Kieff – Russian Travel

In the beginning of the eleventh century, Kieff, after Constantinople, was the largest and richest town in Eastern Europe; but the chronicler Ditmar records that in 1124, the year before the death of Monomachus, in a great fire which occurred, as many as six hundred churches and chapels were burned in Kieff. This fact shows the flourishing state of religion in the capital at that time.

The political ascendency of Kieff was brief. In 1158 the capital was transferred to Vladimir, and the grand dukes of Kieff, Vladimir, and Novogorod soon became merged into the Czar of Muscovy. Meanwhile the riches of the ancient capital were a constant attraction to its enemies, and it was four times destroyed: in 1171 by the army of Andrew, Prince of Sousdalia; in 1240 by the Mongol Bati Khan; in 1416 by the Tartars; and in 1584 by the Crimean Tartars, incited by Ivan III. of Moscow. After the last destruction it was deserted for ten years, then rebuilt. It is still, in spite of all its misfortunes, the fourth city in importance of the Russian Empire, but, tho it occupies forty square kilometers, it has only eighty thousand inhabitants; without increasing its limits externally, it could receive three times that number if all its waste places were built upon. Kieft is the sacred city, the “Holy Place” of Southern Russia, the Kiouba or Sambatas of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the Kouyaba of the Arabs, the Man-Kerman of the Tartars. As the Great Russian speaks of “Holy Mother Moscow,” so the Little Russian speaks of “Holy Mother Kieff.”

Kieff is formed by a collection of towns, difficult of access from one another. The as-cents and descents are well managed, but interminable. Open vans instead of omnibuses meet the traveler at the station, and take him across the hills to the fashionable quarter of the town; which occupies the hollow between the Town on the Cliff, which contains the cathedral and the principal churches, and that called Pecherskoi, which contains the famous monastery. The Podol, or mercantile part of the town, lies in the plain of the Dnieper, behind the Town on the Cliff.

Immediately behind the hotel rises the hill—”The Cliff”—ascending which we first reach upon the left the vast enclosure of the Monastery of St. Michael of the Golden Head, surmounted by many gilt domes. Originally dating from the first years of the twelfth century, when it was founded by Sviatopolk, grandson of Yaroslaf, who was buried within its walls, it was rebuilt in 1523. The church contains the silver shrine of St. Barbara, the patroness of armorers and soldiers and protectress against lightning, who suffered martyrdom in 303, having been converted to Christianity at Alexandria by Origen. The relics of the saint were brought to Russia by Barbara, first wife of Sviatopolk, who was daughter of the Emperor of Constantinople. Against the iconastos is the diamond-set icon of St. Michael, which Alexander I. took with him through the whole campaign of 1812. Curious reliefs represent St. George and St. Demetrius fighting dragons.

Facing us, across the open space on the left, stands the gigantic belfry which forms the approach to an enclosure containing the magnificent Cathedral of St. Sophia, “the marvel of the Ukraine,” which disputes with the cathedral of Tchernigow the palm of being the oldest church in Russia, having been built by the Grand Duke Yaroslaf (son of Vladimir), in 1037, in memory of his victory over the Petchenegians on that spot.

The church of Kieff is a great deal smaller than that of Constantinople, this measuring thirty-six meters by fifty-three, that ninety-six by seventy-seven. This church is only forty, and its great namesake sixty-six meters high. Still St. Sophia of Kieff is the largest of the ancient Russian cathedrals. The interior is very lofty in effect, and will strike even those who are fresh from Moscow as unspeakably rich, solemn, and beautiful, and glorious in its harmonious coloring. Nothing can be more effective than the ancient gold which here covers the walls, and the brilliantly lighted tombs of the saints seen through the dark arches. End-less and labyrinthine seem the pillars, the tiny chapels, and the eight secondary choirs which encircle the principal choir. A gorgeous iconastos cuts the church in half, and innumerable icons sparkle everywhere under their “metallic cloths,” as the Russians call them. In one of the chapels on the right, that of the Three Popes, are some ancient Byzantine frescoes, absolutely untouched. Their preservation in recent times is due to the Emperor Nicholas. “Time will thus show,” he said, “to posterity, that in all the rest of the church we have been satisfied to restore without making any innovations.” On the stairs which lead to the upper galleries are representations of fantastic animals, probably the most interesting frescoes in Russia—huntsmen pursuing wild beasts, which are sometimes perched in the trees. Other frescoes represent a man in prison, and a sort of tribunal, dancers moving to the sound of many instruments, a juggler, and charioteers in a hippodrome waiting the signal for the race.

Several other buildings must be visited in the Town on the Cliff. Most of them stand near together toward the brow of the hill over-hanging the Dnieper, and separated by wide, grassy spaces and rough lanes rather than streets, which will recall the deserted paths of the Aventine to those who are familiar with Rome. We must notice the beautiful Byzantine frescoes in the Church of St. Cyril, and the shapeless mass of masonry which once contained the Golden Gate built by Yaroslaf in imitation of that at Constantinople. Boleslas of Poland, when he entered Kieff, split the Golden Gate with the sword which tradition declares to have been given to him by an angel, and which was afterward called “the nicked,” on account of a bit which was hacked out when he was cutting through the gate of Kieff. This sword, still preserved in the cathedral of Cracow, was long used at the Polish coronations. The rude fragments which enclosed the Golden Gate are interesting as the only existing remains of the ancient walls and towers of Kieff.

The star-spangled towers and domes which rise from the woods eastward are those of a separate group of monastic buildings, approached from the principal monastery by a gourd-fringed lane. Here are another church, a little cemetery, and the entrance of a long wood gallery, by which the pilgrims, protected from the weather, can go from one monastic building to another. Through the Church of the Exaltation we descend to the Catacombs. A monk guides us with candles. Like the Roman Catacombs (in extremest miniature), these subterraneous pas-sages are perfectly dry, warm, airy, and not the least unpleasant. There are two series of caverns, the nearer dedicated to St. Anthony, the further to St. Theodosius. They were probably natural caverns at the first, and have been increased into a series of chapels and passages in the course of ages.