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18 June, 2012  ▪  Olena Maksymenko

From Goths to Natives

Mangup Kale has become a home for ancient peoples and some of our contemporaries

Mangup Kale has become a home not only for ancient peoples but also for some of our contemporaries.

Of all the cave towns in Crimea, Mangup has a unique energy and folklore. Only here can one meet people who left their apartments in multistoried buildings for stone homes in natural rock formations, some of them really comfortable with several “rooms”, “windows” and “balconies”. The town has two water springs unlike the ancient citizens of a neighbouring cave town, Eski-Kermen, who had to walk down steps into a scary 40-meter deep well to get water. One cave even served as premises for a monastery.

 THE ANNUNCIATION MONASTERY, once a secret place where a few chosen people could get, welcomes everyone not intimidated by the steep cliffs today


The caves of the medieval fortress town were seldom used as homes. They largely served as refrigerators and storerooms, workshops or prisons (some suggest they were used as churches). People lived in houses built above ground. These did not survive, unlike the undergrounds caves.  

Just like any area suitable for life (close to natural springs and crags – perfect protection against enemies, a mild climate and proximity to key trade routes since the times of ancient Greece), this land was extremely popular with the representatives of various cultures that settled nearby as early as in the 3rd-4th century until the present. Today, the surrounding ravines are filled with the remnants of the burial catacombs of Gothic tribes. Having established their first settlement, they built the first fortifications in the late 5th century, while the town was called Doros, and had the status of the Crimean Goths’ capital. In the 6th century, a monumental basilica was built on the plateau and Doros became the centre of the Goths’ diocese in Crimea.  

In the late 7th century, the Khazar Kaganate took over the city, where its garrison was temporarily located. The occupation of Doros fueled a revolt against Khazars led by St. John of the Goths.

The next and probably best-known transformation of Mangup was into the city of Theodoro, the capital of the principality formed during the latter phase of the Byzantine Empire. As South-Western Crimea was under the control of the city from the 8th till the 15th century, crafts flourished and monasteries and churches were built.  

The Ottoman army tore apart the “golden age” of the even-tempered Byzantine Empire with their swords and fire in 1475. They completely rebuilt the fortification and called it Mangup Kale, a name that has remained until the present. By the 18th century, Mangup became the capital of kadylyk, the smallest administrative and territorial unit of the Ottoman Empire. In 1774, the Turks left the fortress. The city gradually fell into decay and its last residents, a Karaite community, moved out, leaving an old cemetery with their typical tombstones and inscriptions.  

KARAITE CEMETERY. Karaites were the last residents of the plateau


Despite its official status as a reservation and the ban on pitching tents or lighting fires on the territory, Mangup Kale has become one of the most popular destinations for “free wanderers” and “flower children”. Those who stay here for months, or even years, are often called “the natives”. A baby was even born to one such cave family. Many traditionally celebrate the New Year or watch eclipses at Mangup Kale. The territory is believed to be a place of energy and power. Regardless of the legends, even fit people sometimes find it more difficult to manage the measly 300 meters above the sea level than climb to the summit of Hoverla, the highest peak in Ukraine. They say that this is how Mangup tests people and cleans them of their urban dust. Even the local Crimeans who don’t really believe in the supernatural, warn people that they should be particularly careful in Mangup. This land does not tolerate physical or spiritual low-down behaviour, which is why it stays surprisingly clean, at least compared to the lowlands, which tourists have turned into a dump.  

Acoustic Cave owes its name to the fantastic sound it generates. People come here with guitars, violins, flutes and Tibetan singing bowls to sing mantras or listen to the unique silence. The cave walls are adorned with Rastafarian decorations (photo 1), which arouse the indignation of archeologists as the layers of paint cover up the remaining fragments of medieval markings on the walls. A cave known as the Holey Thumb is on the very edge of one of the four Mangup “palaces” (photo 3). It offers breathtaking views. The temperature in the caves barely changes, regardless of the season. For this reason, it is possible to live in them comfortably, even in winter, providing that the drafts have been taken care of.

Two springs, one male and one female, provide pure water for both locals and visitors, reminding everyone of the medieval monasteries that used to stand there. The water in one spring contains silver, giving it healing properties. The other, by the nature of its form, makes a perfect natural shower.


Mangup has long since formed its own infrastructure, mythology and lifestyle. “Make sure you visit Borys Ivanovych!” experienced Mangul travelers tell their friends before a trip to Crimea. Any local or Mangup “native” can show you the house of the man who sells fantastic wine. An amateur archeologist and collector of ancient artifacts and wines, Borys often gives grand presentations of his collections. A short lecture on the history of wine-drinking and different bouquets is followed by the tasting of wines from his collection. He is a generous and friendly host, so tourists can’t help buying a few bottles of the fragrant drink, or souvenirs, such as a replica of a Scythian arrow, etc.

The residents of the lowlands at the foot of Mangup Kale are a surprising combination of classical resort greed and unprecedented generosity: while waiters in one overpriced café can be outrageously rude, the owners of the one next door, Crimean Tartars, give generous portions at a ridiculously low price, offer you a plate of sweets to go with your tea free of charge, have a friendly chat with you and offer recommendations as to where you should go and what you should see, making you feel like a guest rather than a tourist.  

Local forest rangers are also worth mentioning. On the one hand, the place is a reservation and tents are banned. On the other hand, they offer everyone tickets for a number of days and allow people to stay there as long as they want. The ticket actually means a certain amount paid to the ranger but no confirmation on paper is provided.

The place now has its own language. For example, the phrase “to go to the store” means to accidentally fall off the cliff. Unfortunately, such accidents are frequent here. Mangup soil has lavish amounts of “bells” – psychedelic plants, which many boil for better effect. In addition to bells, the plateau has a vast amount of healthy and healing herbs, hence the recent introduction of tours and workshops on medical herbs, where visitors learn the names and properties of each plant.

Unofficially, Mangup is divided into districts and sites. A village called Zakatnik is known for its beautiful sunsets. When the sun falls closer to the horizon, the view of the sea becomes particularly clear. At the end of the day, people come around and sit silently on the cliffs watching the sunset.

It is amazing how the 90-hectare plateau has room for so many worlds that do not interfere with one another, including official tourist paths along the remnants of a grand citadel (photo 2) and Byzantine stone winery and the “reservation” territory of archeologists extracting mysteries from ancient layers of earth (a tourists could happen upon a scary pile of skulls neatly stacked by archeologists after days of excavations, when wandering there in the dark). Bushes conceal barely noticeable paths to the comfortable caves of the barefoot, long-haired “natives”. The trails on the southern slope take visitors to the Annunciation Monastery – needless to say, located in caves.

Mangup Kale is a wonderland on the reverse of a mirror and in another dimension. It can only be reached after overcoming obstacles and tests. There is no sense of time. At nights, the area vibrates with the sounds of gongs and singing bowls and the scents of herbal teas. Meanwhile, the ivy-covered tombstones, the walls that were once a fortification and the rocks keep silent on things known only to them.  


The story they tell around the fire at nights is about a Mangup Boy, the last heir to the Principality of Theodoro crown. According to one story, the boy was ugly, so he became a laughingstock for the town and people pushed him off the cliff. Another story suggests that the loyal son of his country, the boy rejected an offer to take a high position from the Turks who conquered Theodoro and jumped off the cliff himself, even though historical data proves that the prince actually accepted the offer and made a successful career. Ever since, everyone who gets lost in the mountains or the woods around the old town or is in danger over the local cliffs meets the Mangup Boy. He has thin pale face and long arms after hanging on to the cliff for as long as he managed to. Some say that the Boy lures people to an abyss and others say he rescues people and guides them out of the mist. Perhaps, he does both based on whom he likes or doesn’t like. The fact is that a lot of people disappeared in Mangup, though nobody knows whether that was the legendary prince or some psychedelic herbs.

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