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Sudak, a place of an ancient and turbulent history


Sudak is one of the major tourists' and vacationers' attractions on the southern coast of the Crimea. It is one of the oldest towns in Ukraine, dating from the third century AD. Evhen Rafalovsky, a history enthusiast and inveterate traveler, invites the readers for a guided tour of history of the ancient fortress and of the town of Sudak.


Sudak has several features which make it really special, and provide visual and geographic attractions for the visitors and tourists. There is also a lot for historians and history enthusiasts to study and learn.

Sudak sits on the picturesque and warm, almost subtropical coast. As a port, its advantageous geographical position gave it maritime access to the eastern and southern shores of the Black Sea, and to the western Black Sea coasts as well, and from there further into the Mediterranean. Many powerful states and peoples once vied for it  Byzantines, Khazars, nomads, Slavs, Mongols, Tartars, Venetians, Genoese, Turks and Russians. Sudaks population reflected the multi-ethnicity of these interests  among the people who inhabited Sudak you would find Greeks, Tartars, Jews, Armenians, Arabs, to mention but only larger communities.

Being an ancient town, it has had not just a long but also very lively (though not necessarily peaceful) history, rich in events and legends. The remnants of the ancient fortress provide rich food for romantic stories and fairy tales.

These days Sudak is hardly more than a resort town in the eastern Crimea whose beaches and environs fill up with hordes of tourists and vacationers seeking the warmth of the sea and of the sun, and other forms of coastal relaxation. Quite a few of those who come to sunbathe and have some fun in Sudak, join guided and unguided tours. A brief revue of Sudaks history may help assuage their historical thirst a bit.


Glimpses of the past

Sudak is believed to have been founded in the year 212 AD, apparently by the Greeks. The original name though  Sugdeia  suggest a different origin. The Alanis who had come to the Crimea from elsewhere and settled in some areas of the Crimean southern coast might also have been involved.

The city stood on a hill, commanding the valley below and the bay.

In the sixth century, the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a fortress. The Khazars attacked in the 7th century, giving it the name Sudaq. It is thought that the Khazars retained the town from the early 800s until 1016, when the Byzantines finally defeated the Khazar warlord Georgeios Tsulo. Afterwards, the town seems to have preserved some sort of autonomy within the Byzantine Empire (Byzantium was the eastern part of the mighty Roman Empire which survived the collapse of the empire in the fifth century).

From the 9th century until around the 12th century, the Slavs of Kyivan Rus maintained trade relations with Sudak which they called Surozh. Silk, costly fabrics and spices were the main items of the trade.

Sudak became an important location for trading on the Silk Road in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, despite attacks by the Kypchak nomads in the eleventh century and further damages inflicted by the Tartars.

The thirteenth century proved to be disastrous both for Kyivan Rus and Byzantium  the former was invaded by the Mongols and Tartars, and the latter was invaded by the Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade who, instead of fighting the Infidels in the Holy Land stormed and pillaged the Byzantine capital. Byzantium would never be able to fully recover from the treacherous and devastating blow.

Byzantium was on the wane and its greatest rival in Italy, Venice, used the situation to its advantage  Venetians captured many territories and towns which used to be under Byzantine domination, Surozh-Sudak among them. The Italians renamed the city Soldaia and took over the trade. It became a major trade hub, with merchants coming from distant lands.


Italians enter the scene

At the end of the eleventh century, in gratitude for Venetian aid against the Normans, Venice was granted unrestricted trade throughout the Byzantine Empire. By that time, Venice had shown itself probably the most active trader in the Mediterranean that sought every opportunity for establishing its factories and colonies wherever it could. The Adriatic was not yet secured, however; Dalmatian ports were threatened by the Hungarians and Slavs, with whom it was difficult to come to agreement.

At first Venice was chiefly concerned with gaining control of the European trading ports of the Byzantine Empire, leaving to private interests the commercial opportunities in Syria and Asia Minor. The Venetians had been the first to win trade concessions and a commercial quarter in Constantinople, but they antagonized the Byzantines by their arrogance and lawlessness as well as by their superior enterprise. Soon the mutual dislike between Venetians and Byzantines ripened into hatred. Venetian bitterness against the Byzantines found an outlet in the Fourth Crusade, which captured and sacked Constantinople in 1204 with the doge Enrico Dandolo among its leaders. In the subsequent partition of Byzantine territory, Venice acquired a commercial empire in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Black Sea.

But unfortunately for Venice, in 1230s the Crimea was captured by the Mongol and Tartar forces. Sudak seemed to have retained much of its position as a trade hub.

Venices major rival, Genoa was not slow to use the situation developing in the Crimea, and try to squeeze the Venetians out from the Crimean coasts, but it took them quite some time to lay hands on Soldaia-Sudak. Genoa was a major maritime power, with a fleet that hardly had any rival in the Mediterranean in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (incidentally, Genoa was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus, born in 1451, who embodied the active maritime tradition of the city).

After developing trading links with Sudak, the Genoese decided to take it over. From here they expanded westwards, taking Chembalo (now Balaklava) some years later. By 1380, the Genoese effectively controlled the whole Crimean Black Sea coast, from Kaffa in the east to Chembalo in the west, and consolidated their position through a series of treaties with various Tartar Khans. Such was the importance of Sudak that the Black Sea was referred to as the Sudak Sea on the contemporary maps of the area.

The town was governed by a Genoese Consul appointed by the government in Genoa but subordinate to the Consul in Kaffa, for a term of one year at a time. He, in turn, was assisted by a local committee that was responsible for the weapons and supplies at the fortress. The size, position and strength of the fortress is an indication of the degree of insecurity felt by the Genoese. From the south and east the only approach is by sea and the approach from the west is difficult. Built on a hill 150 m above sea level it was easy to keep a check on the surrounding area. Within the town there was a curfew at night and patrols arrested anyone caught breaking it.

Each year the Consul of Genoa, together with eight leading citizens, appointed two honest men, one Latin and one Greek, to assist the Consul with financial matters and to represent the interests of Sudaks multi-ethnic population. Apart from international trade, the town had a thriving community of artisans working in pottery and metalwork.

Sudak remained in Genoese hands for just over 100 years, but in 1475 their fortress was not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of the Ottoman Turkish invasion of Crimea. The Genoese lost control of all their towns in the region and never regained them. The internal political turmoil and the pressure of many rivals led to the ultimate decline of Genoa and it disappeared from the European political arena as an active participant.

The focus of trade shifted to Kaffa, Sudak went into decline and the fortress fell into disuse until the mid-eighteenth century, when imperial Russia invaded to take Crimea from the Turks. In 1771 Russian forces took over the fortress, and a garrison was stationed there until 1816.


Turks, Tartars and Soviets

The first half of the fifteenth century saw the rapid emergence of another power  the Turks who by the end of the century became the most powerful state in the vast areas that stretched from the Caucasus to northern Africa.

When Murad II became sultan, in 1421, the days of Constantinople and of Hellenism were numbered. In 1422 Murad laid siege to Constantinople. His armies invaded Greece. The Christian army that had been brought together by the European states to fight the Turk, was annihilated at Varna in 1444.

The Byzantine collapse and the Ottoman triumph followed swiftly thereafter. In 1449 the Turkish Mehmed II began to prepare for the final assault on Constantinople. No substantial help came from the West, and the formal celebration of the union of the Western and Eastern Christian churches in Hagia Sophia in 1452 was greeted with a storm of protest. Even in their extremity, the Byzantines would not buy their freedom at the expense of their Orthodox faith. They found the prospect of being ruled by the Turks less odious than that of being indebted to the Latins. When the crisis came, however, the Venetians in Constantinople, and a Genoese contingent commanded by Giovanni Giustiniani, wholeheartedly cooperated in the defense of the city. Mehmed II laid siege to the walls in April 1453. The Sultans heavy artillery continually bombarded the land walls until, on May 29, his soldiers forced their way in. Giustiniani was mortally wounded. The emperor Constantine was last seen fighting on foot at one of the gates.

The Tartars of the Crimea who used to be a part of the Mongol Empire, became independent after the empire had broken up. They founded their khanate, centered at Bakhchisaray, and staged occasional raids on emergent Muscovy. The Crimean khanate became a Turkish vassal in 1475. In 1783, the Crimea was annexed by the Russian Empress Catherine II. So from the fifteenth century until early twentieth century Sudak was a predominantly Tartar town. The soviet dictator Stalin had the Crimean Tatars deported for alleged collaboration with the Nazis in the Second World War, and ethnic makeup of Sudak changed considerably. Starting from the early fifties, Sudak gradually became a big resort which attracted visitors from many parts of the former Soviet Union. The soviets cared but little for restoration of historical and architectural landmarks and Sudak was no exception.

After Ukraines independence, restoration and protection of historical and architectural landmarks improved but not to the desirable extent.


Historical personages

It is believed that Marco Polo, the great thirteen-century Venetian traveler and trader, stopped, on his way east, at the house of his uncle in Soldaia-Sudak. Also, William of Rubrouck (Wilhelmus Rubruquis, 12151295), the Franciscan friar whose eyewitness account of the Mongol realm is generally acknowledged to be the best written by any medieval Christian traveler. In 1253 King Louis IX of France, who was then at Acre, Palestine, dispatched him on an informal mission to the Mongol Empire. Departing from Constantinople, he and his party reached the Crimean town of Sudak. There they secured oxen and carts for their long trek across the steppes to the encampment of Batu Khan, the Mongol ruler of the Volga River region. Later, Willem wrote about his Mongolian experiences for the French king. His narrative is free from legend and shows him to have been an intelligent and honest observer.

However, legends and folk tales have been passed from generation to generation in Sudak and now the locals retell them to entertain the curious visitors.


Photos by the author


The central gate to the Genoese Fortress.




A scene from a historical re-enactment staged

during Genoese Helmet Festival held annually

in summer.



In the forefront, an archeological dig, in which the

remains of a church have been found; the Catholic

church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was burned

down in 1475 with the last defenders of the

fortress hiding in it.


A view from the fortress overlooking

the Black Sea coast.

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