Crimea Letter: History latest battleground in disputed Crimea

Ukraine and Russia in tug-of-war over Scythian gold and other ancient treasures

St Vladimir’s Russian orthodox cathedral overlooking ancient ruins at Chersonesus, Crimea, which was founded by Greek settlers 2,500 years ago. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

St Vladimir’s Russian orthodox cathedral overlooking ancient ruins at Chersonesus, Crimea, which was founded by Greek settlers 2,500 years ago. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

 

For the ancient Greeks, the territory of modern-day Russia and Ukraine was a fearful place inhabited by savage barbarians and mythical monsters.

Desire for adventure and conquest, for new land, riches and glory, tempted Greek ships to cross the Black Sea, however, leading to clashes with local tribes such as the Tauri and Scythians, and to the establishment of Hellenic colonies on the coast.

Settlers founded Chersonesus 2,500 years ago, and now its ruins grace the outskirts of Sevastopol in Crimea, the peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine last year.

For much of the 20th century, Chersonesus was all but inaccessible to foreign archaeologists, let alone tourists, due to tight security around Sevastopol as the home of the Soviet navy’s Black Sea fleet.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Joseph Coleman Carter, of the University of Texas, was the first western archaeologist invited to work extensively at Chersonesus by colleagues from newly independent Ukraine.

“The historical significance of this area and this site is really hard to exaggerate,” Dr Carter told the New York Times in 1997.

“Greeks, Romans and Byzantines all had their day. Every great epoch built its way of life on this soil. There are forts, mints and farmhouses,” he enthused of the stone walls and columns that stand bone-white before a churning, deep-green sea.

“There is no place on earth like Chersonesus.”

Sacred ground

Prince Vladimir the Great

A gold-roofed cathedral now stands on the supposed site of his baptism, gazing out imperiously over the softly crumbling remains of Chersonesus.

In July 2013, the consecration of a new bell at the cathedral was witnessed by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Ukraine’s then leader, Viktor Yanukovich, who was choosing whether to take his country closer to Moscow or the European Union.

During the same trip, Putin told a conference called ‘Orthodox-Slavic Values: The Foundation of Ukraine’s Civilisational Choice’, that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians shared “spiritual values that make us a single people” and a long history that is “the foundation upon which we can build new integration ties”.

Putin made clear that he thought Yanukovich was choosing not merely between political and economic blocs, but making a momentous decision that would adhere to, or betray, fundamental moral, historical and even sacred precepts.

Eight months after their visit to Chersonesus, Yanukovich was in Russian exile having fled a pro-western revolution, and Putin had annexed Crimea, describing it as an act of historical justice to protect Russia’s Holy Land.

Addressing parliament after the annexation, Putin said Crimea had “invaluable civilisational and even sacral importance for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for followers of Islam and Judaism”.

Stronger claim

The struggle for Crimea has become a broader fight over its history, and now ancient Greek and Scythian treasures, a Dutch museum and Unesco are all embroiled.

Kiev is threatening to ask Unesco to place Chersonesus on its list of world heritage sites that are in danger, because Ukrainian officials can no longer access the ruins to check on their condition and verify the safety of all the site’s artefacts.

At the same time, a legal battle is beginning in a Dutch court over the future of a spectacular collection of Scythian gold and precious Greek, Roman and Byzantine items that are part of an exhibition at an Amsterdam museum.

The treasures were sent abroad from four Crimean museums before Russia seized the region, and Ukraine’s government demands that they be returned not to the annexed peninsula but to Kiev.

“Ukraine doesn’t foresee any possible decision other than the return of the Scythian gold to Ukrainian-controlled territory, rather than to territory that is temporarily occupied,” said Kiev’s culture minister, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko. “Everything located on Crimean territory is Ukrainian property. And for the damage, removal, destruction or direct theft of anything . . . the Russian occupiers will take responsibility.”

Russia and local officials in Crimea say Chersonesus is well cared for, and insist the Netherlands return the disputed artefacts to them; the Amsterdam museum says the courts must decide how to release these ancient treasures from the latest, dramatic twists in Crimea’s long history.

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