The Lost Library of the Moscow Tsars also known as the "Golden Library," is a library speculated to have been created by Ivan III (the Great) of Russia in the sixteenth century. It is also known as the Library of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) to whom it is believed the disappearance of the library is attributed. The lost library is thought to contain rare Greek, Latin, and Egyptian works from the Libraries of Constantinople and Alexandria, as well as second century Chinese texts and manuscripts from Ivan IV's own era. The library has been historically placed as being underneath the Kremlin and has been a source of interest for researchers, archaeologists, treasure hunters, and historical figures like Peter the Great and Napoleon Bonaparte. Under Ivan IV's rule the library's legend had grown. Myths surrounding the library include: Ivan cursing the library before his death causing blindness to those that came close to locating the library and Ivan attempting to have scholars translate the ancient texts in order to gain knowledge of black magic.
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.
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.”
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.
Ivan the Terrible:
When Ivan III, (aka Ivan the Great) died, the rule of Russia passed to Ivan IV who is known to history as the Terrible. Ivan the Terrible was also a book collector, and could have added more manuscripts to his grandfather’s library. It is believed that Ivan’s library held documents written in Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Egyptian (these would probably have been the documents from the Library of Constantinople and the Library of Alexandria), Chinese texts from the 2 nd century, and documents from Ivan the Terrible’s own era. It’s thought that Ivan the Terrible decided to keep the priceless documents in the basement of the Moscow Kremlin so as to protect them from the fires that frequently ravaged the city during that time.
These documents, however, were not left there to collect dust. It is said that Ivan had them translated from their original language to Russian. One legend even stated that the scholars refused to continue the task of translating these works as they feared that the tsar would use the knowledge gained from certain ‘black magic’ texts to terrorize his subjects.
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:
Upon the death of the infamous tsar, the library simply disappeared, some believing that it was destroyed in a fire. Alternatively, others have claimed that the library survived, and that Ivan placed a curse on the library, and those who were about to find his library would lose their sight.
Despite the possibility that the library no longer exists, and the supposed curse, treasure hunters have been relentless in their search for the lost library. Over the centuries, many have attempted to find this library, among them Peter the Great, and Vatican representatives who were visiting Moscow during the reign of Boris Godunov, though none have succeeded.
During the first half of the 20 th century, the Russian archaeologist Ignatius Stelletskii spent his entire life looking for this library. Using maps of the Kremlin from different centuries and the archival material, he was able to speculate on the location of the library, and was granted permission to excavate by the Soviet government in 1929. Although excavations under Arsenalnaya towers began in 1933, they were discontinued in the following year after the assassination of Sergei Kirov. With the outbreak of World War II several years later, excavation work effectively ceased. Although Stelletskii intended to resume work at the end of the war, his poor health prevented him from doing so, and he died in 1949.
As of the 1990s, efforts were still being made to discover the library of Ivan the Terrible. Additionally, the search has been extended beyond the Kremlin, as some believe that the library was moved to other places, such as Sergeyev Posad (where Ivan moved his court during the later years of his reign), Alexandrov (the capital of Ivan’s fiefdom), and the village of Dyakovo near Kolomenskoya (where a secret door leading underground was found in the Church of St. John the Baptist).
It is uncertain whether the library of Ivan the Terrible will ever be found. Even if the library were to be located, its contents may not have survived the ravages of time. Nevertheless, there will undoubtedly be those who would continue searching for this elusive library.