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Common board – common heritage

New look on Polish and Turkish castles on Dniester

Castles and fortresses on the Dniester River

Małgorzata Pastewka

Castles and fortresses on the Dniester River


The Commonwealth of Both Nations was called the “bulwark of Christianity,” among other things, due to fortresses situated in the south-eastern borderlands of the country, along the frontier with the Ottoman Empire and the Crimean Khanate. For more than 250 years (from the mid-15th to the end of the 17th century) Poland was defending its territory against invasions from the south. Due to this, numerous fortifications came into existence along the entire borderland.

The “bulwark” comprised the territories which were joint to the Kingdom of Poland in the period from the 14th to the 16th century: Halych Ruthenia, Podolia and Ukraine (the voivodeships of Kiev and Braclav). A diversified land relief (the valleys of the Dnepr and the Dniester Rivers as well as their tributaries, mountain ranges of the Eastern Carpathians and the Podolian Upland) favoured the construction of fortifications which were situated in hardly accessible places which secured good visibility.

Podolia is a plateau which is limited with the valley of the Dniester on the south, with a characteristic layout of its water network. Rivers which flow into the Dniester from the north run in parallel to one another and they constituted natural obstacles for troops invading from the east. The upland is covered with loess soils under which mudrocks are deposited. Due to this, rivers cut deeply into the land relief, forming promontories with steep slopes. Making use of these geological conditions, castles and fortresses were built on such promontories. An ideal example of using the lie of the land are the castles in Terebovlya, Skala-Podilska and Kamyanets-Podilsky, whose origins date back to the 14th century.

Borderland fortresses defended the Commonwealth against numerous invasions of the Tartars, and they also offered resistance during wars with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), the Cossacks and Russia. They also offered protection during disputes between neighbours. The strongest fortifications were able to resist sieges in which artillery and saps (mines) were used; other ones secured shelter in the course of quick and violent incursions.

Vast territories of the “Ukrainian Lands” required the construction of numerous small fortresses in order to secure effective defence. A high number of fortifications was also a result of the lack of a predetermined plan of the fortification system. Due to the political system of the Commonwealth, strong and developed state fortress were not constructed. Smaller fortifications were built both by the Crown, magnates and land dietines. Masonry fortifications originated both from the Eastern and Western traditions. Defensive architecture of the “bulwark” comprised not only castles and masonry fortresses, but also wood and earth ramparts, fortified temples (churches, monasteries, synagogues), belfries, watchtowers and manor-houses. Fortifications varied with regard to their sizes, defensive structures and ownership status. Their locations and military value was also diversified.

Among Borderland fortresses it is possible to isolate several types. In the 14th-15th centuries, the tower and turret system dominated. Defensive masonry walls with numerous towers and turrets protected the most important castles and towns. Such a town was, i.a., Lviv, which was surrounded with as many as two rings of defensive masonry walls. The same system was applied for the earliest fortifications at Khotyn, Kamyanets-Podilsky, Soroca and Terebovlya in the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the 16th century, due to development of magnates’ land estates, private fortresses come into existence. Due to the development of artillery, new fortresses are constructed using the bastile system and they become a significant component of the regional defence system. On the basis of patterns of Renaissance urban planning, towns-fortresses came into existence, such as Brody or Stanislaviv. Apart from that, bastile or bastion fortifications of Italian origin become widespread. In this period, already existing fortifications of towns were rebuilt and modernised. Natural defensive elements of the lie of the land were used, and fortifications were enlarged with new defensive points. However, the most significant feature was the construction of a new fortress in the bastile system or a modernisation of a medieval castle. In the case of a rebuild, towers and turrets were converted into bastions. Alternatively, a new line of bastion fortifications could be constructed in the foreground.

The bastile system was intended to adapt fortifications to effects of use of firearms. In the territory of the Commonwealth bastile castles had regular spatial layouts. They were constructed on the plan of a rectangle (sometimes a triangle or a pentagon), with a circumferential masonry wall provided with four bastiles in the corners or curves of the masonry wall. An example of such a solution is the fortification system of Zhvanets. It was founded in the early 17th century on the plan of an irregular pentagon with bastiles in its corners. After the introduction of the more developed bastion system, bastiles were still in use, in spite of their obsolete form. The best example of such a modernisation of a medieval castle and its later long duration is the defensive architecture of Terebovlya. The castle was thoroughly converted in the 17th century into the bastion system. At Kamyanets-Podilsky, the main gate with a semicircular barbican were transformed and reinforced in a similar manner.

Towns were usually fortified with the use of the bastion system, in its Old and New Italian variants, that is, with the use of brick and stone. In their plans and fortified circumferences, they referred to modern period urban planning and the art of fortification. They combined the following elements into one body: symmetrically (chequerboard-wise) planned urban buildings, a polygon of fortifications and a castle. The bastion system transformed bastiles into protruding pentagonal bastions, reinforced in the foreground with ramparts which were scarped with masonry walls. This solution was applied in the fortifications of such towns as Zamość, Zhovkva and Brody. At Kamyanets-Podilsky, the Old Castle was reinforced in the early 17th century with a bastion fortress in the New Italian system. It was called the New Castle. After the defeat of the Polish troops at Cecora in 1620, a need for a quicker and cheaper construction of fortifications increased. At that time, the Dutch bastion system was introduced. Its characteristic traits were lower and solely earth ramparts with masonry gates, deep dry and wet moats and bastions with acute angles. In the period to the end of the 17th century such solutions were introduced in state and private fortresses. A similar modernisation was carried out at Khotyn by the Turks in the 18th century. The castle was reinforced with modern earth ramparts with seven bastions and 5 gates. More primitive variants of the bastion circumference were constructed around hundreds of settlements, small towns, manor-houses and small castles. For instance, the Ramparts of the Holy Trinity and Soroca were fortified with Dutch type earth bastions in the end of the 17th century. The most often constructed variant of the bastion castle in the 17th century was a wooden residence with household buildings. The entire premise was enclosed with a rectangle of wood and earth fortifications with bastions and usually with a wet moat. However, in Halych Ruthenia and Podolia, this type of fortress was often of masonry construction.

During Cossack uprisings in the second half of the 17th century, when the Cossacks seized vast parts of Ukrainian territories, they perfectly transformed a number of towns and small towns into field fortresses with numerous defences, such as ramparts, moats, earth bastions and wooden fortification works.

All along, the most important defensive element in the “bulwark” was the use of the simplest and cheapest obstacles, mainly water ones. Towns and fortresses were usually situated in meanders or bifurcations of rivers and in the neighbourhood of lakes and ponds. This provided natural protection on one, two, or even three sides. The highest place, such as a rock, a promontory, a hill or a riverside scarp was chosen to build a castle and sometimes artificial prominences were constructed. Only less than 15% of permanent fortifications were entirely of masonry construction, about 15% had some masonry elements and about 70% were exclusively wooden, wood and earth or earth fortifications (permanent and field ones). An example of the last group are the fortifications of the Rampart of the Virgin Mary. Almost all masonry fortifications were situated in the western part of the borderland with Turkey, in the territories of the Ruthenian and Podolian voivodeships (along the middle course of the Dniester).

From the mid-15th to the end of the 17th century the “bulwark” offered effective resistance against the Tartars and the Turks, blocking their expansion up the lands of the Crown. A great number of “settlement” fortifications is in contrast with the lack of large fortresses. While constructing fortifications, traditional, well-proven and cheap solutions were chosen, which did not require to hire expensive craftsmen. Permanent fortresses were obsolete and hardly modernised. Nevertheless, thanks to the use of advantages of the lie of the land and field fortresses, the border on the Dniester River was for more than 250 years one of the most stable (although also one of the least peaceful) frontiers in this part of Europe.