A Journey to the Top of Zamkova Gora (Castle Hill)

ZamkovaGoraFromWindow

View of “Castle Mountain” from my kitchen.

On a recent stay in Kiev, I had an apartment near the top of Andrew’s Descent. St. Andrew’s dazzling green and white cupolas filled one window and another looked out over the neighborhood of Podil, the Dnieper, and beyond. While gazing across the river, I noticed a large hill nestled between neighborhoods, which clearly had a path atop it and a forest at the far end. I asked my friends and they told me something about paganism and graveyards.

The next morning, I decided to see it for myself. I started walking down Andrew’s Descent thinking it would be no problem to find the hill, but actually it was lost from view at street level. I asked a passerby if he knew where it was, and he told me to go to the “Zhytniy Market.” I headed to this Soviet-era enclosed market and bought a bagful of nuts and dried berries.

Thus fortified for my journey, I went behind the building and found a group of very drunk “bomzhi” (bums). I saw the hill directly above me, but no entrance, only some dumpsters and a cement wall. I asked one of the men for advice and he replied, “You want to go up the hill, just climb up!” I looked at the wall, about four feet high, and pointed with a questioning look. “Yes, yes,” he replied, “but hey, wait. You know a guy went that way and never returned….”

“What? Who?” I thought for sure he was crazed.

“Yeah, an American. Never seen again. Lost.” I assumed he was trying to engage me in a conversation and then ask for money. In any case, I snaked between a dumpster and a pile a trash, pulled myself up onto the wall and into some thick brush. I was standing on a narrow dirt path. “Go left! Go left!” the drunk shouted. After a minute or so, that path disappeared but on my right was a very steep dirt wall that went straight up about 12 stories. I tied my bag of nuts to my belt loop, and started climbing. After a few minutes, the path was so steep that I had to get down on my hands and knees to continue scampering up. It was trying and probably dangerous, as it soon became clear that this wasn’t a path but instead just a very steep unused side of the mountain, covered in trash that had been thrown from above. I didn’t want to give up, so after about twenty minutes of exertion I managed to pull myself up by various tree roots and toeholds.

When I emerged at the top, dirty and bramble-scratched, I entered a quiet forest. Within a few moments, I stumbled upon a gravestone and heard voices behind me. I passed another gravestone (long forgotten and seemingly overturned) and some sort of mausoleum with a tunnel underneath. I quickened my pace and leapt into a clearing where I interrupted a silver-haired woman in a white robe setting up what looked like a shrine. She was sprinkling water from an animal horn onto a collection of sticks and herbs on a large stone platform.

I left her in peace and took a few photos of the view (see below) and started toward a path. Two college-age guys approached me, wearing heavy metal t-shirts and carrying guitars. I asked if there was any way off the hill (not wanting to go back the way I came), and they responded in a very friendly manner. “Sure,” they said pointing, “take the steel staircase right over there.” I found it after a five minute walk, and when I reached the bottom I was standing on Andrew’s Descent, a few yards from my apartment.

View from Zamkova Gora.

View from Zamkova Gora.

When I got home, I researched the hill, and learned its name (it has around seven different ones, but “Castle Hill” is most common). The place was first inhabited five thousand years ago, and some scholars believe this is where Kiev was actually founded. A castle was built here in the 14th century and by the 19th there was a monastery and graveyard. I read that there was a Muslim graveyard there, but the headstones I saw were all Orthodox Christian.

I also learned that pagans (or “satanists” as several websites called them) used the hill before the Slavs converted to Christianity for “gatherings of witches” and that now a local pagan community performs rituals here. That explained the woman in the white robe. I also discovered that the street bum’s story was true. I can’t imagine that the retired American physician Dr. Jay Sloop took the same path as I did, but he’s been missing since May 2013 and was last seen heading up into Castle Hill.

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