Kitezh: the Mythical Invisible City of Russia


In past months, the fans of the Tomb Raider franchise received a nice surprise in the form of the latest sequel of this action video game. In the plot of the game Lara Croft, the famous adventure character, ventures into the wilds of Siberia in search of immortality. The key to all her questions lies in the mythical city of Kitezh. Chased by numerous villains, she goes through the unimaginable trouble to reach the invisible city. Is there more to this story than the fiction of a video game plot?

According to rising body of evidence, Kitezh was once a mighty city on the shore of the lake Svetloyar, but it was flooded. For centuries, this city has survived as myth. In 2011, archaeologists found remains of everyday objects, and they believe that they belong to the people who lived in a mystical city of Kitezh.

Tale of Kitezh

The first written documents that mention the Russian Atlantis date back to 1780s and the Old Believers. In 1666, the Old Believers refused to accept the reforms the Orthodox Church adopted and therefore, they separated. In the early 13th century, the Grand Prince of Vladimir, Prince Georgy, founded the city of Little Kitzeh (Maly Kitezh) on the bank of the Volga River in the Voskresensky District of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast in central Russia. Today, the city of Little Kitezh carries the name Krasny Kholm, and the settlement Prince Georgy had founded still survives despite all the destruction and wars that plagued it through the centuries. After a while, the Prince discovered a beautiful place on a lake Svetloyar which was further upstream and wanted to make another city on that spot.

Little Kitezh by Ivan Bilibin

This Bolshoy Kitezh or Big Kitezh was considered holy by all its inhabitants because of the large number of monasteries and churches the Prince had built. The origin of the city’s name is the cause of depute between researchers. Some think that the name came from the royal residence Kideksha while others think that it meant ‘obscure‘. The circle-shaped city has made the Russian people proud, and its location was kept secret. Some folk tales even say that the city was visible only to those who were pure of heart. As history has proved on so many occasions, times of peace and prosperity don’t last long.

The Destruction of the Invisible City

Russian history is filled with difficulties caused by the Mongol invasions. One such invasion started in 1238 AD and was led by the mighty Batu Khan, the founder of the Golden Horde. The army Batu Khan brought with him was so powerful that they surrounded and besieged the city of Vladimir. After hearing a story about the mighty city of Kitezh, Khan became obsessed with it and determined to destroy it.

After a fierce battle, the Mongol army captured the Little Kitezh and made the Prince Georgy retreat to Kitezh. Even after the defeat, the hopes of saving the Prince’s city were high because Batu Khan didn’t know the location of the city. All of the prisoners were tortured in an attempt to get the information about the secret path that led to the lake Svetloyar. One of the men revealed the information because he couldn’t take the torture anymore.

It is certain that the Golden Horde reached the city and that great Prince died in the battle while trying to protect the Bolshoy Kitezh. Accounts how the events unraveled are very different and most of them come from the folk stories that kept the memory of this holy city alive.

The Myth

One popular story explains the events that took place once Batu Khan and his Golden Horde reached the lake Svetloyar. They surrounded the city, but to their amazement, they didn’t see the army defending the city. There were no walls or anything else that could protect the city from certain death.

The Invisible Town of Kitezh (1913) by Konstantin Gorbatov

The only thing the Mongol conquerors could see was thousands of city’s inhabitants praying to God. Encouraged by the lack of opposing army, they initiated the attack, but at that moment, fountains of water sprouted from the soil. This caused havoc among the Mongols who managed to retreat to the nearby forest. From there, they watched the city descend into the lake, disappearing from the face of the Earth forever. The mystical flooding of Kitezh became the source of many myths and folk tales that were passed from one generation to another.

In these stories, the city was called ‘The Invisible City‘ that would only reveal itself to those who were pure and had sincere faith in God. On some occasions, people have reported they heard voices from the lake that sang the hymns. Also, those with faith in God could see the lights of the processions that people who still live in the Russian Atlantis hold.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the archaeologists inspired by these legends started looking for evidence that would prove if the city of Bolshoy Kitezh ever existed.

Archeological Evidence

In 2011, the team of researchers found the traces of ancient settlements in the area around the Svetloyar Lake. In addition, they unearthed fragments of traditional Russian pottery. One of the most important discoveries they’ve made so far was that the hill in which the remains of the settlement were found is prone to landslides. This could prove that the people who lived in Russian Atlantis met much less glorious destiny than the one depicted in the myths and folktales of the Russian people. The landslide could have submerged the city, but at this point, the scientific community awaits further findings from the team that is working on this site.

It is less important what actually happened with Prince Georgy’s city than the fact that his city gave the strength to many people that went through the difficult periods of their life. The power of a myth is not in the facts but in the reassurance that impossible things happen if you are righteous.


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