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A visit to an ancient and mysterious town in the Crimea


Roman MALKO explains why he does not use guide books in his travels across Ukraine and tells about some of his serendipitous discoveries.


Travelling around Ukraine, I have discovered that there are so many architectural, historical and natural landmarks that moving from place to place, even in the areas much visited by tourists and holidaymakers, turns into a continuous surprise. Ukraine is a land of serendipity for me. I do not use guide books  I just go where my whims take me  and Ive never been disappointed.

Most of those who go the Crimea to rest (to employ the word usually used in this country to describe vacationing), spend most of their time on the beach, sunbathing and taking dips in the sea. I find it boring. Which does not mean I do not spend some of my time in the Crimea doing exactly that  or rather, doing nothing, but roasting in the sun, sprawled on the beach, close to the water.

But, as they say, there are plenty of other pebbles on the beach and plenty more fish in the sea, and there are so many wonderful sights, so many things to see and experience in the Crimea besides observing beautiful, sun-tanned bodies strewn around or frolicking in the water. Ruins of ancient cities, fortresses and castles in varying states of repair and restoration (for example, the palace of the Crimean Tartar Khans in Bakhchisarai is in a beautiful state of preservation), architectural landmarks are all there to be seen and enthused over.

As far as I am concerned, the most attractive feature in the Crimea is its mountains. There are no ice-bound peaks there, but there are craggy ridges in the clouds, and rocky slopes rising steeply, and breathtaking views opening from the mountains tops, and shady, green valleys. Besides, there are cave cities and monasteries in the mountains that a millennium ago were populated by people of various ethnicity. Now theses caves stand empty  except for occasional raids of hordes of tourists. In spite of tourists ubiquity, there are caves which are practically free of their raids.

Though there are hundreds of places I would be happy to tell you about, this time my story will be limited to a place called Mangup. It does not sit on the southern coast  it is situated right in the centre of the Crimean Peninsula. In fact, it is a sort of a small plateau on top of which there used to be a city, the capital of the kingdom of Teodoro, which stretched across the southern-western part of the peninsula. It has not been established yet when the kingdom came into being, but there is enough archaeological and other evidence to suggest that as early as the second century BCE there was a big settlement there. In the fifth century CE there arose a mighty fortress on the plateau which became the focal point of Tauria or Gothia as the Crimea was then called. The rulers were of Armenian descent who came from Byzantium where they were known as the Garnasy. The kingdom of Teodoro flourished around the tenth century.

The Genoese, in the far away Italy, were an enterprising lot. They turned their city-state into a power that had to be reckoned with in all of the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea as well. Their ships prowled the waters of these seas, crisscrossing them in all directions and establishing trade and founding new cities and fortresses. During the 12th and 13th centuries Genoa played a leading role in the commercial revolution that Europe was undergoing. It became a town of about 100,000 inhabitants, a naval power dealing on equal terms with the greatest monarchies, and a commercial centre rivalled only by Venice in the Levant trade; banking and shipbuilding flourished, and the local textile industry made a good start. Many Aegean islands became independent Genoese principalities.

The Genoese found the Crimea much to their liking; besides, they knew that possession of the Crimea would open excellent trade prospects and would make them the strongest power in the Black sea area. They captured several towns that had been founded by ancient Greeks on the Crimean southern coast and founded a city, Kaffa (todays Feodosiya), in the east of the Crimea, and from their new base they attempted to move further into the Crimean peninsula. Kaffa became the capital of a broad stretch of the Crimean coast ruled by the Genoese.

Musing over one of the intriguing ifs of history, I imagine the south of Ukraine being an eastern province under Italian domination, with people there speaking Italian rather than Ukrainian, Russian or Tartar But lets go back from wishful thinking to hard historical facts. The Genoese luck ended as they met a staunch resistance from Teodoro to their expansionist plans. The ill-starred campaigns ended in defeat.

The population of Teodoro must have been made up of many ethics  descendants of the Scythians, Taurinas, Greeks, Karaites, Armenians, and Tartars. Most of the population were Christians. They grew grapes, made wine, fished, kept cattle, cured animal skins and made all kinds of things out of them, produced beautiful pottery and jewellery. Their capital, Mangup, stood perched high and impregnable for centuries. On three sides the slopes of the mountain were too steep to climb, on the fourth, northern side, where access to the fortress was possible, powerful walls with towers were erected to prevent any enemy from trying to break in. When the Turks came, they took Mangup only after a six-month siege. The citys decline ended in a complete desertion of it by the remnants of the local population after the Crimea was conquered by Russia in the 18th century. But I was told that at least one inhabitant has stayed put there ever since  its a ghost that is regularly seen wandering about among the ruins. They say the ghost used to be a prince of Mangup.


There is not much that has been left to remind us of the glory of Mangup but what is extant is impressive enough. After climbing a slope for about 20 minutes, you enter what used to be a magnificent city through a gate. In fact, there are several paths that lead to the gate from the foot of the mountain; one of the paths meanders along the brink of the precipice with the primordial forest to be seen in its depths. In addition to the ruins of the walls, you can find a place in Mangup that used to be a Karaite cemetery (there are sites which must have been other cemeteries too), a palace of the rulers in the citys citadel, a small church, St Georges, of the eighth century, and the foundation of a big church, with all of these landmarks being not in the best state of preservation. Also, there are ruins of houses whose purpose it is difficult if not impossible to establish.

Incidentally, in case you did not know, Karaites are those people in the Crimea who were converted to Judaism (The Karaites are a Jewish sect, which was founded by Anan ben David in the 8th century, they rejected the authority of the Oral Law  that is, of the Mishna and the Talmud; in the 10th century and afterward, the Karaites accepted the Old Testament and human reason as their guides  tr.). There are hardly more than several thousand Karaites still living in different places of the former Soviet Empire.

Among the ruins of Mangup you can find artificial caves carved out in the rock which were once used for different purposes  storage places and prison cells too. In one of the caves, which were connected with each other by a system of underground corridors and tunnels, there was even a church. In fact, there were several cave monasteries in the vicinity of Mangup, one of which has been recently resettled by monks. But to get there you have to crawl through a crack in the rock and then continue a perilous journey up the steps cut in the rock. The steps take you to a church, also carved out in the rock, with frescos of the fifteenth century.

There are several other cave cities to be found in the vicinity of Mangup and very few tourists ever visit them. The best known of cave cities is Chufut Kale which is situated close to Bakhchisarai and is a major tourist attraction. But cave cities in the Crimean mountains deserve a separate story.


Photos by Roman MALKO

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