A city by the river

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 8 Mar 2022

New York or Rome. It is not the Hudson or the Tiber. No, it is not.

It is one of the oldest cities in Europe that has withstood numerous hardships, but still stands straight, infallible, and dependable.

It is the city of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine and the seventh most populous city in Europe. Historians believe it is the oldest settlement in the area, going back to 25,000 years BC.

To keep the past alive is a function not to be ignored. What happened long ago and how this settlement in Eastern Europe became the capital of Ukraine, the second largest country on the continent after Russia, seems important at present.

The Dnieper River flows through Kyiv, making it attractive to traders, visitors, and its settlers.

Some may have never heard of it until a few weeks ago, and surely never thought to visit it, but Kyiv is a resplendent European city and was gradually becoming a main attraction to neighbouring countries and other Europeans.

It acquired its name from the founders of the city, three brothers, Kyi, Scheck and Khoryv and their sister Lybid, Eastern Slavs. The city was named after the eldest brother Kyi. Kyiv means Kyi’s place. The city is thought to have existed as early as the eighth century initially as a Slavic settlement, but the exact century of the city’s foundation has yet to be determined.

It was also once the historical capital of Kievan Rus (862-1242), a mediaeval political federation, which eventually developed to Belarus, Ukraine, and Rus. Rus refers to a Scandinavian people, not to be confused with Russia. Kievan Rus simply means “land of the Rus of Kyiv”.

The city itself has withstood many hardships, wars, invasions, from the east, from the west.

A mish-mash of different cultures, religions, languages, temperaments came and went, as the city watched.

Fascinated by this gem of a city, it is surprising how many ethnic groups tried to call it their own.

Some came peacefully and integrated with the population. Others came with weapons and arms to kill and destroy, to pillage and plunder.

From the Oriental Huns to the German Goths and many others in between, Romans would not spare such a prize neither did Byzantines.

Mostly populated by Slavs, they tried hard to hold on to their precious city. The city returned the favour by standing proudly, never faltering as the river flowed on beneath its feet.

The Khazars played a major role in the 600s by establishing a kingdom, but they too were defeated 200 years later by the Arabs.

The Eastern Iranians, the Sarmatians, the Kimmerians, the Scythians, the German Goths also tried. Every country coveted the area with its enchanting location, and that easy flowing Dnieper River.

The city watched as the Tartars were subjugated by the Mongols. Could Genghis Khan resist such a temptation.

Notwithstanding, the city was untouched. It accumulated every new-comer, friend or foe. It simply grew older, wiser, more beautiful than ever. Though it suffered through the years, it was comforted by its constant companion, the faithful River Dnieper.

Time marches on, and Ukraine found itself entangled in a federation of countries, a Union of the Soviet Socialist Republic, but Kyiv remained its capital.

After its independence from this union, it found its freedom in 1991 and the country and its capital began to flourish and glow amongst other European capitals.

Known as the “hidden jewel of Europe” it is hidden no more. The city danced with joy as tourists flocked to enjoy all the treasures it had to offer. It was a perfect blend between old and new. Rich in history, its old beauty was dressed up in extremely modern fashion, offering its many cultures and mixed traditions as well as locations designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

With almost three million in population, 67 per cent Ukrainian, 29 per cent Russian, the rest representing 130 nationalities, it is truly cosmopolitan.

As legend goes, the apostle St Andrew was on a mission evangelising Eastern Europe. He came across this unique European city with its gently flowing river and was so taken by its beauty, he blessed the city and prophesied that one day it would become a great city of churches.

Once a pagan population, it embraced Orthodox Christianity and started to build the most dazzling churches with golden domes. It had more churches than any other city in the world. The sun shone on their golden domes making the city shine night and day. That was of course before the discovery of the New World. Now the US has more churches in every state, but it is the city of Adelaide in Australia that inherited the title of having the greatest number of churches.

This is no travelogue but a passionate account of a city of great passions.

Proud of its university, one of the most prestigious in all Europe — its museums, its parks by the river crowded by merrymakers are all empty today. St Sophie’s Cathedral bells are silent, the streets are empty, but the city of Kyiv, like a wise old soothsayer has been through all this before. It is certain Kyiv will always remain the jewel of Europe.

The waters of the Dnieper rush to its shores caressingly. History is cyclic and one day there will be singing and dancing in the shining city of Kyiv, as the river serenely flows at its feet.


“What is the city but people.”

 William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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