The Secret Places of Toome Hill

The historical centre of the University of Tartu is located on and at the foot of Toome Hill. A main building of the university had been built here already in 1632, but in the 19th century Toome Hill evolved into a true “Mount Parnassus” when architect Johann Wilhelm Krause designed here the new iconic main building with its pillared portico, the Old Anatomical Theatre, the Old Observatory, and rebuilt the ruins of Tartu Cathedral to house the University Library.

The story of Toome Hill is also the story of the city of Tartu and the changes of powers that it has witnessed. Many people and their ideas have shaped the vistas of present-day Toome Hill. We invite you on a tour through the secret spots on Toome Hill, some of which can be traced only in memories and on photos, others have been buried under layers of soil, and yet others can be seen even today.

The water tower above the cathedral’s northern tower

Tartu Cathedral through time. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

In 1889–1979, there used to be a water tower on top of the northern tower of Tartu Cathedral. Over the years, the water tower was expanded when needed and reconstructions were made until its wooden structure was destroyed in the 1979 fire.

As there was no central water supply system in Tartu before 1929, the water used on Toome Hill was fetched from the nearby river Emajõgi. In the second half of the 19th century, the water quality no longer fulfilled the needs of the clinics situated on the hill, and the university built a water system to supply the buildings with ground water. Reinhold Guleke, the university’s architect at the time, found the cathedral’s northern tower as the most suitable place for the required water tank and, in 1889, designed a wooden pavilion in Gothic style around the reservoir (the original pavilion can be seen in photo 2).

To satisfy the growing water demand, in 1913 the building was expanded to accommodate also a second water tank (see photos 3 and 4). In 1934, the pavilion in Gothic style was replaced with a simpler construction (photo 5). The latter remained there until the 1979 fire, after which the water tanks were ultimately demolished.

Tartu Cathedral nowadays. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

A medieval grave slab and a human skeleton

In the medieval period, Tartu Cathedral used to have a graveyard. According to the Christian tradition at the time, the dead were buried both inside and around the cathedral. While there are no written documents about the cathedral graveyard, human bones and objects found in the course of construction works and archaeological excavations are proof of its existence. Two of such archaeological findings are on display in the foyer of the cathedral – a medieval grave slab and a burial chamber.

The grave slab displayed in the foyer was found in 2008 in the northern nave of the cathedral ruins. The slab appears to date from the first half of the 15th century and, according to the inscription framing its edges, marked the grave of a vicar Stephanus de Velde. The slab is currently placed on the floor level of the medieval cathedral and alongside the rest of the broken slab pieces it gives us some idea how the cathedral’s floor might have looked in medieval times.

Under the grave slab you can see a burial chamber, which was discovered in 2013. What we can tell about the burial is that it must have been that of an upper-class person, since the chamber lies directly in front of the choir. No precise data on the person is available but osteological analysis has revealed that the skeleton belonged to a 40–50 year-old man.

The shape of Toome Hill

Maps of the fortresses. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

Toome Hill has been significantly shaped by the reinforcement works that were started in the late 17th century. At exactly that time, the construction of a wall of bastions, designed according to the latest military knowledge at the time, was started around Toome Hill. The bastions were later named after Swedish rulers.

Among the parts of the fortification were casemates, chambers which were designed to withstand firing and bombing. The casemates included various storage and surveillance rooms, but also posterns – vaulted underground chambers for passing from one part of the fortification to another.

Posterns can still be seen on Toome Hill, even though several of these are now used as cellar rooms by nearby buildings. Only one postern, situated near the cathedral’s northern tower, has survived intact. Even though entrances to the postern have been battened shut and have started to blend into the landscape, an attentive person can easily spot them. We hope that at some point in the future, visitors will be able to pass through the postern or at least venture inside. 

A nineteenth-century cathedral window

Krause’s window. Image credit: The University of Tartu Museum

Architect Johann Wilhelm Krause started to blueprint the architectural ensemble of the University of Tartu in the early 19th century, after the university had already commenced academic work. The buildings designed by Krause included the Old Anatomical Theatre, the Old Observatory, the university’s main building, but also the University Library in the cathedral’s ruins.

In his design of the library, Krause was inspired by the medieval period and the Gothic style and he planned to reconstruct only the cathedral’s former choir part. The entire choir hall was designed to extend through three floors, with fireplaces and stairways added and old gravestones used for building the library’s stairs, and in 1806 the university library could move in.

The building has been slightly modified over the years and the rooms have been renovated, but one window from Krause’s days is still there. As a result of reconstructions, the window is now situated inside the building, below the roof of the northern wall on the fifth floor of the cathedral. Visitors today have no longer access to the window but anyone interested should keep an eye on the museum’s events schedule because every once in a while this mysterious place can be visited on a special tour.

Reiman’s lost park alley

We are quite used to having the park on Toome Hill but it is actually only a few centuries old. When the University of Tartu was reopened in 1802, the plan was to establish a park for people of any status but the townsfolk initially struggled to accept the idea. Toome Hill had been used as a pasture, a gravel pit and a dumping ground, so the first young tree saplings were destroyed by the cattle. In a little while, people embraced the idea, the trees were allowed to grow and the park in the town centre came into being.

Characteristically of an Enlightenment-era park, each alley provided a visual culmination, leading to a sculpture or a building. This principle allows us to notice in the park a former alley, leading from the monument of Karl Ernst von Baer to the sculpture of Villem Reiman, which has fallen into oblivion. The monument of Reiman by Amandus Adamson was first installed in the park in 1931, but was removed on ideological grounds in 1950 and the alley was left to grow out. In 2004, a new sculpture by Mati Varik was installed in the place but the old alley was not restored.

Keep your eyes open when you find yourself walking towards Reiman’s monument. While the alley path is no longer there, two lines of trees overgrown in time can still be seen, leading from the side of the park near the sculpture of Baer directly to the monument of Reiman.   

The observation tower near the Old Observatory

In front of the Tartu Old Observatory, on a hillside surrounding the Pirogov square, there is a little turret covered in street art. Once it used to serve as the observatory’s observation pavilion, built here in the late 19th century, and was later named the Petzval Tower after the telescope used there for taking photos of the night sky.

The work of Estonian astronomer Hugo Raudsaar (1923–2006) is closely connected with this little tower. Raudsaar, who in his work focused on measuring the orbits of minor planets and comets, used to photograph the sky on almost all cloudless nights until 1986. Interestingly, his photograph of Halley’s Comet is the last observation performed for scientific purposes at the Tartu Old Observatory.

Carrying out astrophotography in the tower was not always the most comfortable experience. As the temperature inside the tower had to be kept at the same level than outside, or else warm air flows would have ruined a photo, it was never heated during observation sessions. While the chilly air was often useful to keep himself awake at nights, Hugo Raudsaar always carried a small lump of sugar in his pocket, just in case he needed to restore energy lost in the cold.


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