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Greek Colonists and Russian Sailors "Beneath the Black Sea"
Summer 2000

On Monday morning, Loscha and I head out to Sevastopol, on the southwestern tip of the peninsula. This trip would have been impossible for me only five years ago. As the base for the Soviet Black Sea fleet, Sevastopol was off-limits to all foreigners and most nonresident citizens. The "closed city" was not opened to outsiders until 1996, when Russia and Ukraine finally reached an agreement that allowed Russia to maintain its fleet in the city's harbors. After five hours of successive sweltering bus rides, we arrive in town and head first to the site of Chersonesos, established by Greek colonists in the sixth century B.C.


Chersonesos followed the historical pattern characteristic of most prosperous Crimean coastal settlements: a Greek colony that eventually fell under the rule of Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors. During the Byzantine period, Chersonesos (by then known as Cherson) became an important center of Christianity on the northern fringe of the empire, and it was here that Prince Volodymyr of the neighboring Kiev Rus state, the forerunner of the Russian Empire, adopted Christianity in 988. The decline of the Byzantine Empire and successive Mongol raids eventually led to Chersonesos' demise in the fifteenth century.

Left, Byzantine ruins at Chersonesos


A Greek dish from Chersonesos featuring Black Sea creatures: scorpionfish and sturgeon

Fragment of a tenth-century fresco from a church at Cherson

Russia wrested control of Crimea from the Turks in the late eighteenth century and found that the same harbors the colonists of Chersonesos found ideal for their maritime-based trade were perfectly suited for the realization of a long-held Russian dream: a warm-water port for the empire's navy. Sevastopol soon rose around the ruins of Chersonesos, and in 1827 the commander of the Black Sea fleet launched the first excavations on the site.

Since we only had a day to spend in the city, we make a quick tour of the site: the Greek mint, the numerous Byzantine-era basilicas along the sea, the elaborate mosaic floors outlined in the parched grass. Stripped-down sailors and locals in bathing suits work their way through the ruins toward the water, attempting to beat the heat with a swim. Having had enough of the water for a while, I opt for a cold drink at a nearby café and enjoy the incongruous view of crumbling Byzantine walls framed against a background Russian warships.

Right, the Russian Black Sea fleet and ancient ruins share space in Sevastopol


While there's a sort of visual tension between the military and cultural legacies of Sevastopol, the real tension here seems to lie between the archaeologists and the church. Chersonesos is the birthplace of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christianity, and a large religious complex, including a magnificent cathedral marking the site where Volodymyr was baptized, occupied part of the site before the Soviet period. Many of the church's buildings became museums and administrative offices for the large-scale excavations at Chersonesos, and the cathedral, destroyed during the Nazi occupation of Sevastopol, is only now being rebuilt. With the demise of the Soviet Union came the resurgence of Orthodox Christianity, and now the church wants its property back. A museum attendant at the site voices her anxiety over the situation. "The priests want to take our buildings, our museum space," she said, waving her hands around at the displays of pottery, weapons and mosaics. "But where do we go? We have no money to build another museum. Do we just forget about all of this?"

[image] The cathedral of St. Volodymyr, which lies inside the territory of Chersonesos and marks the site where the prince of the Kievan Rus accepted Christianity for his people, was destroyed during WWII and is currently being rebuilt

We grab a cab back into the center of town for our next mission: finding an internet connection. Loscha delivers his now-standard spiel to the sullen clerk behind the internet counter at the Central Post Office: "We just a telephone, no, she can't put it on a disk...." Eventually we're directed to the post office's technical support guy, who stands confused amidst a jumble of hubs, monitors, cables, and printer boxes as we explain our predicament, but eventually produces a modem line.

Flush with success, we head down to the waterfront. On our way, Loscha points back to the exterior of the Post Office. "When the Germans invaded during the Great Patriotic War [World War II] the entire city was leveled. By the time Sevastopol was liberated in '44, only five buildings remained standing, and the post office was one of them. After the war, Sevastopol was declared a 'hero city,' and everything was rebuilt to exactly the way it was before the war." There is a sort of picturesque quality to Sevastopol absent in most other Crimean cities; apart from the standard-issue Brezhnev-era apartment blocks that choke the suburbs, central Sevastopol is decidedly elegant, if a bit worn on the edges. Because it was opened to the west so much later than the rest of the country, the fast-food restaurants, Coca-Cola banners, and cigarette billboards haven't taken over yet. There are also plenty of monuments to testify to the city's history of conflict and destruction: the eternal flame for those who died in the Great Patriotic War; endless monuments to the bloody battles of the Crimean War (1853-1855) that took place here between Russian and Turkish, British, and French forces; and testimonies to the victories of the Black Sea fleet during the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-1791.


Admiral Nakhimov, a leader of Russian naval forces during the Crimean War

Sevastopol's seaside promenade features a memorial to Russian sailors killed in U-boat attcks.

Ten cents gets us each a round-trip ticket on the ferry across Sevastopol harbor. The sun is beginning to set, and the seaside buildings and monuments simmer in orange light. From my viewpoint at the stern of the ferry, two enormous monuments appear to rise up out of the sea: a double-headed eagle perched atop an impossibly high column, scanning the horizon beyond the harbor; and a lunging soldier, jacket billowing behind him, raising his sword towards any invisible enemy over that same horizon that may be foolish enough to try and take the city again. As the sentries fade from view, I glance over at the Russian navy ships moored nearby. While they may have looked intimidating as the background to Chersonesos' ruins, a closer inspection reveals rusty hulls, broken windows, bored teenage sailors idly flicking cigarette butts into the water. It was a scene that replayed itself again and again in my mind less than a week later, when the first reports began to trickle out of a crippled Russian sub lying on the bottom of the Barents Sea. [Next...]


Ships of Russia's Black Sea fleet

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