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Lost Library of Ivan The Great

Many famous ancient libraries that contain rare books, maps and other documents were destroyed. The library at Alexandria once held 500,000 volumes before it was destroyed by Julius Caesar, and the library at Carthage with 200,000 volumes met the same fate after war with Rome. The Chinese Emperor Shi-Hwang-ti had all his kingdom’s books burned in 214 B.C., and Mao revived this tradition in 1966. From ancient Pergamus to modern Germany, books and libraries have regularly come under attack. One of the greatest libraries, however, was saved at the last minute from destruction, only to be lost. In the middle of the fifteenth century the Ottoman Empire was spreading west, conquering everything in its path. It was only a matter of time before Constantinople itself would be invaded by the Asian hordes. Constantinople was nearly two thousand years old when the Turks threatened it. Founded by a Greek, Byzas, in 667 B.C., the city had survived an earlier catastrophe in 1204 when the Christian crusaders decided on looting the city as a dress rehearsal for conquering Jerusalem. The lesson, having been learned the hard way, was not forgotten.

Ivan the Great
(Image Credit: Atlantis Rising Magazine: "The Lost Library of Ivan The Great" by Steven Sora)

The greatest treasures of the city were to be protected at all costs. Sultan Mahomet II with an army of one hundred and fifty thousand men was on his way. Constantine XI had a force only one tenth of his enemy and this included his Genoese mercenaries. Defeat was just a matter of time. The niece of the emperor, Sophia Palaeologa, was hastily married to the young Ivan III who would soon become the ruler of Russia. Her entourage left the city and made it to Moscow via Rome. Her baggage included the treasures of the Byzantine and also the treasures of Constantinople’s library. This was no ordinary library, and it may have been the greatest library outside the Vatican at that time. Chronicles preserved in Moscow state one hundred carts of rare books traveled overland. Books from Asia, Africa and Europe written in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Egyptian were part of the library. Early editions of Pindar, Polybius, Tacitus and Cicero were also part of the library, as were the poems of Kalvos, the works of Virgil and the “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius. Many were written by hand and were considered one-of-a-kind. Seven hundred books were editions bound for the emperors themselves and encrusted in jewels.

The value of the library was then and now incalculable. Sophia (also known as Zoe) and her treasures made it to the safety of Moscow and her new husband via Rome. She also collected a handful of Italian artists and architects who would participate in the modernization of the Kremlin. One hope, that of uniting the Orthodox Church of Constantinople, the last vestige of the Roman Empire, with the Orthodox church of Russia was never achieved. There would be no theological union, and it would quickly be known there was no hope of a military union. And the fate of Constantinople was sealed. The troops of the Ottoman sultan would overwhelm the city’s walls with cannon and sheer numbers. The Ottoman navy surrounded the port. When chains were put across the harbor, Mahomet had his ships put on rollers, pulled overland and re-launched at a point past the blockade. When the ships reached the inner harbor, cannons brought down the walls, and the massive military contingent entered the city on May 29, 1453.

The culmination of a seven-week siege had the Ottoman leader hailed as Fatih (the Conqueror) as he rode on horseback into the Hagia Sophia, the greatest Church in the World. Massacre and pillage followed as Constantinople was “converted” into Istanbul, the capital of the Turkish Empire. The greatest church, one hundred and eighty feet tall, became a mosque and others were quickly constructed. The Eastern Roman Empire was no more. Moscow now became the head of the Orthodox Christian Church. A Russian Orthodox monk, Philotheos, declared Moscow “the Third Rome.” A New Home for Constantinople’s Treasures One of Ivan III’s most lasting achievements was to begin the building of the Kremlin into what it is today. In his time it was a three-hundred-year-old encampment built of wood. Standing tall it had turned back numerous assaults and the old-Russian word for “citadel,” kreml, served as the base of the modern word, kremlin. He took the 130-acre fortress and replaced wood with brick and stone. Much of the brick work that has survived until modern times is the original.

The reason for the upgrade from oak to stone was that Sophia requested of her husband that the books she had brought from Constantinople be safe from the fires that regularly plagued the fortress. Cathedrals of wood and barracks and homes would burn from normal affairs to Tartar attacks, and the library needed to be safe from that threat. Another threat, voiced by her uncle, was that he believed the library was coveted by Rome and the Vatican. They had offered to buy the complete collection, and the emperor had turned the offer down. Would Rome use force? For this reason Moscow was chosen. Ivan went a step further and built the vaults of the “Liberia” as the library came to be known, underground. The Italian architect Ridolfo (Aristotle) di Fioravanti had the job of constructing the vault deep under the Kremlin. There were once believed to be three hundred underground tributaries of the Muscovy River.

The architect would close off such waterways, then line the walls with brick. No one knows just how many rooms and tunnels exist in the labyrinth under the Kremlin. Meet the New Boss When Ivan III, (aka Ivan the Great) died, the rule of Russia passed to Ivan IV who is known to history as the Terrible. The word terrible actually once meant “awesome,” but Ivan was a terrible person even though his ability to rule was “awesome.” He detested the aristocracy of Russia called the boyars. For them he extended his underground city further. The labyrinth under the Kremlin now included prisons and torture chambers designed to break the power of these elite families. At first he targeted specific families that had “neglected” him. However, his cruelty went beyond the practical, and evil, growth of power. He even threw cats and dogs out of Kremlin windows. His secret police, the Oprichniks, grew more violent as their “Czar” became more unbalanced. Ivan was the first to take that title which is derived from Caesar. After stripping the boyars of their wealth he took to attacking his own population.

The Massacre of Novgorad saw over thirty thousand Russians killed and the city nearly depopulated. He beat his daughter-in-law until she miscarried and then killed his son who had tried to stop him. Ivan’s reign of terror did not end until his death. In his last three years he had suffered from a horrific disease that bloated his features and caused him to emit ghastly odors. Most likely it was the result of poisoning, and the last person to see him alive was his adversary in chess, Boris Godenov, who was suspected of finishing him off with more poison. While Ivan was losing his mind and finally his life, Russia was losing the knowledge of the library’s location. More important issues allowed the library to be nearly forgotten. Moscow itself would fall from importance when Peter the great czar and emperor modernized his country. Peter might have moved the library, if he found it, but despite a massive search the maze under the Kremlin defied even the Romanov emperor.

The search for the lost library fast forward past the days of the czars to the time of the dictators and the library was still missing. Joseph Stalin wished to create one of the world’s greatest subway systems. The massive tunneling which is today evident in the endless escalators that seem to descend to the earth’s core was done with care in the hopes that one of the secret rooms of the library would be uncovered. Over one hundred subway stations, many decorated with artworks, are connected by miles of track stretching throughout the city. But none penetrated the “Liberia” of Ivan III as the library became known. Even a secret subway designed to protect the rulers and generals never uncovered the treasures of the Byzantines. As Moscow improved its infrastructure, numerous underground levels were built. While no one knows for sure, in some places it is believed there are as many as twelve. Subways, water tunnels, a sewage system, and the passageways that are long forgotten have never been mapped.

Nikita Khruschev, in the 1960s brought about even more development under the Kremlin. He further extended the subway system and may have merged the secret subway with the public metro, although not all of it. The Arbatskaya station is just under the ministry of Defense and secret doors are always under active guard. While many stations are beautifully designed and appointed with artwork, no photographs are allowed. Tourists are warned that even if they think they can sneak a photo or two, they will not get away unseen. Khruschev, too, wished to uncover the famed library. He instructed the project managers to take all steps necessary to locate and preserve with care the library of Ivan. But despite his instructions, all the dictator’s men could not uncover what the czar’s men covered. In the 1990s the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov renewed the hunt for the library. One of the hopes of the search was possibly to open the underground for tourism.

Visitors to the Kremlin are often rudely awakened to the city’s endless ability to charge admission to just about every building of interest. So the lost underground might prove another rich revenue source. Unfortunately for the mayor, the only new discovery was a tunnel filled with skeletons—the victims of Ivan IV’s secret police. Underground tourism so far has been confined to the underground shopping malls that contain Moscow’s most posh shops. Modern media in Russia is still emerging from the twentieth century during which any form of dissent or exposé could earn a one-way ticket to Siberia.

Stories of the secret subway have made their way into the tabloids and it is claimed that thousands are employed in both the secret transportation system and a secret city to which it connects six miles away. While the tabloid media is seldom reliable, a portion of the subway that connects the Kremlin to Moscow’s airport is no longer a secret. It is, however, open only to government officials. The people cynically regard this secret subway as “Metro 2,” although officials of the FSB (the successor to the KGB) are not amused. Journalists who have openly mentioned it have been subject to interrogation. Moscow’s Diggers Modern urban explorers, though, are braving the threat of government and are illegally transversing their city underground. They call themselves the “Diggers” and despite the military actively patrolling some of the complex tunnel system, they bravely risk arrest and subsequent consequences. Sewers, subway stations, and even the newly constructed underground shopping malls provide access to the subterranean world of catacombs, tunnels, bomb shelters and secret vaults. While the city has granted access to the tunnels to a handful of tour operators, the military is equally concerned with a terrorist group penetrating beneath the Kremlin.

In 1988 near the Spasskiye Gate of the Kremlin a construction project found a treasure hoard dating from the late Viking period. The works of both Scandinavian and Russian jewelers included items never found before in Russia, and most likely hidden during the Mongol invasions were part of the discovery. Must the world wait for another construction incident for the library to someday be unearthed? The founder of the Moscow Diggers, Vadim Mikhailov told the Ottawa Citizen that he firmly believes that the treasure will someday be found. He claims to have more information than anyone alive. His greatest source is a ninety-year-old nearlyblind man nicknamed Appolos who claims to have found it. His poor treatment at the hands of the government is his reason for depriving the government of the location of this literary treasure. Vadim and his group have broken through an underground brick wall directly into the Kremlin’s Palace basement, now moldy from the flowing waters.

They have found skulls, weapons, deserted passageways and dry water courses. They have even found radioactive material lying beneath the Moscow State University and alerted the government. They have also been threatened on occasion by the darker side of modern Russia: Gypsies, drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless families and ex-convicts. On one occasion the group aided police in recapturing three escaped murderers. On another they instructed Moscow’s elite Alpha unit on how to navigate the sewage tunnels to end a hostage crisis in the Dubrovka Theatre. Will Vadim and the Diggers someday uncover the secret vault of Ivan’s library, or will a future construction project uncover the priceless collection? Until now the Ivan's library remain secretly hidden.

Sources & Pic Sources:

Atlantis Rising Magazine: "The Lost Library of Ivan The Great" by Steven Sora

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  1. if someone knew where your books are and wrote down the names of the books before fleeing, wouldn't you move your books?


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