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Chersonesus, Cherson, Korsun — a twenty-five-hundred-year old city
A short ride from modern Sevastopol, Ukraine, will take you to an ancient city, twenty-six hundred years old Chersonesus. There were quite a few colonies that the Ancient Greeks founded on the southern coast of the Crimean peninsula, Chersonesus — or in full, Chersonesus of Tauride, being one of them. Not much is left of the ancient city, but even in a ruined and excavated state it cannot fail to make an impression. Countess P. Uvarova, an amateur archeologist of the nineteenth century, who was among the early enthusiasts who were digging in Chersonesus, called, admiringly, the excavated city “Crimean Pompeii,” and the nineteenth-century author V. Polupodnev, referring to Chersonesus, wrote about “a fragment of the civilized Hellas at the edge of the habitable world.”
The ancient city of Chersonesus is located in the ancient region of the Crimea known as Tauric Chersonese. Originally it was a colony founded by Ionian Greeks in the 6th century B.C.E., probably as a trading factory. Later, it was refounded some time in the 5th century by Megarian Greeks from Heraclea Pontica and became a Dorian city. Prosperous from the 4th century B.C.E., it maintained a free constitution of the Greek type and fought for its continued independence against the Scythians, against the native Tauri of the southern Crimea, and against the kings of Bosporus in the west. It traded with Athens and cities on the Pontic coast and later with Delos, Rhodes, and Delphi. About 110 B.C.E., it turned to Pontus for protection against the Scythians and was subsequently incorporated into the Pontic Empire of Mithradates VI.
Chersonesus is located between two bays, now known as Karantinnaya and Pesochnaya. The rolling plateau between the two bays was, by the 3rd century B.C.E., almost entirely occupied by the city, with mighty stone walls some four meters thick and up to 10 meters high, running an all sides of it. Round towers rose another three to four metres above the wall.
Chersonesus was a city-state republic, with strife among political groupings being rather intense, and at times even vicious. Echoes of this strife can be found in what is known as “The Chersonesus Oath.” The text of the oath, carved on a white marble slab, has been preserved — it was discovered in an archeological excavation. The oath-taker pledges “… to serve the people and to advise what is best and most just for the state and the citizens.” The rights of citizenship were extended only to the free male residents, with women, slaves and foreigners being excluded from any participation in running the state.
After the defeat of King Mithridates by the Romans, Chersonesus was treated by the victors as a free city protected by the Bosporan client king; a Roman military station guarded its considerable grain trade. The city continued to flourish in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD — agriculture, construction, pottery making, bone carving, smithery and other crafts were practised widely and successfully in Chersonesus. After a period of decline, when the Roman Empire was staggering and then finely collapsed under the blows of the waves of the Goths, the Huns and other barbarians, Chersonesus came back to active economic life under the Byzantine Empire.
The city changed its name to Cherson but remained a political, cultural and economic centre of the area until the thirteenth century. In fact, it was a major Byzantine bastion on the Crimean coast against constant incursions of the nomads. It successfully repelled waves of invasions, in which the Khozars, Pechenigs and Polovtsi were the most serious threats.
In the tenth century, Cherson, which was called Korsun by the Slavs, played a significant role in the history of Kyivan Rus — it was in Korsun that the Kyivan ruler Volodymyr was baptized (for more details about this baptism go to the article about St Volodymyr’s Cathedral in this issue).
The thirteenth century proved to be disastrous both for the Byzantine Empire and for Chersonesus, its outpost in the Crimea. The crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, instead of fighting the Infidels, sacked and stormed Constantinople, the capital of the Christian state. Byzantium survived the terrible blow but entered a period of decline which ended in its disintegration and subsequent capture by the Turks. Cherson’s economic dominance was undermined by Kaffa (today’s Feodosiya) which developed, under the Genoese, into a major trade centre. At the very end of the thirteenth century, Cherson was sacked and then taken by storm by the Mongols and Tartars who had appeared in the Crimea for the first time back in the 1220s. In spite of the practically total destruction, the city came back to life. Its economy was revived, crafts and trade flourished again. But the Genoese, the then masters of the Crimean southern coast and of the Black Sea, pressed the powerless Byzantine emperor into putting Cherson under their protectorate. A swift economic decline followed. The city that had always been Orthodox, was given a Catholic bishop, a British man named Amandus. The Genoese built a new fortress, Cembalo (today’s Balaklava) and a port fifteen kilometres away from Cherson which led to a further weakening of the economic and political significance of Cherson. The final blow came in 1399 when the Mongol and Tartar forces of Prince Edighei captured Cherson and burned it to the ground. The city never rose from the ashes again. When in 1475, the Turks came and conquered the Crimea, all they found at the site, where once the flourishing city of Chersonesus had stood, were the ruins. The Turks carried away some of the marble columns to be used elsewhere, and what was left of the ancient city gradually disappeared from sight. The earth swallowed the ruins to preserve them for the future archeologists.
The first archeological digging at the site began in 1827 when Midshipman N. Kruze, acting on the order of Admiral A. Graig, began to unearth the first artifacts. With interruptions, archeological excavations have been going on ever since.
In 1850, a monastery was established right in the centre of what used to be a pagan city, neither the monks, nor the church authorities evidently caring much about archeology. During the Crimean war the monastery, St Volodymyr’s, was destroyed. The French troops set an artillery emplacement in the ruins of Chersonesus.
After the war, the monastery was revived and a large church, St Volodymyr’s, was built nearby. But archeological work continued and in 1888 the first museum for the unearthed artifacts was founded. The founder was an enthusiastic amateur archeologist, Karl Kostsyushko-Valyuzhynych, who devoted twenty years of his life to excavations in Chersonesus (in fact, he died and was buried there). The “museum” was a big barn which served as a storage place for the finds, and was appropriately called “Depository of Local Antiquities.” In 1924, the Bolsheviks closed down the monastery and moved the Chersonesus museum into the buildings once occupied by the monks. In a certain sense, “a historical justice” was done. The museum’s collections were exhibited in many halls in accordance with the chronological principle. And new finds continued to be added to the collections at a steady pace.
When the war came to the Crimea in 1941, a considerable part of the collections was evacuated from Chersonesus, and after a long trip all across Russia, was deposited in Yekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk), in the basement of the Ipatyev House, the very place where the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918. The part of the collection that could not be moved was looked after by A. Takhtay, the museum’s curator, who, refusing to be evacuated with the rest, had stayed behind to try to save the collection from destruction. The German invaders did not bother to plunder the museum and did not take any important exhibits with them when they retreated (in most other cases, the museums that had not been evacuated, were pillaged). When the Soviets returned, the happy and proud Takhtay showed the Soviet authorities the practically intact collection which had been saved thanks to his vigilance, but the Soviets thanked him by putting him in a concentration camp for ten years for “collaborating with the enemy.”
In the 1950s, archeological excavations were resumed, with new important discoveries made every so often. In 1977, Chersonesus was given a status of a Historical and Archeological Preserve, and after Ukraine’s independence it was further elevated in status — the word “National” was added to it, so now the full name is The National Historical and Archeological Preserve Tauric Chersonesus.
Excavations in Chersonesus continue, with up to ten or even fifteen archeological expeditions working there every year. Starting from 1994, the Preserve has been conducting research jointly with the Institute of Classical Archeology of Texas University, USA. The American side of the project is headed by Joseph Carter who has been excavating in the south of Italy for many years now. In addition to the US archeological team, many other organizations take part in the archeological work in Chersonesus: Institute of Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine; National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy; Kyiv Shevchenko National University; Kharkiv University; Tavrichesky University, the Crimea; Institute of the History of Material Culture, St Petersburg, Russia; Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow, Russia; Uralsky University, Yekaterinburg , Russia; University of Lecce, Italy; Warsaw University, Poland; Poznan University, Poland; and Jagiellonian University, Poland.
UNESCO representatives visited Chersonesus several times in recent years, promising support. Plans have been drawn to turn Chersonesus and its immediate vicinity into a sort of theme park which would include Chersonesus proper, the necropolis, outlying ancient villas, the shore with many artifacts of the ancient and medieval times still lying on the bottom of the sea, medieval fortresses and other landmarks.
Based on the materials provided by Leonid Marchenko,
director general of the National Historical
and Archeological Preserve Tauric Chersonesus.
Photos by Yury Buslenko