A Birzai (Biržai) estate is first mentioned in written sources in 1450, a church in 1510. It's thought that the name comes from biržis - birch grove. From the mid-15th century until 1811 the area belonged to a branch of the Radziwiłł family founded by George Radziwiłł, father of Barbara Radziwiłł (Barbora Radvilaitė). Construction of a fortified castle in the mid-16th century involved damming the Agluona and Apaščia rivers, which resulted in the formation of Širvėna, Lithuania's oldest artificial lake. The castle was completed in 1589, the year that Biržai gained the rights of Magdeburg. The city became a hearth of the Reformation at the end of the 16th century and a strategic base during the war with Sweden at the beginning of the 17th century.
Biržai castle was a crucial fortification during the war with Sweden from 1600-1629 and during the Northern War from 1655-1660. The city was seriously damaged in 1625, and acquired a new bastion type castle (used less foe defense and more for official purposes), designed by the military engineer Adam Freytag, advisor and physician to the family Radziwiłł, in 1669. King Augustus II of Poland and Tsar Peter I signed a pact against Sweden in the castle in 1701. The Swedes destroyed it when they occupied Birzai in 1704. The building was reconstructed in 1985 as the Sėla Biržai Regional Museum, which has archaeological exhibits, examples of estate art, a 1563 Brest bible and environs by local photographer Petras Ločeris.
The Biržai estate
In 1822 Dominik Radziwiłł sold the mortgaged city to count Józef Tyszkiewicz, who built a residence which became the Astravas ensemble (1849-1962, architect Tomasz Tyszecki), opposite the castle ruins on the north shore of Lake Širvėna. A 0.5 km footbridge across the lake leads to the estate, the development of which began with landscaping and land reclamation work, and construction of an extant arched red brick bridge and dam. Erected in the middle of the estate was an ornate neo-classicist style manor house with an elegant main entrance portico and multi-tiered observation tower. Its spacious halls, wood finishing, and decor fragments including columns with Ionic and Corinthian capitals testify to its former splendor.
The historicist style Church of St. John the Baptist (Rotušės gatvė 2) was built by Tomasz Tyszeckiat about the same time as the Astravas ensemble. In 1865 the family Tyszkiewicz funded construction of an Orthodox church, and in 1874 Biržai acquired a neo=gothic style Evangelist Reformed church (Reformatų gatvė 3). The latter has a stylistically integral neo-gothic interior with authentic wood installations and a lovely pulpit. One of the oldest surviving buildings in Biržai (J. Bielinio gatvė 1) served as an apothecary in the 17th century. During the inter-war period the city had Lithuanian and Jewish high schools, several primary schools, libraries with reading rooms. a printing-house, a number of co-operative organizations, branches of various banks, a huge steam dairy, and the "Siūlas" flax and tow spinning factory.
Biržai Coat of Arms and Numbers
Birzai city festival