An Enduring Mystery – The Knights Templar Castle in Serednie, Ukraine

Mention the Knights Templar and it brings to mind crusaders spearheading the forces of Christendom in their drive to take back the holy land in the Middle East. These were men whose martial prowess instilled fear in the hearts of unbelievers. Their fighting qualities brought them great power which they then parlayed into wealth. The Knights were both on the battlefield and in business. They created what some consider the first multi-national corporation in history. Well-known for the fortresses they constructed across the Middle East and Western Europe, the Knights also developed economic enterprises including farms, vineyards and a primitive form of banking. Their influence was pervasive during the early medieval period. Fortresses and monasteries built by the knights dotted much of Western Europe. These could even be found in central Europe, including Transdanubia and Bohemia. One place you would not expect to find a Knights Templar fortress would be in the remoter reaches of Eastern Europe. That is what makes the castle ruins at Serednie, Ukraine so surprising and fascinating. In the heart of Transcarpathia, equidistant between the region’s two biggest cities of Uzhohord and Mukacheve are the remnants of what was once the furthest Eastern European outpost of the Knights Templar.

The Serednie Castle ruins - oldest medieval castle in Transcarpathia

The Serednie Castle ruins – oldest medieval castle in Transcarpathia (Credit: VargaA)

More Questions Than Answers – The Knights Templar in Transcarpathia
The Knights Templar were one of the most powerful organizations in European history for almost two hundred years, from the 12th century up to their abrupt decline at the beginning of the 14th century. The fortresses they built, such as Serednie castle were representative of that power. Protection of themselves and their business interests was paramount. Even in their current state of dilapidation the rough stone walls at Serednie display their once formidable characteristics. They were two and half meters thick and stood twelve meters high. The main tower was three stories tall. Outside the walls, a system of three ditches covered the approaches. The castle was substantial because it had to be. Serednie was hundreds of kilometers away from the next closest Knights Templar fortress.

The majority of the Knights Templar personnel would have been involved in banking and farming. Very few fighting Knights would have been at the castle. On average only a tenth of all personnel at a Templars complex were Knights. Their interests, especially at an outpost such as Serdenie, had less to do with warfare and more to do with creating wealth. Not exactly the stereotypical image of medieval warriors on the march. Serdenie’s history under the Knights Templar raises many questions, as the most intriguing history so often does. Why did the Knights place a fortress so far afield? Were they hoping to eventually expand their presence in the area? What was their relationship to the locals? Were they seen as mercenaries, savvy financial manipulators or a charitable enterprise?

Knights Templar Cross - an enduring symbol

Knights Templar Cross – an enduring symbol

Suspicions, Confessions & Legends
The Knights were a mysterious organization with secret rituals that aroused suspicion. This ended up bringing the organization to a tragic end after only two centuries. King Phillip IV of France owed them many debts. The easiest way of having those debts cancelled was to persecute the Knights. Trumped up charges were brought against them. Confessions were extracted through torture. Leaders of the Knights Templar were burned at the stake. In 1312 a papal bull by Pope Clement abolished the order. The castle at Serednie was turned over to the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit, a monastic order indigenous to Hungary. The short history of the Knights Templar in Eastern Europe had come to an abrupt end.

The castle they constructed would go on to have a much longer life, at one point owned by the powerful Drugeth Family. Local legend states that the Drugeths had a tunnel dug that connected Serednie with their castle at Uzhhorod. No evidence of this has ever been discovered. Another famous owner of the castle was Istvan Dobo, a noble who enjoys cult-like status in Hungarian history for leading the successful resistance to the Ottoman Turks at the siege of Eger in 1552. The final active days for Serednie Castle occurred in the early 18th century when it was damaged beyond repair during Rakoczi’s War of Independence, pitting Hungarian rebels against the Austrian Habsburgs. As the castle crumbled the locals found a new use for many of the stones, to shore up their own homes.

Serednie Castle was the lone Knights Templar structure in the far eastern reaches of Europe (Credit VargaA)

Serednie Castle was the lone Knights Templar structure in the far eastern reaches of Europe (Credit VargaA)

The Reality of Ruins
The presence of absence informs the history of Serednie Castle. The Knights Templar obviously built Serdenie Castle to last. Little did they know that the ruins would survive them by over seven centuries? The castle – the oldest medieval one in Transcarpathia – was created by an organization of people who have completely vanished. While that lends Serednie Castle to much speculation, it does not begin to fill in the gaps of its early history. The unknown far outweighs the known. A fertile imagination is needed to recreate the physical reality that is now represented by mere ruins. The Ukrainians and Hungarians of today have little knowledge, let alone interest in the Knights Templar. The castle as a Knights Templar outpost is an outlier, detached from any historical continuum in Transcarpathian history. There are no other remnants of the Knights to be found in the surrounding area. The physical legacy they left behind has long since been reduced to crumbling stone works, a historical curiosity. The fact that they have lasted this long is something of a miracle. The fact that the castle was built at all may be an even greater one. As for why, we will probably never know.

The Architecture of Self-Destruction – Nevitsky Castle, Ukraine: A Lesson In Ruins

The extension of the Soviet Union’s borders westward in the aftermath of World War II brought the Transcarpathian region into Ukraine. One of the results of this was that Ukraine would inherit the historic sites in the region, which had very little to do with the overriding majority of Ukrainians. By and large Transcarpathia had a very different history from the rest of Ukraine. The area had been a fringe zone where Hungarians, Poles, Romanians and Rusyns vied for control. One of the sites in the region was Nevitsky castle. It might be said that though the castle is in Ukraine, it is not quite of Ukraine, at least from a historical standpoint.

 Ruins of Nevitsky Castle

The ruins of Nevitsky Castle – evocative and instructive (Credit: Masha Kovalchuk)

Ascendants & Descendants – Nevitsky Castle : The First Two Hundred Years
The history of Nevitsky castle is to a great extent a microcosm of the Kingdom of Hungary’s history during the Middle Ages. It does have some tangential connections to the history of the Ukraine, but these are not nearly as obvious. The first version of the castle was constructed in the early Middle Ages to help protect Hungary from possible invasion by way of the Carpathian Mountain passes to the north. The Hungarians knew from first-hand experience that these passes must be guarded. During the late 9th century, the Hungarians had used one of these passes to sweep into and conqueror the Carpathian Basin. The Hungarians did not want to fall prey to the same stratagem they had used. Thus in the 12th century, Nevitsky Castle was constructed on a 260 meter high volcanic rock outcropping above the Uzh River. This highly strategic point guarded both trade and possible invasion routes. The first version of the castle did little good in slowing down the Mongol advance which came roaring through the area in 1241. The land that is presently Ukraine had already been ravaged by the Mongols, the Kingdom of Hungary was to be next. The Mongols put Nevitsky’s wooden structures to the torch, resulting in its utter ruin.

The Mongols only stayed in the Kingdom of Hungary temporarily before they retreated eastward. The upshot of the Mongol Invasion was an order by Hungarian King Bela IV for stone castles and fortresses to be built in order to better protect the Kingdom. Nevitsky was soon restored and refortified in a much more substantial manner. While Hungary was able to recover from the Mongol disaster relatively quickly, the course of Ukrainian history was irreparably altered by the invasion. Kievan Rus ceased to be the center of power for the Eastern Slavic world. The power base of the Slavic world gravitated to the Grand Duchy of Moscow, what would eventually grow into Tsarist Russia. Meanwhile, as the 14th century dawned Nevitsky once again came under foreign rule, but this time it was not from invasion, but by invitation.  The King of Hungary at the time, Charles Robert, transferred ownership of the castle to members of an Italian family of French origins, the Drugeths. This made sense in light of the fact that Charles Robert had the same ethnic background as the Drugeths. Members of the family had loyally fought on the side of the king in helping defeat rebellious aristocrats to secure his rule. The Drugeths were richly rewarded for their service. Nevitsky was just the start as the Drugeth family began their meteoric ascent to become the largest landowners in the Kingdom of Hungary. Like seemingly everything in the fringe area of Transcarpathia, it would not last.

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River

View over ruins of Nevitsky Castle toward the Uzh River (Credit: Юрій Крилівець)

Enemies Within – The Ruin Of Nevitsky
The decline of the Drugeths and Nevitsky as an active castle came not from without as so often happened in the Kingdom of Hungary’s history, but from within. Family infighting plagued the Drugeths for decades. This led to such bizarre situations as the time when in 1600 one family member besieged the castle with a 3,000 man strong army. Inside the walls were the wife and children of the recently deceased head of the Drugeths. They were forced to flee and leave the country. Land and power trumped bloodlines. The end for Nevitsky came less than half a century later. The Drugeths were supporting the Catholic Habsburgs. In the Middle Ages, religion was a much stronger identifier than nationality. The problem for the Drugeths is that Nevitsky was situated in an area consumed by Protestant fervor. They incurred the wrath of the powerful Transylvanian princes. In 1644, Gyorgy Rakoczi I, Prince of Transylvania captured Nevitsy, destroying much of the castle. A new chapter in the castle’s history dawned that continues up through the present, the castle as a ruin.

Today when visitors go to Nevitsky they can see one of the original towers still intact. There are also substantial portions of the walls. There is always something romantic and evocative about ruins that lends them to the imagination. The act of imagination can also distract from the lessons and instructiveness of such ruins. Despite its position towering above the Uzh River, despite multiple constructions that upgraded its defenses, despite the wealth and power of the Drugeths, Nevitsky eventually failed. The seeds of its destruction came from within. For all the chaos and violence imposed on Hungary by the Mongols, Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs, the ultimate problem came from within. Whether it was the divisions of a family, of the nobility, of religion, or of nationalities the weakness engendered by internecine disputes was ultimately a fatal flaw that time and again brought the Kingdom of Hungary defeat and eventually destruction. The ruins of Nevitsky Castle can be seen as a physical manifestation of this trend.

The ruins of Nevitsky castle

The ruins of Nevitsky castle – a window into the past (Credit: Anatoliy Fedusenko)

Disunity – A Warning To Ukraine
Nevitsky Castle’s ruins are now a much visited tourist spot in modern Ukraine. The place and its history would seem to have little to do with Ukrainians, but it still offers lessons. Presently Ukraine is embroiled in a war on its eastern border. Russia has done much to bring this about, fomenting discontent and violence. These insidious efforts have been aided by disunity inside Ukraine. This war is not just between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, but also between Ukrainians themselves. There are regional differences, religious differences, generational differences, economic differences. All these divisions only serve to weaken Ukraine. What will the end result be? The ruins of Nevitsky Castle serve as a warning of what the future might hold for Ukraine if it fails to unite.

To Watch The World & Yourself Fade Away – Banksa Stiavnica

When you end up in the middle of a place you never could have imagined, in a town whose name you have never heard of, when you learn fascinating details about the place that they probably should have taught you in history class but never did and never will, then you know you are in Banska Stiavnica.

In Defiance of Disbelief – All the Banska Stiavnica’s
There are countless Banska Stiavnica’s and you never even noticed them. They can be discovered hiding throughout Eastern Europe. That’s because Banska Stiavnica is representative of all the Gyors and Soprons, the Sibius and Clujs, the Veliko Tarnovas and Plovdivs, the Lvivs and Uzhhorods that exist outside both historical and travel consciousness. They are all uniquely distinct cities, both large and small. Secret finds and fascinating surprises that capture, first your imagination and then steal your heart. They punch above their weight in atmospherics and aesthetics. Delightful in the way they soar through you and then seep back into your memory many months later. They are the delights of the selfish traveler, all yours and only yours because the people you keep company with back home would not even begin to consider visiting them.

One World Fades Into Another - A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

One World Fades Into Another – A scene looking up and out from a corner in Banska Stiavnica

Banska Stiavnica is a hallmark example for these types of places. It has a quaint grandeur all its own. This little city, with a population of barely ten thousand, has an outsized history which is betrayed by its current size and lack of prominence. A potted history of Banska Stiavnica goes something like this: It was a mining mecca starting in the early Middle Ages. First declared a royal free town in the mid-13th century by King Bela IV of Hungary (Hungarians call the city Selmecbanya), the town grew quickly into one of the most important mining communities in the world. Skilled German miners (Germans call the city Chemnitz) were invited by the Hungarian kings to provide the expertise and labor to excavate the vast silver and gold reserves in the area. The city enjoyed a series of recurrent booms spurred on by the ingenuity of miners and engineers.

Historic & Forgotten Firsts – The Hidden History of a Five Hundred Year Boom
Among the historic firsts that happened at Banska Stiavnica include the first use of steam driven mechanisms to expunge water from mining areas and the world’s first polytechnic university. Incredibly the good times ebbed and flowed for over five hundred years. By the late 18th century Banska Stiavnica was the third largest city in the Kingdom of Hungary, ahead of even Buda and Pest in population at that time. Strangely enough, while the population was at its pinnacle with 40,000-odd residents in 1782, the mines had already been in terminal decline for several decades. Lacking economic diversification, Banska Stiavnica soon faded into obscurity.

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

Stary Zamok (Old Castle) in Banska Stiavnica

The city’s rich (quite literally) past is still physically represented by the superb architectural wonders straddling its serpentine streets. There are two castles within a ten minute walk of one another. The most impressive of these, Stary Zamok (Old Castle), is a three nave Romanesque style, part spiritual, part military fortress. What had started as a church had been fortified to fend off the Turks during the 16th century. It is an intriguing synthesis of the religious and the martial. In Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square), at the city’s heart, stands a very large Baroque plague column. It attracts the eyes and humbles the heart, a monument to those who suffered the scourges of centuries past. Either side of the square is lined with Romanesque and Renaissance era burgher’s houses. Further afield the colorful buildings continue.

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

The Baroque Plague Column in Namestie sv Trojice (Holy Trinity Square)

A Lifetime’s Worth of Discovery – Glory of the Faded & Forgotten
The city’s setting, in an expansive wooded valley with hills rising on several sides, lends an air of dramatic natural beauty. Taking it all in, the traveler gets the sense of a deep and penetrating history that pervades Banska Stiavnica. It is enough to make the traveler want to settle in for what might become a lifetime long sojourn of sipping coffee and reading historical tomes in sleepy cafés. Another alternative is just as inviting, to use Banska Stiavnica as a stimulus to continue teasing out all the hidden in plain sight places that lie in between the more well-known places on the map of Eastern Europe. How many other Banska Stiavnica’s are out there, likely a lifetime’s worth. For those who say that everything has been discovered, Banska Stiavnica and cities like it put the lie to that cliché. Discovery is not about some vague historical personage stumbling on the New World. Instead discovery is something deeply personal, finding a place where you find yourself.

The crazy thing is that for the completely curious, those who cannot wander far enough, who have to keep pushing into the deeper recesses of the atlas, there are always going to be more remote spaces and unimaginable places with semi-pronounceable names to discover. The idea that they are all out there waiting, is enough to set the pulses of wayward travelers racing. They are an avenue into a wider world, stretching across thousands of invisible kilometers, space and time captured by a wandering heart. True discovery lurks in these in-between spaces. The places you were never required to know or consider but forever exist in a state of suspended anonymity.

A window into the present and a reflection of the past - the allure of Banska Stiavnica

A window into the present and a reflection of the past – the allure of Banska Stiavnica

Stay (Faraway, So Close)
There is this idea with travel that if you go long enough and far enough, you will eventually have seen it all or at the very least exhausted your curiosity. Then abruptly the affair will end and you will retire to a cubicle and life of disciplined domesticity, climb the ladder into middle management, live a nice quiet life sleeping in on Saturdays and one day telling the grandkids you visited Banska Stiavnica. They will look at you like the crazy old man you have become, dreaming of the days when you owed the world nothing and tramped into parts unknown. There is another way this comfortingly sad tale might end. What if you went to Banska Stiavnica and never left. Decided to stay there and watch the world along with your life slowly grow old and familiar until, like this slumbering old mining city, it finally fades away.