Western Ukraine was historically one of most fluid frontiers of Europe. This was due in no small part to its use as a highway into Europe for nomadic invaders from Asia. Largely a vast plain with few natural barriers, this part of the continent was almost impossible to fortify. That’s not to say the locals didn’t try. This was especially true during the years of the expansion of the Russian Empire, when many fortresses were constructed to defend the frontiers against Mongols from the east, Ottomans from the south and other Eureans from the west. Among the best surviving Ukrainian castles are the Akkerman Fortress, Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle and Lutsk Castle.
For thousands of years, the great open plains of Ukraine have been Asia’s doorway to Europe. This was especially true during the late Roman era and and continues well into the early modern age. Wave after wave of invaders made their way through here, from Germanic tribes to Central Asian nomads to Ottoman armies, all bent on conquest in Europe. Because of a lack of natural barriers, little effort was ever made to fortify the region.
That changed in the 14th and 15th centuries. As the Ukraine came into increasing contact with the Rus from the north and the Poles and Lithuanians from the west, the region became more populous and wealthier. This heightened the desire and need to defend the region, which was becoming ever more important in continental politics. It was about this time that gunpowder weaponry began to make protecting the region from hordes of Asian horseman more realistic.
One of the oldest major fortresses to be built was Kamianets-Podilskyi on the westernmost frontier with the rest of Europe. This immense castle was subsequently fought over on a nearly constant basis, though thanks to its strong defenses and daunting position rarely changed hands. It ultimately came under the control of the Russian Empire in the late 18th century. The history of the Kamianets-Podilskyi Fortress was typical of the castles of the region.
In addition to Turks, Poles and other rivals from the north, east and west, the Ukraine faced the threat of Ottoman invasion from the 14th century onward. To protect the Black Sea approaches, the locals constructed immense coastal castles such as Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, also known as the Akkerman Fortress. Although it was the last surviving stronghold in the region, Akkerman fell to the Ottomans in 1484. It remained under their control until it was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century. It was about this time that Ukraine’s castles started to become both strategically and militarily obsoleste, and by the end of the Napoleanic wars the era of Ukraine’s great fortresses was at an end.
The Akkerman Fortress guards the entrance to the Deniester River where it reaches the Black Sea. A magnificent if grim and foreboding structure, it is the largest waterside castle on the coast of the Black Sea. Akkerman is a sprawling pile of stone in mixed states of repair. The outer walls, especially those facing the sea, are largely intact, and are protected by numerous round towers. Much of the castle interior is in ruins. What still stands is among the most featureless castles anywhere, making the place nearly impenetrable, at least by medieval standards.
The Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle is the greatest surviving fortress on Ukraine’s western frontier. It is one of the largest castles in Eastern Europe, although it is much smaller now than it once was. Most of what currently stands is the new castle, which dates to the very late Middle Ages, although parts of the older fortifications have been incorporated. The structure’s most famous and recognizable features are its immense, high pointed twelve towers, although only half of these are still effectively intact.
Lutsk Castle is is somewhat less impressive than its counterparts, but thanks to its proximity to the Polish border it is one of the more visited. It was once a seat for both the ruling family of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well as for the Orthdox Church. It is largely in ruins. However, among its surviving sections is the superb tower of the main entrance to the castle.
The Akkerman Fortress is located on a steep slope overlooking the port town of Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky, approximately twenty miles west of Odessa. The Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle is located immediately outside the town of the same name, approximately 200 miles southwest of Kiev and 200 miles northwest of Odessa. Lutsk Castle is located just outside of the town of Lutsk, approximately 200 miles west of Kiev. As of this writing no visitor information was available for any of these sites. Web: www.akkermanfortress.org (official website of Akkerman Fortress); http://miakamenec.org.ua (official website of Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle).
Western Ukraine is fortunate to have so many intact castles still guarding its frontiers. A short list of the best ones includes the Khotyn Fortress near Kamianets-Podilskyi, Olesko Castle and Svirzh Castle, both in Lviv Oblast and the mountaintop Palanok Castle.
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