: The White City on the Dniester
Darius Roby Darius Roby Travel writer, translator, editor for Cluj.com

17:04 Jul. 12, 2016

The White City on the Dniester

Darius Roby

On a trip that feels to be the end of a journey as well as the beginning of a new adventure, Darius Roby arrives in the Budjak region to explore the town of Belgorod-Dniestrovsky - one of the oldest in Ukraine

In 1909, Oxford University student Thomas Edward Lawrence set out for Syria on an expedition. Being passionate about archaeology and fortresses, his goal was to study the influence of Crusader castles on twelfth-century European military architecture for his dissertation paper. His trip into the Levant would not be his last, as his expedition awoke a personal interest in the region that led to him learning Arabic and later becoming the famous personality immortalized in British military legend and David Lean's 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Fortresses have a way of stroking the imagination and taking one back into the depths of time. They are living monuments of what once was and what remains today. Having lived in Europe over the past six years, these symbols of power have deeply fascinated me.

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I have a theory that the largest buildings in settlements are usually the ones that project the most power. In our present time, this is clearly exemplified by the towering skyscrapers that play hosts to banks in both small and large cities. During the Middle Ages however, this power was concentrated in the hands of fortresses and cathedrals, towering above tiny villages and nascent cities, providing stability and the projection of authority. 


With these things in mind, I found myself on a train, crossing the Dniester estuary, continuing a proverbial journey that began many years ago. My thoughts were far away, at the Neamț Fortress in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, examining a map that was etched into my memory. Various names checked themselves off: Neamț, Suceava, Soroca, Khotyn, and Orhei. Aficionados for Moldovan history should probably now understand where this story is going. Across from me, a pair of eyes, gray-green as the sea, were looking out the window.

"This is going to be very interesting," I said in Russian to Katya. Of course, I was not going on this little expedition without the Lara Croft to my Lawrence, also sharing a passion for archaeology. After a two hour train ride from Odessa, the Dniester was on our left as the train began slowly making its way into the station in Belgorod-Dniestrovsky. Descending from the train into the dusty town, I smiled at Katya as she began gathering our coordinates with her GPS. 

Belgorod-Dniestrovsky is a shell of a town, straddling the western shore of the Dniester estuary, where the river completes its course into the Black Sea. The town's antiquity is without question, originally being a Greek apoikia founded by Miletos, named Tyras. The settlement's name was probably Scythian in origin. Not nearly as important as other apoikia on the northern shore of the Black Sea such as Olbia or Pantikapion, Tyras did serve as a hub for trade with the local Tyragetae, being a source for wheat, wine, and fish for the Greek world. During the Middle Ages, the northern shores of the Black Sea found itself under Mongol rule and settled by Genoese merchants, who had the right to conduct trade in the Mongol Empire. There is a bit of dispute among historians concerning its early medieval names, Maurokastron and Asprokastron meaning Black Fortress and White Fortress respectively. It was the Romanian historian, Nicolae Iorga, who argued that both names referred to the same settlement, and the theory stuck among the historians of our time.

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However, this is unlikely to be the truth as records show that Asprokastron (referred to as Cetatea Albă) was already under the rule of Moldova in 1386, while in 1410, the Venetian official Nicola de Porta acknowledged that Maurokastron was still under Mongol rule. Logically, one would then assume that Maurokastron would have been located east of the Dniester, perhaps guarding the estuary opposite Cetatea Albă where Ovidopol is presently located, or maybe even further towards the east, at Ochakiv. In any regard, it was during this period  where the name Maurokastron disappeared from history, likely falling victim to the chaos engulfing the fall of the Golden Horde and the rise of the Crimean Khanate, the new enemy to threaten the Christians of the northern steppes.

It was under the rule of the Moldovans did Cetatea Albă see its greatest period of economic prosperity. Being far from the capital at Suceava, the authorities allowed the newly acquired harbor town to maintain considerable autonomy. The town was home to Greeks, Genoese, Moldovans, as well as Armenians and the inhabitants continued their work unmolested, with Cetatea Albă serving as a conduit for trade between Constantinople and Poland along the so-called Mongol Road. The Moldovans gained considerable wealth from this commerce and the city expanded greatly. However, this period of prosperity was not to last and Moldovan rule would last for less than a century. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Genoese traders saw their commerce threatened by the Turks, who were already exacting heavy tolls for sailing through the Bosphoros. In 1485, during the endless wars waged between Ștefan the Great and the Ottomans, the city along with the rest of the Black Sea littoral fell to a combined Ottoman-Tatar assault, who renamed the city Akkerman.   


In control of the city's impressive fortress, the Turks used it as a beachhead for attacks northwards into the regions of Moldova, Podolia, and the Dyke Pole. In response, they drew the ire of the great riders of the steppe, the Cossacks, who sacked the city on numerous occasions. If the Turks already had their hands full with the Cossacks, they were no match for the rising power that dwelt beyond the Dyke Pole and its numerous rivers – the Russian Empire. Reaching the Black Sea littoral in the eighteenth century, the Russians defeated the Turks on numerous occasions, expanding its rule to Akkerman in 1812. The city became a part of the Bessarabia Governate bringing with it an influx of Russian and Ukrainian colonists. During the twentieth century, Akkerman, now called Belgorod, would bounce between the control of the Russian Empire, Romania, the Soviet Union, and in our present days –  Ukraine.

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The town's impressive history filled my thoughts as we strolled down the dusty and broken sidewalks in Belgorod. Having clearly declined due to the rise of nearby Odessa, it was still not unimpressive, despite being a shell. There had been a building program conducted by the Russian authorities during the nineteenth century and there was evidence, if not decayed, of impressive neoclassical architecture that in many places, seems a whisper of what can be found in Odessa. The history museum is housed in a gray building and while its neoclassical facade is rather simple, it fits perfectly with the small town feel. There is a high school, wrapped around an iron fence housed in a building that appears to have been painted dark red in former days, badly in need of renovation. Despite the physical status to which it had fallen, its style remotely reminded me of the grandeur of the dark red university in Chernivtsi. There is definitely a potential for tourism in the town, though the small town feel was charming in its own right. Following the road past the museum, a cat was playing on a crumbling stone and iron fence, inviting passers-by to read what was written on the chipped white paint -



посети мои прах.

Я уже дома, а

ты ещё в гостях... 


In English, the words would be translated to something similar to "Stop passer-by, visit my dust. I am still at home, and you are already a guest." I do not know the significance of these words, but I did find it to be a rather interesting metaphor for the Belgorod in general, especially seeing the dust kick up on the streets on this hot June day.

A short walk later, we reached a clearing where there was a long set of medieval walls, encompassed by an empty moat. Such is how we arrived at the fortress. The walls, thick and impregnable, wound their way around the perimeter of the fortress, until they reach a portcullis, which was accessible by a drawbridge. To the east of the fortress, it is possible to see the ruins of ancient Tyras, holding testament to the strategic value of the Dniester's mouth even in antiquity. While it is possible to only see a small remnant of Tyra's walls, as well as a few houses, it is almost certain that there are probably more remnants beneath the medieval citadel. It would not be the least bit surprising if the stones of Tyras were used to construct the base of the original fortress during the thirteenth century.

On the portcullis, there is a banner with the symbol of the city – golden grapes on a vine emblazoned on a red shield. It is said that the flag covers an empty space where an inscription made by Ștefan the Great once stood, but it had since been removed and taken to Romania. However, to the right of the flag, I did notice a white dedication stone, perhaps a modern reconstruction, bearing an indiscernible inscription in the Slavonic tongue, adorned with an auroch, the symbol of Moldova. Passing through the gate, we discovered a fortress that was remarkably well preserved. 



The land walls, despite being built by the Genoese during the thirteenth century, had been upgraded a couple of centuries later to better accommodate the evolving technology of gunpowder. The walls showed signs of having being upgraded with rounded bastions, to better handle incoming projectiles as well as to support the deployment of primitive artillery.. Facing the sea was the Pushkin tower. I laughed upon seeing it, as it evoked memories of my first year of studying Russian in university. I explained to Katya that my teacher, upon seeing me for the first time, remarked that Pushkin, the great grandson of Peter the Great's African page, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, had returned to study Russian under her. Ironically, the real Alexandr Sergeyevich Pushkin did in fact visit this fortress during his exile in the southern regions of the Russian Empire during the 1820s. For this reason, the tower was named in the honor of the writer. Standing there, under the tower next to the river, it is quite pleasant to contemplate the great names of history who once marveled at this most excellent work of medieval military architecture.

Passing through the inner wall, one arrives in sight of the Citadel. It is a most impressive keep, nearly 100 feet tall whose walls form a perfect square. The southeastern tower is the largest, while there are two more of equal size next to it. Towards the northwest, there is no tower. However, there the keep is connected to the seawall, providing for a spectacular view from where one can observe the Dniester completing its journey into the Black Sea. Examining the sand colored stone blocks, it is easy to understand how this special place came to be called "White Fortress" in so many different languages from medieval Greek to Ukrainian.

Entering the keep, there is a passage that leads into a dungeon. Being the site of many invasions, assaults, and raids over the past two millennia, it is only natural that there would be a torture chamber. Gibbets, chains, pitchforks, stocks, and racks are only a few of the instruments of torture available here to a medieval torture artist, all equipped with enough ropes and levers to properly extract any sort of information a commander would have need of. The highlight of the room is a Judas chair, equipped with handcuffs and adorned with spikes on the back, arm-rests, seat, leg-rests, and foot-rests, ready to provide a most 'comfortable' end for the condemned. 

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Feeling slightly uncomfortable, we emerged from the dungeon and climbed the walls where we beheld the harmonious panorama of the keep, the sea, the town in the background, and the sea gulls singing in the distance. With the midday Sun bearing down upon us, I took thought to the fortress' antiquity, to the historical personalities who have passed through the threshold of these walls, in turn perhaps mesmerizing over the same thoughts. I imagined the fortress in its heyday as Cetatea Albă, having traveled back into the into the Middle Ages. There I am standing on the walls, beholding ships with tall masts arriving from the corners of the known world, loaded with exotic produce to sell in the market. Would T.E. Lawrence have argued that the style of the Belgorod-Dniestrovsky Fortress is tied to Crusader innovation? To me, it is doubtful. Stone fortresses began to appear in the Dniester-Carpathian-Pontic region in response to the Mongol invasion. There was a greater need for more powerful strongholds to replace the traditional wooden and earthen Slavic gorods and it is during this period that you see a string of powerful stone fortresses constructed in Hungary, Moldova, Podolia, Galicia, and as far east as Crimea. The white city upon the Dniester, smiling upon the sea, was once the key to the entire region, personifying commerce, authority, and most importantly – the projection of power.

Strangely, this journey felt like an end as well as a new beginning. For years I have desired to visit all of the Moldovan fortresses from the period of Ștefan the Great, and having finally completed the journey I began to turn my thoughts east. I want to explore more of Ukraine, to discover the soul of this most beautiful and green country. I have never before traveled beyond the left-bank of the River Dnieper, and it is certain that there are many stories to tell there. Straightening my backpack and bidding farewell to Belgorod-Dniestrovsky, we descended the walls and continued along the dusty road under the mid-afternoon Sun.

Photos by: Katernya Serebryanskaya and Darius Roby

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