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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is located on the Neris River. With a population of 583,400 (1997), the city is an important cultural and industrial center, accounting for about one-fourth of the manufacturing output of Lithuania. Vilnius has the ruins of a 14th-century castle and buildings in a variety of architectural styles, ranging from Gothic to Baroque. It is the seat of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, it has a University, founded in 1579.
Kaunas is situated on the crossroad of the main Lithuanian transport flows. Two main highways cross the city - Via Baltica, which connects Helsinki and Warsaw, and the highway that connects the capital Vilnius and the port Klaipeda. Kaunas is the second biggest city in Lithuania with the total area of 155.5 sq. km., population of 415.7 thousand and density of 2674 people to 1 sq. km. Kaunas can already offer quite many hotels, motels, bars and lodging houses where you could spend a night comfortably alone or with a group.
Klaipeda is spread along the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon and is situated on the both banks of the Dane River. Today Klaipeda is the third largest city in Lithuania with population of 202 thousands people.
“Wilno was an oddity, a city of mixed-up, overlapping regions, like Trieste or Czerniowce”, wrote the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz about Vilnius, where he spent his youth between the two world wars. Even today the city remains an oddity, though its fate has fundamentally changed: now it is no longer a provincial centre ruled by Poland, but the capital of independent Lithuania. After a break of long centuries Vilnius (also called Wilno and Vilna) has now regained its original status and glory: in the 14th century Duke Gediminas founded it as the seat of the Lithuanian State.
Later it was one of the two capitals of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth (the other one was Krakow, later Warsaw), the centre of the so-called North Western region occupied by the Russian Empire, and in the 20th century it was transferred from one rule to another many times. Because of historical disasters not only its buildings and streets, but also entire population groups would disappear. The most tragic of all these events was the destruction of a large Jewish community during the Second World War. However, regardless of all the changes of state dependence, cultures and languages, Vilnius has always remained many-faceted and multi-lingual.
Since the Middle Ages Vilnius has been posed on the boundary between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. These two forms of Christianity meet here today, and in a certain sense even interpenetrate each other due to the presence of Uniates (Russian Orthodox believers who acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope). The capital’s Catholic tradition manifests itself in the cult of the Holy Virgin Mary of Ausros Gate (Ostra Brama) that has become the basic part of the myth of Vilnius. However, the Reformation has also left its mark in the city, and during the 17th–18th centuries it was probably the most significant centre of Judaism in the world. Small but visible Muslim and Karaite communities existed (and still exist) here.
In Europe such a variety of religions can be encountered perhaps only in the Balkans. Yet people of different religious convictions usually coexisted and today coexist quite peacefully in Vilnius. It should be added that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to accept Christianity. Originally Vilnius was a pagan city with a small Christian presence, and in its environs certain pre-Christian traditions persisted almost until our times. Religious differences were accompanied by linguistic ones. Many Vilniusites know several local languages – Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and quite recently they could express themselves in Belorussian and Yiddish as well.
The two other capitals of the Baltic states – Riga and Tallinn – were, at least initially, colonial cities, founded and ruled by Western conquerors, while Vilnius was built by local residents and drew naturally on its own soil. Besides, it did not belong to the Hanseatic trade association: though it did not lack merchants and craftsmen, Vilnius was first of all a city of rulers, a centre of spiritual life and science. In the Jewish tradition Vilnius is called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”. It has become a kind of Jerusalem, the core of cultural achievements and historical aspirations, for Lithuanians and other local nations as well.
A particular paradox of Vilnius is the circumstance that it is both a capital and a borderline city. It was situated in the western part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, close to the border with the Teutonic order, and later in the east of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, being something like a node of the Catholic civilization on the outskirts of Russian lands. Vilnius retained the borderline status in the 19th century, in the inter-war years and even in the time of Soviet occupation. Even today it is located not in the middle of the Republic of Lithuania, but in the east, approximately thirty kilometres away from the Belorussian border. Therefore, despite historical changes, Vilnius has always remained at the border, though the border itself kept moving. At the same time, Vilnius was – and is – a bridge between different cultural regions. The free democratic Lithuania faces a task of creating a new identity for Vilnius without rejecting a single historical and cultural streak of the city. Having integrated its entire past and its entire cultural potential, Vilnius is turning into a European capital worthy of its founders and best citizens.
The present territory of the city, the valleys of two not wide but swift rivers – the Neris and the Vilnia – have been inhabited since the Palaeolithic times. The cultural layer at the foot of the Vilnius Castle Hill, at the Old Arsenal, dates back to about the 4th mill. BC, and on the Castle Hill itself – to the 1st mill. BC, which implies that Vilnius equals Athens and Rome in age. Little can be said about earlier population, but probably since 2000–2500 BC they were Baltic (or Pre-Baltic) tribes. The Balts are a particular branch of Indo-Europeans, their languages are neither Slavonic nor Germanic; because of their particular archaism linguists compare them to Sanskrit, Old Greek and Latin. Baltic mythology and customs are also unique. In prehistoric times the Balts inhabited a territory stretching from the lower Vistula almost to Kiev and Moscow, but this area gradually narrowed down. Only two small Baltic nations – Lithuanians and Latvians – have survived into our days, having successfully defended their identity from historical catastrophes and more powerful neighbours.
In the 5th cent. BC there was a sizeable settlement at the foot of the Castle Hill, through which trade routes led. However, creation of the Lithuanian state started as late as the 13th century. Its first outstanding ruler Mindaugas was baptized in 1251 and crowned King of Lithuania on July 6th 1253.
It is assumed that it was Mindaugas who built the first Cathedral in Vilnius. Traces of the original Cathedral incorporating Romanesque style features have been discovered in the vaults of the present Cathedral. Wooden buildings and remains of flooring from the same period have also been discovered. After Mindaugas’ death the Christian Cathedral was probably turned into a place of pagan worship; however, the city remained an important centre of Eastern Lithuania, probably with some features of a capital.
The founding of the city
According to a legend recorded in the Chronicle of Lithuania, Vilnius was established by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, who ruled the country ca. 70 years after Mindaugas and called himself “King of the Lithuanians and many Russians”. The legend relates that he went hunting from his residence in Trakai, killed a huge aurochs and fell asleep in the sventaragis valley at the foot of the present Castle Hill. In his dream he saw an iron wolf that howled like a hundred wolves. This prophetic dream was explained by the pagan priest Lizdeika.
This myth is reminiscent of the myth of the founding of Rome, where a central role is also assumed by a she-wolf. Both myths can possibly be derived from the same Indo-European archetype. Reality, of course, is somewhat different, since already in Gediminas’ times a large settlement existed close to the Neris and the Vilnia. Legends also confirm the existence of a sacral centre; they say that since olden times deceased rulers used to be ritually burned in the sventaragis valley (sventaragis himself is one of these mythic dukes who, according to the legend, ruled after Mindaugas).
One fact is evident: Gediminas transferred the capital from Trakai to Vilnius probably because it was easier for him to defend this place from enemy attacks, and probably because it was more convenient for trade. At that time Lithuania fought a two hundred-year war with Teutonic knights, who tried to convert the Lithuanians – “Northern Saracens” – with the sword.
On January 25th 1323 Gediminas sent a letter written in Latin from his new capital, stressing the fact that it was written “in our city of Vilnius”. This date is considered the birthday of Vilnius. Gediminas wrote additional letters that are considered to be the earliest examples of Lithuanian writing. In these letters addressed to German cities – Magdeburg, Bremen, Köln and others, – and monasteries, Gediminas invited merchants, craftsmen and priests to Lithuania, and promised to guarantee them the same rights that were enjoyed by citizens of Riga (the present capital of Latvia, Riga, was founded by German conquerors as early as 1201).
Besides, he mentioned the fact that in the pagan Vilnius there were two Catholic churches – Franciscan and Dominican. On October 2nd 1323 Gediminas signed a peace treaty with the city of Riga, its bishop and German knights, and in 1325 formed a union with King of Poland Ladislas the Cubit and married his daughter Aldona to Ladislas’ son. In this way the Lithuanian state with the capital Vilnius became a recognized member of the community of European nations. Gediminas started a dynasty that was to rule Lithuania (and later, also Poland) for more than two hundred years; many noble Russian families descend from the Gediminas dynasty as well. Of Gediminas’ seven sons, the most famous were Algirdas and Kestutis. They jointly ruled Lithuania. The first lived in Vilnius and ruled the eastern lands of the country, while the second resided in Trakai, west of the capital, and defended Lithuania from the Teutonic order.
Period sources mention three Vilnius castles: the Higher, the Lower and the Crooked Castle. The Higher Castle on the Gediminas Hill was a fortress, the Lower Castle a residence of the Grand Duke, and the Crooked Castle (built of timber) most probably was situated on the present Hill of Three Crosses. The brothers Algirdas and Kestutis got along well, which cannot be said about Algirdas’ son Jogaila and Kestutis’ son Vytautas. After Algirdas’ death, Jogaila dethroned Kestutis and imprisoned him together with his son in the castle of Krewo. Kestutis died or was killed there, while Vytautas escaped and started a war against Jogaila. In this war he resorted to the help of the Teutonic order. The joint army of Vytautas and the Teutonic order attacked the city several times. A participant in the crucial attack in 1390 was Henry Bolingbroke who later became Henry IV, King of England (the character of Shakespeare’s famous historical drama). In his words, at that time the city was built of wood and did not have defensive walls, but the castle was stone; the invaders burned down nearly the entire city and the Crooked Castle, but failed to seize the Higher Castle. Before long, in 1392, Vytautas made peace with Jogaila and took over Gediminas’ throne becoming the Grand Duke of Lithuania. From that time on, he became the main adversary of the Teutonic knights; in 1394 and 1402 he forced their army to retreat from Vilnius, and after that the city enjoyed a period of peaceful development for two and a half centuries.