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.

A City Created By Flames Of Fire (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #1)

Fire has brought more cities to an end, than to a beginning. The opposite is true for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Fire brought the Lviv into historical existence. Yet multiple times fire threatened to extinguish the city forever, only for Lviv to rise from the ashes, created anew.

No one can say with certainty when the area that would become Lviv had enough population to be called a settlement or village. Archaeologists have found traces of human habitation in the boggy valley of the Poltva River going all the way back to the 5th century AD. Excavations have yielded a vague outline of early settlement in the area, but they only offer fragments of evidence rather than a clear picture. It would not be until the late Middle Ages, in the middle of the 13th century, that the city known today as Lviv was formally created. As the story goes, King Danylo Romanovych (Daniel of Galicia) founded the city and then bequeathed it as a gift to his son Lev (Lev I of Galicia), from which the name Lviv comes, meaning belonging to Lev. While this story is often repeated as the beginning of Lviv it was not what confirms the historical existence of the city. Instead, the actual historical beginning of Lviv starts in 1256 with a fire seen in the distance. This is ironic considering that on numerous occasions fires brought the city to ruin.

A flame of pure fire

A flame of pure fire – creator, destroyer, illuminator & Transformer of Historic Lviv

Coming Into History – The Emergence of Lviv
Lviv surfaces into history not through deeds but words, specifically written words. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle mentions that a major fire was seen “from Lviv” in 1256. This must have been quite a fire to be seen from afar. Witnesses of this conflagration may well have been standing on the High Castle or Lysa Gora areas, a couple of prominent hills which rise on a ridge that can be found to the east-northeast of today’s Rynok Square. Wherever the blaze was spied from, it would be the first of innumerable occasions in which residents of Lviv would witness major fires. Unfortunately, these fires were found in the city itself, with often disastrous consequences. Almost all the structures in Medieval Lviv were constructed out of wood. The threat of an all-consuming fire was a constant danger. Several safeguards were put into place to mitigate the possibility of a raging inferno.

Watchmen walked the city streets throughout the night to make sure that the citizenry did not leave a single light on in their homes. Obeying these watchmen was a matter of both structural and self-preservation. If someone was found guilty of causing a fire that resulted in deaths, they could end up having their arm severed. Even worse, some accidental arsonists were tossed into the flames and burned alive, in a bit of retaliatory justice. Such cruelty seems excessive, but in light of the calamitous destruction that could result from a fire the city needed the strongest deterrent possible. Stopping people from causing fires was one thing, but nature also threatened fiery destruction. In 1510, three bolts of lightning struck the city in succession. This led to many houses burning down in residential areas.

Lviv in the 17th century

Lviv in the 17th century – a product of reconstruction

All Consuming Fires – Destructions & Reconstructions
The famously destructive fire of 1527 illustrates how a conflagration could lead to both utter ruin and paradoxically the re-creation of Lviv. Following an inordinately, dry spring season the city was a virtual tinderbox. A hot, windy day in early June set the stage for what would become the worst fire in Lviv’s history. The blaze began in of all places, a small brewery situated in the heart of the walled city on Virmenska Street (Armenian Street). Soon the flames spread out in every direction. Nearly every wooden structure in the city burned to the ground. Only two buildings were left intact, the City Hall and a house in an outlying suburb. Church bells and artillery pieces were melted by the extreme heat. Even stone buildings were destroyed. Lviv was left a smoldering ruin. Interestingly, this turned out to be a watershed moment in the architectural history of the city. Gothic Lviv was forever gone.

New buildings were raised in the Renaissance style and made mostly of stone. In 1540 wooden construction was banned. And yet the fires still continued. In 1556 another conflagration burned parts of the city. A mere fifteen years later, the entire Jewish district of the city was totally destroyed by a fire. It was not until the mid-19th century after the city was firmly under Austrian rule that a professional firefighting squad was created. Modernization brought the development of city fire departments. Eventually fires became rarer, just as building materials had become less flammable and more permanent. If not for such changes Lviv would be devoid of the stunning architecture which garnered the old city center protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conversely, if not for fire the Lviv of today would not exist.

Putting Out Flames - The Fire Department in Lviv

Putting Out Flames – The Fire Department in Lviv

A Fire In The Distance
The city’s unique Renaissance and Baroque, architectural styles rose from the ashes of many different Lvivs that existed and were subsequently extinguished. Fire reshaped Lviv in ways that would have been impossible to imagine when the city was first conceived. Fire also brought Lviv into the historical conscious. A fire in the distance brought the city that was rising from the valley of the Poltva into the pages of history. Lviv and its history started, but never ended with fire. Instead it was to be consumed, transformed and illuminated by fire.