Black Sea

Black Sea

2.5 2
by Ascherson, Neil Ascherson

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Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History

In this study of the fateful encounters between Europe and Asia on the shores of a legendary sea, Neal Ascherson explores the disputed meaning of community, nationhood, history, and culture in a region famous for its dramatic conflicts. What makes the Back Sea cultures distinctive, Ascherson agrues, is


Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History

In this study of the fateful encounters between Europe and Asia on the shores of a legendary sea, Neal Ascherson explores the disputed meaning of community, nationhood, history, and culture in a region famous for its dramatic conflicts. What makes the Back Sea cultures distinctive, Ascherson agrues, is the way their comonent parts came together over the millennia to shape unique communities, languages, religions, and trade. As he shows with skill and persuasiveness, Black Sea patterns in the Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, and Greece have linked the peoples of Europe and Asia together for centuries.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If Ascherson (The Polish August) cannot pinpoint precisely where Xenophon's 10,000 soldiers were when, lost on the march home from Persia 2600 years ago, they saw the sea and thought they were home, there is little else he does not tell us in this exotic and seductive history of the Black Sea. From his tales of its peculiar composition-in the depths beneath its upper stream of living water, it is the world's largest dead sea-to those of the myriad of peoples who have inhabited its coasts throughout time, his stories seem more fabulous than the Arabian Nights. Ascherson tells of obscure tribes, familiar heroes, lost languages, current politics and ancient hostilities as poisonous as the depths of the Black Sea itself. Around the once ``monstrously abundant'' Black Sea, peoples who disliked each other lived together, at best uneasily, at worst at war: Goths, Romans, Germans, Greeks, Turks, Jews, Russians, Persians, Asians and others. ``My sense of Black Sea life,'' concludes Ascherson, ``a sad one, is that latent mistrust between different cultures is immortal... not a helpful model for the `multi-ethnic society' of our hopes and dreams.'' (Oct.)
Library Journal
The Black Sea has been the stage of human history since the times of the Bible. Owing to communism's domination in modern times, little about the area has been known to Western readers for decades. Ascherson (The Polish August, Viking, 1982) opens up that world once again, and it is an exciting one. The body of water itself is the destination of five major European and Asian rivers, including the Danube; it is kidney-shaped, 630 miles wide, and 330 miles long; the Crimean Peninsula projects from the north. Various cultures have lent it a wide array of history, politics, religion, language, and tradition. Black Sea is not a travel guide but an entertaining, informative book about the area and its people. The work has an excellent chronology, bibliography, and index but lacks crucial maps. For general and informed readers.-Melinda Stivers Leach, Precision Editorial Svcs., Wondervu, Col.
From the Publisher

“A searching examination of the lands that ring the Black Sea and that were the scenes of some of the most ancient multicultural experiences of human history . . . rich both in historical data and in interpretation . . . with something to learn on every page. With ethnic conflicts much in the headlines, Mr. Ascherson's portrait of a place whose chief characteristic is the durability of its many ethnic identities comes at the right moment.” —Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

“History and time and place flow together [in this] superb, encompassing story of the Black Sea region.” —Mary Lee Settle, Los Angeles Times

“To say it at once: this is a superb book, beautifully written, evocative, learned, and deeply subtle.” —Timothy Garton Ash, The Times Literary Supplement

“A beautifully written meditation on nationality, colonialism, nomadism and the settled life, which goes back to the beginning of the human world and traces the fortunes of the Aegean and Mediterranean traders who squeezed up through the Bosporus to do business with the steppe societies of the huge Black Sea hinterland.” —Karl Miller, San Francisco Review of Books

“Brimming with . . . urgent argument: about culture, national identity, the misuse of history, archaeology, the co-existence of different peoples, the responsibility of intellectuals . . . not a boring or badly written paragraph in it.” —Noel Malcolm, The Sunday Telegraph

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st American ed
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.48(h) x 1.04(d)

Read an Excerpt


The death of the contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul. But what is frightening is that the departing world leaves behind it not an heir, but a pregnant widow. Between the death of one and the birth of the other, much water will flow by, a long night of chaos and desolation will pass.

Alexander Herzen, From the Other Shore

ON THE BLACK SEA, my father saw it begin. And on the Black Sea, seventy years on, I saw the beginning of its end.

The Russian Revolution's final victory over its enemies was the moment at Novorossisk, in March 1920, when British battleships moved out to sea carrying General Denikin's defeated White Army on their foredecks. My father was a midshipman there, a boy of eighteen who then and for the rest of his life understood the significance of what he saw.

The Revolution ran its course, as the English and French Revolutions had done in their own centuries, and by the summer of 1991 it was an old and frail thing. Many say that the Revolution was already long dead: that it perished when Lenin substituted the Bolshevik Party for direct workers' power, or when Stalin began his economic acceleration by terror in 1928. But it seems to me that, while Mikhail Gorbachev still sat in the Kremlin and dreamed of a clean, modern Leninism which might transform the Soviet Union into a socialist democracy, the last embers were still warm in the ashes. In the summer of 1991, suddenly and finally, these embers were kicked apart and the fire went out. The Russian Revolution—not as a project but as aphenomenon, as shape drawn on the paper of time—was completed.

That end was signalled to me by a light in Crimean darkness, a light which I did not understand at the time and recognised only in the days and months which followed. This light glittered at me for no longer than a few seconds. I saw it through the window of a coach making its way back along the corniche highway from Sevastopol to Yalta, after a long day spent in the Greek ruins of Chersonesus. I was the only passenger still awake. Around me slept Italian, French, Catalan and American savants, rolling a little in their seats as the coach began its climb up to the road tunnel which penetrates the range of mountains above Cape Sarich. The moon had set. The Black Sea was invisible, but the white wall of the mountains still glowed above us to the left. Somewhere below us lay the little resort of Foros, where Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev and his family were taking their summer holiday in a villa kept for the sole use of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

At the Foros turnoff, there was a confusion of lights. An ambulance was waiting at the crossroads, its blue roof-beacon throbbing and its headlights on. But there was no accident to be seen, no broken car or victim. For an instant, as we swept by, I saw men standing about and waiting. As the darkness returned, I wondered for a moment what was going on. It was the night of 18 August 1991.

What I had seen was the conspirators' candle, the spark carried through the night by men who supposed that they were reviving the Revolution and saving the Soviet Union. Instead, they lit a fire which destroyed everything they honoured. Five months later, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—the `Party of Lenin'—had been abolished, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had collapsed and even the continental empire of the tsars which underlay the Soviet Union had been reduced to a Russia with only little windows—a few miles of shore—opening on the Baltic and the Black Sea. At first, for a day or so after the plotters had captured Gorbachev at Foros, the flame of the conspiracy seemed to burn high and straight, and the terrified land was quiet. But then a very few men and women gathered in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad, raising their bare hands against tanks. They blew the flame back over the conspirators, until it consumed not only the plotters themselves but all the dried-out palaces and prisons and fortresses of the Revolution behind them.

In Yalta, next morning, the hotel staff and the coach driver and the Ukrainian interpreter all evaded our eyes. The television in the foyer, which had been working the day before, was now out of order.

Puzzled, we boarded the coach to visit Bakhchiserai, the old capital of the Crimean Tatars, and after a few miles on the road our guides told us. Mr Gorbachev had been taken suddenly ill. A Committee of National Salvation had been established to exercise his powers; it included Gennadi Yanayev, the Vice-President, Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, and General Dimitri Yazov, minister of defence. A proclamation had been issued, stressing certain errors and distortions in the application of perestroika. They thought that a state of emergency existed, at least in the Russian Republic if not in Ukraine (to which Crimea belonged).

Now I remembered the ambulance guarding the crossroads at Foros and the men standing about. Illness? Nobody among us believed that. But everybody in the coach, and everyone we were to meet that day, believed in the force of what had happened, and to that they knelt down in homage, whatever their private emotions might be. The interval of liberty, that faltering experiment in openness and democracy called glasnost, was over. Nobody in Crimea, neither the officials in the provincial capital of Simferopol nor the holiday crowds at Yalta setting out on their morning pilgrimage to the shingle beaches, supposed that the coup might be reversed or resisted. The Crimean newspapers contained only the rambling proclamations of the Committee, without comment. On the coach, the radio by the driver was out of order too. I sat back and reflected. Would the airports be closed? We were delegates from the World Congress of Byzantinologists which had just taken place in Moscow, and we were near the end of a post-Congress tour of historic sites in Crimea. The biggest group on the coach was Genoese—historians, archivists and journalists. They had come with their families to see the ruins of their city's mediaeval trading empire along the northern Black Sea shore. Now they grew animated, then uproarious. To live through genuine barbarian upheavals on the fringe of the known world seemed to them another way of following in their ancestors' footsteps.

The coach ran through the little beach resort of Alushta and turned inland towards the mountain pass leading to Simferopol. I tried to imagine the panic in the world outside, the cancelled lunches and emergency conclaves at NATO in Brussels, the solemn crowds which would be gathering in the Baltic capitals to resist with songs and sticks the return of the Soviet tank armies. There might, I thought, be a few demonstrations in Russian cities; some devoted boy might try to burn himself alive in Red Square. But the putsch—as an act of force—seemed to me decisive. I had seen something like it ten years before, in 1981, when martial law was declared in Communist Poland. That blow had proved irresistible. So, I assumed, would this one.

At that moment in the summer of 1991, the Soviet Union still overshadowed the whole of northern Eurasia from the Pacific to the Baltic. The outside world still believed almost blindly in the reforming genius of Mikhail Gorbachev, and few foreigners as yet understood, or even wanted to understand, that Gorbachev's ambitious programme of perestroika structural reform had come to nothing. They could not grasp that his personal following among the ruling oligarchy of the Soviet Union had leaked away during the previous year, nor that the Communist Party—the only effective executive instrument in the land—was now refusing to go further with the political changes which were dismantling its own monopoly of power, nor that the military and police commanders had begun to disobey their orders and act on their own initiative, nor that Gorbachev was no longer respected or even liked by the Russian people.

It was only because I had spent the previous week talking to Russian friends and foreign journalists in Moscow that I had begun to realise how serious Gorbachev's failure was. The phase of reformed, liberalised Communism was over. And the illusion that plural democracy and free-market economy could be simply ordered into existence by the Kremlin—that had collapsed too. But at the same time I knew that this putsch in Moscow could solve nothing. The way ahead was blocked, certainly. And yet the way back offered by Gennadi Yanayev and his fellow-conspirators—a reversion to police tyranny and imperial reconquest—also led nowhere. In the longer term, the plotters had only ensured an even steeper descent into chaos and decay for the Soviet state. But in the short term, I was convinced, they had succeeded and they would be obeyed.

In the place of the Tatar khans at Bakhchiserai — unloved and faded — I caught the glance of a Russian woman in charge of a band of girl students. It was a dark, hot glance; she halted her girls by pulling roughly on their yellow plaits, as if on a train's alarm cord, and came over to talk. `This morning, I have two thoughts,' she began. `The first is for my son, who is in Germany: now I shall never see him again. The second is that there is no vodka in the shops, so I have no way to forget what is happening. You are from Britain? May we please export to you some of our big surplus of fascists?'

Beside us, a fountain carved with a marble eye wept tears of cool spring-water, mourning for a slave-girl who died before she could learn to love the Tatar khan. Alexander Pushkin, touched by the legend, first floated a rose in the basin of the fountain, and they still put fresh roses there for the tourists. All about us I saw Russians uncomfortably looking away. They did not understand our words, but they recognised our tone of voice: a dangerous one. A holiday had ended that morning with the news on the radio, and the season of prudence had returned. Only the students watched us with their round blue eyes, head cocked, indifferent as birds.

Crimea is a big brown diamond. It is connected to the mainland only by a few strings of isthmus and sand-spit, by a natural land causeway at Perekop on the west and by watery tracks across the Sivash salt-lagoons on the north and east. In history, Crimea consists of three zones: mind, body and spirit.

The zone of mind is the coast — the chain of colonial towns and port-cities along the Black Sea margin. For nearly three thousand years, with interruptions of fire and darkness, people in these cities kept accounts, read and wrote books, enforced planning controls with the aid of geometry, debated literary and political gossip from some distant of metropolis, locked one another up in prisons, allotted building land for the temples of mutually hostile cults, regulated advance payments on the next season's orders for slaves.

The Ionian Greeks reached this coast some time during the eighth century BC, and under its steep, forested capes, they set up trading-posts — much like European `factories' on the Guinea coast of Africa two thousand years later — which grew into towns with stone walls and then into maritime cities. The Roman and Byzantine empires inherited these coastal colonies. Then, in the Middle Ages, the Venetians and the Genoese, licensed by the later Byzantine emperors, revived the zone of the mind, enlarged the Black Sea trade and founded new cities of their own.

In the early thirteenth century, Chingiz (`Genghis') Khan united the Mongolian peoples of east-central Asia and led them out to conquer the surrounding world. China fell, and the Mongol cavalry rode westwards to conquer not only the central Asian cities but the lands which are now Afghanistan, Kashmir and Iran within the next few years. But it was not until 1240—1, ten year after the death of Chingiz, that a Mongol army led by Batu reached Russia and eastern Europe (where they were -mis-named `Tatars' after another tribe which had once been powerful in central Asia but which Chingiz had exterminated). Batu's cavalry eventually withdrew from east and central Europe without any serious attempt to make their conquests permanent, and settled on the Volga. There the `Golden Horde', as this western part of the Mongol-Tatar empire came to be known, remained for three centuries after the death of Batu in 1255. From its capital on the Volga, the Horde controlled both the steppe north of the Black Sea and Crimean peninsula.

There were times when the Horde burned and looted cities on the Crimean coast. But the Mongol presence also brought those cities great fortune. There was now a single authority in control of the entire Eurasian plain from the Chinese border in the east to what is now Hungary in the west. With stability in the steppes, long-range trade became possible. Trade routes — the `Silk Routes' — appeared, reaching from China to the Black Sea by land and from there by sea to the Mediterranean. One route led westwards across the lower Volga to terminated at the Venetian colony of Tana, on the Sea of Azov. Later, in the fifteenth century, another Silk Route opened connecting the Persian provinces of the Mongol empire with the Black Sea at Trebizond.

An end was put to all this transcontinental commerce after 1453, when the Turks finally captured Constantinople and destroyed the remains of the Byzantine Empire around the Black Sea, which was closed to Western voyagers. The cities of the coast were mostly abandoned, and their ruins were covered by the dry red earth and the mauve herbs of the Crimean steppe. The coast of Crimea did not begin to revive until the eighteenth century, when the Russian Empire reached the Black Sea, and the revival took a new variety of urban forms. Chersonesus was rebuilt as the naval base of Sevastopol, Yalta as a seaside resort, Kaffa as the grain port of Feodosia.

The zone of the body in Crimea is the inland steppe country, behind the coastal mountains. It is not flat, but a plateau landscape of greyish-green downs, trapezoid and eroded. Its skin is a dry turf woven of sharp-smelling herbs, and if you cut the skin the earth leaks out and blows away in the east wind.

Along the coast, the wind comes off the Black Sea or, very suddenly, in harrying squalls down from the mountains. But inland, behind the mountain ranges, the wind blows steadily out of Asia, across three thousand miles of what used to be level grassland separating Europe from the high Central Asian pastures where he nomad peoples began their journeys. The archaic Greeks crossed a watery ocean to reach Crimea, and their voyage from the Bosporus to southern Russia could take a month or more. But the nomads who came to this coast crossed an ocean of grass, sailing slowly onwards for months and years in their wagons, preceded by their herds of cattle and horses, until they came to rest up against the Crimean hills and the sea beyond them.

The Scythians were already here on the Crimean steppe and the inland plains when the Greeks first came ashore in the eighth century BC. In the centuries which followed, the period of Greek colonisation, the pressure of westward migration out of central Asia was weak, and five hundred more years passed before the Scythians resumed their westward journey and were replaced by the Sarmatians. Then, in the first centuries of our era, the push of one nomad nation upon another became much more urgent. After the Sarmatians came the Goths, from the north, and then the all-destroying Huns, and then Khazars who formed their briefly stable steppe empire on the Black Sea shores in the eighth century AD. Turkic-speaking nomads (called variously Kipchak, Cuman or Polovtsy) held the steppe between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, and were then overrun or driven further west by the oncoming Mongol-Tatars of the Golden Horde.

The Golden Horde's capital was far away from the Black Sea coast, at Saray on the middle Volga. The Horde was always a loose polity which soon began to pull apart, and in the fifteenth century a southern branch of the Horde set up its own independent kingdom on the inland plains of Crimea, settling down to intensive farming and stock-breeding and gradually abandoning the old pastoral life. This was the Crimean Tatar khanate, or `Crim Tartary'. A few centuries of relative calm ensued in Crimea until the Ottoman Empire, after the capture of Constantinople, reached the northern shore of the Black Sea and Crimea itself. For the Crimean Tatars, who had converted to Islam in the fourteenth century, Turkish domination meant a mere change of allegiance rather than displacement, and the khanate survived until Catherine the Great conquered Crimea for the Russian Empire in 1783.

For the Crimean zones of mind and body to create wealth together, there had to be two conditions: merchants on the coast with secure access to the outside markets of the Mediterranean and beyond, and a stable political situation on the steppe. Sometimes there was turmoil on the great plains; trade routes were closed, cultivation of wheat outside town walls became dangerous, and the city-colonies were occasionally looted and burned. But for long periods, especially during the Scythian time, there was peace. The Greek colonists and the Scythian chiefs near the coast grew wheat for export. Furs, wax, honey and slaves were brought down from the northern forests to the markets in the Greek coastal cities, and for the most part the Scythians let these caravans travel freely across their open grassland to the sea. On the profits of the grain and the slaves, which fed and provided a labour-force of the Hellenic and Roman worlds, both the Greek merchants and the up-country Scythian princes grew very rich indeed.

The Scythians, and then Sarmatians and Goths who followed them, spent this wealth conspicuously. They bough jewellery and goldwork, made in the city colonies to their personal order and fancy by Greek craftsmen and their native apprentices. They took their treasures to their graves, to lie under tall burial mounds among sacrificed horses, servants and women.

If you travel eastwards across the Crimean steppe, you come to the last of the trapezoid downs and the ground falls away at your feet. You stand on this last ridge, with a battering, restless wind in your face, and look across the Sea of Azov into the infinity of dun-coloured flatness which begins here and reaches away across a continent, past the northern end of the Caspian Sea and as far as Lake Baikal. There is no horizon. Only a long bar of shadow to the east, which is the approaching night.

On this ridge are the foundations of a stone tower. When the Mongol-Tatars of the Golden Horde entered the Crimean-peninsula, splashing their ponies across the Azov saltmarshes, they saw this tower on the skyline above them and called in Kerim — fort. They made their first encampment and headquarters below the tower at Eski Kerim, or Krim — `old fort' — which might be the origin of the word `Crimea'. From Eski Krim, the Tatars moved to Bakhchiserai and set the palace of the independent khanate in a green valley, near the sound of water and nightingales.

The zone of the body has always pressed impatiently against the zone of the mind. Sometimes the pressure was destructive, as when the Tatars rode down to the sea from Eski Krim in the late thirteenth century and sacked the Genoese metropolis of Kaffa. But often it was metamorphic. The category-fence between `European' colonists and `native' nomads was always falling into disrepair or developing large gaps.

Scythians, for example, were not only peripatetic horse-breeders who lived in wagons. They were also capable of laying out fields and growing crops on a commercial rather than a subsistence scale, of designing permanent fortified towns with something like a street-plan of delicate and innovative metalwork. The Greek or Italian citizens of the trading colonies could be farmers as well as merchants, venturing and working far away from their protective walls. The nomads — there are some well-recorded cases — could live double lives at Hellenic or Italianised gentry within the walls and (literally changing clothes) as traditional steppe chieftains outside them. Rich Khazars, speaking a Turkic language but practising a form of Judaism, lived as respected citizens in Sudak. Much earlier, in the first century AD, Dio Chrysostom visited the city of Olbia, near the estuary of the Dnieper, and found the citizens quoting Homer but wearing the trousers and moccasins of non-Greek nomads.

What we do not know is whether that last process could run the other way — whether there were `civilised' individuals from the zone of the mind who were magnetized outwards in the `barbarian' zone of the body, who lived in wagons, drank mares' milk and did reverence before the carcases of impaled horses which guarded royal tombs. Probably there were. It happened on the American frontier, where there were always European trappers and voyaging traders and even the wives and children of colonists who `went Indian' by choice.

But between the body and the mind, between the steppe and the coast, was a third place: the mountain zone of the spirit. Up on the flat summits of the Shatir Dagh range, or in caves hidden by forest, far above the nomads and the traders, lived communities which had lost all prospects of wealth or conquest.

From the Bakhchiserai, the coach drove southwards into the foothills of the coastal range, though a small canyon, and stopped in a meadow surrounded by mountains. The Byzantinologists settled on the grass beside a lake and unwrapped their sandwiches. There were trees, a few tents, a pipe running spring water into an old iron fountain-basin at which two young women were washing themselves and their clothes.

One of them, wearing only a long black skirt, strolled across to us and bent to squeeze the water out of her hair. `Got a Western cigarette? Our Soviet ones are so awful.'

One of the Genoese offered her a pack. `Any news?'

She stood upright, shook her hair back, accepted the cigarette and, while the match was being lit for her, said, `No news. On the radio, only bloody Swan Lake.' Behind her, two boys were trying to stretch an aerial from their tent to a tree.

The Climb from the meadows of the valley floor to the summit of Mangup Kale takes an hour, two thousand feet of struggling and sweating upwards until a broken city-wall looms up among the trees. From here the going is a little easier. But now the forest becomes a cemetery. Hundreds and hundreds of stone tombs drift on a sea of dead leaves, tilting, listing, capsizing, engraved with deep-cut Hebrew characters.

The tombs belong to the Karaim. They were a Jewish sect which began in Mesopotamia in the eighth century AD and broke with the mainstream of rabbinical Judaism two hundred years later. The Karaim believed tat the word of the Lord was to be found in Scripture but nowhere else, and that the additions of the Talmud were impious and decadent. (For that reason Christian Protestants, Germans especially, have always been fascinated by the Karaim whom they imagine, quite falsely, to have been harbingers of the Christian Reformation.)

The Karaim reached Crimea in the twelfth century, dislodged from Palestine and Egypt by the upheaval of the First Crusade. They migrated into the Byzantine Empire and beyond it into north-eastern Europe, where parties of Karaim settled in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Many sectarians, like the Albigensian Christians of southern France, have felt safe only in remote defensible places far from centres of power and population. The Karaim shared this existential terror. They withdrew to the tops of the Crimean mountains or, in Lithuania, to the fortress-islands of Trakai in a lake among birch forests. But, like hermit-crabs, they preferred to settle in fortifications already built and then abandoned by others rather than to raise their own, and the Karaim did not take over Mangup Kale until it ad been sacked and emptied by the Turks. The oldest Karaite grave in the woods below the summit is dated 1468, a few years before the fall of Mangup, but most of them were carved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In Crimea, the Karaim kept their distance from the Christian or Moslem societies around them, living careful Karaite lives, trading and manufacturing small household goods but avoiding service to any government. One historian has remarked that, between about 1200 and 1900 AD, almost nothing happened; Karaite history in Crimea was a long and peaceful blank. However, by staying aloof the Karaim acquired a reputation for being more upright and more honest than other communities, and in consequence, when the history of the Karaim began to happen once more, it took a curious turn. Gentiles, impressed by their probity, began to invent reasons why the Karaim should be exempted from the general anti-Semitism. It was supposed that they must be converts, like the Khazars. Here was an absurb irony; by attempting to be more intensely and primordially Judaic than other Jews, the Karaim ensured that Gentiles would consider them not to be truly Jewish at all.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea at the end of the eighteenth century, Cath II took a respectful interest in the Karaim. She had added enormous territories to the Russian Empire: in the west, much of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and in the south almost the whole northern shore of the Black Sea. To develop them, she recruited colonists — Germans, Creeks, Armenians, even French settlers — and the Karaim with their sober energy were suitable to her purpose. Catherine moved some of the Crimean Karaim to reinforce their old settlements in Lithuania; and in the huge new frontier province of Novorossiya (New Russia) in the south she granted them full Russian citizenship, which was denied to the main Jewish populations. From Mangup and their other cliff-redoubt at Chufut Kale, above Bakhchiserai, the Karaim began to migrate down to the cities of the Crimean coast, especially to Evpatoria. When the Scottish traveller Laurence Oliphant climbed up to Chufut Kale in 1852, he found only a handful of Karaim left, looking after the old synagogue. The last of them had abandoned Mangup some fifty years before.

During the Second World War, the Nazi racial bureaucracy in Berlin decreed (vainly, as it turned out) that the Karaim should not be included in the `final solution of the Jewish question', on the grounds that they were not biologically and genetically Jewish but descendants of Khazar converts to Judaism. This was complete nonsense. But the main Jewish communities of the Black Sea, themselves listed for slaughter, seem to have supported the myth in order to save their brethren if they could not save themselves.

Just below the rim of the Mangup summit, there is a spring of chill, delicious water. Then the trees part and you emerge into a tableland of flat, sort turf scented with thyme. Ruins stand about, some with towers and arches, others little more than the stone wall-footings which are all that remains of basilicas and gatehouses and synagogues and watch-towers. The world, sea and land, lies spread out below. People came and settled on Mangup when they were afraid or wanted to be alone with God, or both.

That day there was a camp on the flat summit: a line of pup-tents flying the Russian tricolour, an old army cooker on wheels, a blackened bucket full of stewing tea, clouds of blue woodsmoke. An archaeological expedition from the University of the Urals at Sverdlovsk (now again Ekaterinburg) had been digging on the summit for several weeks. Up here, above the world, they knew nothing. The students gathered round gravely, while we drank their tea through thick Russian sugar-cubes. Only light music dribbled from their radio, a long giggle of embarrassment to fill silence of Russia which grew more enormous as the hours passed.

All human populations are in some sense immigrants. All hostility between different cultures in one place has an aspect of the classic immigrant grudge against the next boatload approaching the shore. To defend one's home and fields and ancestral graves against invasion seems a right. But to claim unique possession — to compound the fact of settlement with the aspect of a landscape into an abstract of eternal and immutable ownership — is a joke.

Crimea, whose beauty provokes almost sexual yearnings of possession in all its visitors, has demonstrated this joke in every century of its history. It has no natives, no aboriginals. Before the Scythians, before the Cimmerians who preceded them or the Bronze Age populations who raised the first burial-mounds, there were human beings who had come from somewhere else. Crimea has always been a destination, the cliffs at the end of the sea or the shore where the wagons must end their journey. Voyaging communities settled in Crimea (the Scythians lived here for nearly a thousand years) but in the end they dispensed or moved on. All that has been constant in Crimean history has been a certain structure which the peninsula has imposed upon its visitors: the zones of mind, body and spirit have often been effaced but until now have always reemerged. Only in recent times has the Crimean truth — that it belongs to everybody and to nobody — been violated. Two of these violations, which would be merely absurb if they did not imply so much blood and suffering in the past and very probably in the future, are the declarations of two autocrats. In 1783, Catherine II (`The Great') proclaimed that the Crimean peninsula was henceforth and for all time to become Russian. And in 1954 Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian seeking to divert the attention of his own people from their miseries, announced that he was transferring Crimea from Russia to become for all time Ukrainian.

Mangup is about all these Crimean ironies. Most of the ruins on the Mangup summit belong to a forgotten, improbable principality of the Middle Ages. The fortress of Theodoro-Mangup contained an independent Greek principality, ruled by the Princess of Gothia. But what did `Greek' mean up here, or `Gothic'?

The Goths came to the Black Sea and to Crimea from an unusual direction, from the north-west rather than from the east. A proto-Germanic confederation of peoples from southern Scandinavia, they had occupied Crimea in the third century AD, in the course of their conquest of most of the Black Sea's northern shore. A hundred years later, the Black Sea Goths were defeated by the Huns. Many headed westward, on the next leg of a migration which in the time of their great-grandchildren would deposit them in Italy as the army of their king, Theodoric the Great. But some remained in the Crimean mountains. Christianised and then incorporated into the Byzantine Empire, they were still there in the sixth century when the emperor Justinian I fortified Mangup as part of a line of strong-points intended to shield the coastal cities against an attack out of the steppes.

When the Khazars conquered Crimea in the eighth century, the remnants of the Christian Goths retreated up into the mountain zone of the spirit. John, Prince-Bishop of Gothia, sallied down from Mangup to lead an unsuccessful rising against the Khazars, but the Byzantine emperors betrayed him. They preferred to come to terms with the Judaised Khazars, recognising them as powerful allies who could form a buffer-zone between the Empire and wilder nomad nations approaching the Black Sea from the steppe; two Byzantine emperors — Justinian II and Constantine V — married Khazar princesses. Gothia went back to its hill and left history for nearly seven hundred years.

Below this `Lost World' on its plateau, the world continued to change, but Gothia kept on worshipping in its huge basilica and ignoring the turmoils at the foot of its cliffs until — in 1475 — the Ottoman Turks arrived. Mopping up the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, after their capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks and their Crimean Tatar allies stormed the Principality of Theodoros on its mountain and brought Gothia to an end.

The Basilica of Constantine and Helen, dating from the ninth century, stood desolate for a time. In 1579, a Polis nobleman scrambled up to look at it. Marcin Broniewski (`Broniovius') had been sent by King Stefan Batory on a diplomatic mission to Mehmet Giray, khan of the Crimean Tatars, and he wrote an elegant Latin account — Tartariae Descriptio — which was translated into English a century later by Samuel Purchas. `Marcopia' [Mangup] . . . hath had two Castles, Greek Temples and Houses sumptuous, with many cleere Rils running out of the stone: but eighteene yeers after that the Turkes had taken it (as the Greeke Christians affirm) it was destroyed by a sudden and horrible fire.'

Broniewski found still standing `the Greeke Church of Saint Constantine, and another meane one of Saint George. One Greeke Priest and some Jews and Turkes dwell there; Oblivion and Ruine hath devoured the rest; nor are there men or Stories of the quondam inhabitants, which I with great care and diligence everywhere sougth in vaine.' Yet Broniewski had been able to question the Orthodox priest, who told him that `a little before the Turkes besieged it, two Greeke Dukes of the Imperial bloud of Constantinople or Trapezond [Trebizond], there resided, which were after carried alive into Constantinople, and by Selim the Turkishe Emperour slaine. In the Greeke Churches on the walls are painted Imperiall Images and Habits . . .'

Nothing remains of the basilica but foundations, and the archaeologists from the University of the Urals could only dream of what those `Imperiall Images' might have shown them. The zone of the spirit is almost empty now. The only inhabitants of Mangup are a colony of Russian hippies, out where the plateau juts to the north-east in terrifying bowsprit of bare stone overhanging a thousand feet of air. The hippies live in old guard-houses cut into the rock, rolled in blankets on the stone floors, breathing a fog of dope and smoke from fires of green sticks. They growl, snore, fart and sometimes rouse themselves to fits of bellowing. The young girls from the university expedition had learned not to visit this end of the plateau on their own, but groups of students sometimes came and left cans of tea or stale loaves near the cliff-edge. Retreating a few yards, they would wait and watch until the hippies, like bears, dragged themselves out of their tomb and flung themselves on the food.




Copyright © 1995 Ann Wroe. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Neal Ascherson, a leading British scholar-journalist, writes for The Independent in London and The New York Review of Books. He is the author of Polish August and The Struggle for Poland, among other books. He lives in London

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Black Sea 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This rambling essay on the theme of the Black Sea, while quite engaging in many respects, omits entirely Georgia, which geographically is very much part of the Black Sea , located as it is between Turkey and Russia on its Eastern shore. It seems that the author willfully avoided that country, since he travelled to its Southern border in Turkey, and then also to its Northen border in Abkhazia, but not in between in Georgia. He does dedicate a few pages to the 1992-93 conflict bewteen Abkhazians and Georgians, but sees it entirely through Abkhazian eyes, without any attempt at impartiality. He also naively accepts at face value the lofty declarations of various Abkhazian officials regarding tolerance for other cultures, without realizing that such declarations can be heard from practically every official in every former Soviet Union countries. The reality can be quite different! Neal Ascherson does mention the Georgian Language, but his characterization of its historical importance within the Khartvelian group of languages is quite unscholarly, and should be dismissed out of hand. Another basic defect is that he dedicates many pages to Poland, as if that country bordered on the Black Sea, and not on the Baltic! The only justification I can see is that the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz spend time in Odessa and other places on the Black Sea, but the real reason must be that the author wrote several books about Poland and was honored in that country.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I learned a lot from this book. It's not the most captivating reading in the world, but there is much to be discovered in this.