My very first day of my Crimean holiday was spent in Bakhchisaray. The name doesn’t sound very Russian, in fact, it sounds rather oriental. But, check the map, it is still in Europe, not the Middle East! Bakhchisaray is home to the palace of the same name, and that is what makes this town famous. Palaces and castles have always been an enormous fascination, all around the world. Through the centuries of civilization this interest has not changed much. I usually avoid visiting palaces turned into museums, however I wanted to see Bakhchisaray, because it is not just a palace, it is a khan’s palace! A Hansarai!
Crimea is known for its toy-castles. These are castles that aren’t really castles, just cheap copies. I was quite curious as to what this khan’s palace would look like. Would it be a real or just a cheesy copy? And why is it called “a khan’s palace”? What was a khan doing in Crimea? What sort of khan was he? Was he important? Why would any European ruler title himself a „Khan”? Why…why…why?
When I arrived at Bakhchisaray, the palace told the story. One glance was enough to tell me that the khan was indeed a real guy and as oriental as his title would suggest
Crimea is considered to be Russian now. In 2014 news went around the world that Crimea finally “came back home”. But is the home, really a home? Ages ago, the center of Russian civilization was in Kiev. Moscow was a small settlement of no particular meaning. Kiev was set to be the future capital of a Russian Empire, but it was not meant to be. The Mongols stormed Europe, destroyed Kiev and burnt everything in their path.They stopped on the border of the Kingdom of Poland. The Mongols established the Khanate of the Golden Horde, on the territory that we now call Ukraine. Wars followed wars and eventually the khanate broke up and was pushed out of the Slavic nations. The longest lasting fragment was the Khanate of Crimea, with it’s capital nowhere else than in Bakhchisaray.
The Russian Empire had a huge problem in conquering this land. Crimea had the protection of its Muslim brothers from the Ottoman Empire and Istanbul. But like the Polish saying reads, “where devil can’t succeed, he will send a woman”. Under the rule of Catherine the Great in the late 18th century Russia conquered Crimea, ending the khanate, forever.
The famous Palace of the Tatar Khans is definitely a not-to-miss location. It is wonderfully preserved with the outstanding beauty of past times. It looks more like a “one thousand and one nights” Arabic, prince’s summer house, than the war headquarters of a warmonger Mongol Khan. This palace is known to be one of three, rare, architectural structures representing the Middle East and Europe. The others are Alhambra in Spain and Topkapi in Turkey.
The main architectural idea of the palace is the embodiment of the Muslim image of a paradise garden on earth – “Bakhchisaray”. Inside the palace there are many courtyards with trees, flowers and fountains. Visitors can relax on one of the benches under the many shady trees surrounding the palace. The walls of the hansarai have the guards chambers, a harem and a mosque.
The palace is recognized by its white marble fountains that were built in the 16th century. These have a huge, symbolic meanings. Tatars worshiped water, because for them water was the symbol of life. The climate of the Crimea made water as precious as gold. Even now the Crimea lacks an adequate water supply. The most famous of all the fountains is the Fountain of Tears. Legend tells a tragic love story of the last khan. The story inspired Alexander Pushkin to write his poem the “Fountain of Bakhchisaray”.
To see the interior of the palace I had to take a Russian guide. My Russian is not the best, as I’ve never bothered to study it properly, As I didn’t understand most of what she said, I used my imagination and traveled back to the times when the palace was the heart of the khanate’s glory. I think, spending evenings here must have been a nice experience. I could enjoy here for a few nights. I would spend them sitting beside the fire, glowing in the darkness of an Arabian night, spotting fireflies, smelling the roses of the gardens, feasting, and listening to the music, that like a knife, cut the warm, summer air. This is how I imagine an Arabian night under the European sky!
I had to imagine the summer as well, as the day on which I visited was rather cloudy. It was October and Octobers are usually warm and sunny here in Crimea, but not this time. The weather was unusual. The spectrum of the change was in the air. Not only the weather was about to change. Looking at that sleepy town then, I would had never guessed that less than 3 months later Crimea would become the core-point of an international crisis. The crisis that is still ongoing. My question is… if the the Russian Empire heirs could claim this territory back, will someday, the heirs of the Golden Horde as well? Only time can tell… so let’s wait……..