To the northeast of Moscow lies the historic path of pilgrims and traders, a route that extends past the great Holy Trinity Monastery at Sergiev Posad and then on to Rostov and Yaroslavl on the Volga River.
Although less known, one of the most ancient settlements on this road has the weighty name of Pereslavl-Zalessky. Located near the shores of Lake Pleshcheyev, the town was established in 1152 by Yuri Dolgoruky, prince of the large territory of Rostov-Suzdal and the founder of Moscow.
Settlers from the medieval capital of Kiev had moved to the area since the turn of the 12th century, and the town’s name is thought to derive from the town of Pereyaslavl, near Kiev. The addition of “Zalessky” (“beyond the forests”) indicates that the new settlement lay within a forest zone in central Russia.
Yury spent most of his life in a quest for the princely throne in Kiev, and he died within a year of achieving that goal, in 1157. But much endured from his efforts and those of his son Andrei Bogoliusky in the Suzdal territory.
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These accomplishments in Pereslavl Zalessky include one of the earliest cut stone churches in Russia, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Savior. Although the cathedral lacks the harmony of proportions that characterizes later churches built by Yury Dolgoruky's sons in Vladimir and Bogoliubovo, its plan is finely calculated and demonstrates a skilful use of cut limestone as a building material.
Behind the cathedral are the remains of a high earthen rampart that was originally capped with a log wall. The rampart is one of the oldest and best preserved in Russia.
Pereslavl-Zalessky has had an extraordinary number of monastic institutions – as many as 12 were located in the immediate area during the mid-18th century. In part this was a reflection of the town’s role as a center of early missionary activity at a time when much of the Rostov territory had only nominally accepted Christianity. The number of monasteries was also due to the town’s position on a major pilgrimage route used not only by humble believers but also by the grand princes of Muscovy.
Five monasteries still have a major presence in Pereslavl-Zalessky. The oldest of these is the Monastery of Saint Nicetas (Nikita) the Martyr, on the northern edge of the settlement. Although founded in the early 12th century, the monastery’s major patron was Ivan IV (the Terrible), who generously supported it in the latter part of the 16th century.
Sacked by the Poles in 1611 during the dynastic crisis known as the Time of Troubles, the monastery and its 16th-century fortress walls were soon restored with the support of the first Romanov tsar, Mikhail Fyodorovich. Severely damaged during the Soviet era, the monastery has now been impressively restored, including the Cathedral of Saint Nicetas (1560s) and the 17th-century refectory Church of the Annunciation.
The next important institution was the Goritsky-Dormition Monastery, founded in the early 14th century by Moscow prince Ivan Kalita (1283-1341?). Destroyed by the Tatars in 1382, the wooden monastery was quickly rebuilt and became a major center of religious activity. In the late 15th and 16th centuries, the monastery developed close ties with grand princes Basil III and Ivan IV.
Its accession to magnificence occurred in the middle of the 18th century during the reign of Empress Elizabeth. In 1744 it became the center of a powerful bishopric, and its main church, the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Mother of God, was rebuilt in the baroque style with a magnificent rococo interior characteristic of Elizabeth’s reign.
The monastery now serves primarily as a museum and is worth a visit not only for its displays of local history but also for superb views of Lake Pleshcheyev and the town from a tower on its north wall.
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