Danes, Germans and Russians—The Ultimate Conquerors of the Ancient Estonians

February 23rd, 2012 → 4:51 pm @ // No Comments

February 24th is Estonian Independence Day. As the title of this blog suggests there is much, much more to this event than the declaration of independence on February 24, 1918. From that date on it took the Estonians two more hard fought years against Germany and Soviet Russia to regain their independence. The ancient Estonian tribes had battled gallantly for 20 years against the Danes, Germans and Russians before being finally conquered in 1227. During World War II the Estonians again lost their independence and were occupied by the Soviet Union until 1991 when they again were able to govern themselves. To mark this special occasion for my country of birth I will cite some passages from Chapter Two of Coming Home.

As Naissaar Island became more and more visible on the starboard side, the steady beat of the ship’s diesel engines faded, and the Georg Ots slowed its pace as it glided into the motionless waters of the Bay of Tallinn. Although it was late afternoon, the northern midsummer sun was still high in the cloudless sky. For the first time in my life I had a clear, breathtaking panoramic view of Tallinn and its surrounding landscape. Three years earlier a steady rain had obscured much of what was now clearly discernible….

At last I had a chance to observe from the sea one of the most sacred areas of the Estonians who have lived, fought, suffered and died on these Baltic shores for almost the past ten thousand years. With considerable emotion and pride, I recalled how my earliest ancestors followed the reindeer herds northward as the glaciers slowly receded after the last ice age. Eventually they sparsely populated an immense area that extended from Poland as far north as Murmansk, Russia and from the eastern shores of the Baltic to the Ural Mountains.

Today the lands of the remnants of the early reindeer hunters have been reduced to essentially two relatively small pieces of real estate: Estonia and Finland (The Hungarians, relatives of the Estonians and Finns, migrated to their current central European location around 900 AD)….

Thoughts of the ancient past continued to race through my mind as I studied the Tallinn skyline. In antiquity, Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), the mighty legendary hero of the Estonians and Finns, is said to have built Fort Lindanisa (Linda’s Breast) in honor of his mother, on top of the limestone cliff overlooking the bay where Toompea Castle stands today.  What excitement this view must have brought to the ancient Estonian seafarers as they returned in their sleek sailing ships from forays to Sweden, Denmark and other places in Europe.

The sight must have also brought pleasure to the thousands of foreign traders who passed this way for tens of centuries since Tallinn’s history as a trading center is well documented. For example, in 1154 the Arabian scholar, Mohammed Al-Idrisi, visited what is now Tallinn. He had been commissioned by Roger II of Sicily to compile a world map. When his work was completed, Tallinn appeared on the chart as “Kaleweny.” The name most likely is associated with Kalev, the father of Kalevipoeg, who is presumed to be laid to rest below old Fort Lindanisa.

Al-Idrisi described Kaleweny as a small town and trading center with an accompanying large fortress whose people were tillers of the soil and breeders of cattle. Oddly enough, the Scandinavians and Russians called Tallinn “Lindanisa” until the Danes gained possession of the citadel in the early part of the thirteenth century.

King Valdemar II of Denmark and his allies, the Rügen Slaves (Poles), were probably equally impressed with this captivating sight as they sailed into the Bay of Tallinn with supposedly 1,500 ships of war in June of 1219. They, however, didn’t come to trade or visit. Their goal was the conquest of the northern independent tribes of Estonia. They were supported by the German Knights of the Sword who had been attacking the southern Etonian clans since 1200 without much success. The Danes caught the residents of Tallinn by surprise and occupied the stronghold without much resistance since the Estonians did not have a standing army defending the city.

The Danes immediately began to dismantle the old stronghold and to lay the stone foundation for their own castle. Three days later the Estonians counter attacked. At one point they had the Danes in full retreat fleeing to their ships when Prince Wenceslaus of the Rügen Slaves, who was guarding the fleet, came to their rescue and reversed the tide of the battle.

Although the Estonians managed to remain in control of their lands for another hard-fought eight years, the Danes held Lindanisa. They built a new stone fortress and named it Reval after the lands of the Estonian Rävala clan that surrounded the citadel. The natives, however, began to call the stronghold Taanilinn (Danish Castle). Through the years Taanilinn eventually became Tallinn. In 1346, when the Germans bought the city from the Danes, they called it Reval and this is still what Germans call the city. Estonians, however, have continued to call their city Tallinn.

Following an intense two-year War of Independence fought against both the fledgling Soviet Union and the Germans, Tallinn became the capital of Estonia and its blue, black and white flag was proudly displayed from the top of Tall Hermann marking the seat of the national government.

In Tallinn I learned to laugh and cry, and to love and hate. Here I felt the tenderness and security of my mother’s embrace while at the same time experiencing life under two of the most brutal dictatorial regimes in times past. And, before I was nine, my boyhood dreams and family ties were also abruptly shattered in this historic place. Indeed, old Tallinn is my shrine for joy and laughter as well as for suffering and tears.


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