Khotyn Fortress: a millennial stronghold on the Dnister

Among numerous historical monuments of Bukovyna no one can be compared to medieval Khotyn Fortress - a stronghold famous throughout Europe for great battles in the past. It is a little more than 60 km from Chernivtsi to Khotyn, which is a district center of Chernivtsi region today.


The city of Khotyn, where the eminent fortress is situated, celebrated its thou­sandth anniversary in 2002, so it is, per­haps, the oldest city in Chernivtsi region.

According to archaeologists the initial wooden-earthen castle with a settlement near it appeared at the turn of the 11th century. The oldest fortifications of Kho­tyn castle have not been preserved since they were pulled down during the con­struction of stone walls in the 13th cen­tury.

From the 11th to 14th centuries this area was part of early medieval Ukrainian states: Kyiv Rus, Galician, and then Galician-Volhynian principalities, and was registered in documents as "Galician Ukraine." At that time an international trade route, leading from the main trade centers of Central and Eastern Europe -Krakow and Lviv - to the Black Sea ports, passed through this locality. The location of Khotyn in this route, close to the con­venient ferry across the Dniester, deter­mined the future fate of the city. It be­came a market town and fortress, which guaranteed safety of the international tradeat this section, and protected the south­eastern borders of the state. In the 13th century, under the order of king Danylo Galician, in place of the old wooden for­tress there was, built a stone fortress, which during the ensuing centuries was rebuilt and improved more than once by subsequent rulers of Khotyn and Khotyn land: Moldavian rulers, Polish kings,Turk­ish sultans.

First documentary reference to Khotyn dates from the 14th century. During the Middle Ages, the period of Moldavian principality, Khotyn was already famous for its fairs, which were attended by mer chants from neighboring lands. Secretar of papal nuncio A. Graciani, who traveler through the Dniester reaches in the 15th century, was impressed by Khotyn fair and wrote in this respect:"From here, from Moldavia, they export many bulls the meat of which is used for food not only by the population of Hungary and Rus, but also by Poles, Germans, and even Italians, particularly Venice."

 However, Khotyn entered into Euro­pean history due to the Khotyn war of 1621, which became a symbol of Cossack's valor. In Au­gust and September that year a fierce battle took place on the walls of the fortress: the united Polish-Ukrainian forces -the 35 thousand strong Polish army under the command of hetman Jan Karol Khodkevich, and the 40 thousand strong Cossack army under hetman Petro Sahaidachny, resisted the 250 thousand strong Turkish army of sultan Osman II. The Turks brought to Khotyn even combat elephants, but nothing could break the fighting spirit of the fortress'defenders. One of the partici­pants in this battle, Ya. Sobesky, de­scribed it as follows: "More than 60 can­ons were thundering incessantly, the sky was ablaze with a mighty mass of flame, the earth was trembling, the forests groaned, the cliffs split asunder. It is im­possible to describe what the eyes saw in one day..."

The staunchness of the Cossacks and their partners forced the sultan to con­clude peace with Rzeczpospolita, and re­treat back beyond the Danube. Historians admit that the battle of Khotyn of 1621 saved Europe from the Ottoman expan­sion. The valor of the Cossacks and Polish nights was glorified in folk dumas and poems that were created throughout Sla­vic world.

In the early 18th century, before the growing Russian expansion to the south, the Ottoman Porte decided to turn Khotyn into the main outpost on the Dniester. In 1715 Turkish administration was introduced in Khotyn volost, and the volost became an administrative unit of the empire. It should be noted that taxes there were lower than in neighboring lands, including Bukovyna, which caused migration of runaways from landlords' arbitrariness to Khotyn.

From 1711 to 1718 the Turks, with the  assistance of French engineers, con­verted Khotyn fortress into the most un­assailable bastion of Central and Eastern Europe. Near the old castle there was, built a new fortress, which was rectangu­lar in form and occupied an area of 250x1200 m. It was counted for a 20 thousand strong garrison. The basis of the fortifications consisted of powerful earthen ramparts, bastions, and wide ditches built of ashlars. The ramparts had gates with towers: Kamyanetska, Yasska, Benderska, Ruska, and Podilska. A mosque and minaret were built within the new fortress as well.

During the Turkish rule economic life became animated again. The local mer­chants began to export sheep, sheep cheese, butter, and honey to Stamboul, wax, to Venice. Khotyn shops traded in kitchen-ware imported from Turkey, namely kettles, coffee pots, beakers, knives, smoking pipes, coffee, tobacco, emons, dates, raisins, and other wonders unknown to Khotyn residents before.

The Turks left behind a quiet town with stone mosques, streets paved with round stones, beautiful gardens and fountains.

In 1806 another Russian-Turkish war broke out, at the outset of which the czarist army conquered Khotyn fortress, and held it until the Bucharest peace treaty was singed in 1912. Under its con­ditions the territory between the Dni­ester and Prut rivers became part of the Russian empire, obtaining the name of Bessarabia.

New rulers undertook to exterminate all traces of their predecessors in the con­quered territory. Thus, on December 6, 1806, the Turkish stone mosque was re­converted to Christianity and given the name of St.. Nicholas. Another mosque was reconverted into the garrison church of Alexander Nevski.

For justice, it should be noted that during Turkish times the local Ukrainians freely practiced Orthodox faith, and new churches were built in many villages.

During the first half of the 19th century Khotyn fortress remained under the supervi­sion of the military department: damage control was carried out, and fortifications were reconstructed. During the Crimean war more than

300 Khotyn residents worked daily at strengthening fortifications.

The experience of the war evinced new tendencies in military tactics. Khotyn for­tress lost its former strategic significance, and was transferred to the local adminis­tration. Meanwhile, Khotyn inhabitants, taking into account their frontier disposi­tion, switched over to smuggling out vodka, tobacco, textiles, and tea.

Over the last few decades of Soviet rule the glorious fortress gradually declined in spite of a constant interest in it on the part of cinema-men: the roof rotted through, the walls crumbled away. Resto­ration work began only on the eve of Khotyn's millennium's celebrations.Today the fortress, under protection of the State historical and cultural reserve "Khotyn Fortress," little by little returns its lost ap­pearance: steeplejacks have covered the roof with shingles, the gate and towers have been restored, the medieval church within the fortress, once converted into a mosque, is being restored.

Khotyn and Cossack valor holidays are becoming traditional.

Over the last few years the staff, of the reserve together with the archeologists of Chernivtsi University carried out ar­chaeological dig of the ruins of a Moslem religious structure with minaret found apposite the Church of Alexander Nevski. It was established that the mosque and the minaret were built in first decades of the 18th century, using the technology of the ancient times. It was also found out that the structures were raised in place of a big settlement of the 11th-12th century, the predecessor of the Old Rus city of Khotyn.

The layers of different epochs and cul­tures are deeply intertwined in the terri­tory of the old fortress, creating an inimi­table mosaic of an original corner of Ukraine :)