Hungary’s eastern frontiers. This construction program was a matter of national security. These castles also provided security for something just as vital to the interests and welfare of the Kingdom’s inhabitants, salt.

Nyalab Castle

Nyalab Castle – one of the strongest defensive fortifications along the Salt Road during the Middle Ages

The Salt Road
Salt was one of the most important commodities in medieval times, literally a matter of life and death. Salt allowed for the preservation of food. Without preservation and the resulting ability to store foodstuffs, one bad harvest could doom a village to starvation. Salt also made travel possible. Without a sustainable supply of food, it was impossible to travel far afield. For these reasons, a plentiful supply of salt was of the utmost necessity. Central and Eastern Europe’s source for salt was Transylvania, which held bountiful reserves. After mining, the salt would then be transported westward via rivers systems. The Tisza River was an integral part of this route. The Kingdom of Hungary had to ensure that the transport trail was secure. Castles were constructed on hilltops along the salt road of the Tisza. Remnants of a couple of these castles can still be seen today.

A series of ruins stands atop a 40 meter high hill overlooking the Tisza River valley close to the town of Korolevo, Ukraine. In Slavic, Korolevo means “king’s house.” This name is derived from the original Hungarian name for that same place, Kiralyhaza. It was on top of this hill where the Hungarian King Stephen V erected a wooden hunting lodge. Later the hill was fortified with what became known as Nyalab castle, guarding the salt road along the nearby Tisza. Today the castle ruins do not look like much, little more than a few rough walls and stone stubs. They could easily be mistaken for natural rock formations if they garner any notice at all. This is historically deceptive. For centuries Nyalab Castle was one of the strongest defensive fortifications in the region. This eventually led to its downfall. The Habsburg emperor Leopold ordered it blown up in 1672 so that rebellious Hungarians could no longer use it to defend against his forces.

Painting of St. Francis Assisi Church and the adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle

Painting of the church and adjacent tower at Nyalab Castle from the 16th century

A Fight From Start To Finish – Kankiv Castle
Further down the Tisza lies the small city of Vynohradiv in Ukraine, with the ruins of Kankiv Castle standing nearby on Chorna Hora (Black Mountain). Enough of the castle’s remnants still exist to give some idea of what the original structure looked like. The castle was built in the shape of a square with a tower on each corner. Unlike other castles in Transcarpathia that enjoyed relative peace until the 16th century, Kankiv Castle was nearly ruined not long after it was first constructed. This was due to a succession fight for the Hungarian throne after the Arpad Dynasty collapsed at the beginning of the 14th century. The castle was sacked by the troops of the eventual victor King Charles Robert. Fortunately the new king had it restored and gave Kankiv as a gift to his wife. The Perenis, a powerful family of nobles gained ownership of the castle in the 15th century. During this time they allowed Franciscan monks to build a Gothic Church known as St. Francis of Assisi’s along with a monastery on the grounds. The entire complex was enclosed by defensive walls. In the 16th century the head of the Pereni household converted to Protestantism and forced the monks out of Kankiv. Before their eviction, the Franciscans placed a curse on the castle. Either by coincidence, superstition or happenstance the curse turned out to be ominously prescient. Not long afterwards Kankiv was reduced to ruins by the pro-Catholic Habsburgs in their war against rebelling Protestant nobles throughout the region.

Kankiv Castle

Kankiv Castle – the ruins that are left today can still stir the imagination

Relegated To Ruins – Transcarpathia’s Past
Very little is left of either Nyalab or Kankiv Castles. Casting a glance back through the history of the region it is easy to see why they were relegated to ruins. The region they were located within served as a proto-typical frontier. The Mongols may never have come back in force, but Transcarpathia experienced the violent excesses of invading Turks, Tatars and Transylvanians, Hungarians, Poles and Austrians. These peoples were fighting for power, land and resources. The legacy of centuries of struggle left scars on the landscape, but these are now barely noticeable. Today hardly anyone in Transcarpathia gives a second thought to the ravages of the Mongols, the salt road or the ruins of Nyalab and Kankiv. Some might say that is a shame, but it also illustrates how far the remoter reaches of Europe have advanced beyond the day to day struggle of life and death. Progress has been made, even in this forgotten netherworld, if only someone would stop and recognize it.

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