Friday, June 27, 2008

The Center of Europe, Part 4

(The island castle at Trakai)

Glaciers came from the north and scraped what is now Lithuania clean and flat and free of boulders. When they receded, the low spots filled with water, creating hundreds of lakes.

A civilization grew here that by the 13th century was strong enough to defend itself from its hostile neighbors. By the 15th century, the kingdom of Lithuania was the largest in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. First its knights and then its merchants traveled back and forth to India for its jewels and spices and brought back with them some of the Sanskrit language that is evident in modern Lithuanian.

But the kingdom was overrun again, not by glaciers but by the Swedes and Poles and Germans and Prussians and Russians. By the 18th century, it no longer existed. It won independence in 1918, but soon much of the country was occupied by Poland, and then came World War II. Lithuania was overrun by the Germans, and after the war it came under control of the Soviet Union.

In 1991, it won its independence again. It is a new nation, struggling through its teenage years. But at the same time, it is an ancient land, dotted with burial mounds that hold human remains surrounded by tools and pottery that date civilization here to 4500 B.C.

Sometimes, you have a moment. You see something that hits you like a brick. Maybe it's a group of kids walking across a bridge to an old castle, and you see in their faces their Scandinavian and Slavic heritage, and all of a sudden you feel as if you've just seen the history of the world.

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