Question:Where in the world was a royal castle protected by the people of a nomadic tribe?
Answer: Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania
Protected by the surrounding waters of Lake Galve, this Lithuanian gem has long been a symbol for the country and its power during the Middle Ages. Built during the time when the impressive Grand Duchy of Lithuania ruled eastern Europe, Trakai Island Castle has served as everything from a royal residence to a military defense and a prison.
During the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe containing parts of what is now Belarus, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Latvia. As a Pagan state, the vast kingdom was targeted in the religious crusade of the Teutonic Knights of Germany. To defend themselves from these attackers, Lithuania’s Grand Duke Kestutis called for the construction of the castle in the town of Trakai on the largest of three islands in Lake Galve.
Kestutis moved his residency to the island castle, but not long after, it suffered a grave attack from the Teutonic Knights. Kestutis was assassinated and a power struggle for the throne between his brother and his son ensued. His son, Vytautas, won out and built the red-brick castle back up again. Its towers were reinforced, a moat was constructed, and walls that could be drawn up in times of attack were built. Not only that, but indigenous people of the nomadic Turkic tribe, the Kipchaks, where brought to serve as the castle’s protectors. In 1410, the Polish-Lithuanian union achieved victory over the Teutonic Knights during the legendary Battle of Grunwald—one of the largest battles in medieval Europe. After the victory, the castle lost its military importance and became a decorated residence for Grand Duke Vytautas until his death in 1430.
Trakai Castle would go on to serve as a royal summer residence during the Renaissance era and then a prison until it was plundered by a Russian army in 1655. For years it sat in ruins until it was reconstructed following World War II with the fairytale-like appearance it has today. Now a museum on Lithuanian history, Trakai Island Castle stands a nation-wide symbol of Lithuania’s power, history, and identity.
10 Facts about the Karai Community in Trakai:
- Now known as Karaims, this community is descended from the Kipchak tribe who were brought to act as bodyguards for the castle in the 14th century.
- Also known as the Crimean Karaites and Quarays, the Grand Duke Vytautas relocated one branch of Karaims from Crimea to help build up the town of Trakai and protect the castle.
- There, they continued to speak their own language and practice their own religion—an offshoot of Judaism and one of the smallest among the Abrahamic religions.
- In Trakai, Karaims have two active temples, known as Kenessas, where they practice their religion.
- Many Karaims migrated to the city of Vilnius, however Trakai remains their heartland. Trakai was preserved for centuries by the Karai community and other ethnic groups like the Tatars, Polish, and Russians.
- Karaims still prepare their traditional dishes in town like kibinai, a savory meat pastry, which can be tasted in local taverns.
- When walking through the town of Trakai you might notice that many buildings have three distinct front-facing windows. This is a unique tradition of Karaim homes.
- During the Holocaust, it was deemed that the Karaims were not a Jewish religious community, however many still lost their lives during the early phases of the war. Many other Karaims risked their safety to hide Jews in their homes or disguise them as Karaims.
- Following the war, many Karaim individuals immigrated from Lithuania and assimilated in places like Israel, Turkey, the U.S., and Great Britain.
- Those that remained were able to preserve their Turkic language; however, today, there are only 241 remaining people of the indigenous group living in Lithuanian cities like Trakai, Vilnius, and Panevėžys.
Visit Trakai Island Castle and meet with members of the Karai community when you join us for our Enhanced! The Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg adventure.