All along the watchtower

10.10.2011 | Text: Yevhen Vasylkiv

Like many towns in the mountainous Carpathian region, Stariy (Old) Sambir essentially consists of a single street, winding its way like a sausage through a shallow ravine. Even so, the village is 25 kilometers long and requires some help from the locals to negotiate


Even before you get there, the very name of this place should make you curious, and Its hard to trace its origin if youre not familiar with the local dialects. I did a little research and found ten versions of why the town is called Old Sambir, but the one that appeals to me the most is that the oldest type of fortifications in this region were called sambirs. These were wooden tower-fortresses built atop hills along trade routes and played a twofold role: the defend merchants against bandits and to serve as customs checkpoints. This makes sense, since the region was part of a major salt trade route and a frontier region during the Middle Ages. Anyway, this version beats the other nine.



Old Sambir makes its first appearance in the historical documents during the Middle Ages (1071) when it was a part of the Halych principality of Kyiv Rus (later became the Kingdom of Halch-Volhynia). At that time, the town was just called Sambir, but during the Mongol invasion of 1240 it was razed to the ground and the survivors moved to a nearby settlement called Pohonych, which was renamed New Sambir, while the ruined town came to be called Old Sambir.


Of greater significance was that Old Sambir became a royal residence of Lev Danylovych Halytskyi in the 13th century, who was King Danylo Halytskyis son, later King of Rus. He was buried in 1301 in the Savior Monastery not far from Sambir.


The town emerged as a significant spiritual center during the early modern period, as Sambir attracted numerous sects and orders to build churches and monasteries in the hilly surroundings. Few sacred sites remain within Sambir itself, however. In 1553 the town received a Magdeburg charter from Poland, which granted corporate status and allowed the urban center a degree of autonomy from the feudal lords around it. According to some sources, however, this act merely validated these privileges that the inhabitants had been enjoying for some fifty years. Also, a Catholic church was built here in the sixteenth century.

By 1589, Sambirs population was 868 citizens, which sounds small, but it was a vibrant center of trade and crafts. The town could boast of having bakeries, blacksmiths, tailors, cobblers, weavers, and furriers, not to mention a flour mill and a brewery. By the first half of the 17th century 30 different professions operated in the town. Old Sambir was an important trade center with two fairs a year and a weekly market.


During what some call the Ukrainian War of National Liberation of 1648-1654, Polish noblemen, fleeing the waves of Ukrainian Cossacks and angry peasants, tried to find shelter in the town, but even though they brought loads of wealth with them, Old Sambir had a revolution of its own and refused them sanctuary. Early in the war, the great Cossack leader, Bogdan Khmelnytskyi occupied the town and de-Polonized it. Old Sambir also took part in another rebellion, led by Yan Yavorskyi, a Ukrainian nobleman, later in the century. It was a revolt of the Orthodox Christian believers against the Union of Brest, which was an attempt by the Polish kings to Catholicize Ukraine. Inspired by the success of the War of National Liberation, the Orthodox nobility and commoners joined forces and held the region for several years against the Polish Catholic forces, going so far as to attack the large regional center of Peremyshl, during which they took over the Bishops residence with the help of the Orthodox believers there.

After the demise of Poland in the late 18th century, Old Sambir was taken by Austria. This was a low period for the town, as war, economic stagnation and political uncertainty led to steady decline. To make matters worse, in 1690 a swarm of locusts invaded the nearby fields and between 1883 and 1885 terrible droughts and fires afflicted the region. Sambir never really recovered. Today, the population numbers 5,000 and industry is minimal.

The church

One of the towns main attractions is the Catholic church, perched on a hill, which dominates the view. Its predecessor was built of wood and fell victim to fire, was rebuilt of stone in about the middle of the 16th century and renovated in 1753. By the second half of the 19th century, this monument was in such a deplorable state that it had to be torn down, and its parishioners had to attend the nearby graveyard chapel. In 1890, a new church was built, which survives today, and was decorated by local artists, the most notable of which was Vinterovskyi of Lviv. During soviet times the church was closed and turned into a warehouse. Only in 1991 was the building was returned to the Catholic congregation of Old Sambir.


The Jews of two towns

No one knows with certainty when the first Jews came to Old Sambir. The first surviving written account of a Jewish presence in the town dates to 1519, at about the time of the first Jewish migration to eastern Europe, when Polish King Zigmund sent a letter to the head of the town council informing him that by royal fiat Jews are now allowed to settle anywhere in the region, including Sambir. The reaction of the town council is not known.

As a result, two Jewish communities appeared one in Old Sambir and another in (New) Sambir, but because the Jewish school and hospital were located in Sambir, which was 20 kilometers away, it soon became the Jewish center of the district. Jewish merchants competed successfully with the locals, since commerce was one of few professions allowed Jews, and as a result the community flourished by the time of Austrian rule. The towns most famous and richest Jewish family the Lams even owned a private synagogue. The dominance of Jewish money and culture in Sambir eventually led to their joining the town elite and an exodus of the non-Jewish population. Only in wartime was an ethnically Polish mayor appointed by the government to rule the town because of a general mistrust of the Jews. At the beginning of last century, 80% of the towns population was Jewish. The Nazi invasion in 1941 led to the complete liquidation of the Jewish community and the destruction of its heritage. All that is left is the Jewish cemetery, which is in good shape and stands as a stark reminder of a lost people.

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