As the military science was developing so were Belarusian castles. The history of military fortifications in Belarus has started from early wooden log fortresses usually built on the high baks in the crossing of the rivers to protect against viking ships. Around XIV century the first stone and brick castles have appeared in Belarus. Typically a fortified Tower was build first. Then as time and means permitted the castle was built. By 18th century the development of artillery and tactical science has required a switch to different type of fortresses - bastions. Those were heavily influenced by Prussian military fortification science. Even by the time of WWII a military fortification line was built by General Karbyshev to defend along Belarusian Western border. After WWII Belarus as most Western USSR republic has become a nuclear state around 1949. No fortification was having any sense anymore other than nuclear bomb shelters and nuclear missile dugouts. By 1996 the last nuclear missile was moved from the territory of Belarus to Russia. The science of fortification has pretty much exhausted itself with development in nuclear weaponry. The conventional warefare relies more on air defence (Belarus has probably the World's most powerful super-radiolocator station that can track airplanes around the globe - remnant of the USSR super-power era). The development of "smart" bombs and other "precision" weaponry pretty much excludes the necessity of protection of civil population from hostile military acts.
Let us trace the history of Belarusian Castles and Fortification Science through the ages. We will give few examples along the way. You are also invited to click on the links on the left and browse through our pages on particular castles.
VIII-XI Centuries -
early Belarusian towns and settlements
Churches and castles were among the first buildings that our ancestors - Slavic and Baltic tribes that merged later into Belarusian nation - have started to build near their primitive houses. These were the first signs of town formation. The first towns that appeared in Belarus were: Polacak (862 A.D.) and Navahrudak (~970 A.D.) in the North and Turaw (890 A.D.) - in the South. Archeological researchers can recreate approximately the structure of the first fortresses.
The advantage of wooden log fortresses were that such fortresses could have been built in very short periads of time to provide basic protection against the advancing enemy. Thge disadvantage is obvious - all of them were eventually burned to dust.
Traditionally two constructions of log buildings ("zroob") were used: poll ("slupavy zroob" on the left) and wreath ("viankovy zroob" on the right):.
The log "wreath" could have been performed in many technigues. Below are shown four most frequently used:
1, 2 - Wreaths with leftover ("Z astatkam) - types 1 and 2.
3.- Wreath with leftover ("Z astatkam") - type "U kaniu"..
4. - Wreath "in clean corner" ("U chysty vuhal")
The later development that improved 360-degree visibility was octagon design ("vas'miaryk" shown on the left). Octagon design was often used for tower construction in Belarus. Such octagon in plan tower - "Kroohlik" - is shown on the right. Very often the first floor of the tower had square plan and the upper floors - octagon plans.
Below are some examples of the recontructions of log castles of Belarus. The castle of Sitna on the left was built by occupation Muscovite army in 1563 in Sitna near Polacak. It was leveled by the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1566. Then it was rebuilt and later burned during Livonian War (1558-1583). The castle of "Sokol" (on the right) was built in 1566 by Muscovite Army by the order of Ivan the Terrible as border fortress near village Sakalishcha (District of Rassony) at the merging of two rivers - Drysa and Nischa. The castle was destroyed in 1579 by joint Polish-Lithuanian Army.
Later in mid ages towers and castles have become very sophisticated. Different styles of stone, brick and combination masonry was used as shown below:
1 - Opus mixtum masonry.
2 - Pieced ("Luskavataia") masonry.
3 - Opus incertum masonry.
4 - Baltic masonry.
5 - "With hidden row" masonry.
6 - Grand appareil masonry.
7 - Decorative mixed masonry.
8 - Mixed masonry, type 1.
9 - Decorative even row masonry.
10 - Mixed masonry, type 2.
11 - Even row masonry.
12 - Gothic masonry.
13 - Renassaince masonry.
14 - Crossed masonry.
15 - Dutch masonry.
16 - Sticking out ("Tychkovaia") masonry.
17 - Decorative Gothic masonry.
18 - "Razynkavaia" masonry.
Very often the first line of defence was the only stone building in the settlement - the church. That is how fortified churches have appeared in Belarus.
The followinf fortified churches are shown above - Malyia Majeiki (left and right views - photos are taken at different times), Synkavichy (front and back), Zaslaue, Smarhon' fortified Calvinist meeting house (general view and tower detail).
Sometimes private houses of the feudal landlords were fortified to be used as both a dwelling and a fortifications:
At first towers were built as self-suficient fortification units. The towers had everything to keep enemy away for long weeks of the siege - water, food, gun powder and other artillery supplies. The cross-section on the left is that of a typical XV-XVI cc. tower (South-Western tower of Mir Castle is shown).
The Dungeon ("Danjon") tower (on the right) came to Belarus from Western Europe and was popular in Belarus in XIII-XVII centuries. Dungeons were built in Biaresce (Brest), Turaw, Hrodna, Navahrudak, Polacak, Shklow and other towns.
Below is shown a XIII-XVII centuries Belarusian-Lithuanian castle with basic fortification elements identified:
1 - Dungeon ("Danzhon")
2 - Palace
3 - Chapel
4 - Facility and storage buildings
5 - Yard
6 - Towers
7 - External defence walls
8 - "Teeth" ("Zoobcy") with amrazura elements.
9 - Shooting windows ("Bajnicy")
10 - Side gates
11 - Chain bridge
12 - Internal defence walls
13 - External defence walls
The following fortification elements were often used in Belarusian castles:
"Ambrazura" (French term) - an opening in the top edge of the wall for attacking the beseiging army.
"Barbakan" (French term) - Horse shoe in plan tower designed to protect gates
"Bajnitsa" (transl. "shooting window") - cross-section (left) and plan (right). This type of window is known in Belarus from pre-mordial times and was used first in wooden and later in stone fortresses and towers.
"Bastea" - artificial soil elevation or stone wall which is semi-round or horse shoe - shaped in plan. Allows for good shooting access of troops attacking the walls. This is a transition element from Tower to Bastion. Popular in XVII-XIX centuries.
"Bastion" (From French "Bastion" and earlier Italian "Bastillio") - penta-corner fortification designed for easy shooting access and wide viewing angle. Originally was built as castle stone wall configuration in XVc. In XVI century first soil abstion have appeared.
- "Blank" or "Zoobtsy" - a fortification element used at the end of the wall.
"Mashikuli" were designed to prevent fro the access of the attackers using long ladders.
A well inside the castle is an absolutely necessary element. One needs a drinking water supply to withstand long sieges.
XVIII century is the time when Grand Duche of Lithuania essentially seized to exist and Belarusian lands were occupied by Russian Empire. For Russian Empire Belarusian and Eastern Polish lands were the Western border of the empire. Several modern bastion-type super-fortresses were built here to protect the Empire from the West - mainly Prussia, Austro-Hungary and France. Below are some examples of such fortresses.
The Fortress of Babrujsk was built between 1807-1836 in place of Jesuit Monastery by the plan of General Operman. This is the kind of fortresses that Napoleon army was facing whent invading Russian Empire.
The Fortress of Biarescie (Brest, Brest-Litovsk at the taime) was built in 1830-1842 in place of Biarescie Castle by the plan of Generals Malecki and Operman and Cornel Feldman of Russian Imperial Army.
The Fortress of Brest was a place of a heroic seige during the WWII For more than month soldiers were defending the fortress against Nazi occupation well behind the enemy line advancing towards Moscow. To commemorate this heroic defence a memorial "Bresckaia Krepasc'" was built after WWII in The Fortress of Brest.
Clickable Historical Map of Belarus
Travel Guide to Belarus
Belarus Castles, Palaces and historical Manors database of Belarusian State Archive.
Castles of Byelorussia
Belarus on 4 feet
References used in this page:
"Arhitektura Belarusi. Encyklapedychny davednik" ("Architecture of Belarus. Encyclopedia") - ed.: A.A. Voinau and others, Minsk, Publishing house "Belaruskaia Encyklapedyia" named after Piatrus' Brouka, 1993. ISBN 5-85700-078-5.
Our page is heavily based on the review of the history of Belarusian architecture in this superb encyclopedia. This book is a great source for anyone who is interested in Belarusian architecture and culture, for that matter. It has 1200 articles covering the period of XII-XX cc.
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