Rurikovo Gorodische, located on the right side of Volkhov, opposite Peryn’, is one of those places. Despite the desolation and remoteness, it remains popular among the scientists, who, time after time, carry out archeological excavations here, as well as tourists who travel here to learn the history, and Novgorodians who choose Gorodische as a destination point for a long walk on a summer day.
At first glance, this place seems like an ordinary nature’s corner: the fields, pretty both in summer and spring, and the gloomy scenery of the Russian northwest – the most beautiful places of the world, according to the scholar Dmitry Likhachov. A small hill. Ruins of an ancient palace. And that’s probably the only things a traveler would see here. Add wonderful sunsets to the list, when the drowning sun shares its final rays with the water and slowly closes its heavy eye, and a remarkable landmark nearby – the Nereditsa Church, built in 1198 by order of Yaroslav the Wise… But are those the only things that attract people to Gorodische?
“Gorodische”... From the point of view of ancient word formation, it literally means “a place, where a town used to be”. “Rurikovo Gorodische” – as it’s been called by historians and local experts ever since 19th century – evokes associations with the Rurik who, according to legends, was summoned to Rus’ in 862, over a 1000 years ago, and who founded the Russian nation. However, where are the roots of that nation? Is that the secret that Gorodische holds? The secret of its name has been attracting attention of scientists for a while: if Novgorod was new at the time, then how far back does that defensive fortification date?
In the end of the 1st century, the source of the river Volkhov and the northwest shore of Lake Ilmen, were the central area (also known as Poozerye) for the northern slavs. The two reasons behind their decision to claim those lands were the fertile soil and a perfect position on the intersection of two most important trade routes: Volga trade route and “Varangian-Greek” route. The hills along the floodplains of Volkhov and Ilmen, as well as Veryazha, were riddled with various Slavic settlements, and Peryn’ was their central pagan temple. Gorodische played an important role in this region in 9th century; according to the chronicles of 1103, it was well-known as a residency for Novgorodian nobility and an important center of Novgorod’s political life. Its importance was justified by the comfortable geographical location: the settlement was built on an island that was close to the distributaries of Volkhov, and it was on high ground, which means it was a naturally fortified key to the whole Lake Ilmen.
According to scientists, Gorodische follows the path of Ladoga in its development, which was distinctive for most of the early Baltic trading centers. However, unlike Gorodische, Ladoga couldn’t become the center of the Slavic lands, as it was fairly remote from the Slavic world and had no fertile soil, even though it also developed with the help of international trade and was even more ancient. Gorodische evolved in a cluster of farming settlements, which formed the core of the future Novgorodian land; besides, all strings that governed the entire Ilmen region came from here. According to one version of the Varangian Summoning legend, Rurik moved to Gorodische from Ladoga, which shows how important its role was in 9th century. His palace was here as well, but now it’s lost. The influence of the settlements around Gorodische increased with time. Higher-ups of the society were enticed to live in a both administrative and economical center, where all the income of the future Novgorod land came to, and so they moved closer to Gorodische. Gradually, the territory of the future New City formed that way, and with time, Gorodische became the Old City as we know it now, and the search for it kept the minds of the world scientists occupied for a long time.
In the middle of 10th century, a couple of quickly developing settlements were already present on the hills 2 kilometers away from Gorodische, which were eventually taken by Novgorod. At this time, the new settlements and Gorodische are developing independently, but during the pagan reformation by Vladimir the Great in 980, the idol of God Perun was placed in Peryn’ (in Kiev, it was placed in Kremlin), which again shows it’s central role.
In late 10th century, the first constructions are built on the territory that approximately matches the one of the modern Kremlin: Detinets and the wooden version of St. Sophia’s Cathedral. Eventually, the settlements of the Slavic nobility formed a completely new structure and around 10th-11th centuries they took over most of the administrative and economical functions of Gorodische.
In early 11th century, Yaroslav the Wise moved his residency down the current of Volkhov, to Torg. That impacted the intensity of life in Gorodische, as if it stopped for a moment. But in late 11th century, because of an increase in amount of functions for the mayor and a simultaneous decline in the role of knyaz, he was forced to move back to Gorodische, preserving the right for himself to live inside the city.
In 1103, in contrast with St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the Annunciation Church was built in Gorodische. The church’s façade was three-bladed. The schematics, the shape of the pillars and the steps were identical to Saint George’s Church in Yuriev Monastery, which was built a bit later on the opposite shore of Volkhov. During archeological excavations, another circumstance was found: the Annunciation Church, along with Saint George’s Church, formed a majestic propylaeum – a gate to the city from Lake Ilmen; it was a construction of indescribable beauty.
During his rule, Alexander Nevsky also lived in Gorodische. In 1477, Ivan III of Russia chose it as his place of stay as well, along with Ivan the Terrible, who orchestrated the punishment for the Novgorodian boyars. In late 16th century, this place had lost its original influence and became the tsar’s residence – Peter the Great gifted it to Alexander Menshikov.
A unique place full of historical secrets shows its true colors to an inquisitive traveler, who resurrects this quiet piece of land with the power of imagination. It’s almost as if Rurik’s lost palace will rise up again, the battle cry of knyaz’s kinsmen will echo in the fields, accompanied by the sounds of matins from the church.