Trakai

Trakai is the city of South-Eastern Lithuania, 29 km to West from Vilnius, district center with 6000 inhabitants on 1150 ha territory (550 ha of them take up lakes).
4502 ha area in and around Trakai is the landscape reservation.
Tourists coming to Vilnius are likely to visit Trakai, the ancient capital of Lithuania. Trakai is one of the oldest Lithuanian settlements spreading over unique glacial terrain. The relief of Trakai features moraine hills and numerous lakes. Many hills emerge from water like islands. The laakes of Trakai lie in the highest enervations of a hilly massif and have a very small feeding area. The latter feature makes the whole environmental complex quite a specific phenomenon from the geo-ecological point of view.
The settlement appeared in this convenient and secure place as early as the 1st millennium A.D. After the establishment of the centralized Lithuanian state Trakai was one of its first capitals. In the 14th century a fortified castle was built on the peninsula off the Lake Galve and the construction of an insular castle was begun which in the 15th century became the residence of Lithuanian Grand Dukes. It is believed that in the 15th century Trakai enjoyed the Magdeburg Rights. At the en

nd of the 14 century, then the Grand Duchy of Lithuania expanded its territories reaching as far as the Black Sea, the Grand Duke Vytautas brought some 400 families of Karaites (a small ethnic group) from the Crimea to serve as his castle guards. Thus, in 1989, the 600th anniversary since the arrival of the Karaites to Trakai was marked.
Several dozen of Karaite families still live in Trakai up to the present time. They have retained their language and customs. The whole Karaite heritage deserves special protection. Trakai is a unique monument of glacial landscape, Lithuanian history and of the Karaite culture. As an original combination of nature and history, and an object of great aesthetic significance, Trakai is visited by about 3550 thousand people annually.

Archeological excavations testify that the area had been inhabited as far as several thousands years ago. Trakai is encircled with a chain of castle hills. It is supposed that wooden castles stood on top of each of them at the beginning of our era, A castle hill also rises in Old Trakai. The Lithuanian annals certify that Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, build a castle there in 1321 and transfered the state capital to Trakai from Kernave, wh

hich is also located not far from Vilnius, on the river Neris.
The castle of Old Trakai was not particularly safe for it lacked favourable natural conditions for defence. Duke Kestutis started looking for a spot to build another, more powerful castle. The New Trakai emerged on the shore of Lake Galve. Until the second half of the 14th century no distinction was made between Old and New Trakai; the history of two towns, therefore, often lacks reliable information.
Written sources say that by 1323 Vilnius was already the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Although Trakai has lost the status of the capital, its castles retained their importance as a major stronghold and highly fortified outpost of Vilnius in the struggle against the Teutonic Orded. For a long period of time Trakai remained the residence of the Dukes and a significant center of Lithania’s political and economical life.
Beginning with the rule of Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-1341), the throne of Grand Dukes in Lithuania became hereditary. As a result, all through the 14th and 15th centuries Lithuania was ruled by the Gediminas’ dynasty. After Gediminas death the Lithuanian state, which had by that time expanded far into Russian-inhabited lands, was ru
uled by his two soons – Algirdas and Kestutis. The domain of later included the ethnic Lithuanian territories and Trakai remained his residence.
In 1379 the Lithuanian Dukes Kestutis, his sons Vytautas and Lengvenis, and Jogaila, the son of the deceased Grand Duke Algirdas, signed in Trakai an agreement with the Masters of both the German Orders on the rules of hunting and trade and on the settlement of the borderland.
In the 15th century both the town and the castle prospered. Trakai was the administrative center of a large territory extending its power even over such famous towns of feudal Lithuania as Gardinas and Kaunas. The town was visited by famous European diplomats and envoys of those times. At the times of Vytautas’ rule various documents were signed here and privileges granted. At the beginning of the 15th century Trakai was granted the Magdeburg Charter, i.e., the status of municipal autonomy. The number of handicraftsmen increased, and a school was established here.
By the end of 16th century the town had gradually lost its former political importance. It was finale outgrown by Vilnius. The absence of trade rotes led to an economical decline. Soon the town became a kind of a pl
lace of exile.
As the baneful high-handedness of the feudals prevailed and the devastion wars against the neighbouring countries went on, the state inevitably declined. The period was particularly hard for Lithuania as the local feudals adopted the Polish language. Assisted by the clergy, they largely contributed to the spread of Polonization in Lithuania. Selfdom was growing heavier and heavier. Although the first Lithuanian book was printed in 1547 in East Prussia, for many ears to come Lithuanian was hardly used in state affairs. Trakai, a quite remote place at that time, went through all this.
The past of Trakai became a subject of scientific interest only in the early 19th century in the wake of the national movement under the rule of Russian Tsars.
Trakai’ peninsular castle was one of the latest Lithuanian defence castles build in the Gothic style. The ruins of it, now lying in the center of town, are the most vivid testimony of the fights against the Crusaders. The castle had been build on a peninsula jutting out between Lake Galve and Lake of Bernardines. Some historians are inclined to believe that the peninsula on which Trakai is situated today, was previously an island. Later on, the strait between lakes of Bernardites and Totoriskes was filled up and a road was build over it. The peninsular castle was one of the largest among the Lithuanian castles of those times. It occupied an area of 4 hectares and consisted of the frontal, upper and lower parts. (After the concluded peace between Vytautas and Jogaila in 1392, Vytautas got all his lands back and, as Jogaila’s viceregal, exerted his power over the whole of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Actually, Vytautas became an independent head of the state. It was under his rule that Lithuanian feudal state achieved the climax of his power). Although Lithuania’s capital was Vilnius, Vytautas had a particular liking for Trakai where he himself was born. The second stage of building of peninsular castle and its fortification are refered to Vytautas’ rule. Towards the end of the 15th century, due to changing sociology – political conditions, the castle had lost its strategical importance.
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries three minor islands of Lake Galve were united into one, and the third castle of Trakai was built on it. The castle covers the area of about 2 hectares and consist of the front yard and the ducal palace. The front yard is trapezeform and is enclosed with high and thick walls. The ducal palace consists of two parallel wings of different width, each having a semi-basement and two storeys. The ground storey of the right wing contains a spacious presence chamber, in which the Dukes, including Vytautas, used to receive honorary foreign guests. The presence chamber was decorated by frescoes and stained-glass windows.
The insular castle was a significant military stronghold. Through the 15th century the insular castle was the residence of the dukes. It was repeatedly repaired and decorated. Towards the end of the 16th century, however, importance of it began to decrease. (There were many reasons for that. One of them was he Lublin Union concluded in 1569, according to which Lithuania and Poland were united into one state – Rzeczpospolita – the center of which was Cracow. The king and the legislative body – the Sejm – were common for both parts of the common wealth. The Grand Duchy of Lithuania retained its territory, treasury, army, administration, laws and courts of law. As the result of such significant changes, Trakai lost its former importance. The town also fond itself at a distance from the main trade routs while the Grand Dukes used to stop in Vilnius and seldom visited Trakai during their stays in Lithania). The Insular castle was turned into a prison for political enemies from the nobility. During the war between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Russia (1655-1660) the insular castle suffered considerable damage and was left to its own fate.
Even at medieval times the national composition of the town’s population was rather mixed (Lithuanians, Russians, Germans, large number of Jews). The ethnic groups of the population concentrated in certain parts of the town where they had their houses of worship: a Roman Catholic Church, a Russian orthodox church, a Jewish synagoge and a Karaite kinese.
Trakai is inhabited by the Karaites (Karaimes), too, who settled here at the turn of 14th and 15th centuries. Vytautas resettled a number of Karaite families from the Crimea (for his guard purposes). They settled in the town and its vicinity and were granted various privileges. At present about 200 Karaites reside in Trakai. This is the world’s largest group of people belonging to this tiny nation and residing in one area. Their history, customs and ethnographical peculiarities are reflected at special exposition

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