According to a Russian legend, hidden beneath the waters of Lake Svetloyar, in the Nizhny Novgorod Region north-east of Moscow, there is Kitezh, a mythical city built by Georgy II, the Grand Prince of Vladimir in the early part of the 13th century.
Its first reference comes in an anonymous late 18th century book known as “the Kitezh Chronicle” which was thought to have originated among the Old Believers of Russia. The book does not actually say that the city disappeared or that it was covered by the lake, but that it is suddenly to cease to exist after it was destroyed by war.
However, for many local people, the legend is a lot older than the 18th century and many see Lake Svetloyar as a place of special spiritual value and a place of pilgrimage.
According to legend, Prince Georgy of Vladimir as he traveled about the Trans-Volga Region in the 13th century took a particular liking of a picturesque area on the Lyunda River and built there a city with a large number of white-stone golden-domed churches, boyar chambers and trading quarters. It was a fortress and monastic city, and it was called Kitezh. The population was mostly believers, so the city was a sort of spiritual center and was considered holy.
According to local tradition, Georgy took the name Kitezh from a royal residence called Kideksha that had been destroyed by the Golden Horde of the Mongols led by Batu Khan in 1237.
In 1238 North Eastern Russia was invaded by Tatar hordes under the leadership of Batu Khan himself. When he sacked the capital of the Suzdal principality, Vladimir, he first heard of Kitezh and became determined to capture it. In any case, despite fierce resistance from the population and army, Vladimir fell to the enemy and was plundered and burnt, just like other cities of the principality. Prince Yuri of Vladimir and Suzdal retreated with the remaining troops to the woods and took shelter in Kitezh.
The Mongols did not know where to look for Kitezh, as it was hidden on the lakeside which was protected by thick forest and only those who knew the secret paths could find it.
However, Batu Khan was determined to find it and he ordered his men to interrogate and torture the Russian prisoners they had captured, offering them a great reward for the secret of how to find Kitezh. The warriors kept silent, for they knew letting out the secret of the holy city of Kitezh would inflict an eternal curse on them and their descendants. But, eventually the Tatars found a traitor, Grishka Kuterma, who led the enemy to the holy place and was greatly rewarded for his treachery.
Once they had passed through the forest, the town lay on the shores of the lake, totally undefended, without any wall or fortifications to protect it and no warriors waiting to join battle.
Although the citizens of the town were aware of the danger and they known that their town was going to be attacked, to the amazement of the Mongols instead of fighting they were engaged in praying to God to save them. Even when Batu Khan ordered his Golden Horde to attack, they made no attempt at defense. Instead, they carried on praying faithfully and steadfastly to God.
Batu Khan and the Golden Horde attacked the town but, when they were about to set foot in its precincts, something astonishing happened: to their wonder, hundreds of fountains of water suddenly spurted skywards, stopping the astonished invasors.
Soon wonder and amazement turned into fear and panic, and the terrified Mongols scattered to the safety of the forest. From there they watched the water rose over the town slowly covering all the buildings that, one by one, vanished under the waves. Batu Khan watched as the sun gleamed on the great dome of the cathedral as the waters rose and the cross at its peak was the last thing to disappear under the waters.
According to local tradition, the city of Kitezh exists to this day but is underwater, and the occasional church bells coming from the lake’s depths in the dead of the night suggest the city is still alive. In the old days the pilgrims used to spend nights in the area in the hope to hear the bells, while mothers arrived to the lake all the time during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 to pray on their knees for their sons who fought on the fronts. Some people call the underwater city the Russian Atlantis because local tradition says that only those who are pure of heart and soul can see Kitezh.
Scientists have long been struggling to explain the mystery of the lake from a scientific point of view and, in their assumptions, Lake Svetloyar formed more than 1000 years ago as a result of a crack in the earth’s crust. It is 340 meters wide, 453 meters long and about 30 meters deep. Its water contains elements good for human health, but the mystery of the lake escapes people because, according to popular beliefs, God opens it to those worthy only.
Lake Svetloyar and the city of Kitezh have got ingrained in the Russian soul as the symbols of purity, tenacity and immortality. The lake absorbed the city of Kitezh to the end of time and, according to legend, it will emerge from it again before the end of the world and the army of the Russian prince will come out of the city’s gates to face Doomsday along with all other Christian souls.
In any case, the legend has inspired many works of art, plays, films a videogame, music and even an opera, “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, on February 7, 1907.
Images from web – Google Research