In the action-adventure video game series Rise of the Tomb Raider , Lara Croft finds the remnants of a once powerful civilization and searches for the location of an artifact known as the Divine Source, believed to be buried in the lost city of Kitezh. While the story line of the game is a work of fiction, historical texts suggest that Kitezh, known as ‘The Invisible City’, was a real place that is thought to now lie submerged within Lake Svetloyar in Russia.
Accounts of the ancient city of Kitezh are believed to trace back to the earliest days of Rus’, however, the first written reference appeared in the Kitezh Chronicle, written by the Old Believers in the 1780s. (In Russian Orthodox church history, the Old Believers separated from the official Russian Orthodox Church after 1666 as a protest against church reforms.)
According to this Chronicle, the city of Lesser Kitezh was founded by Prince Georgy, Grand Prince of Vladimir in the early 13th century, on the banks of the Volga River in the Voskresensky District of the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast in central Russia. He then discovered a beautiful site further upstream, on the shores of Lake Svetloyar where he decided to build the city of Greater Kitezh. It was established as a monastic city and considered holy by all who inhabited it.
“The Prince made the city beautiful, built it round with churches, monasteries, boyars’ palaces. Then he encircled it with a trench and raised up walls with embrasures,” write Barker & Grant in ‘The Russia Reader: History, Culture, Politics’.
Lake Svetloyar in the Voskresensky District ( public domain )
The Destruction of Kitezh
In 1238, North Eastern Russia was invaded by Mongols under the leadership of Batu Khan, ruler from 1207 to 1255 AD and founder of the Golden Horde. After besieging the city of Vladimir and surrounding cities in Suzdal, Khan heard of the powerful city of Kitezh and was determined to capture it. The Mongols first arrived at Lesser Kitezh. The Grand Prince Georgy rode out to meet them but was eventually forced to flee back towards Greater Kitezh, whose location was still hidden from the Mongols.
Mongols under the walls of Vladimir. ( public domain )
Batu Khan, infuriated, ordered captives to be tortured until they gave up the location of Greater Kitezh. The captives would not give up the secret of their holy city as they believed that to do so would inflict an eternal curse on them and their descendants. However, one of the captives, Kuter’ma, unable to withstand the torture, revealed the secret paths to Lake Svetloyar.
The Chronicle’s description of what happened next is vague and ambiguous. “All that is known is that the Prince managed to hide the holy vessels and liturgical accoutrements in the lake, and then died in battle. By God’s will the city itself became invisible; in its place was seen water and forest,” report Barker & Grant.
The Invisible Town of Kitezh (1913) by Konstantin Gorbatov, 1876-1945 ( public domain ).
Legends of the Invisible City
It is not clear exactly what happened to Kitezh, but legends and folklore have surrounded its mysterious disappearance for centuries. According to one popular tale, the entire city was submerged into the lake by the will of God, to protect its treasures getting into the hands of the Mongols. This has led to Lake Svetloyar sometimes being called the “Russian Atlantis”. Legend says that the army of the Golden Horde watched in dismay as the city sunk into the lake, the last thing they saw being the white glistening dome of the cathedral with a cross on top of it. The reality of the city’s disappearance may not have been so remarkable. Some archaeologists have suggested that the city may have suffered a landslide causing it to disappear into the lake.
In folk tales, the city of Kitezh is said to only be visible to those who are pure in their heart and soul. Believers in the legends often report hearing church bells coming from the lake or seeing lights or even the outlines of buildings beneath the water’s surface. In times past, pilgrims used to visit the lake in the hope of hearing the bells. They went there to pray and left alms for the city’s dwellers. It is also said that women visited the lake during World War Two to pray for their sons.
Stage-set design for Scene Two, Act Four of the opera the “Tale of the Lost City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia” by Rimsky-Korsakov. 1929 ( public domain )