The Scythian god mother, cranial deformation, griffins and burial chambers brimming with gold. Welcome to Kerch in Crimea the once great capital of the Bosporan kingdom.
Extract from the book: Black Sea Circuit
|Mount Mithridat: Stone Griffin Statue. Kerch, Crimea. Photo © Simon Raven|
By Chris Raven, Simon Raven
A cowboy on horseback skilfully herds cattle across the vast open plains of the Kerch Peninsula. Absorbing this snapshot of life, as it might have looked thousands of years ago, Si dryly points out that a Scythian or Sarmatian tribal nomad would probably not have worn a green bomber jacket and jeans. The sky turns black as coal, and rain thunders down for approximately ten minutes before the clouds disperse and the hot sun reappears and instantly dries the tarmac. With the Volvo showroom clean we soon arrive in sunny Kerch, which is considered to be one of the most ancient cities in Crimea.
In the main square we check out the memorial to the victims of war, with an eternal flame at its centre, and admire the beautiful red and white stone Byzantine Church of St John the Baptist; Ukraine’s oldest church that was built in 717 AD. An attractive woman with auburn hair, catwalks past wearing a long flowing white summer dress. Two elderly ladies sitting on a bench close by shake their heads in disapproval; either envious of her sparkling youth or annoyed to see the hem of her pretty frock brushing against the ground. Down by the waterfront we visit the Kerch Museum of Antiquities, and study stone tablets from the 2nd and 3rd century BC and gravestones from the 1st century AD. One tombstone reads, “Bidding son of Coss, goodbye”. Si makes a quick sketch of a 2nd century AD sculpture of the goddess Nike killing the bull, which was unearthed on top of nearby Mount Mithridat. In the adjoining room, we study two elongated skulls in a glass case that look like they may have belonged to creatures from an alien world. The fashion for cranial deformation was popular among a race of nomadic pastoralists called the Sarmatians, and was attained by bandaging the head of a child in infancy. The Sarmatians first appeared on the Pontic steppe and the Crimean peninsula around 300 BC. Speaking an Iranian language, the Sarmatians evolved their cultural identity in Central Asia, and moved out of the steppes around the Caspian Sea and the outfall of the Volga River with herds of horses and covered wagons. The Sarmatians remained on the steppe for five hundred years, until the onslaught of the Goths and finally the Huns in the 4th century AD pushed them west into modern-day Romania and south into the Caucasus Mountains.
Si asks the woman on reception if she can direct us to the rare statue of Mixoparthenos. Disappointed to learn it’s on loan to the Museum of Bonn, she slides a postcard of the sculpture across the desk. Female above waist and snake below, divided into two coiled serpents, Mixoparthenos is the mythological Scythian godmother. The Greek historian Herodotus had retold the story of how she was rumoured to have lived close to the once great city of Olbia in a forest on the left bank of the lower Dnieper. According to Greco-Scythian myth, Mixoparthenos had lured Heracles into a cave and fallen pregnant to Scythes, the first king of the Scythians. Wealthy Scythian nomads had jewellery made of this mythical snake goddess and engravings on swords; examples of which have been unearthed in kurgan burial mounds across the steppe. Fascinatingly, this lasting symbol of one of the first ancient multi-ethnic cultures living around the Black Sea can still be found today, most notably on a Starbucks coffee cup.
Wandering back to the main square, we begin to climb the steps leading to the top of Mount Mithridat. A young Russian guy swoops up his surprised girlfriend in his arms and proceeds to carry her up the hill.
‘Love inspires you to commit to the most exhausting tasks,’ Si smiles, impressed by the guy’s display of commitment.
Approximately halfway to the top, I photograph the stone griffin statues either side of a balustrade terrace. The young guy carrying his girlfriend hides his pain well, as he staggers up the steps with a bright red face. Reaching the summit, we are rewarded with magnificent views of the Kerch Strait. An obelisk stands proud on top of the hill, which was built in 1944 to commemorate the soldiers that defended Kerch during World War II. Seventy years ago, fierce battles between the Soviet Union and the Nazi troops left the city of Kerch in total ruins and, despite the resistance of the Soviet army, Kerch fell to the German onslaught in May 1942. The Red Army lost over 170,000 men, who were killed in battle, executed or sent to concentration camps. For Hitler seizing Crimea was a prized goal. He wanted to annex the peninsula directly to Germany and name it Gotenland, securing a launch pad for further offensive in his bid to seize control of Eurasia and, ultimately, the world.
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Exploring the ruins of the once great city of Panticapaeum, Chris examines Greek columns and ancient steps carved into the rock. Much of the wealth of artefacts we had seen on display in the museum were found right here, at the site of a powerful city located at the intersection of trade routes between the steppe and Europe. First founded in the 6th century BC by Greek colonists from Miletus, Panticapaeum became the capital of the Bosporan Kingdom by 480 BC. A large percentage of the city's population was Scythian and later Sarmatian. They minted coins and made wine, but Panticapaeum’s main exports were grain and salted fish that fed the Greek Empire and Hellenistic period. In 438 BC, a man called Spartocos became the sole ruler of Panticapaeum. Neal Ascherson, author of ‘Black Sea’, believes he may have been a Thracian mercenary officer. As the Bosporan State began to grow, an army of Greek and Thracian soldiers were recruited along with Sarmatian and Scythian horsemen. They took control of this entire region within a matter of decades, around the Sea of Azov all the way to Tanais at the mouth of the Don River. The descendants of Spartocos ruled for more than three hundred years after declaring themselves kings. “The kingdom grew into an empire, an early Byzantium of the north,” wrote Ascherson, “whose merchants, shipping magnates and urban governors were Greek, but whose rulers and soldiers were Thracian, Scythian and, increasingly, Sarmatian.” Tribal chiefs in the countryside became incredibly wealthy from growing wheat and would buy gold and silver work produced by skilled artisans in the city.
Chris stands between two Greek columns and we look out across the vast plains. Along with nearby Theodosia, the Bosporan Kingdom eventually became a Roman client kingdom, despite fierce resistance from the heavy armoured Sarmatian soldiers who forced the Romans to completely rethink their entire method of warfare. Panticapaeum became a Roman province under Emperor Nero from 63 to 68 AD. It continued to thrive for many more centuries, until the arrival of the Huns destroyed it and the entire Bosporan Kingdom forever. The Huns were first recorded as occupying land in a region of Scythia to the east of the Volga River around the 1st century AD. Emerging onto the steppe, they are thought to have sparked the migration west and south of a group of Sarmatian tribes called the Alans. Living near the Caspian Sea in 91 AD, by about 150 AD it is said they migrated southwest into the Caucasus. Unlike the Scythians or the Sarmatians, the Huns were a plundering force who appeared to have little interest in trade or putting down roots. By 370 AD, the Huns had established a vast Hunnic Empire in Europe which over the following three-quarters of a century stretched under Attila the Hun (434-453 AD), from the Ural River to the Rhine River and from the River Danube to the Baltic Sea.
|Monument to the Defenders of Adzhimushkay Quarry. Kerch, Crimea. By Simon Raven|
Driving to the end of the street, we cross a vast waste ground. In the distance, I see a grass burial mound that looks like a strange eco-pyramid. We look in awe into the entrance of this magnificent tomb that is over two thousand years old. Mesmerised by a V-shape cut in the side of the mound, that creates the illusion of passing through a gateway into another dimension, we walk along the narrow corridor into the eerie darkness. Chris examines the stone block walls with fascination, as we approach the main burial chamber with a vaulted dome roof. Historians believe Leukon I was buried here, ruler of the Kingdom of Bosporus during its peak of economic development in the 4th century BC. The Tsarskiy Kurgan was only discovered fairly recently in the 19th century, and when archaeologists opened up the tomb they found it to be empty. Thankfully, many gold treasures from the barrow were later discovered elsewhere and are now on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Snacking on plums picked from a nearby tree, we stroll over to the impressive Monument to the Defenders of Adzhimushkay Quarry. Enormous twenty-metre tall stone figures, clutching shovels and pick axes, defiantly guard the entrance to the catacombs hidden beneath the earth. During the counter offensive by the Germans against the Red Army in 1942, approximately 10,000 soldiers and civilians were besieged below ground for six months; many dying of hunger and thirst. The Adzhimushkay campaign was largely covered up by Soviet propaganda until the end of Joseph Stalin's rule.
Returning to Volvo, we continue on our journey to the furthest easterly point of the Crimean peninsula. Standing on a hilltop overlooking the Kerch strait fireworks explode above Russia. The moon shows itself for a brief moment, as a large oil tanker covered with thousands of fairy lights cuts through the silver water below.