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a cura di Aldo C. Marturano, pag. 25


Il castello di Trakai



Some years ago when I was in Vilnius for my studies on a weekend I decided at once to take a train for Trakai.

I had been told of the existence of two castles in that town where the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had been born and this 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 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 to nil 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 kernel 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.

Inner Yard

The façade is looking West and the main entrance is in a huge arched gate obtained 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 the tower on both sides and this is the frontside of the building. Perpendicularly to each end of the forewall two other building corpuses are attached. They run along the two parallel sides of the square plan and constitute the habitation premises. They leave an openair free space in between which represents the inner yard. The last side of the square opposite to the façade is a transverse colonnade which today is unrecognizable as I could see.

The two habitation buildings are twostoreyed, have wooden balustrades running in the inner side while in the ground floor looking into the yard the stables, the kitchen and other maintenance services are located. The large yard (20x10 m) was used for banquets and feasts and as a reception ground for the guests riding in with horses and carriages.

Like any other fortress this castle has a moat all around it (fed by the lake waters) that parts 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 the layout d some other arrangements.

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 did not the castle also remind me of some Palazzi of Venice ? I was puzzled now!

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 Noblemen!

What was the real connection that suggested Contarini to express 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 if no traces of them have remained in Constantinople ?  The only way to know it is to refer to the descriptions that the visitors gave of them. To do this I had to go back into the Byzantine records and it appeared to be a real fatigue!

In spite of all 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 I could connect it with Trakai Castle and explain the resemblances.

Too many elements apparently coincided but I found no real historical relationship among them that could tie Trakai Castle with Mangup-Kale or 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 sime key to solve this strangeness!

During Vytautas times in fact 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 and now, for hereto unclarified reasons, were appointed by the Lithuanian prince as his personal bodyguards and moved 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 resign in 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 rites and religious creed as per Moshe’s Books... in Crimea !

These people did not however, had they ever spoken it as their hometongue, hold the use of Hebrew except in the lithurgy and in the reading of the Torah and spoke Tatar-turkish instead. The same as 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 this 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 the Khazar state.

Karaite should 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) and by the 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 up 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 but, by the same token, it could also be a misreading of Gozaria or Gotiaria as in the same area lived rests 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 go 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 the region of 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, so let us follow now the Karaites in their new situation.

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’s decision 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.). This latter was suspected to pay killers to assassinate Vytautas and get rid of his competition for the throne of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania .

The Community received very accurate orders from Vytautas: They should take care of the personal defence of the Prince! The bodyguards must accompany him everywhere during his movements and their presence is even witnessed at the Grunwald-Tannenberg Battle of 1410!

Actually in consequence of the uses and customs of his bodyguards Vytautas could sleep in full tranquillity: Whenever a Karaite took a task over himself he was ready to pay with his life not to infringe the compact binding him to his partner! The whole Community moreover was with his member ready to help him till the extreme sacrifice!

Their Head and the spiritual father of all local Karaites was called Gaham (i.e. Hebrew Gaon) and everything must be reported to him.

Of course the Karaites if we have a look at how they dug out their houses in the mountain walls should be very much skilled carpenters and builders...

According to the records 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 watch the Old Castle of Trakai or perhaps their task was also to cooperate in the rebuilding bringing along the reminiscence of the Teodoro Castle in Mangup-Kale with traps and hidden subterranean gangways? If so, it is clear 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!

Probably some more materials should be collected in the future to understand fully the role of the Karaites in the life of the Old Trakai Castle because surely a tighter bond with this building does exist 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 at No. 22.

The Community is noticeable for many a feature. It has practically no trace of illiteracy and many Karaites are Academicians and Scientists. In the past they were famous at Vilnius markets for their gherkins that they cultivated and pickled by own recipes and for dried fish that they angled in the lakes and sold in the markets.

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 their 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 he is expected 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 held untouched up to the present the whole of its identity and traditions.


Selected Literature

Aldo C. Marturano, Mescekh, il Paese degli Ebrei dimenticati, 2004.

Kevin Brooks, The Jews of Khazaria, 2002.

V. I. Kefeli & E. I. Lebedeva, The Caraims, an ancient Crimean People, 2003.

T. M. Fadeeva & A. K. Shaposhnikov, The Princedom of Teodoro and its sovereigns, 2005.





©2006 Aldo C. Marturano.



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