A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In the post-Soviet era, both priests and prehistorians have a stake in the future of a once-resplendent ancient city.
On every July 28, the feast day of Grand Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, several hundred devout members of the Orthodox church pass through the creaking iron gates of Ukraine's National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos (NPTC) and pick their way carefully through the preserve's breathtaking array of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins. While the tourists around them admire the decorative mosaics encircled by seagrass and photograph tumbled columns bleached by the Crimean sun, the worshipers--mostly handkerchiefed old women--focus their sights on a large limestone church that rises from the center of this archaeological landscape, as incongruous as the Russian and Ukrainian warships moored in the harbors beyond.
Both tourists and the religiously observant are relatively new visitors to Chersonesos (also known as Tauric Chersonesos after the Taurians, a tribe that inhabited southwestern Crimea thousands of years ago). Widely regarded as the most important archaeological site in the Black Sea region, Chersonesos lay within the restrictive embrace of the "closed city" of Sevastopol, home of the Soviet Union's Black Sea fleet, for more than 70 years. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, and the opening of the area to non-residents and foreigners five years later, NPTC officials have welcomed foreign scholars and an influx of funding for research from international organizations. Plans have been drawn up for a sophisticated archaeological preserve that celebrates Chersonesos' 2,000-year history, from its beginnings as a Greek colony to its legacy as the northernmost outpost of the Byzantine Empire, as well as its artifacts from the Crimean War and World War II.
The Orthodox church, freed from its Soviet-era restrictions, also has plans for Chersonesos. It was here, in A.D. 988, that Volodymyr, grand prince of the heretofore pagan Kyivan Rus, married the sister of the Byzantine emperor Basil II and was reputedly baptized. Because of this event, Chersonesos is often referred to as the "cradle of Rus [Eastern Slavic] Orthodoxy." And it is this historical legacy, which took root some 1,500 years after the Greeks first landed on these windswept shores, that has complicated archaeologists' dreams of a sunny future for Chersonesos' rich past.
Managing editor Kristin M. Romey would like to thank the ICA and the NPTC for their inestimable assistance in preparing this article. Additional reporting was provided by Genia Mussuri in Kyiv.