The ancient Greeks first came here in the 6th century BC after crossing the Black Sea from the city of Heraclea Pontica, now Karadeniz Eregli in modern Turkey. They liked what they found, establishing a settlement that would go on to mix Greek, Roman and Byzantine culture. With the majestic St Vladimir Cathedral on a hill overlooking the ruins, the ongoing excavations give some indication of the size and prosperity of this settlement.
In Ukrainian, it is referred to as Khersones, but has been nicknamed the “Ukrainian Pompeii” and, earlier, the “Russian Troy”. The name Chersonesus in Greek means “peninsula”, and aptly describes the site on which the colony was established. Sometimes referred to Chersonesus Taurica, Taurica, and Taurida, these are the Greek and Roman names that applied to the entire territory of the Crimean Peninsula.
As with any popular location, Chersonesus has a long and fascinating history of changing hands. Princes, or tyrants, depending on who is telling the tale, came and went, dynasties rose and fell, some events were lost in the annals of history, others were passed on orally, and yet others were recorded for future generations. The list of previous “owners” is long; the Cimmerians, Greeks, Scythians, Goths, Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, the state of Kievan Rus, Byzantine Greeks, Kipchaks, Ottoman Turks, Golden Horde Tatars, Mongols, the Venetians and the Genovese, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman and Russian Empires, Germany during World War II, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and later the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Now, Crimea is an autonomous parliamentary republic, within Ukraine.
Starting from the beginning, the inland regions of the peninsula were inhabited by Scythians and the mountainous south coast by the Tauri, an offshoot of the Cimmerians. The Greek settlers established a number of colonies along the coast of the peninsula, most notably the city of Chersonesus near modern Sevastopol.
The Stuff Of Legend
According to Greek legends, the Tauri were the people to whom Iphigenia was sent after the goddess Artemis rescued her from her father Agamemnon, who was about to sacrifice her to appease Artemis. She became a priestess at the goddess’s temple in the land of the Tauri, where she was forced by King Thoas to sacrifice any foreigners who came ashore. The land of the Tauri and its rumoured custom of killing Greeks are described by Herodotus in his histories.
The territory became a Byzantine possession during the Early Middle Ages. Byzantine rule was slight: there was a small imperial garrison more for the town’s protection than for its control. It was useful to Byzantium in two ways: as an observation point to watch the barbarian tribes, and its isolation made it a popular place of exile for those who angered the Roman and later Byzantine governments. Among its more famous “inmates” were Pope Clement I and Pope Martin I, and the deposed Byzantine Emperor Justinian II. In 833, the city and its environs became the military-civilian province of Klimata/Cherson. It remained in Byzantine hands until the 980s, when it reportedly fell to Vladimir the Great and Kyiv.
Looted By Slavs And Mongols
Vladimir agreed to end his occupation only if Byzantine Emperor Basil II’s sister Anna Porphyrogeneta was given to him in marriage. The demand caused a scandal in Constantinople, as imperial princesses had never married non-Greeks before. As a pre-condition for the marriage settlement, Vladimir was baptised here in 988, paving the way to the Baptism of Kievan Rus, or the beginnings of Christianity. However, some historians dispute the Vladimir story as it is not recorded in Greek sources, and suggest this account actually refers to the events of the Rus’-Byzantine War (1043) and to a different Vova.
In fact, most valuables looted by the Slavs made their way to Novgorod, where they were preserved in the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom until the 20th century. After the Fourth Crusade, Chersonesus became dependent on the Empire of Trebizond, and then fell under Genoese control in the early 13th century. In 1299, the town was sacked by the armies of Nogai Khan, the great-great-grandson of Genghis Khan. A century later it was destroyed by another Mongol, Edigu, and was permanently abandoned. After centuries, the peninsula became generally known by the name given it by the Crimean Tatars. The word “Crimea” comes from the Crimean Tatar name Qirim, via Greek Krimeia.
The Russians Are Coming
After the annexation of Crimea in 1783, the newly-installed Russian authorities made an attempt to revive the ancient name, and the former lands of the Crimean Khanate were organised into the Taurida Governorate. But this name was used only in the official documents and “Crimea” remained in common usage. The Russian government recognised the architectural value of the ruins of Chersonesus and began excavations in 1827. Later, St Vladimir’s Cathedral (completed in 1892) was built on a small hill overlooking the site; designed in Byzantine style, to commemorate the site of Vladimir’s baptism.
Following the 1917 October Revolution, the Taurida Governorate was briefly reformed as the Taurida Soviet Socialist Republic in early 1918 before being overrun by the World War I Central Powers. After the reassertion of Soviet control in 1921, the governorate was divided between the peninsular Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic under the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the mainland portions which were incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. With the collapse of the Soviet UNI0N, Crimea became part of the newly independent Ukraine, but self-governing and with autonomous status.
The defensive wall was approximately 3.5 kilometres long, 3.5 to 4 metres wide and 8 to 10 metres high with towers at a height of 10 to 12 metres. The walls enclosed an area of about 30 hectares and buildings include a Roman amphitheatre and a Greek temple. The ruins also suggest the city developed its own culture, excavated tombstones hint at burial practices that were different from the Greek ones. Each stone marks the tomb of an individual, instead of the whole family and the decorations include only objects like sashes and weapons, instead of burial statues.
In more than half of the tombs, archaeologists have found bones of children. Burned remnants suggest that the city was plundered and destroyed possibly confirming its destruction by the Mongol Edigu. In 2007, Chersonesus tied for fifth in the Seven Wonders of Ukraine poll. On February 13, 2009, Ukrainian Defence Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov called on Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet to move its automobile depot from the site to another place as the location of the depot was one of the obstacles to the inclusion of the reserve on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. On 23 June, Chersonesus was granted world heritage status at the 37th session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee in Cambodia, and continues to attract thousands of visitors each year.
Ukrainian World Heritage Sites
The inclusion of Chersonesus brings the tally of Ukrainian cultural, architectural and natural sites on the list to seven. They are:
» St Sophia Cathedral and Related Monastic Buildings and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra
» Lviv – the Ensemble if the Historic Centre
» Residence of Bukovina and Dalmatian Metropolitans (Chernivtsi National University)
» The Wooden Tsverkas (churches) of the Carpathian Region of Ukraine and Poland
» The Struve Geodetic Arc (a cross-border geodesic object)
» The primeval beech forests of the Carpathians (listed jointly with the ancient beech forests of Germany).
In addition, Ukraine has fifteen submissions on the tentative list.
by Oleksandra Obushna and Jared Morgan