|Select magazine number|
A Genoese Fortress in the Crimea — facts and legends
Oles DYVACHENKO who is enamoured with the Crimea, went to Sudak, a resort town on the eastern side of the peninsula, but not to sunbathe or splash in the sea but to have a good look at the ancient fortress there, and now he shares some of his impressions with the readers and retells the stories he heard there.
The Crimea came into my life when I was ten — or rather it was me who went to the Crimea at that tender age. It would not be true to say that it was love at first sight — I was too young to appreciate the Crimean charms in full but what has remained in my memory of that first sojourn tells me I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Starting from the late sixties, my trips to the Crimean southern coast became regular and than frequent. The more I saw of that wonderful world the more I liked it. At one point I realized that if the story about reincarnations is true, than I am sure to have lived a life in the past on the Crimean shore.
Gradually, in addition to the beauty of the magnificent scenery I began to discover other Crimean lures and distinguished features, architectural landmarks is one of them. There is a number of castles and fortresses to be found in the Crimea, some of which were built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the Genoese who had their colonies on the Crimean southern coast. Among the more remarkable fortresses is the one in the town of Sudak in the eastern Crimea.
The fortress in Sudak is situated on Kriposna (Fortress) Mount in the western part of the town.
Sudak is a place with a long and dramatic history. It was founded by the ancient Greeks who had a number of their colonies spaced all along the Crimean southern coast. Originally the town was called Sugdeya. It is believed to have been founded in the year 212 BC; the later Ukrainian name for it was Surozh; the Genoese who established their colony there called it Soldaia, and the Tartars, after overrunning the Crimean peninsula, gave it the name of Sudak which has survived until today.
Archaeological evidence suggests that before the Greeks came to settle down in Sudak, there had existed a settlement at that spot at an uncertain time of the first millennium BC when the Crimean population was made mostly of the people who are known as the Taurians. Later came the Alans to settle in the Crimea (Alans or the Alani, an ancient nomadic pastoral people that occupied the steppe region northeast of the Black Sea; the Alani who remained under the rule of the Huns are said to be ancestors of the modern Ossetes of the Caucasus).
With the spread of Christianity, churches and monasteries began to be built and there are archaeological traces of ecclesiastical construction. The early medieval centuries were filled with almost constant raids of the nomads who came in successive waves, plundering or extracting tribute.
The thirteenth century was the darkest in the Ukrainian history — the Mongols swept through the country, wreaking havoc, raising the cities to the ground and leaving behind the swath of destruction. The Mongols hordes included many other ethnics, the Tartars being the most numerous. A considerable number of Tartars settled in the Crimea when the Mongol army invaded the peninsula.
At about the same time, some parts of the southern coast were seized by the Venetians who had become one of the most powerful expansionist forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Soldaia-Sudak fell to their hands in the thirteenth century and they turned it into a prosperous city, a hub of international trade, with traders from western Europe, Northern Africa, India, and Asia coming together in Sudak and exchanging goods and concluding deals.
In 1253, one of the most famous travellers of the Middle Ages, French Franciscan friar Willem Van Ruysbroeck (William of Rubrouck) reached Sudak on his way further east.
Earlier in 1253 King Louis IX of France known as St. Louis, who was in Palestine, dispatched the friar on an informal mission to the Mongol Empire. In Sudak, the friar and his party secured oxen and carts for their long trek across the steppes to the encampment of Batu Khan, the Mongol ruler of the Volga River region. Following their arrival five weeks later, they were ordered to begin a journey of some 5,000 miles to the court of the Great Khan at Karakorum in central Mongolia. The Christians set off on horseback in September 1253. Willem and his companions were received courteously and remained with the Khan until July 1254. Willem wrote about his Mongolian experiences for the French king. His narrative is free from legend and shows him to have been an intelligent and honest observer. Nothing is known about his later life, except that he was alive when Marco Polo returned from the East in 1295. His eyewitness account of the Mongol realm is generally acknowledged to be the best written by any medieval Christian traveller.
Genoa takes over
Venice had a rival — the ancient Italian city of Genoa whose foundation dates to the Roman times. After the fall of the Roman Empire, followed by invasions of Ostrogoths and Lombards, Genoa long existed in comparative obscurity. By the 10th century, the Genoese were able to answer the challenge of Muslim raids vigorously. A Fatimid fleet stormed and sacked the town (934 or 935), but the Genoese raised their walls anew and counterattacked. Soon, Genoese merchant ships were trading briskly in the western Mediterranean and calling at Palestinian and Black Sea seaports. During the 12th and 13th centuries Genoa played a leading role in the commercial revolution that Europe was undergoing. It became a town of about 100,000 inhabitants, a naval power dealing on equal terms with the greatest monarchies, and a commercial centre rivalled only by Venice. Eastern spices, dyestuffs and medicaments, western cloth and metals, African wool, skins, coral, and gold were the main articles of a very diversified international commerce. Banking and shipbuilding flourished, and the local textile industry made a good start.
The collapse of the crusaders’ states, with their Genoese enclaves, in the late 13th century was amply compensated by Genoa’s alliance with the Byzantine Empire. Genoa’s political zenith was marked by a crushing naval victory over the Pisans at Meloria in 1284 and a less decisive one over the Venetians at Curzola in 1298. During the 14th and 15th centuries, however, the whole of Europe was in a profound material and moral crisis. In Genoa class and party struggles kept the government in perpetual turmoil, and public finances were ruined by war. By the beginning of the fifteenth century, Genoa was no longer a great power. But while it was, in 1365, the Genoese took Sudak from the Venetians and established their rule. They left a long-lasting mark by building a mighty fortress that has survived wars, revolutions and vandalism to continue to impress the curious tourists. The fortress ceased to be of any military significance a long time ago but for a couple of centuries after it had been built it did serve its purpose of a key stronghold.
While the power of Genoa waned, the power of the Ottoman Empire waxed, and its expansionist policies led to the capture of so many countries and territories that it made the Turks masters of one of the biggest empire on earth at that time. The Crimea did not escape the fate of many other lands, all the more so that it was almost “next door” to Turkey — just across the sea.
In 1475, the Turkish troops, overrunning the Crimea, laid a siege to Soldaia whose name would soon be changed to Sudak. Particularly numerous among the troops were their allies, the Crimean Tartars. The walls of the fortress proved to be quite defensible but the defenders must have failed to accumulate enough food to last them in a long siege. They fought bravely but valour and hunger don’t go together too well. One of the stories about the defence says that the last remaining group of the defenders, headed by Christoforo di Negro, a local high official, barricaded themselves in a church hoping for God’s protection but their hopes proved to be vain and the church, together will all the people seeking refuge in it, was burnt down. The veracity of this story may be doubtful but what is beyond any doubt is the fact the Turks incorporated the Crimea into their empire giving the Tartars a considerable degree of autonomy.
The Tartars kept making raids into adjacent Ukraine all throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just for the fun of it and for the spoils of war (slave trade, for example, was a lucrative business, and Ukrainian young boys and girls were sold at the Turkish slave markets; some of the girls made it into the harems of the pashas and even of the sultan himself). With time, the resistance to the raids grew and their effectiveness fell — the Cossacks were learning the art of warfare the hard way but fast, and the Tartars could no longer venture into the Ukrainian lands with impunity.
In the eighteenth century the balance of forces changed dramatically and it was now Russia, or the Russian empire which was being put together, ruthlessly but steadfastly, that became a major player in Ukraine. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia’s expansion swallowed the Crimea. Sudak had long lost its strategic significance and continued its slide into obscure provinciality under the new rulers. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that its revival began — as a resort which could offer an old fortress as a tourist attraction in addition to the sun and the sea.
The fortress that we see now dates to the 1370s but some construction and reconstruction work went on until 1469. In much more recent times, archaeologists discovered that Sudak must have been a fairly fortified place back in the 6th–8th centuries when it was an outpost of the Byzantine Empire.
The fortress very conveniently sits on the top of a hill (Kryposna Mount) and is accessible only from the north slope, slopes on the other sides being too steep to climb (we have in mind, of course, soldiers burdened with armour and weapons, not modern mountain climbers for whom there is no such thing as “unclimbable” cliff). As an extra protection, the fortress had a moat on its northern side filled with water.
There are two major lines of ramparts which the enemy had to get through before the citadel itself could be reached. Like any other major fortress of this type it had its share of defensive towers, all of them still in an excellent condition except one which had lost one of its walls. Most of the towers carry inscriptions in Latin and coat of arms of Genoa, of the Doge who ruled Genoa at the time of the construction of the tower and of the mayor (“consul”) of Soldaia. One of the towers got nicknamed Kiz-kule which in Tartar means “The Girl’s Tower.” The Genoese called it Elijah’s Castle. There is a legend connected with this tower which shall be told after we are through with this general description of the fortress.
The citadel had what was called “The Consul’s Castle” and was in fact the donjon linked to another tower. The central gate to the fortress was flanked by two towers and the drawbridge limited access only to those who were welcome. Above the gate you can still see a Latin inscription carved into stone and if you know Latin you can read it. If your Latin is rusty, here is what the inscription says: “In the Year 1389, on July 9th, Batista di Zoali, earlier known as Andolo, magnificent and great consul ruling this city, gives his thanks to God.” Or something to that effect. If you are one for Latin inscriptions, the tower to the west of the central gate will award your inquisitiveness by offering another inscription in Latin which, if translated into more or less plain English, says “On the first day of August, during the reign of the magnificent and great Jacobo Torcello, glorious consul and commandant of Soldaia…” Neither the year nor what actually happened on that day can be ascertained — the time and probably vandals have deleted part of the inscription but some evidence indicates that the inscription dates to the 1380s. It would be presumptuous to offer other similar inscriptions here but if you ever get to go to Sudak and take a guided tour around the fortress, you’ll get an ample chance of checking your knowledge of medieval Latin and of exercising your patience.
When in Sudak you are likely to be taken to see — if you join a sightseeing tour — an old mosque which was reconstructed to serve as a church; now it houses a sort of a local history museum with artefacts on display that have some bearing on the history of Sudak and restoration work carried out in the fortress. There are a couple of other ancient churches in Sudak which may be of interest to the culture tourist. Sudak used to have a large Armenian community and one of the churches bears features typical of medieval Armenian architecture.
Probably like any other ancient city, Sudak boasts a number of colourful stories and legends that have come down to us through generations from the distant past. In most cases there is no way of checking their truthfulness but some are colourful enough to deserve being recounted. We have chosen two, leaving the readers to judge the degree of verisimilitude by themselves.
The Girl’s Tower
In the times, when Sudak was a Greek colony called Sugdeya, the archon (magistrate in charge of the city affairs) had a daughter of unearthly beauty whom he kept locked in a tower on the top of the hill at the very spot where now the fortress is located. Among the suitors for her hand was Diafant, one of the best generals of Mithradates VI Eupator, also called the Great, the most powerful king on the coasts of the Black Sea who dared to challenge Rome itself. In fact he proved to be one of the most powerful opponents that Rome had ever had before. The king was a colourful figure even by the standards of ancient history which swarms with colourful figures. During his third major war with Rome, Mithradates established himself in 64 BC at Panticapaeum (now Kerch) on the Cimmerian Bosporus and was planning an invasion of Italy by way of the Danube when his own troops, led by his son Pharnaces, revolted against him. After failing in an attempt to poison himself — Mithradates was said to have been taking small doses of various poisons as antidote against possible poisoning and when he did take poison to kill himself, the poison did not work — Mithradates ordered a Gallic mercenary to kill him. His body was sent to Pompey, that famous Roman, the one who lost the struggle with Julius Caesar, who buried it in the royal sepulcher at Sinope, the Pontic capital.
So the girl whose story we are relating had excellent prospects of marrying someone who was close to the mighty king. But she was not too happy about the prospect — or rather she was very unhappy about it. Her reason was very simple — she was in love with another man. She had chanced to meet him when she had once ventured out of the tower to take a walk to the nearby creak on the bank of which there was the grave of one of her slaves, a maiden in the girl’s service. This maiden slave, whom the archon’s daughter loved dearly, fell to her death from the wall of the tower and was buried not far from the place where she died on the rocks.
The girl met the man, love of her life in the grove by the side of the creak and it was, as you have surely guessed, love at first sight. The young man was a shepherd and the girl did not tell him right away who she was. Her love was quickly and conveniently reciprocated.
The young man told the girl that he did not know where he was from — all he knew was that he had been brought to the Crimea by pirates and that all he remembered of his native land was majestic temples. The girl kept coming to see the young and handsome shepherd and the puppy love blossomed into a full-blown passion. She was wise enough not to tell her father about what was going on, but on one of her trips to the grove she was followed. The young shepherd was seized and locked in the underground prison at the bottom of the tower. The girl proved to be ingenious enough to find a way of deceiving the guards and getting her lover out of the stone cell to which he was confined. But by the time she did it, he was badly ill. She hid him in her own room but her father discovered him there and was about to call the guards when he saw —the timing was perfect — a birthmark on the boy’s chest which had a very familiar shape. Of course! It was his own son whom he had lost to the pirates many years ago! The happy reunion was considerably dampened by the insolvable complications that resulted from this discovery — first, his daughter, no matter how she loved the boy, could not marry him; second, her prospective marriage to Diafant could be jeopardized. The archon, being a wise man, concealed from his daughter the fact that the shepherd was his own son, providing some other explanation for the medical care he ordered to be given to the young man. When he was well again, he was told by the archon that he had to go on an important mission overseas, hoping that during the young man’s absence the marriage would be consummated. The mission was supposed to be a perilous one, and if successful, the ship carrying the young man back would hoist a white sail as it sailed into the port of Sudaya. The girl said that she would wait for the young man’s return. She did wait for quite some time but the combined pressure of her father and Diafant proved to be too strong for her to resist. She succumbed but on the day fixed for the marriage ceremony she saw a ship — that ship — sailing into the port. There was no white sail on it and she, assuming that the mission took the life of her beloved, declared that she saw no reason to live and took a fatal leap from the top of the tower.
Similar stories are known to exist in other lands, the best known of them probably being that of Tristan and Isolde. Some of the similarities are striking — the young shepherd, like Tristan (whose name is derived from the word “triste” — sad) was also sad most of the time. Whether they have the same origin and were passed on from one country to another through translation, or whether they have been created independently by bards in various lands is not for me to decide.
The other story takes us closer to our times — from the first century BC to the fourteenth century, when the Genoese began their campaign of capturing towns on the Crimean coast. Love and beauty, no doubt, are also involved.
The queen of Sugdeya, beautiful but man-despising Theodora, took the oath of maidenhood, declaring that she would never marry, no matter how enticing marriage proposals would be. Suitors offered riches, royal origin, military strength, handsome face and well-developed body, but all the proposals were invariably turned down. She devoted most of her time to the affairs of state, and in her spare time climbed the tower — yes, the very same tower that stood on the top of the hill at the spot where the fortress is now located, and took in the majestic panorama of the sea and mountains.
Her city prospered thanks to her wise statesmanship (or should it be “statewomanship”?) and she enjoyed the sight of so many goods and wares at the market and of the caravans taking goods from Sugdeya to distant lands. But being prosperous in those — as well in our — times caused envy, and envy led to the enemy’s desire (never mind who the enemy was) to acquire the riches of the city by the sword. When Theodora learnt of the enemy’s intention, she put the city on a heightened alert and started preparations for war. Among the people she trusted were two twin brothers, Iracleus and Constantine, both, of course, madly in love with her, and both, no doubt, of a very noble descent. One of the brothers, Iracleus, was prepared to go to any lengths, treachery included, to make Theodora marry him. Constantine was different — he would do anything for his love but only in a righteous way.
Now came time of great trials — the city was besieged, the defenders repelled one attack after another, with Theodora fighting alongside her warriors. It was then that the perfidious twin saw his chance — he secretly and treacherously let the enemy into the city, hoping that he would get Theodora as a prize. Carnage followed but the valorous Theodora and the faithful Constantine, together with a number of other defenders, escaped through a breach in the wall. They fled to the town of Aluston (now it is called Alushta) which was situated quite a few miles away but which had a friendly garrison. Once in Aluston, they rested and prepared to do more battle — the enemies were in hot pursuit. Aluston stood firm but once again Iracleus, relying on his misleading resemblance to his brother, used the mistaken identity trick to get the attackers into the town. Theodora, the coveted prize for the treachery, slipped out of the burning town and once again escaped with her faithful Constantine and handful of other warriors. They climbed the castle sitting on the top of Mount Kastel in a dashing feat of mountain climbing which was made double difficult by the darkness of the night.
Another siege, another battle, another treachery — and the enemies are inside the castle. Iracleus kills his brother, not in an open combat, of course, but in a dishonest way. The regal Theodora swings her sword — and Iracleus’s head rolls off his shoulders.
The legend hints that she was not spared and says that the dark strips on the slopes of Mount Kastel are the blood spilled in that final battle.
Both legends could be a good stuff for Hollywood swashbucklers but I find the spectacular scenery of the Crimean southern coast to be more impressive than anything Hollywood can offer. I know it’s a very subjective opinion but you are welcome to come and check for yourself. And don’t forget that in addition to the wonders of nature there’ll be all sorts of architectural landmarks to look at — and fairy tales to listen to.
Photos by Yury BUSLENKO