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The State Armory, Russia

Experienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyagerExperienced voyager Joshua Brook
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The State Armory is the oldest museum in Russia and is now home to a staggering collection of priceless artifacts and royal treasures dating back to the 14th century. Although there are historical records proving the existence of the Armory collection as far back as 1508, the Armory's present Russo-Byzantine building wasn't designed until the 1840s. Built by Tsar Nicholas I's favorite architect, Konstantin Thon, the Armory was intended to echo the architectural style of the Kremlin Palace and harmonize with the entire Kremlin ensemble. Initially the Armory was just a small stone chamber, built to house and protect the Kremlin's growing collection of priceless jewelry, embroidered cloth, ceremonial robes, arms, enamelware and icons. Much later in 1726 the collections of the Kazenny Dvor (Imperial Treasury) were incorporated into those of the Armory and in 1806 the building was transformed into a museum and the combined collections put on display for visitors to see.

The Armory's collections are vast and encompass everything from the crown jewels and Tsarist uniforms and costumes to historic arms, armor and a magnificent collection of Imperial carriages. The exhibits are arranged into themed areas on the upper and lower floors of the building.

The lower floor is definitely the more impressive and features the priceless costumes, crowns, thrones and carriages of Russia's rulers from medieval times to the turn of the 20th century. Visitors can see quite clearly the abrupt stylistic change between the traditional Russo-Byzantine designs of earlier reigns and the later Western European fashions, introduced by Tsar Peter the Great in the early 18th century in an attempt to modernize the Russian state.

The first room features examples of Imperial court dress and include a black caftan worn by Peter the Great whilst working in the shipyards of Amsterdam, the gold brocade robes and jewelry he wore to his coronation, the cerise coronation dress of Catherine I, both the wedding and coronation dresses of Catherine the Great and the splendid ermine-trimmed cape of Nicholas II's wife Alexandra. The same room also contains examples of ecclesiastic vestments and fabrics from throughout Tsarist history. These include a pale blue and silver ceremonial robe made for Metropolitan Peter in 1322, a jewel-encrusted robe given to Metropolitan Dionysius by none other than Ivan the Terrible himself and an Italian velvet cape, decorated with pearls and a diamond and emerald cross, which was given by Catherine the Great to Metropolitan Platon.

The next hallway is devoted to Imperial thrones and features amongst others Ivan the Terrible's ivory throne, carved with battle and hunting scenes, and the Diamond Throne of Alexei Romanov, decorated with silver elephants and adorned with over 800 diamonds. Yet more riches are to be found in the museum's collection of crowns and imperial regalia. Specifically worthy of note here is the legendary Crown of Monomakh, supposedly presented to Prince Vladimir of Kiev in the 11th century by his grandfather, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus, and symbolizing the Tsars' claim to the heritage of Byzantine and Moscow's identity as the "Third Rome". Although historians suspect the crown dates from a later period, it was nevertheless used for the coronation of every Tsar from the end of the 15th century to 1682.

The next room contains an impressive array of equestrian regalia, carriages and coaches. Note the saddle decorated with gems that was given to Mikhail Romanov in 1635 by the Persian Shah, the stunning bejeweled harnesses and saddles received by Catherine the Great from the Turkish Sultans Abdul Hamid and Selim III and various equestrian paraphernalia gifted to Tsars Fyodor and Boris Godunov by the rulers of Persia and Poland. The end room contains the Amory's spectacular collection of Imperial coaches, the oldest of which is an English carriage, given to Boris Godunov by King James I and ornately decorated with hunting scenes. Most amusing are the tiny summer and winter coaches made for the son and niece of Peter the Great, which employed dwarves for coachmen and were drawn along by small ponies.

The Armory's upper floor contains a staggering and somewhat overwhelming collection of Imperial treasures and armor. The first room contains display case after display case of Russian gold and silver dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries and includes ornately decorated gold bible and icon covers, the Evangelistry studded with enormous gems given by Ivan the Terrible to the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Annunciation and the life-sized golden tomb cover from the shrine of Tsarevich Dmitry. Further hallways feature similarly ornate ecclesiastical pieces from the 17th century onwards and the Amory's fantastic collection of Faberge Eggs. These eggs were traditionally exchanged as Easter gifts by the Tsar and Tsaritsa every year and the most impressive examples are the Clock Egg, decorated with a bunch of diamond lilies and the ingenious Grand Siberian Railway Egg, created to mark the completion of the railway line between Moscow and Vladivostok and containing a tiny replica of the Trans-Siberian Express.

The next room features a dazzling array of foreign weapons and armor and includes Egyptian sabers, rifles inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl and gilded helmets from the Ottoman Empire and a gem-encrusted dagger presented to Mikhail Romanov by the Shah of Persia. The neighboring room concentrates on Russian weapons and armor and includes the gold and jewel encrusted weapons case and quiver of Mikhail Romanov and the diamond-studded scabbard of Alexander I's sword.

The Armory's final hall is packed with European gold and silver, much of which was presented as ambassadorial gifts. These include a Polish silver banqueting set given to Tsar Alexei, gold toilette sets from the French, two English Tudor silver leopard-shaped flagons and a curious triple-layer table fountain donated by the Swedes. More info on: www.moscow-taxi.com

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