Nothing Like…What The Past Was Really Like – The High Castle of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #3)

History can be as much about forgetting as it is remembering. This idea came to me while I was researching the High Castle (Vysokyi Zamok) of Lviv. Today the area is heavily forested and acts as an urban green space known as High Castle Park. A lone wall surrounded by woods and footpaths is all that remains of High Castle. Every tower, every bastion, every other fortification has been totally obliterated. In a city known for its protection and preservation of historic structures High Castle is the most prominent architectural loss suffered by Lviv. This shows that even in a place where so many historic structures are protected, just as many or more have been lost. There is a tendency to look at Lviv as a uniquely preserved city, that somehow managed to survive hundreds of sieges, two of the most destructive wars in human history along with numerous smaller ones, multiple natural disasters and several urban renewal projects with much of its architecture intact. Perception may inform reality, but in this case it also distorts the reality.

Ruin of Lviv's High Castle

The lone remaining ruin of Lviv’s High Castle

That Which Must Be Forgotten – Inducing Historical Amnesia
The Lviv that survives today was almost entirely conceived following the cataclysmic fire of 1527 which destroyed the city. Any structure that existed before the fire might as well be ancient history without the ruins to show for it. Trying to recapture a part of Lviv’s history from the founding in 1256 through 1527, even something as renowned as High Castle, requires both a leap of the imagination and a conscious act of amnesia. To understand the medieval High Castle I had to forget the forested park that covers the area today. I had to forget the walking paths, the roads and a grotto which was built long after the castle was gone. I had to forget the glittering fall foliage which had greeted me on my morning runs through the park. The process of forgetting required me to distance and detach from the memory of recent visits. Trying to come to terms with High Castle the way it was in the late Middle Ages is difficult, but not inconceivable. Documentation and chronology, words and numbers helped me create a picture. An outline to recall a vital piece of Lviv’s past that might be recaptured. There are also drawings, but none of the ones I was able to access were done before 1618. Information and interpretation of that information would have to suffice.

The first castle was built on the order of King Danylo Romanowych (Daniel of Galicia), the city’s founder, who ordered a fortress built on a steep sided hilltop above the Poltva River valley. This site for High Castle offered a formidable defensive position. The first castle held a commanding position, but offered hardly any protection to its occupants from whims of nature. Icy winter winds buffeted the hilltop as bone chilling conditions persisted for months on end. After just one winter King Danylo decided that he would relocate to another castle, better protected from the natural elements. This became known as Low Castle. The wooden High Castle was abandoned as a residence, but continued to act as storage for items in the Royal Treasury, including a couple of solid gold crowns. This was a good hiding place for such crown jewels, but unfortunately not good enough.

17th century engraving of High Castle towering above Lviv

17th century engraving of High Castle towering above Lviv – by A Gogenberg

Tending Towards Destruction – Besieged By All Sides
In 1340, the Polish King Casimir III the Great took control of Lviv as well as the treasures stored in High Castle. Only thirteen years later marauding Lithuanian troops put High Castle to the torch. This was not difficult since the first version was made of wood. The Polish King soon had another High Castle built on the same spot. The difference now, was that High Castle was made of stone. For the next three centuries the castle saw off countless sieges. The terrain coupled with the fortifications surrounding it made the castle too much for would be conquerors. Finally in 1648, the castle fell to an invasion force, under the command of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Several ironies surround Khmelnytsky as the conqueror. He was a Ukrainian, he had attended university in Lviv and though his forces took the castle, they failed to seize the city. The conquest of 1648 was the beginning of a slow, yet steady decline for High Castle.

In 1704 Swedish forces took both the castle and the city. The first time this had been done in ages. The castle was abandoned. It became a home for low lifes, bandits and those who preyed upon the city’s inhabitants. Leaders of the city came to see it as a place to banish those citizens suffering from the plague. High Castle’s decline mirrored that of the Polish Kingdom. Just as the Kingdom suffered dismemberment by foreign powers, so too did High Castle. In the late 18th century the city’s Austrian overlords oversaw its final destruction. Under the direction of imperial administrators what was left of High Castle was disassembled so the stones could be used in new buildings being constructed in the city. These pieces were blended into other structures to the point that they cannot be discerned. In a historical twist, High Castle had helped start Lviv, to sustain it and was obliterated by a newer version of it.

High Castle Park on a misty November morning

High Castle Park on a misty November morning

Cease to Exist – The Depths Of Lviv
After my researches into the distant past of High Castle I began to have a creeping suspicion that many visitors to Lviv probably feel the same way I did during my first visit. This is when I was in awe of its rustic Renaissance and color coated Baroque architecture. Back then I felt as though the city had been destined to preserve the past. In my mind the same phrase, “this is what the past must have been like” was stuck on repeat. Now I know better. The past presented by Lviv is from the 16th century forward. It is informed as much by what it isn’t, as by what it is, more by what has been lost and can never be recovered. This is Lviv without the Gothic, without the early Middle Ages, detached from its own ancient history. To find this history I needed multiple trips, many walks and runs and readings and a healthy dose of counter-intuition before I realized that to fathom the depths of the past I would have to forget. Forget everything that I had ever seen and experienced in the High Castle and Old Town areas. It required the obliteration of so many memories. It was almost impossible, except for brief moments and trace glimpses. Then and only then was I able to understand all that had been lost at High Castle.

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