The beautiful St. Sophia, built on the confluence of the Dvina and the Polota Rivers, is perhaps the oldest surviving church in Belarus, in its oldest city, Polotsk.
Founded in 862, Polotsk was the premier city of the powerful Principality of Polotsk, which ruled over a vast swath of Belarus in the Middle Ages. The power and influence of the principality was at its height during the reign of Prince Vseslav the Seer. In 1044, Prince Vseslav commissioned the magnificent cathedral of St. Sophia, also known as the cathedral of Divine Wisdom.
Built by Byzantine architects, the church reputedly resembled St. Sophia in Constantinople, present-day Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. But through the centuries, it has undergone many changes, largely due to the tumultuous history of the region.
The domes of the cathedral—seven according to historians, a defining feature of Byzantine architecture—have been lost. Both the exterior, with its graceful bell towers and the richly ornate interior, are now baroque in appearance. A model of how it is believed to have looked, when it was first built, is on display in the cathedral, showing the extent of the changes.
Though much of the church has changed, fragments of its ancient masonry remain intact. Visit the church, and you’ll find some beautiful, faded frescoes, the original foundation, and the burial chamber where the remains of Vseslav and his kinsmen are believed to be interred.
St. Sophia is now a Museum of Architecture. As it has excellent acoustics, it also serves as a concert hall for chamber music that regularly hosts organ recitals on Sunday afternoons.
Know Before You Go
Outside the cathedral, near the steps leading down to the River Dvina, is a Boris stone, one of the four on Belarusian soil. The one in Polotsk reportedly weighs 70 tons! Its history and significance, even today, is shrouded in obscurity. The ancient inscriptions on it have been variously interpreted as pagan or early Christian. The locals appear to agree on one thing alone, that touching the stone and making a wish makes it come true! Another legend claims that touching the stone grants you forgiveness for your sins.
There is a monument to Vseslav the Seer in Polotsk, in a little square on the edge of town.