The Crimea has been habitated since ancient times. The first settlers who have left traces were the Scyths. Later came Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Armenians, Goths and Alans. For a while the Crimea belonged to the Byzanthian Empire. During the migration of the people various peoples temporarily or constantly settled in Crimea. In those times the peninsula was known as ’Tavrida’, after the legendary ’Taurians’ that allegedly inhabited Crimea even before the Scyths. This old name that was later employed by the Russians who called the Black Sea parts of Newrussia the ’Tavric Gubernium’.
In the 13th century the Mongolians appeared and after the decline of the Empire of the Golden Orda the Crimean Khanate was established in 1443. It became a vassal of the Ottoman empire some decades later. It’s first capital was Starii Krym after which the Crimea is named nowadays. (The word ’krim’ comes from the tartar language and means fortification.) Later the Crimean Khans moved the capital to the West, to more difficultly accessible terrain. The last capital was Bakhchisarai which in Tartarian means ’palace of gardens’.
In the 14th and 15th century the main maritime powers were the Italian merchant republics, and they established ports/bases on all important locations within the Mediterranian and Black Seas. The Tartars and Ottoman Turks, with no ambitions towards maritime adventures, established relations with them and conceded ports to them where they erected their fortresses. The fortress of Kafa was built by the Venetians, Sudak belonged to the Genovese. One of the main merchandises were slaves, mostly of Slav origin, whom the Tartars rounded up on their raids on the main land, north and northwest of the Crimea, and sold or exchanged them to the Italian merchants.
After the Russian-Turkish war of 1768-74 which was desastrous for the Turks the peace treaty of Küçük Kaynarca was concluded in 1774. According to it the Ottoman Empire had to give up their patronage over the Crimean Khanate, thus making it easy prey to the Russian ambitions to conquer the Black Sea Coast. The Crimean Khanate was integrated into the Russian Empire, abolished and its territory finally annected by Russia in 1783.
At the end of World War II the Tartars, whose anchestors had come to the Crimea in the 13th and 14th century, were declared collaborators of the occupying German army and deported to Central Asia. Most of those still alive and their families have come back to Crimea at the end of the 80ies and in the beginning of the 90ies. To the Crimean Tartars their home and house is a saint thing and some of them have even managed to buy back their former houses from the later Russian tenants who were settled there by the Soviet government after 1945.
The Ukrainian government in the beginning has encouraged the resettlement of the Tartars because it was eager to counterbalance the mainly Russian population of Crimea with a nationality that is adversed to the Russians, and therefore, as the Ukrainian politicians hoped, would support the central government. Though independent Ukraine was practically broke from the very beginning it provided housing and favorable credits for the Tartars.
These politics of ’divide et impera’ have fortunately not borne fruit. After initial disagreements between the old-new inhabitants and the Russians both have gotten used to each other and no nationality conflict has erupted. Meanwhile the Ukrainian government probably has come to the conclusion that the Tartars are just another suspicious minority whose patriotic reliability is doubtful and has cut any special support. Perhaps it was just the IMF, the real master of the Ukrainian budget, which forbid this ’extra spending’.
So the Tartars, just as the other inhabitants of Crimea, are left to themselves, trying to make ends meet.
The cave-town of Chufut-Kalé (about an hour’s walk from Bakhchisarai) was allegedly founded by Gothic settlers during the time of Byzanthian rule on Crimea. It’s beginnings date back to the 6th century. Later it became a center for the Karaites, a people of unclear origin but Jewish faith whose representatives have often rejected any connection to other Jewish communities. One theory is that they are descendants of the Khazars.
It was inhabitated from the middle ages till the middle of the 19th century. The Crimean Tartars for a while made it their capital. With the founding and growth of Bakhchisarai Chufut-Kalé’s importance started to fade until it was finally deserted.
After the deportation of the Tartars Bakhchisarai, their former cultural center, was completely rebuilt. The damages caused by World War II had to be repaired. The town had to be modernized. Mosques and other buildings remembering the islamic heritage of the town were destroyed, giving place to square concrete buildings.
The most important monument in town is the Palace of the Khan, the former residence of the Crimean Khans. It almost faced destruction after World War II and was only spared from this thanks to numerous petitions and inteventions from intellectuals and locals.
The main reason the Soviet authorities finally refrained from destroying the palace was the fact that the Russian poet Pushkin had highly estimated this cultural monument and made the ’Fountain of Tears’ and the legend connected to it famous to the Russian public, with his poem ’The Bakhchisarai Fountain’. Later, starting from the 60ies, the existence of the palace was accepted and restoration started. Nowadays the palace is a tourist attraction. In the café even Turkish coffee is served, prepared, as it should be, on hot sand.
This text was written in 2004, based on photographs made in the summer of 1996.