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Excursions

Chufut-Caleh Cave Town

Chufut Kaleh Cave TownNext to the Svyato-Uspensky (Assumption) cave monastery there is the other gem of the «Greater Bakhchisarai» — Chufut-Kale. A fortress on the forbidding plateau had risen in the years of early Middle Ages and became the base station of Byzantine influence in the region. The town at that time was mostly populated by Alans. Then, when Kipchaks ruled in the Crimea, the town was under their control and was given a new name — Kyrk-Or. Beginning from the 14th century, Karaites started to settle down in Kyrk-Or and by the le Crimean Khanate formed they, most likely, were the prevailing part of the population. In the Crimean Khanate's period the fortress served as a place of detention lor high-ranking prisoners of war, and it also housed the state Mint. It was at that time that the town was given its present name — Chufut-Kale. Later, after the Crimea was included into the Russian Empire, the Karaites left the fortress and settled in other Crimean cities. By the end of the XIX century Chufut-Kale was completely deserted by its inhabitants. The custodian's family was the only one to stay on in the fortress.

 

By the mid-19th century the town ceased to exist. However, architectural monuments have been preserved in Chufut-Kale which reflect the various stages in the city's history. The most ancient of these is a defensive wall built in the 10th—11th centuries, possibly at the same time as the town itself, which traverses the plateau from north to south. The construction of the defensive wall is typical of early medieval  fortifications. The wall has three layers, its front and rear sides are faced with ashlar blocks, while the inside consists of rubble cemented with lime mortar.

To protect against battering rams, the most formidable enemy of ancient fortifications before the invention of firearms, a two-metre deep moat was cut into the cliff in front of the wall. Gates are particularly important for a fortress. During a siege they become the main target of the assault, as a rule, so their defence was thought out very thoroughly. The gates of the ancient defensive wan (Orta-Kapu) have retained the arched girder. They were two-leafed, and their oak panels were locked with a heavy bar held in place in a special groove, well-preserved to this day.
During archaeological excavations in 1958, remnants of a water main were found. The water main, made of ceramic pipes, passed through the gateway. This discovery threw light upon the enigma of the town's water supply. Drinking water came to the fortress from springs outside the town. For household needs, the residents gathered rainwater and stored it in pithoi or cisterns.
The ancient fortification wall, reaching 5 metres in width, was the town's main defence until the late 14th century. It lost its importance when the new Karaite part of the town appeared, with its own eastern wall. The Karaites built the wall at the turn of the 15th century for the protection of their section of the town. In all probability it was rebuilt in the 16th century. The wall has large gates: the partly ruined southern and two northern towers with gun-slots have been preserved, as well as an embrasure, which is now bricked up. The ancient wall became the middle wall and divided the old town from the new. In the old town the ruins of a mosque erected in the first half of the 14th century have survived.

Opposite the mosque is a well-preserved mausoleum dating from the 15th century. It is an octahedral structure, with a tiled hipped roof. Its portal bears  an intricately-carved Eastern defensive wall Arabian inscription, which resembles a whimsical ornament. The mausoleum houses the sepulchre of Khan Tokhtamysh's daughter, Djanyke-Hanym, who died in 1437.
The old section of the town also has two Karaite praying houses (kenassas) enclosed by a stone fence. One of the kenassas opposite the entrance to the courtyard is adorned with an arcade of hewn stone and dates probably from the 14th century. Another, to the right, is more modest and  appeared  sometime in the late 18th century. It was probably built by Karaites who migrated here from Mangup.
The kenassas tower over the gorge, in the upper reaches of which lies Josaphat Valley with its Karaite cemetery. Once age-old oak trees grew in the cemetery and it was considered a great sin to fell them. The Tatars called this cemetery Balta-Tiymez (The Axe Does Not Touch). The cemetery is quite large and contains one-horned and two-horned limestone monuments; and marble tombstones with epitaphs in Hebrew which appeared later. Karaites used this language in their religious ceremonies.
In the newer part of Chufut-Kale, a 17th-century estate is of great interest. It gives an idea of the structure of the town's houses. Usually they had two storeys, with balconies and windows facing a courtyard. The upper storey was the living area, while the lower was for livestock and household equipment. The gable or lean-to roofs were tiled. Hearths and braziers set in earthen floors heated the dwelling, and some houses had stoves. To preserve victuals, cellars were hewn in rock under the buildings. Sheds and barns were built in the courtyard. All these structures were enc :sed with a high stone fence with small A ckets. Such estates were typical of other settlements in the mountains of the Crimea.
This estate belonged to the well-known Karaite scholar A. S. Firkovich (1787-1874), an expert on old manuscripts and medieval epitaphs. He travelled widely throughout the Crimea, the Caucasus, Egypt, Palestine and Turkey in search of manuscripts and information about his people. His unique collection of manuscripts is housed in the Saltykov-Shchedrin Library in St. Petersburg.

Nowadays, most of Chufut-Kale is in ruins. In its western oldest part there survived an array of utility premises hewn-out in the caves, mosque ruins and the 1437-year mausoleum of the daughter of Golden Horde Khan Tokhtamysh - Djanyke-Hanym. Also, well-preserved are two kenassas (Karaites temples) and a homestead with two buidings. 

The Crimean Karaites is one of the smallest Turkic nationalities. But the religion of Karaites is Judaism. There are several theories about the Crimean Karaites`ancestry, and this question is not closed now yet. The Crimean Karaites`historical native land is the Crimea, where within 8th to 10th centuries the formation of this ethnic group was going on. Before the Crimea was annexed to Russia, the spiritual and administrative centre of the Karaites in the Crimea was city-fortress Kyrk-Er (Chufut-Kaleh). There lived the Karaites` clerical head, princes, officials, serving the Crimean khans, and military leaders. And starting from 1837 on, Yevpatoria became the spiritual and administrative centre of the Karaites of Russia.

Currently, the Crimean Karaites through-out the world are not more than 2,000. In Ukraine, their number is approximately 1,100, in the Crimea they are 800 and of them 250 - in Evpatoria. 

Sergey Tsarapora private guide