EPISODE XVIII: THE INVISIBLE CITY

The Legend of Kitezh has a rich history in Russian folklore that dates back as far as the 13th century A.D and possibly further into the days of the Rus, before the Mongol invasions began sweeping the continent from the East. The Creation of the mythical City of Kitezh goes as follows: Founded by Prince Georgy II of Vladimir, the mythical Invisible Town was the second of two cities, the first of which, Maly Kitezh (Small Kitezh), was founded sometime around the 13th century on the Volga River. It was soon followed by Bolshoy Kitezh (Big Kitezh), founded on the shores of Lake Svetloyar.

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Not long after the two Kitezh’s were established, Batu Khan, grandson of Ghenghis Khan and leader of the Golden Horde (a division of the Mongol Empire), caught wind of the sister cities and decided to invade and ransack them both. His reason was that the citizens had refused to pay homage to the empire in the form of taxes, and had chosen to evade direct intervention by retreating deep into the twisted, old growth woods. Katu Khan and his army swiftly captured Maly Kitezh, forcing Georgy and his remaining companions to retreat to Bolshoy Kitezh, in a desperate escape.

The legend continues that Bhatu Kahn was unsatisfied with his victory and was so determined to find Bolshoy Kitezh, the real prize, that he began to take local prisoners from nearby places and torture them for information. Some knew of Bolshoy Kitezh from trade, which was crucial for the Rus economy even under Mongol control, and eventually Bhatu got his wish.

A secret network of pathways led the Golden Horde to the gates of Kitezh, which were oddly left unguarded, open to any intending interlopers. The inhabitants could be seen by the Mongolian troops, and they were shocked to find the entirety of the city locked in fervent prayer, the chorus of voices echoing all about in an unearthly chorus. The army prepared to charge, but upon so there suddenly sprang up massive columns of water spinning forth from the ground, the walls, the cracks in the sidewalks. The city was swallowed up by great flows of water that pushed the invaders back to the forest's edge, where they watched helplessly as their prize sank beneath the calm surface of a newly formed lake, named Svetloyar today.

 Lake Svetloyar, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Russia

Lake Svetloyar, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Russia

The existence of this legendary city is open to debate to this day. Lake Svetloyar is little more than a glorified pond with a maximum depth of 33 metres and a circumference of less than a third of a mile. But yet it retains a kind of spiritual mystique that believers claim is holy to an utmost degree, making it the site of many pilgrimages from individuals, many from the Old Believers Orthodox Church and a few pagans as well. The lake is synonymous with many miraculous events but also has reportedly cursed individuals who dare disrespect its natural resplendence. One prominent case was that of a man who took it upon himself to chop down a tree growing on the edge of the lake shore. Before the tree fell the man reportedly fell to the ground in a fit and by the time he was taken back to his home, he was pronounced dead.

The nature of Kitezh has drawn people in for centuries, and will continue to do so well into the future. Werner Herzog’s Bell’s From the Deep further illuminates the reasons why individuals find themselves visiting the lake, whether in the winter on its thin frozen surface where the pious take to crawling across the surface on their belly as they strain their eyes to peer past the ice and witness the vision of the mythical city and its wondrous inhabitants below. Some even claim to have seen angels in the area and have heard the cathedral bell chime far below the water’s surface. Others are adamant that the lake has healed their wounds and brought them life and vitality in times of need. Whatever the truth behind the Invisible City, the story of Kitezh continues to amaze and confound those who come across it.

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Written by Amber Rae Bouchard