Black Sea Cruise -- Sevastopol

Sevastopol, Ukraine
Visited August 10, 2008
As one of the world's great natural harbors, Sevastopol has been a prize in both peace and wartime.  Peaceful silos remind us that Ukraine has long been a breadbasket and Sevastopol its path to move the grain to hungry cities.  throughout the war.  Warrior ships (90% Russian, 10% Ukraine) harbor here in this formerly closed city. Uneasy over the recent Georgian conflict, Ukraine's president is now trying to score political points with the West by threatening to renegotiate the agreement to harbor Russian ships here.  Ukraine has the second largest army in Europe.  Second to its big Rus' brother who is unlikely to give up its premier warm water port. The Crimea is filled with Russian speakers (and sympathizers). Given the Ukraine's thirst for Russian oil, it's unlikely the Russian fleet will be moving anytime soon.


Long before fossil oil was useful, this site was known for another liquid, its wine, as well as its grain.  The Greeks exploited this fertile place with a great harbor and established the colony of Chersonesos in the 6th century, BC. For nearly 2 millennia, it survived until descendants of Genghis Khan forced its abandonment in 1299.  Today it has its own Orange Revolution as the The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute of Classical Archeology leads excavation efforts along with Ukraine and Sevastopol governmental and museum authorities.

The picture below shows the remains of a 6th century AD building, most likely the work of the Byzantines who inherited Chersonesos from the Romans.  This site is considered the birthplace of Slavic Archeology and a sketch of this basilica adorns the back of the basic Ukraine currency, the 1 Hryvnia note.

Chersonesos Greek Basilica
Chersonesos: A beach for the natives; a Greek ruin for the tourists
Named after the year of its founding, the 1935 Basilica sports inscriptions suggesting that a Jewish synagogue was nearby. In the distance, the picture shows scanty beaches as erosion provides little room for bathers.  In the middle ground we see this site flush with tourists -- a mixed blessing as they make the site more attractive in the competition for research funds but their numbers threaten the fragile remains.

The Greek word chersonesos means peninsula. The much larger Heraklean Peninsula that surrounds this site was covered with  farm area (called chora) linked by an elaborate network of roads to bring the grain and wine to market -- and to the harbor to export to Athens. 

Chersonesos will probably turn out to be as significant an archaeological site as Italy's Pompey. Both Pompey and Chersonesos were frozen in time by disasters. While Pompey tells us much about Roman city life in the first century AD, Chersonesos will reveal the secrets of agriculture. Most sites are lucky to have buried cities; remains of their countryside life have long beenColored Stele destroyed by plows and then by 20th century suburban development. Not so here in the closed city of Sevastopol. So far, about a third of the site has been excavated and many more clues to the Greek 4th century BC farm life sleep just below the topsoil. 

The uncovered exterior remains are extensive, but the jewels of this collection are kept in a small museum that serves as a work area for researchers and restorers. These are gravestones, many holding some of their original polychrome colors as shown in the photo at upper right. Apparently these were taken from a necropolis and used to help build the city walls before being rescued by archaeologists. Unlike most other necropolis headstones, they appear to be dedicated to individuals, rather than whole families. Over 300 fragmentary stelai were recovered during Soviet times.  
Orthodox CathedralAt left, we see the domed St. Vladimir cathedral rising above a decidedly Roman arch framing a gate in the city walls.  This late 19th century building marks the spot where the Russian and Ukraine Orthodox churches began about at the end of the first millennium AD.

About this time, Chersonesos was a major Byzantine outpost and therefore a focus for interactions between the Christian West and the pagan Slavs.  So here it was that Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity which led to sainthood and cathedraldom.

Vladimir was not fast tracked for sanctity. Upon becoming  king in Kiev, he first tried to restore paganism, possibly including rituals involving human sacrifice. When that failed to excite the people, he set up a task force to see which monotheistic religion all should adopt.  Choices were Judaism, Islam, or Christianity.  When Christianity won, Vladimir traded in his 7 wives for a Constantinople princess, and converted at the same time.


Sevastopol Panorama
A scene from the 377-foot diorama
Next we visited the diorama museum commemorating the first great siege of Sevastopol: September 1854 until September 1855 during the Crimean war.  The museum originally opened on the 50th anniversary of the siege, 1905.  Unfortunately, during WWII, the German one-month-long siege destroyed the mural beyond recovery.  We saw a faithful post-war recreation by Soviet artists.

This wraparound mural superbly depicts one day of the siege: June 18, 1855, when the Russians successfully repelled the assault. (While they won that day, they eventually lost Sevastopol -- and the war.) When the Tsar realized how poorly his serfs fought against freemen on the British and French side, he moved to emancipate the serfs.

In the scene depicted above, Russian sailors load cannons taken from their scuttled ships while a famous hero pours water on a newly-landed bomb. Typically the enemy would bombard their positions all day, and the Russians would rebuild overnight. Note how the fortification sculptures of the foreground blend seemlessly into the picture, giving viewers an almost 3D feel that they are standing inside the Russian positions.

Hansaray (Khan Palace) at Bakhchisaray

Courtyard of the Bakhchiserai PalaceBakhchiserai Palace Northern Gate
Above the Hansaray courtyard with the Crimean mountains rising behind; below, the North Gate of the palace
Our afternoon found us at Hansaray in the Crimean town of Bakhchisaray. Here we visited the only remaining palace of the Crimean Khans, a political entity which lasted from 1441 to 1783 when Catherine the Great forced the area into the Russian fold. Tracing roots back to Genghis Khan's empire, these Khans controlled most of Crimea excluding its southern ports which were run by the Genoans. (Steppe laws of succession required the Khan to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. Even the Russian Tsars followed this rule.)

Technically the Ottomans were their masters, and had to approve (but not nominate) a new Khan. In reality, the Giray dynasty were treated as equals by Istanbul's rulers -- and the Girays treated Russia as a doormat, raiding it often and taking as many as 3 million slaves. Girays ruled until the late 18th century and their descendants are alive today.
Pushkin Fountain
Founded by Khan Sahib I Giray in 1532, the Crimean Tatar Bakhchisary Palace was built with slave labor in the 16th century (and restored since to resemble how it looked then). Today its walls encircle the Khan's quarters and state rooms, a harem, mosque, falconry, cemetery, garden, and several other buildings. 

After touring several Ottoman palaces in Istanbul, we expected the Khan palace to be more elaborate. After all, the Crimean Khanate was one of the dominant powers in Eastern Europe until the 18th century.

The most famous piece of sculpture here is the Bakhchisaray Fountain or the Fountain of Tears shown at right. Built in 1764, it stood at the tomb of the Khan's favorite concubine. In 1784, it was moved to the north side of the Ambassador's court. After an 1820 visit, an exiled Pushkin composed a love poem making it forever famous. Some feel Pushkin's work helped preserve the palace after Catherine the Great took over the Crimean. The place was then in need of Pushkin -- many of the Khans had been poets.

Click here to see many more Sevastopol Pictures  from this trip

Click here to see our next stop: Odessa, Ukraine.

Click here to see our previous stop: Yalta, Ukraine

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Created on September 15, 2008

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Sevastopol Map from Wiki