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The Old Castle of Trakai and the Karaites [ di Aldo Carlo Marturano ]

Another Jewish Mystery in the Russian Middle Ages

Some years ago when I was in Vilnius on a weekend for my studies I was advised to take once a train for Trakai and visit its castles.
This was actually the town where the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had been born and it woke up my curiosity. In about 40 minutes I arrived at the ancient capital city. I got off the train and went directly to the Tourist Point’s to collect some more information.
Trakai is located on a narrow tongue of land inserted in the waters of a few lakes and marshes (Galve is the largest lake of them all!) and the two castles are located one in the middle and the other at the Northern end of the peninsula. The building of the castle in the middle had been started by the Great Prince Keistutis, one of the sons of Ghedimin’s, in the XIV century and was supposed to defend him from the continuous attacks of the Teutonic Knights. The other castle had been built successively when the efficacity of the defence of the old one turned useless against the new weapons brought in by the warfare technique of the XVI cent.
The New Castle lays today, completely restored, about a mile away from the Old One.
I was now walking over Vytautas Street (Lith. Vytauto Gatve) and after the crossing with Keistutis Street (Lith. Keistučio Gatve) all of a sudden I was standing before the ruins of the Old Castle. The ruins are still fascinating even tho the stout building lays in a quasi abandonment. The roofing has partly collapsed but the whole of the brick construction is standing imposively.
According to the information I got a few frescoes and ornaments had been found by the archeologists and, o wonder!, they are in a pure Byzantine style! Of course, along with these unexpected founds, also Gothic elements are present in the architecture especially if you take a glance at the shape of the windows which are narrow and ending in a Gothic arch. How could Gothic match with Byzantine painting? There is no record that Byzantine fresco painters had been invited to Trakai on this purpose. Other entries however have to be pointed out before coming to the zest of what I started to call a mystery.
The use of bricks is general and well evident and the overall plan of the construction is a square while the castle location is chosen in accordance with the warfare technique guidelines of the XIII-XIV cent.
The façade is looking West and the main entrance is in a huge arched gate built in an enormous lookout tower. The tower is over 20 m high, also with a square plan of its own, and half of its body juts out from the forewall. It has a two-sided hip roof. A wall is connected wings-like with this tower on both sides and this is the whole frontside of the building. Perpendicularly to each endcorner two other building corpuses are attached. They run along the opposite sides of the square and accomodate the habitation premises. They leave free an openair space i.e. the inner yard. The forth side of the square opposite to the façade is a hardly unrecognizable colonnade, as I could see.
The two habitation buildings are twostoreyed, have wooden balustrades running in the inner side while in the ground floor the stables, the kitchen and other rooms of maintenance are located. The inner yard (20x10 m) was used for banquets and feasts and as a reception ground for the guests who were allowed to ride in with horses and carriages.
Like any other fortress the castle has a moat all around it (fed by the lake water) that separates the main building from a forecastle and had a drawbridge for the access.
The builder’s and designer’s names remain unknown hereto but I was sure that a Byzantine artist inspired this layout.
In fact I remembered I saw the plans of another castle with similar features but it was somewhere faraway from Trakai: The Palace of the Byzantine prince Alexis Paleologue at Mangup-Kale, the capital city of the ancient Princedom of Teodoro which lasted till the XV cent. in Crimea!
Moreover the castle reminded me of some Palazzi in Venice... How could it be?
I was puzzled now! So, I went back to the history of Lithuania and I found that the Venetian Ambassador, Mr. Contarini, visited the Castle of Trakai in 1477 and reported that it was much like a residence of the Great Prince’s than a fortress... just as the Palazzi of the Venetian Nobility! Why Contarini was expressing such an opinion?
As far as it is known Venice built the Palazzi for its noble families after Byzantine models... How did these models look like? No traces of them have remained in Constantinople... The only way to know it was to refer to the descriptions that the visitors gave of them. So I went back into the Byzantine records and it was a real fatigue!
At last I was lucky! I learnt that the Fondaco dei Turchi in Venice was constructed by Byzantine masters or on Byzantine plans and therefore following the documented history of this building which existed I could connect it with Trakai Castle and explain the resemblances.
Too many elements apparently coincided but I had to find some historical relationship that could tie Trakai Castle with Mangup-Kale or at large with Venice and Costantinople.
The Trakai Castle had been inhabited after Keistutis’s death by his son Vytautas and this prince had many contacts with Crimea through the Mongolic State of the socalled Golden Orde. It might be that in these relationships I could find some key to solve the mystery!
During Vytautas times some hundred prisoners had been captured by this prince in his 1369 campaign that reached Solkhat in the inner Crimean mountains. The prisoners appeared to be all belonging to a Jewish Community living in the mountains in troglodithic houses i.e. excavated in the rock as eagle nests and they were calling themselves Karaites.
The Karaites by that date were among the Golden Orde’s subjects since a long time and now, for hereto unclarified reasons, were appointed by the Lithuanian prince as his personal bodyguards. They had to move to Trakai where they were granted houses and land to cultivate as a reward for their services to Vytautas!
I remember that some years ago I made a research on the Empire of the Jewish Khazars and their cultural and political influence in the formation and origins of the state of Kievan Rus’ and I condensed my experiences and results in my book, Mescekh, the Land of the Forgotten Jews, published in Italian on 2004. As a matter of course I also tried, during this research of mine, to see whether any rest of this Jewish empire could be found somewhere between the river Volga and the South of the Great Ucrainian Steppe as I could not give up thinking that the traces of such a powerful state could disappear even after more than a thousand years.
At that occasion I met the first time with the Karaites who seemed to have retained Jewish religious rites and creed as per Moshe’s Books... in Crimea!
These people did not hold however, had they ever spoken it as their hometongue, the use of Hebrew and spoke Tatar-turkish instead, except in the lithurgy and in the reading of the Torah. The same the Khazars did! Could they be this latter people’s descendants? How to explain their probable appurtenance to the Universal Jewry if they accepted uniquely the Torah as their sacred texts but rejected the Talmud and the Mishnah? Could perhaps their isolation in the faroff Crimea justify their peculiarity?
I must thank Mr. Valentin I. Kefeli’s works, an agronomist and a passionated researcher of the history of the Karaites, if I can be able to line out a condensed history of his people here. It is not secondary to recall that it was also Mr. Kefeli who founded a Karaite Magazine and above all the International Organization of the Crimean Karaites.
The remote origins of this community are likely to be found in ancient Persia where a rigidly orthodoxic Jewish Sect had been founded by a certain Anan ben David in the VIII century a.C. Those Jewish sectarians moved over to the Caucasus later on and probably had been the élite of the Khazar Empire (v. my book, Mescekh etc. or Kevin Brook’s and Koestler’s). Due to this the Karaites of Crimea may represent what remains today of the Khazars who were the sovereigns in the Black Sea Northern coasts and in Crimea till the second half of the X cent. up till when Svyatoslav of Kiev in 965 a.C. hit a final hard blow on their state.
Karaiteshould derive from Hebrew Karaim i.e. the Readers just because this Jewish Sect did not accept that other books could be written beside the Torah and therefore they read but did not write! Anyhow it is a big problem to list the Karaites together with other Jewish Sects of the Universal Jewry as they usually refuse to be considered part of the Elected People (this was the strong opinion of the famous Abraham Firkovich till his death in Vilnius).
According to Kevin Brook (it is very interesting to visit his website www.khazaria) the language spoken by the Karaites belongs to the Turkish spoken by the ancient Polovtsi (the Cumans of the Western Chronicles) or Kiptchaks who were the major part of the Mongolic State called the Golden Orde (or Sarai Orde) when the Mongols invaded Europe in the XIII century.
As far as we know the Genoese and Venetian communities haunted the coasts of Crimea since remote times down to the XIV century and therefore some information about the Karaites should exist in their archives.
What do the Italian Seapowers of those days say about the Karaites? Not much!
It is recorded that the Karaites inhabited an inner area called Gazzaria together with other populations (the Italian word gazzarra meaning bedlam i.e. a place where many people speak different incomprehensible languages, is still used and derives from it). The term Gazzaria seems to be a corruption of the Latin-greek word Khazarìa i.e. the Land of the Khazars. However, by the same token, it could also be a misreading of Gozaria or Gotharia as in the same area lived the remainders of an ancient Gothic population (till the XVI century!).
Who might then say what is right and what is wrong?
The records about the Karaites practically fade away by the XIV cent. and the only information that we have goes back to the Russian Chronicles where by the XIII cent. it is mentioned that by order of Danilo Prince of Galitch and Volynia a group of Karaites was transplanted in the area of Lutsk near the town of Vladimir of Volynia.
The Karaites were picked up from their particular grotto housings in Mangup-Kalè and Kyrk-Er where they consisted already in a large but closed community of their own separate from the other Crimean Turks who arrived later.
Then Vytautas came and transplanted them in Trakai.
When they landed in Lithuania they soon spread from Trakai to Vilnius and Panevezhis.
Trakai anyhow was the very core of their new life and here they built their Kenasa (the word is a variation of the old Hebrew Kaniza or Knesseth, ultimately derived from Greek Ekklesìa, and meant place where the elected reunite) and here they had their marts and festivals. The Karaites held (they still do!) the renown of a people absolutely jealous of their traditions and customs (they do not accept any blood mixtures with strangers! They breed within their kinfolks!) and owing to this they were considered as honest and faithful as no one else. These were for sure the features that had moved Vytautas to take his Karaite prisoners along with him as he was always in danger of life due to his steady enmity with his cousin, the King of Poland Ladislaus Jagello (Jogaila in Lith.), and therefore trusted no local people around his person. Jagello was suspected to pay every now and then killers to assassinate Vytautas and get rid of his legit competition for the throne of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
The Karaite Community received very accurate orders from Vytautas: They should take care of his physical defence! The bodyguards must accompany him everywhere during his movements... Their presence is recorded even at the Grunwald-Tannenberg Battle of 1410!
Actually in consequence of the uses and customs of his bodyguards Vytautas could sleep in full tranquillity: It was well known that whenever a Karaite took a task over himself he was ready to pay with his life not to infringe the compact binding him with his partner! If he fell or was in danger the whole Community was with him ready to help till the extreme sacrifice!
Their Head and Spiritual father was called Gaham (i.e. Hebrew Gaon) and every event had to be reported to him.
Of course if we have a look at the Karaites and how they dug out their houses in the mountains of Crimea, we have to give for granted that they were much skilled as carpenters and housebuilders... According to the records, however, when the Karaites arrived at Trakai the Old Castle was already in use, so the mystery is: Is it a pure case that the Karaites had been brought to be the watchmen of the Old Castle of Trakai or perhaps their task was also to cooperate in the rebuilding of the whole construction. They had for sure the reminiscence of the Teodoro Castle in Mangup-Kale with traps and hidden subterranean gangways... If so, it is clear that a remake of the castle took place but why no record has been kept of it? Besides, according to the records of Vytautas’s life we know that he needed all kinds of makeshifts to escape his killers and therefore there was no time to keep up with housebuilging activities, probably!
Some more material should be collected in the future to understand fully the role of the Karaites in the life of the Old Trakai Castle because surely it does exist a tighter bond with this building beside the bodyguarding.
The Karaites Street is still there even today and holds its Lithuanian name: Karaimu Gatve. Here the Kenasa is to be found at No. 20 while a Museum stands a little farther.
The Community is remarkable for many a feature. It has practically no trace of illiteracy among the members and many Karaites become Academicians and Scientists. In the past they were famous at Vilnius markets for their gherkins that they cultivated and pickled by their own recipes or for dried fish that they angled in the lakes and dried in the wind for the sale.
It is typical of the Karaite Street in Trakai that all houses by the evening of Friday become suddenly dark for all lights and fires are turned off and nobody is to be seen around till next Sunday. This behavior complies strictly with what the Exodus says: You shall burn no fire in the day of Shabbath and further on Nobody shall leave his home in the Seventh Day! Therefore also in the cold Lithuanian Winters where –30 ° Celsius temperatures may be reached the Karaites obey these laws!
I stop here but I sincerely hope that this very short contribution of mine to the history of the Karaites of Lithuania has raised the reader’s attention and I expect him therefore to visit Trakai in the near future.
It is a pity that he has missed the 1997 Festival sponsored by the Lithuanian Government reminding the six-hundred-year lifespan of this small European Minority which, as it is the right of any community, has kept the whole of its identity and traditions untouched down to the present.

Documento inserito il: 23/12/2014
  • TAG: castello trakai, fortezza karaites, medio evo russia

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