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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

In Search of the River Kayala

12 December, 2000 - 00:00

For more than two centuries historians and antiquarians have searched with no apparent success for this mysterious river. They have advanced various hypotheses and interpreting the text of the poetic masterpiece The Lay of Ihor’s Host , as well as that of the Ipatian and Lavrentian chronicles. Archeological excavations have also been carried out. A considerable number of books have been written on the subject.

To better understand those events, the routes and maneuvers of prince’s armed retinues, let us make a brief excursus to the twelfth century. In those remote times, Kyivan Rus’ occupied a territory a little larger than that of the present-day Ukraine. Its eastern borders followed the line of Murom, Kursk, the rivers Vorskla, and Dnipro. The state consisted of fifteen hostile principalities that often waged internecine wars. In so doing, they would ally themselves with the Polovetsians, only aggravating the sufferings of the inhabitants.

In the summer of 1184, Sviatoslav and Riurik went on a new expedition against and routed the Polovetsians in the area of the Samara and Orel, Dnipro tributaries, taking prisoner seventeen khans led by the formidable Kobiak and with several thousand warriors. It is worth noting that Prince Ihor, son of Sviatoslav, did not take part in that expedition.

A year later, in 1185, Kyivan Rus’ again saw the Polovetsians, now headed by powerful Khan Konchak, who sought revenge. Again Sviatoslav and Riurik began to muster a large army (in 1181, Sviatoslav, Prince Ihor’s cousin, had begun, by agreement, to rule in Kyiv and Riurik, son of Monomachus, in other towns of the Kyiv principality). This time Prince Ihor also did not take part in the expedition. According to some chronicles, a thick fog allegedly hampered him from moving his troops to the marshaling point of Rus’s princely retinues. And again the Kyiv princes won a victory over the Polovetsians, a great one. The mighty Konchak fled, leaving a considerable part of his troops to be captured. All Rus’ celebrated this victory.

The ambitious prince seethed with resentment. His authority was obviously waning among the princes, while the common folk were also more enraptured with the exploits of Sviatoslav and Riurik. Ihor secretly began to prepare for an independent expedition, as if he wished to vindicate his name and prove that he himself was no less devoted to Rus’ and as adept a general as the rest. Most historians accept the following schedule of Ihor’s expedition to the Polovetsian steppes. The expedition itself lasted from April 23 until May 12. The calendar plan looked as follows:

April 23: Ihor’s retinue left Novgorod-Siversky;

May 1: crossing the upstream Siversky Donets (there was a solar eclipse on that day, which is noted both in The Lay, the chronicles, and astronomical documents);

May 3 and 4: halt and joining forces with the retinue of Vsevolod a little downstream from the town of Koroch;

May 5-8: the march of the allied forces to the Salnytsia near Izium;

May 9: reconnaissance in the area of the Salnytsia and march from the Salnytsia (near Izium) to the Siuurly in the remaining daylight hours and on the night of May 10 until noon;

May 10: the first successful battle of the young princes’ retinues against the Polovetsians by the river Siuurly took place;

May 11: Ihor’s host was surrounded by the nomads;

May 12: the defeat of Ihor’s host.

This is the general outline of that expedition of Prince Ihor’s forces. Almost all historians are unanimous as far as Rus’ troops’ march from Novgorod-Siversky to Izium (on the river Salnytsia) is concerned. Then, from Izium onwards, after crossing the Northern Donets, the routes of troops greatly differ depending on one hypothesis or another.

But again, proceeding from the real time and pace of the Rus’ expedition, historians have come to a conclusion that one must search for the place of Ihor’s battle with the Polovetsians in the radius of 40-80 kilometers from Izium in the Polovetsian steppe rather than near Tmutarakan on the Azov Sea coast.

To correctly trace the route of Ihor’s host from Novgorod- Siversky to Izium, one must also know the location of ancient roads and remember that the prince’s domain lay much higher than those of Sviatoslav and Riurik and that Ihor marched early in the spring, when many rivers were flooded. The Polovetsian horsemen would ride toward Rus’ down the Murava road, instilling terror in the residents, ruining their houses and capturing men, women, and children. But the same road also saw the caravans of merchants and the salt bearing carts of the Polovetsians. For relations did not consist of wars and clashes alone. Some of the nomads were related to Rus’ princes. Prince Ihor, too, would marry his son to Khan Konchak’s daughter. They were already engaged.

Allow me to show the reader a schematic map. It depicts places of the Ihor host’s battles against the nomads according to different hypotheses, so you can judge for yourself where a more plausible version and breathtaking flight of fantasy is.

Last but not least note the words. Whenever scholars try to unravel the mystery of the rivers Kayala and Siuurly (the latter being only mentioned in the chronicle, not in The Lay), they spark off many disputes and differences over the interpretation of the words kayala and siuurly. One should not forget that The Lay is the poetic creation of a medieval author. Thus if we come across such expressions as “rapid-flowing” (rapid-flowing Kayala), “spears were broken at the edge of a Polovetsian field,” etc., this means that the author could have used rather lofty words for effect without identifying the nature of the real Kayala with that of an imaginary one. So that epoch’s documentary sources, for instance, the Ipatian chronicle (dated 1189) calls the river Siuurly. And it is written that Prince Ihor’s druzhyna reached this real River Siuurly and conducted its first successful battle precisely there. This is what Academician Boris Rybakov insists on (he thinks Kayala is a poetic creation, a fictional river).

Today, there are three most well-developed hypotheses about the movements of Ihor’s host and the ensuing events: of Professor, Lieutenant-General Engineer Troops, V. G. Fedorov; Academician B. A. Rybakov; and Professor at the Kharkiv Teachers College, M. F. Hetmants.

Studying the works of my predecessors and reading avidly the published articles and books, I could not resist formulating my own hypothesis. What became for me the main, emotional, impulse were the latest most scientific proofs of Professor Hetmants, somewhat resembling the words from Chekhov’s story, “Letter to a Learned Neighbor” — “This can’t be so because this can never be so” — with which he summed up his search for the River Kayala.

“If the Salnytsia is a river emptying into the Northern Donets in the vicinity of the Izium mound, which all researchers in fact acknowledge, if Ihor set himself the task of ‘drink the Don water with his helmet,’ which looks entirely indisputable, there can be no other option (perhaps except the hypothesis of Prof. Hetmants himself — Author ).”

Having said A, the professor should have also said B. Saying that the River Kayala should be searched for in the radius of 25-30 km from Izium, he should also have looked at other rivulets and think if they could have borne the name of Kayala. Close to Izium, the Donets receives the Right Bank tributary of at least ninety kilometers, the Bereka. This is not the tiny Makatykha lost somewhere in the Polovetsian steppe. There is one more factor in its favor. Everyone knew it. It was well-known in Rus’, for the merchants, who went down the Murava road, were sure to see it, and many times.

Then why did the historians and antiquarians not pay attention to it? Does this contain the same paradox as in Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed story about an important letter purloined from a noble lady? It can be the same story with the River Kayala. All have come across and seen many times on the maps the name Bereka. But nobody dared, for some reason, to suggest that this is the legendary river Kayala researchers have been unsuccessfully trying to trace for two centuries.

Etymologist E. S. Otin thinks that the “inner form” of Kayala is quite typical of and ordinary in Turkic hydronyms. There were more than enough rocky or stony rivers in the Polovetsian land in the twelfth century. He also believes that Kayala, as a Polovetsian river, was big and hence well known. A small river was unlikely to receive this kind of definition. Even now, there are rivers with similar names on the Azov Sea coast, in the very south of the Polovetsian steppe, where the nomads established their mass settlements: these are Kayalta, Kayaly Kulak, Kayalyshan, Kayalykula, Berdy Kayaly, and Kayaly Bert. This researcher says: “The real Kayala apparently was as far from the place of Ihor’s battle as was the Danube from the outskirts of Putivl, where Yaroslavna wept” (see: E. S. Otin, The Hydronyms of Eastern Ukraine. Kyiv-Donetsk, 1977, p. 40). Earlier, about 300-350 years ago, this river was called Berek. We can also find in The Large Drawing Book (1627): “And it is about twenty miles between the rivers Chepel and Berek if you go down the Murava road to Levkina,” and “...there is a stony Izium Mound halfway between the Berek and the Yerk.”

E. S. Otin draws a parallel between the names of the rivers Kayala and Berd. He believes it to be the name of the same river or, to be more exact, many rivers, given by different nomads. Kayala and Berd are the Polovetsian and Nogay names respectively. There also is the mentioned joint name. Otin also thinks the name of Berd could have derived from Berdybek and Daulet-Berdy, personal names of Golden Horde khans. Now compare Bereka, Berek, Berd, Bert, and Berdy-bek.

However, as I have said, this scholar also thinks that the “rapid- flowing Kayala,” occurring in The Lay is a poetic figure, while the real-life river is called Siuurly! (this is also the opinion of Academician Rybakov). And this is why this name was recorded in the chronicles.

(To be continued)

By Anatoly VORONY, historian, Kharkiv, special to The Day