Bakhchisaray: A Tatar Palace, an Orthodox Monastery and a Karaite Cave City

Bakhchisaray is a small town in Crimea, just over an hour north-west of Sevastopol, which was for a few hundred years the capital of the Crimean Khanate.  The population there was predominantly Crimean Tatar until 1944, when, under the pretext of ‘Nazi collaboration’, the entire Crimean Tatar population was forcibly deported to the Soviet republics of Central Asia.

There are three main attractions in Bakhchisaray – the Khan’s Palace, the Uspensky Cave Monastery and the cave city of Chufut Kale. The town spreads out along one main road a few kilometres long, leading from the bus station to the entrance to the monastery and Chufut Kale. Regular local buses ply this route, so when I arrived at Bakhchisaray’s bus station I hopped onto a marshrutka and got off at the last stop, the monastery.

Uspensky Cave Monastery

The Uspensky Monastery is carved into the walls of a cliff, and monastic occupation dates back as far as the eighth century. What’s there today party dates back to the fifteenth century, having been renovated and extended over the years. It’s an Eastern Orthodox monastery and women are required to cover their hair – both men and women must dress modestly with no singlets or shorts permited as it’s considered to be a holy site.

It’s not possible to see or explore the cave system there; visitors and pilgrims alike are limited to the small chapel built into the cliff, which contains a small ship selling candles and religious paraphernalia including very ugly 1970s style icons and tacky gold frames. The chapel itself is quite lovely, and no photographs are allowed inside. It’s marred a little by the proliferation of unattractive printed icon pictures in a horrible 1960s-70s style, which tend to have pictures of the Virgin Mary floating uncomfortably in clouds with tasteless printed frames. Thankfully there are still plenty of traditional style icons, which are far more pleasant to look at and don’t seem like they’d belong better in the back of a crappy car with an ‘I Heart Jesus’ bumper sticker.

I found the steps leading up to the chapel more interesting as the wall beside is inlaid with memorials. Looking up from the bottom of the steps to the chapel entrance is lovely, with the small white building sticking out of the rocky cliff. While the monastery has age on its side, it’s not the most exciting monastery I’ve seen by a long shot.

Chufut Kale

Chufut Kale the name of the fortress and cave city that sat on top of a plateau a few kilometres hike from the Uspensky Monastery. There seems to be little agreement as to when the site was first settled but it’s generally accepted that the fortified settlement began in the tenth or eleventh centuries. Over time, the settlement was inhabited or controlled by the Khazars, the Mongols and the Turkic speaking Tatars before being left primarily to the Karaites – practitioners of a religion similar to Judaism but rejecting of the Talmud and the rabbinical method. The name of the site itself, Chufut Kale, means ‘Jewish Fortress’ and refers to the Karaite inhabitants.

The town was abandoned by the mid-nineteenth century and very little remains today; some walls, a few houses, some caves that appeared to serve as cellars, a small Karaite house of worship that is closed, a tomb belonging to the daughter of a Khan of the White Horde. But the views from the plateau are superb and well worth the hike up. I enjoyed wandering around the ruins of the city, up the main cobbled street and around little tracks that led through the scrub to marvelous vistas.

It was early afternoon when I arrived and I was getting a little hungry. There’s a small cafe/restaurant that appeared to serve only one thing near the end of the main section of Chufut Kale, although when I went in I was unable to get anyone’s attention as they were too busy reading the paper or on the computer. I figured I would just get some food back in town when a Russian woman who was there with a couple of friends saw me looking a little confused and offered to help me. She took me back into the restaurant – really just a tiny room decorated in Tatar style [very similar to Turkish] and interrupted the girl at the computer to order some food and a few  ‘medicine’ drinks.

The shots came first, a bitter and incredibly harsh herbal alcohol that burned like hell and made me feel slightly drunk after just one. The Russian woman ordered a few more and I dutifully downed another two with her before she returned to her friends who were waiting for her. When my food came – a dry pastry with dry chunks of spicy beef – I was almost seeing double. While dry, it was quite tasty and it had been a long time since I’d had beef so I wasn’t going to complain. I ordered a second one as I was still hungry, and also hoped it would soak up some of the herbal poison in my stomach.

I followed this with a pot of tea, before I felt that I would now be able to continue exploring the settlement – in particular the fortress walls – without falling off the damn plateau. I was still light-headed a couple of hours later. I don’t know what they called that stuff, but I was hoping that the alcohol content in the ‘medicine’ would kill the cold I was still suffering from.

The Khan’s Palace

After spending a few hours at Chufut Kale, I hiked back down to the main road and took a marshrutka to the Khan’s Palace. The palace, built in the sixteenth century, managed to avoid destruction following the annexing of Crimea to Russia in the late eighteenth century because Catherine the Great apparently found it ‘romantic’. It’s now a museum and it’s beautiful, decorated in a style very similar to what I’ve seen in Turkey. I loved all the colours, the painted ceilings, the delicate stained glass. It sits in a garden that was a little dead when I was there; it would be far more lush and green in Spring I imagine.

What the palace is most famous for however is the Fountain of Tears.

In the early nineteenth century, Russian writer Alexander Pushkin composed a poem about the fountain [The Fountain of Bakhchisarai], relating the story of the khan who fell in love with a Polish slave girl in his harem. When she refused to adjust to life of slavery in the Khan’s harem and starved herself to death, the Khan – reportedly not the most gentle and peaceful guy around – was heartbroken and wept at news of her death. He then ordered the construction of a marble fountain that, like him, would weep forever.

Sure, it sounds romantic and maybe from his perspective it was. However, given that the love had been enslaved in a foreign country, I can kind of understand that she wouldn’t be too happy about it. So I’m a little cynical…

The fountain wasn’t doing any weeping when I was there – no tears were dripping down over the single yellow [more of a peachy colour when I was there] and single red rose that are placed on the fountain each day. After hearing the story I must admit I expected a more impressive fountain. It’s pretty enough, but even when the water’s going it’s just a piece of carved marble that dribbles. It’s popularity comes more from the story being immortalised in poetry than the beauty of the fountain itself.

The Khan’s Palace is in a walled complex that also contains a mosque with a tall, thin minaret. The mosque is still operational, and the neat rows of shoes out the front indicates it’s still busy. The complex also includes gardens, and these gardens seem to be a popular place for newlyweds to have their wedding photos taken.

This is one occasion where I really wish I’d got in there and taken some pictures of the brides. The dresses were the absolute most horrible and tacky I had ever seen. Two of the brides wore the puffiest and shiniest white meringue dresses I had ever seen, with copious amounts of holographic sequins and plastic gems. They truly hurt the eyes, and I was too busy trying to cover my impolite snorts to pull my camera out.

If I thought those two were bad, the third was the worst. The third bride was with four bridesmaids who looked like on-call hookers. The bride’s dress looked like it was velvet, with a split right up to her waist and legs everywhere. She was wearing a leopard-print belt around her waist that was covered in glittering rhinestones. Her bridesmaids were all wearing leopard-print dresses that barely covered their shapely behinds, ample breasts almost falling out of the top, complete with fishnet stockings and knee-high black vinyl or patent leather boots with ridiculous stiletto heels – the kind you might expect to see on a dominatrix. They too had wide belts with rhinestone-studded buckles around their tiny waists. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to look like a prostitute on their wedding day…each to their own I suppose. It gave me plenty to laugh about as soon as I was out of their hearing. I’m kicking myself for being too busy trying to suppress my reaction to take pictures of them. I’ve never seen such a trashy bridal party before.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Bakhchisaray. It’s a beautiful town and even the journey back to Sevastopol took me through some lovely countryside. If you want to see a completely different culture inside Ukraine, this town is unmissable.

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8 responses to “Bakhchisaray: A Tatar Palace, an Orthodox Monastery and a Karaite Cave City

  1. Very informative and interesting, excellent photos, btw. My brother and sister-in-law are there right now and sent your blog along as a more descriptive cover for their quite hilarious comments on their I-phone.

      • Their heads are swimming with the obvious disparity of the hillside monastery and the Russian gangster style accommodation in Sevastopol tonight…I’m chuckling at my brothers asides and can only imagine my reserved sister-in-laws reactions to what she is seeing for the first time. I can only have great respect for a single young woman such as yourself travelling alone there.

  2. I wonder if the bridal party was a show for the tourists 😉 I am also trying to figure out what alcohol they gave you up there, in that non descript restaurant. Maybe you need to put in a call to Anthony Bourdain and get him to take a tour of this place with you.

  3. too funny about the bridal parties. As my background is Russian, i can kinda guess what a shock to the eyes it was 🙂 You’re so good at blogging whilst on the road – great job! You are a great storyteller!

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