Secrets Of the Old Castle

Mir Castle: Four Centuries of History

The Mir Castle Complex (Mirsky zamok), located in the Grodno Region in Belarus, is one of the few surviving examples of East European Gothic. Its history, the secrets that the old walls keep — like a plot for an unwritten novel. Mir Castle is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Russia and neighboring countries, Mir Castle is perceived as a kind of a national symbol of independent Belarus. The architectural complex has its own special and unique look.

The castle was founded in the 20s of the 16th century by the order of a prominent statesman and Grand Duchy of Lithuania Yury Ilinich. At the first stage of construction, five towers were erected, connected by walls up to three meters wide at the base. The castle shape was a slightly warped quadrangle of defensive walls forming a courtyard, with four five-tier corner and one six-tier entrance defensive towers extended beyond their perimeter. All of them were planned as independent defense units. 

The towers were built in such a way that it was convenient to conduct flank fire along the walls and hit the target on the approaches to them. Each tower is about 25 m high and had basements and a complex system of internal transitions. Three-layer masonry was used for the Castle walls: the outer and inner walls were laid with bricks interspersed with boulders, and the space between them was filled with small stones and a broken bricks. After the death of Yury Ilinich, his descendants remained the owners of Mir Castle for a short while. Within forty years, his family has completely died out; the first owners were not able to complete the construction.

Each tower has its own architectural features: the lower tetrahedral part goes into an octahedron at different heights, slightly decreasing in volume. On the facades of the towers, plastered decorative niches alternating in shape and size and highly decorative belt courses in traditional techniques of local stone architecture. On the northeast tower, the recessed surfaces of the niches are painted with polychrome ornamental compositions. However, the decor of Mir Castle is characterized by rudiments of paganism. The most striking example of this is the ram’s stone head imbedded in the southern defense wall. According to a legend, as long as this head remains there, the castle will also stand.

The Mir County along with its Castle passed into the possession of the Radziwiłł Princes and the provincial town turned into one of the magnificent magnate residences of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Three-story residential buildings were erected next to the northern and eastern walls, three corner towers were redeveloped. Around the Castle earthen ramparts were formed, in the shape of irregular quadrangle with small bastions in the corners. A moat filled with water was excavated behind the earthen ramparts. There has been a farm to the east of the defensive ramparts, and a system of ponds with mills in the south. 

With the improvement of firearms, the walls of Mir Castle were no longer used for defensive purposes. Around the castle earthen ramparts were formed, a moat filled with water was dug behind them. There has been a farm to the east of the defensive ramparts, and a system of ponds with mills in the south. 

The stone castle turned into a magnificent palace. The residential buildings attached to the defensive walls were located in such a way as to provide optimal natural lighting for the courtyard.

At the beginning of the 17th century, a renaissance Italian garden was planted nearby the Castle, with about 400 trees of rare varieties growing. At the same time, insulated greenhouses for exotic plants appeared.

The 17th and 18th centuries became the period of wars, ruins and robberies. In 1655, Mir Castle was devastated by Ukrainian Cossacks and Russian soldiers. Neither the moats filled with water, nor earthen ramparts with bastions did not restrain the onslaught of the attackers. In August 1660, an inventory of the Mir Castle was compiled, which speaks for itself, “The castle needs repair and supervision, there are leakeges everywhere; there are neither doors nor windows in all the upper and middle chambers, as well as in the basements.”

In April 1706, troops of Karl XII (Charles XII) of Sweden burst into the Mir Castle. The castle burned down, everything that had been restored recently was destroyed. 

Prince Michal Kazimierz Radziwill Rybonka, the new owner, restored the castle to its former luxury, in 1739, after another fire. Since then, as evidenced by the documents of the second half of the 18th century, the Castle has not been repaired or rebuilt.

After Belarusian lands were added to the Russian Empire at the end of the 18th century. socio-political relations were changing. Under the new conditions, many old residences, including Mir Castle, were not in demand. The gradual decline of the Castle in Mir is evidenced by documents of the first half of the 19th century.

Until the end of the 19th century. the castle was inherited by different members of the Radziwiłł family. In 1891 it was sold along with Mir lands to Nikolai Ivanovich Svyatopolk-Mirsky, cavalry general of Donskoy Troops. Arriving in Mir, he erected a two-story Palace on the side opposite the Castle. In front of it and up to the Castle he built a pond with islands.

In 1922, the work began on the restoration of the Mir Castle, which lasted for 16 years. During this time, water and electricity supply, sewerage system, and a telephone line have been added. The last owner, Duke Mikhail Svyatopolk-Mirsky lived in the Castle until 1938.

During the Great Patriotic War, from May to August 1942, the Nazis made a ghetto in the castle, putting about 800 local Jews in it. After the liberation of Belarus in July 1944. locals, whose houses had been destroyed by the war, found shelter in the Castle.

In 1947 the Castle was taken under the State protection. In 1987, Mir Castle Complex became a branch of the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus. In 1989 the project of restoration and adaptation of the Castle Complex for the museum exposition was developed. This project and directions for its implementation. have been approved by UNESCO in 1991. In 1992, the first museum expositions were opened in the Southwestern Tower on 6 floors. In 1993, for the preservation and restoration of a part of the Castle, they received a diploma of the International Association for the Protection of the European Natural and Cultural Architectural Heritage “Europa Nostra”. The restoration of Mir Castle and its final transformation into a museum were completed on December 16, 2010. Currently, the Mir Castle Complex Museum has 36 museum exhibits in 42 halls, some of them with recreated interiors of the 17th-18th centuries. The permanent exhibition of the Northern Building houses one of the largest architectural expositions in the world, where all styles, periods and eras are presented on one wall.

Mir Castle is the most distinctive and expressive of the privately owned castles of Belarus. The undamaged state of its original stone structures is the best compared to similar objects.

The fate of Mir Castle evolved differently throughout its history. Many times it fell into the epicenter of historical events, more than once he was plundered and destroyed. However, the castle survived, and today delights its guests with beauty and grandeur. This is a place that keeps and reveals the secrets of Belarus history.

Igor Lozhechnik