Mir Castle, a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, is open after its restoration and is ready to welcome 500,000 tourists this year
By late 2010, after three decades of restoration works, the castle in Mir, located 100km from Minsk, was completely restored. This architectural monument was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and tourists visited despite the fact that for many years it could be admired only from the exterior. Only the workers repairing the 16th century walls could enter the building. This is one of the few castles in Belarus to have survived repeated attacks and has survived until modern times, badly broken, but not ruined. Today, it has become one of the symbols of Belarus. According to specialists from the tourist industry, this is the most frequently visited architectural monument in our country. It is no coincidence that the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko personal-ly unveiled the renovated building on December 16th, 2010.
Walls wrapped in legend
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who took part in the opening ceremony of the restored fortress, expressed the hope that the number of tourists visiting Mir Castle after the restoration would increase consi-derably. Experts from abroad expressed the same opinion. Director of the National Art Museum of Lithuania, Romualdas Budrys, who attended the opening, said, “There is much to see here and Mir will be visited by tourists from neighbouring states and elsewhere. I personally enjoy it here very much. I hope that the celebrations, which started here after all the halls and towers were opened, will continue for everyone who visits this fortress in future and becomes acquainted with its displays. The visitors will be absolutely charmed.”
Belarus’ Culture Minister, Pavel Latushko, believes that Mir Castle is a stone witness to the fact that Belarus has always been at the heart of Europe and at the centre of European culture. The fortress was constructed in the gothic, baroque and renaissance styles typical of Western European architecture and reinterpreted by Belarusian architects many centuries ago.
The exact date of the start of construction, begun by the owner of the estate, Yuri Ilyinich, isn’t known; however, it is unlikely that it began before 1522. The castle is square with, originally, four towers connected by walls, each of which is 75m long. The towers, identical in shape, vary only in their height: from 23 to 25m, while the height of the defensive walls is from 10-12m. The main wall faces Vilnius — the ancient capital of Lithuania and Belarus - and has an additional tower in the middle, which is the entrance to the castle. This is the fifth tower, striking for its beauty and elegance. Its basement once housed a prison and there was a chapel on the second floor. From here a metal drawbridge, protecting the castle from unexpected guests, could be lowered.
The construction of the castle required significant funds, but nobody knows the reason for which it was originally built. This place had always been quiet and far from wars, so its construction was solely a matter of prestige. Later, it survived attacks from Swedish, French and Russian troops, so it was fortunate that its walls were built with loop-holes and military galleries so it was ready for military action.
Until 1568, Mir Castle was owned by the Ilyinich dukes, then by the Radziwi³³s (until 1828) and the Wittgensteins (until 1891). The last owners of the castle were the Svyatopolk-Mirskie dukes (until 1939) after which the castle came into the ownership of the state. From 1989, it has been a branch of the National Art Museum of Belarus.
In the second half of the 16th century, Miko³aj Krzysztof Radziwi³³ Sierotka surrounded the castle with a 9m deep earth bank, which has only partially survived. Radziwi³³ also ordered that a moat be dug, which was then filled with water from the River Miranka. The duke also commissioned Polish architect Marcin Zaborowski to build a three-storey palace inside the castle walls. This palace has survived until the present day, although badly destroyed and significant funds and a great deal of effort were expended on its restoration.
In the 1730s, there was a Ceremonial Hall in the palace, as well as a Ballroom and a Portrait Gallery. Citrus trees, fig trees, cypresses, box trees, mahoganies and laurels grew in the nearby Italian garden. In 1785, Belarus-born Stanis³aw August Poniatowski, the King of Rzecz Pospolita — a united Polish-Belarusian state - visited the residence.
In the 19th century, the castle was neglected until its new owner Nikolay Svyatopolk-Mirsky began its restoration. The son of Nikolay, Mikhail — a multilingual diplomat at the court of the Russian Emperor - continued the reconstruction. The duke’s efforts were highly praised by the President of Poland, Ignacy Moœcicki, who visited the fortress in 1929 (at that time Mir belonged to Poland).
During the German fascist occupation the castle housed a Jewish ghetto and a prisoner-of-war camp. From 1944 to 1956, people lived in the fortress, leading to the loss of some of its interior decorations.
39 treasure-filled rooms
In 1970, interim conservation measures of Mir Castle’s ruins were undertaken. In 1982, new restoration works were launched, but they only truly got underway in 2003, when huge funds were allocated from the state budget — around $30m. Specialists from the Culture Ministry’s Belrestavratsiya enterprise did the restoration work, relying on archive data.
If you happen to visit the castle, be prepared to spend all day visiting the 39 museum exhibitions, which allow visitors to learn about the history of the ducal families and their way of life, and to admire the unique furniture, collection of weapons, reconstructions of knights’ armour and ancient musical instruments.
867 unique artefacts from the 17th-19th century were purchased to adorn the castle. These include truly rare exhibits, e.g., a Slutsk sash and 17th-18th century Flemish carpets. The latter are interesting for their depiction of A European Buffalo Hunt. Most European buffaloes disappeared in the 15th century, but these could be seen in the Belarusian forests in the 16th century. In the 1490s, the young first owner of Mir Castle, Yuri Ilyinich, took part in European buffalo hunting. The last European buffalo was killed on Belarusian territory — in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha in 1627. A unique exhibit — the European buffalo’s horns, found in Belarus — are a true rarity in the castle, gracing the walls of the Stolovaya Izba (Dining Hall).
Fact or fairy tale?
As any other castle, the fortress in Mir is rich in legends filling the place with medieval spirits and attracting tourists.
A beautiful garden used to be situated to the right of the castle, but in the late 19th century the new owner of the castle, Nikolay Svyatopolk-Mirsky, ordered it cut out and created a pond in its place. According to one story, the duke soon had a dream in which a strange woman cursed his family. According to another, the mother of one of the woodcutters came to the duke and said that, from now on, one person would drown in his pond every year for each tree that was felled. The first victim of the pond was 12 year old princess Sonechka and, in 1898, duke Nikolay himself was found on its bank. Both were buried in a family vault not far from the pond.
During reconstruction conducted at the time of Mikhail Svyatopolk-Mirsky, two skeletons were unearthed when the floor was broken up. The owner later ordered them reburied in an Orthodox cemetery. According to legend, at midnight on New Year’s eve, the clang of swords and whispering can still be heard…
There are rumours that a tunnel, along which even a three-horse carriage could be drawn, connects the castles in Mir and Nesvizh. However, investigations, including a helicopter flight over the supposed underground corridor linking the two castles, failed to prove its existence.
Meanwhile, the legends per-sist and on visiting Mir Castle you will be able to confirm for yourself whether they are true or false.
Reconstruction continues at Mir Castle. The fortress has been restored, but, according to Igor Chernyavsky, who heads the Culture Ministry’s Department for Protection of Restoration, this was only the first stage in the renovation. Many projects to develop the castle’s surroundings are planned. By 2013, the Italian Renaissance Garden will have been restored, in addition to the English park and pond. The castle estate will become a true ‘Mecca’ for history lovers and those keen on relaxing in the countryside. Several rural guesthouses already operate near the castle and new cafes open each year in Mir. High demand for a romantic and beautiful getaway creates supply.