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One of the Jewels in Russia’s Golden Ring

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This article originally appeared at Russia & India Report


In the period preceding the Tatar-Mongol invasion a unique Russian architectural style emerged in Vladimir (176 kilometers from Moscow), due to the efforts of several major historical figures such as the outstanding princes Andrei Bogolyubsky (the Pious), Vsevolod the Big Nest and Yuri Dolgoruky. The works of Andrei Rublev, Russia’s most renowned icon-painter still adorn the Uspensky Cathedral

Vladimir’s Golden Gates

The Golden Gates were built in 1164 under the reign of Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky. The gates were not merely a defense rampart, but an impressive triumphal arch, with the gates of Constantinople as its model. In its first four centuries Vladimir’s great princes would ascend the throne by entering the town through the Golden Gates.  

According to legend, on the eve of their unveiling, the Golden Gates crashed down burying 12 people alive. While the trapped people were being searched for, Prince Andrei prayed before a miraculous icon of the Mother of God to save the workers. To everyone’s surprise, the workers were removed from the collapsed ruins not only alive, but even almost without injury. Prince Andrei then ordered the tiny white stone Church of the Deposition of the Virgin’s Robe to be built right at the gates. Thanks to this gated church Vladimir’s Golden Gates had no equal in medieval Europe.

According to another legend, Catherine II’s coach was too wide and got stuck when passing through the Golden Gates. So, the empress ordered the demolition of the vaults on either side. During the Soviet period the Golden Gates hosted the KGB archive and some people even lived here. In 1983, during the city’s birthday celebrations, a capsule with a message to Vladimir’s 21st century inhabitants was embedded in one of the corner towers.

Today this monument of ancient Russian architecture is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. On the upper floor of the Golden Gates there is an exhibition with a small collection of weapons from different epochs and a small, but spectacular artistic attraction: a diorama depicting the storming of Vladimir by Mongol troops in 1238.

The Uspensky (Dormition) Cathedral

Nowadays this outstanding monument of ancient Rus’ white stone architecture is at the same time both a museum and the functioning cathedral of the Vladimir eparchy. Since 1992 it has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The Uspensky Cathedral was built in 1158 by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky (the Pious) and was the main church of the country at the time. The inauguration ceremonies of the great princes of northeastern Rus’ were held here until the mid-15th century and the country’s best craftsmen were invited to Vladimir to participate in its construction.

The Uspensky Cathedral’s second most important function was to house one of Russia’s most important icons: the Theotokos of Vladimir (the Vladimir Mother of God).

An icon was brought to Constantinople from Jerusalem in the fifth century under Emperor Theodosius. It was given to Rus’ from Byzantium at the beginning of the 12th century (around 1131) as a present to the saint Prince Mstislav from the Patriarch of Constantinople. Yuri Dolgoruky’s son, Andrei Bogolyubsky, brought the icon to Vladimir in 1155. It was then that it was given its current name and was stored in the Uspensky Cathedral.

The icon is said to have miraculous powers and has been credited with saving Rus’ from various disasters. During Tamerlane’s raid in 1395 the icon was moved to Moscow to protect the city from the invader. The fact that Tamerlane’s troops for no apparent reason withdrew and left the city of Yelets without reaching Moscow was considered the result of an intercession by the Mother of God.

There were three other cases of miraculous liberation from invaders: in 1451 (the raid of the Nogai Tsarevich Mazovsha), in 1480 (the Great Standoff on the Ugra River) and in 1521 (from the Crimean Khan Mekhmet-Girey). Today one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most venerated icons is kept in the museum and church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachy, next to the Tretyakov Gallery in central Moscow.

The church building has preserved the designs of the pre-Mongol period of Russian architecture almost intact. Particularly worthy of attention are the 12th-century frescoes: the figures of St. Artemy and St. Abraham, the images of lilies and peacocks and the only remaining frescoes that can be safely attributed to the hand of Russia’s most famous icon painter, Andrei Rublev. The baroque iconostasis was implemented by order of Catherine II.

Many representatives of Vladimir’s royal dynasty and clergy are buried in the cathedral’s walls. The cathedral’s builders – Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky and his brother Vsevolod the Big Nest – rest in the northern gallery.

The Cathedral of Saint Demetrius

Vladimir’s main symbol, the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius (Dmitrievsky sobor), dates back to the 12th century and is famous for its unique white stone inlay work. The walls are covered with the images of heavenly plants, birds, lions, leopards, griffons with lambs, saints, knights and dragon-people.

Several features are easily recognizable: King David, the ascension of Alexander the Great, Saint George and even several basic Biblical themes. However, to this day not all the mysteries of the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius have been fully solved.

Few items from the original furnishings have survived. The ones that do remain include several frescoes from the 12th century, in particular the fragments of a composition called “Judgment Day,” which can be compared to the homonymous work by Andrei Rublev in the nearby Uspensky Cathedral. Today the cathedral functions only as a museum and is included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The Convent of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God

The Convent of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God is as old as the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius and was built in 1195 using white stone. This male convent is considered one of the most ancient and venerated Russian monasteries. It is located a three-minute walk to the left of the Cathedral of Saint Demetrius if you turn your back to the Klyazma River.

For travelers the most interesting aspect here is not so much the interiors, but more likely the exteriors of the church: we recommend that you walk along all of its grandiose white walls. From there an impressive view onto the Klyazma River and on old Vladimir will open up before your eyes. The Nativity Convent is one of the best places to get a good view of the town.

Just 100 years ago Vladimir’s third white stone church could be found here on the grounds, but in the 19th century it was demolished because of its decrepit state and a new bigger cathedral was built in its place. Being the first center of monastic life in ancient Rus’, the Nativity Convent was also famous as being the burial place of Alexander Nevsky (however, later by order of Peter I, some of his relics were moved to St. Petersburg).

Today this functioning convent represents a complex of outstanding historical importance, despite the losses it has suffered.

The Church of St. George the Victorious

Ever since ancient times Russian princes used to build churches in honor of their own guardian angels. Prince Yuri Dolgoruky, Moscow’s founder, built a wooden church in honor of his own celestial protector – the martyr St. George in 1129. This explains the origins of one of Russia’s most ancient churches.

In 1778 the Church burned down, therefore it was rebuilt from scratch in a provincial baroque style that is a great rarity in this part of Russia. During the Soviet period the church’s small onion-shaped dome was heavily damaged by machine-gun fire. A salami plant, which handled oils and fats, was located here. As a result the ancient frescoes were ruined and covered by a black, one-centimeter thick layer of soot.

Today the Church of St. George presents a unique possibility to observe the spiritual life of ordinary people from the Russian provinces. The inside offers the characteristic coziness of a provincial church: on the floor is a well-worn carpet and slippers are handed out at the entrance just as you would find in of the vast majority of post-Soviet apartments. Old women wrapped in shawls listen to the priest singing, cross themselves before the wonderful frescoes and admire the 19th-century icons.

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Paschal Donohoe plans bank levy extension but lower haul

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Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe will continue the Irish banking levy beyond its scheduled conclusion date at the end of this year, but plans to lower the targeted annual haul from the current €150 million as overseas lenders Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland retreat from the market, according to sources.

Reducing the industry overall levy target will avoid the remaining three banks facing higher levy bills at a time when the Government is seeking to lower its stakes in the bailed-out lenders.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB paid a combined €93 million levy in each of the last two years, according to their latest annual reports. A decision on the new targeted yield, currently linked to deposit interest retention tax (DIRT) collected by banks on customers’ savings, will be announced at the unveiling of Budget 2022 on October 12th.

Originally introduced in 2014 by then minister for finance Michael Noonan for three years to ensure banks made a “contribution” to a recovering economy after the sector’s multibillion-euro taxpayer bailout, the annual banking levy has since been extended to the end of 2021.

A further extension of the levy has largely been expected by the banks and industry analysts, as the sector has been able to use multibillion euro losses racked up during the financial crisis to reduce their tax bills. A spokesman for the Department of Finance declined to comment on the future status of the banking levy as planning for Budget 2022 continues.

AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB (PTSB) alone have utilised almost €500 million of tax losses against their corporation tax bills between 2017 and 2019, according to Department of Finance figures.

Sources said that the Government will be keen not to land a levy increase on the three lenders at a time when it is currently selling down its stake in Bank of Ireland and plotting a course for the reduction of its positions in AIB and PTSB in time.

The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), which holds the Bank of Ireland stake on behalf of the Minister for Finance, sold 2 percentage points of holding in the market between July and August, reducing its interest to just below 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, it has been reported in recent days that the UK government is planning to lower an 8 per cent surcharge that it has applied to bank profits since the start of 2016. It comes as the general UK corporation tax is set to rise from 19 per cent to 25 per cent in 2023.

“The optics of reducing the surcharge might still be bad politically, but it would signal the partial rehabilitation for the nation’s banking sector,” said Eamonn Hughes, an analyst with Goodbody Stockbrokers, in a note to clients on Tuesday, adding that he continues to factor in a retention of the Irish banking levy in his financial estimates for banks over the medium term.

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‘Covid light’: How to get Switzerland’s data-safe Covid certificate

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One of the major concerns surrounding Switzerland’s Covid certificate, as with other Covid passports, has been privacy. 

In order to respond to these concerns, Switzerland in summer launched the ‘Covid light’ certificate. 

Unlike the Covid certificate itself, which displays which vaccine they had, the date on which they were vaccinated, whether they have recovered from the virus or whether they tested negative, the Covid light certificate simply shows whether or not a person’s credentials are valid. 

As noted directly by the government “the certificate light does not contain any health data; it merely shows that the holder has a valid COVID certificate.”

More information about the certificate itself can be found at the following link. 

UPDATE: What is Switzerland’s data-safe ‘light’ Covid certificate?

Importantly, the Covid light certificate only works in Switzerland, i.e. it cannot be used for travel purposes or in other countries. 

What exactly is the certificate light and is it in digital form? 

The ‘certificate light’ might sound like a separate document from the main Covid certificate, but in reality is effectively a data-safe function of the app itself. 

This function can be switched on, from which point the certificate only provides minimal data, including your name, date of birth, electronic signature and whether the certificate is valid or not. 

While this is done in the app, it can also be printed out. 

How do I get the certificate light?

If you go into your Covid certificate app, you can see there is an option to get a ‘certificate light’ if you tap on the certificate itself. 

Once the certificate is activated, it will be valid for 48 hours. After that 48 hour period, it must be activated again. 

UPDATED: A step-by-step guide to getting the Swiss Covid certificate

If you need to show your actual Covid certificate after you have activated certificate light (for instance for travel), you will need to deactivate it. 

The certificate light can be activated and deactivated again and again at no cost. 

The following diagram, produced by the Swiss government, shows how the certificate can be activated and deactivated (albeit in relatively shabby resolution). 

Switzerland’s Covid light certificate. Image: FOPH.



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The macro pig farm threatening a historical gem in northern Spain | Culture

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Christians and Muslims fought over the castle of Gormaz in Soria in the Spanish region of Castilla y León for two centuries. Now, after a lapse of hundreds of years, it is once again under threat – this time, from a macro pig farm for 4,200 animals. The proposed farm is within two kilometers of the fortress, and will be visible from its impressive caliphal gate, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions of the medieval site.

Environmental and neighborhood associations, architecture and restoration professionals, as well as the town councils of Recuerda, a village of 70 inhabitants, and Gormaz, a village of 20, call the plans an “attack” on one of the most impressive Islamic fortresses on the peninsula. With a perimeter measuring more than one kilometer, the castle of Gormaz was once the largest in Europe. It was this fortress that the Caliph of Córdoba, Al-Hakam II, ordered to be reinforced and expanded at the end of the 10th century to stop the Christian advance from the north.

Meanwhile, the company behind the project, Agro Peñaranda Esteban, insists it will comply “strictly with the law” and that if the permits are not issued, it will go elsewhere. “It’s great to eat torreznos [a kind of fried bacon snack] from Soria in a good restaurant in a big capital city,” says one of the shareholders, who is from the area. “People must think that they fall from the sky.”

The castle of Gormaz was built in the 9th century to strategically support Medinaceli, the capital of the so-called Muslim Middle Frontier. Divided into two large areas separated by a moat, there is the fortress with the tower of Almanzor and the caliphal quarters, and then the area for the troops, where the main entrance is located. Altogether, it has 28 towers with battlements and arrowslits.

The Soria fortress defended the routes to the north of the peninsula that followed the banks of the Duero river and was coveted by a number of figures, including Count García Fernández, Sancho II of Pamplona, Ramiro III of León, Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar and the de facto ruler of Islamic Iberia, Almanzor. And so it passed from one side to the other until, in 1060, Fernando I of León seized it once and for all. During the reign of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, it was turned into a prison as it no longer had any strategic value.

But now it is administrative forces that are advancing on the castle. On June 29, the Castilla y León regional government published “the announcement of a pig farm of 4,200 pigs in plot 20114 of industrial estate 1 of the municipality of Recuerda,” which backs onto Gormaz. August 10 was the deadline for anyone wishing to take issue with the environmental impact assessment, which states that the farm would not alter the surrounding landscape. “It is a landscape altered by human activity, due to its agricultural use, with no dominant variations or striking contrasts,” claims the report.

This contradicts the regional plan for the Duero Valley, approved by the Castilla y León regional authorities in 2010, which mentions a series of Landscape Management Areas (AOP) needing a specific regime of protection, management and planning. One such area includes the castle of Gormaz and the surrounding area where the farm would be located.

View of the San Miguel hermitage from the caliphal gate of the castle of Gormaz.
View of the San Miguel hermitage from the caliphal gate of the castle of Gormaz.José Francisco Yusta

Luis Morales, architect and member of the Soria Association for the Defense of Nature (Aseden), points out that the castle’s environment is “totally agricultural – fields and forests – and very similar to what it might have been in the Middle Ages, when Gormaz was built. To put an industrial complex of enormous dimensions to house more than 4,000 pigs, which is what they intend, is barbaric,” he adds. “It breaks up the landscape from the same caliphal gate, the one that is so often photographed for tourism purposes.”

Morales also believes that the municipalities have the means to stop the project, “because the land is rustic and can therefore be classified as protected, which would prevent the livestock complex from being built.” Meanwhile, the Aseden association points out that the regional authorities were responsible for the White Paper of the Territorial Enclaves of Cultural Interest (ETIC), which selected 111 locations of cultural or heritage interest, one of which was Gormaz.

According to the NGO Ecologists in Action, in this type of facility whose surface area would be 4,000 square meters plus another 2,000 for slurry, “the problem of odor emissions is very important because of its proximity and orientation with respect to inhabited areas and other places of interest.” It explains: “In this case, the farm would be to the west, 1.3 kilometers from Recuerda and two kilometers from the castle of Gormaz. According to data from [Spain’s national weather agency] Aemet, the prevailing winds are from the west. In other words, it would bring unhealthy smells for most of the year to Recuerda. Surprisingly, the project says that the prevailing winds are from the northeast.”

Consuelo Barrio, mayor of Recuerda, agrees. “It is not only the visual impact, which is very important, but also the environmental impact due to the possible contamination of the water from the slurry as we are in an area of aquifers; this is in addition to the smell that would come our way as we are barely a kilometer from it.”

Meanwhile, the company behind the project considers it is under “unjustified attack.” According to one 38-year-old businessman involved in the project, “in this part of Soria there are at least three farms: Quintanar, Gormaz…. And if ours smells, it means they all smell. It’s not like years ago, when pigs were thrown into the Duero – some of which I have seen floating – or the slurry was dumped down drains. No. There are strict environmental laws and we will comply with them. It is easy to talk about ‘deserted’ Spain and all the things the politicians are saying, but when you try to create wealth, obstacles are thrown up because you can be seen from the castle two kilometers away. If they don’t let us set up here, we’ll go somewhere else,” he adds angrily.

Marisa Revilla, president of Amigos del Museo Numantino, is particularly upset by the visual effect of the pig farm. “The impact report does not take into account the horizontal impact. It only states that they are going to put up some hedges to hide the farm. But the installation will not only affect the castle, it will also affect the nearby Romanesque San Miguel hermitage.” This hermitage was inspected in the 1990s by architect José Francisco Yusta, who specializes in historical monuments and also opposes the construction of the farm. “There is no justification for breaking up the landscape,” says Yusta, who has worked on such architectural gems as the cathedral of Burgo de Osma, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and castle of Gormaz itself.

“I believe it is not worth destroying our landscape for the two jobs that the macro-farm will provide, which are those proposed by the promoters,” says architect Luis Morales. “If there were only 200 for deserted Spain….”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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