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18 September, 2012  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Disappearing Ancient Taurica

Unique ancient Greek towns are being destroyed in the Crimea
Gallery: Remains of Ancient Taurica (photos: 24)

Kyiv-Chornomorske-Okunivka  – Most tourists associate the Crimea with its southern coast or mountains, while Western Crimea and its most intriguing part, the Tarkhankut Peninsula, have remained a terra incognita for many years. In the past 8-10 years, this locality has attracted a number of divers, but few people know that this is the place with the highest concentration of ancient cultural monuments in the whole region. Moreover, there are quite a few Scythian, Sarmatian and Polovtsian burial mounds here. The local authorities and residents show no interest in studying or preserving this rich cultural heritage and transferring whatever they find to museums. On the contrary, they are destroying it for the sake of momentary benefit.


“The local residents of ancient cities in Tarkhankut, i.e., Chersonesians, are, in fact, related to the Spartans,” Serhiy Lantsov, Deputy Director of the Crimean Branch of the NANU Institute of Archaeology, says. Chersonesians are not simply residents of Khersones (formerly Chersonesus, now part of Sevastopol) they also belonged to the ancient Greek city-state and are indeed remote descendants of glorious King Leonidas I and his militant people.

The Northern Black Sea Region was colonised by Greek settlers who left their Greek cities because of political pressure, scarcity of land or everyday problems. The western coast of the Crimea began to be populated back in the 6th century BC. The Greek founders of Chersonesus in 529-528 BC came from Heraclea Pontica, a coastal city in Asia Minor, after the Dorian Greeks, the founders of Sparta, prevailed over the Ionic Greeks and captured the city.

The Ionic Greeks founded Kenkinitis, near contemporary Yevpatoriya, in the late 6th century BC. Some time later, in the 4th century BC, Chersonesians brought it under their control and founded the city of Kalos-Limen (literally translated as ‘Beautiful Haven’, now Chornomorske) to the north. The name alludes to the city’s location – a comfortable bay, a picturesque landscape and the water springs which were there in ancient times.

An entire belt of fortifications (near the contemporary villages of Olenivka, Popovka, Mizhvodne, Hromove, Okunivka and others) rose between these two cities and also to the north of Kalos-Limen in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC. The best-known of these is Beliaus, whose name is derived from the Tatar Bel-Auz ‘gorge-river mouth’. The settlement is located 1.5km southeast of Znamenske and 7km away from Donuzlav Lake, spanning a beautiful 10km long spit with an excellent beach. Unfortunately, it is this unique natural setting which now threatens to erase from the map the historical monuments which have survived through two millennia – they may not last another five years.

The fertile plain here was ideal for crops and vines and fed Chersonesus and the entirety of Ancient Greece. According to archaeologists, the local Greeks also raised sheep in large quantities and fished in the sea. Every settlement, including Beliaus, was not only a fortification point but also a trading centre from which ships loaded with crops and other foodstuffs set off for the metropolis. From there Tarkhankut products would spread across the ancient world.


“Curiously, none of the settlements in Tarkhankut had the right to trade with anyone except their metropolis, i.e., Chersonesus,” Andriy Filippenko, archaeologist from the Khersones Tavriysky National Museum in Sevastopol, says. “It seemed that only local coins or coins from Chersonesus would be found here during excavations. But here, and especially in Kulchuk, a settlement near Beliaus, we have on numerous occasions come across money from other Greek cities; which means that the locals were not above smuggling. It is also interesting that the coast line was 200 metres away from the city walls when Tarkhankut was at the peak of its prosperity, which made these walls nearly indiscernible from the sea. This was another tempting factor for illegal activities. So it really is quite possible that contraband was one of the main sources of income for the ancient local residents.”

Despite tensions among the Greeks, Beliaus originally had no fortification walls whatsoever and looked rather like one large fortified estate with just a defence tower in the corner. The walls of the tower were made of beautifully rusticated blocks, many bearing marks made by stonemasons. With time the population grew, as did the number of houses which were typically two-storied. They had strong walls and wells that were up to 6m deep with stone lids on top. A large necropolis was located north of the city.

Historians say that there was an entire rapid communication system in place in ancient times through which Chersonesus was notified of any looming attack. As soon as any fortified city saw an approaching enemy, a large fire would be made to signal danger.

But this system proved to be fallible. The period of relative peace for Beliaus and all other Greek cities in Western Crimea came to an end in the early 2nd century BC when Tarkhankut was attacked by the Scythians who captured all the settlements. However, aided by the army of legendary Mithridates VI of Pontus, the locals regained these lands late in the same century. But the Scythians never left the region completely: they continued to live side-by-side with the Greeks and developed their own original culture.

In 2nd and 1st century BC, Greece ultimately lost the role of a regional leader to Rome. Chersonesus turned into the backyard of the ancient world and began to decay. In the early years of the 1st century AD, nearly all settlements in Western Crimea were captured and destroyed following a conflict with Bosporus. The final blow to the Greek Takhankut was delivered by Sarmatian tribes which drove out the Scythians in the second half of the 1st century AD and ruled over the region until the 3rd or 4th century AD when they were replaced by the Huns. There are indications that the Khazars lived in the area in the 6th through the 10th century AD. Nevertheless, Beliaus was completely abandoned in the 10th century.

“The uniqueness of Beliaus and other ancient cultural monuments in Western Crimea lies precisely in the fact that there has been no active business activity there since the 1st century AD,” Lantsov says. “In contrast, the site of Chersonesus continued to be inhabited. It was rebuilt; new cultural layers appeared one after another over the most ancient layer. Meanwhile, settlements in Tarkhankut offer an excellent opportunity to see the most ancient finds straight away. However, huge problems have recently arisen and are now threatening all ancient Greek historical monuments in Western Crimea.”


Every year, some 50 professional archaeologists, journalists, painters and other volunteers from Ukraine and Russia come here for two to three weeks to excavate. The archaeological equipment and support is provided by the Donuzlav expedition headed by Lantsov. “Black” archaeologists are a nuisance, like everywhere else, as they roam around searching for ancient coins and decorations. “Black archaeologists are our colleagues from Africa,” Filippenko says in jest. “These people need to be called what they really are – plunderers of historical heritage.”

But the list of major problems is not exhausted by the chronic lack of attention to history from the authorities and their unwillingness to develop historical tourism. “If an expedition fails to come here at least one year, Beliaus will disappear, literally,” Filippenko says. “The local authorities and residents seem to be completely disinterested in somehow preserving the ancient settlement. Instead, they seek to sell as much land as possible. And this is where Beliaus is a roadblock, because it occupies two hectares of land by the coast right in the middle of the local beach.” Our conversation is interrupted by another archaeologist, Maksim from Moscow, who is yelling, “Get off the wall!” to a young man who suddenly decided to show off in front of his girlfriend by jumping up and down on the ancient stonework.

“I don't know what can be done to stop tourists from climbing on walls and wrenching out stones that we have to reinforce with cement every year,” he says. “It must seem to be a thrill to them. Relieving oneself on a heap of ancient ruins or making fire and grilling kebabs inside the tower appears to be an even better idea to some. The worst thing is that we can't do anything about it. We can only chase them away with a spade in our hands, like I did once when one guy started racing on top of the walls perched on his motorcycle. Whenever the expedition is working here, which is two months a year at best, we try to somehow contain them. But as soon as we leave, the ancient city is at the mercy of these vandals. The locals have stolen stones from the stonework on several occasions for their household needs. They simply fail to grasp why this history is needed. They cannot comprehend that it may be a pretty good source of cash in the future. The local district council would have to fence off the territory and put an armed watchman here. In reality, the only thing it has done here was started digging a ditch right by the excavation site and destroyed an ancient Greek house by the city wall in the process.”

The increasing influx of tourists in Tarkhankut is another major headache for archaeologists. Before the early 2000s, only the locals and enthusiasts who would come here with their tents knew about the beauties of the Beliaus Spit and the local beach. There were no tourists due to a powerful military presence: a military submarine base of the Black Sea Fleet was based in Lake Donuzlav, while a military radar station is still operating near Olenivka.

In the past decade, however, resorts have been springing up here like mushrooms after rain, and tourists have been coming in increasing numbers. More people are seeking to buy a plot of land in this picturesque corner of the Crimea. Demand, as we know, always generates supply, so the corrupt land apportionment system in the Crimea, and Ukraine in general, has made it possible for at least half of Beliaus to be sold. Moreover, privately owned land is advancing on the excavation site. The local authorities have grandiose plans for the area – electricity supply lines have been installed; part of the beach has been fenced off and an illegal fee for passing through the territory is being charged.

“The problem is that so far only the settlement itself has been excavated, but people also lived outside the city walls,” Maksim explains. “In fact, there were many houses around the settlement which are even more interesting from the viewpoint of archaeology because they may contain countless household items that were used by their ancient occupants. But all these lands are now being sold off, and no one is inviting archaeologists to come and work there, of course. This spells death for these unique specimens of ancient culture.”

A mind-boggling thing happened in 2009 in Okunivka, a village near Beliaus on whose territory the settlement is actually located. A plot of land near the village, on which another ancient settlement was located, was sold, and its new owners immediately launched construction work, destroying the ruins. Anatoliy Peshko, counselor to Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and ex-Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, is rumoured to be the owner. Some sources also indicate that relatives of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, are also building houses for themselves in the area.

The barbaric treatment of Tarkhankut’s lavish cultural heritage is attributed to the local land prices which match those in Kyiv: US $6,000 per 0,01 hectare in the first line (100-300m away from the coastline) and US $5,000 in the second line (300-500m).

“The biggest problem is that Beliaus is a monument of local importance,” Azime Ekimalova, Deputy Director of the Kalos-Limen Historical-Archaeological Preserve, explains. “Its status must by all means be elevated to put at least some kind of barrier in place and thus protect the settlement from being sold and ravaged. But Beliaus is just one part of the problem. The whole of the Kalos-Liman Preserve should be extended to cover the entire territory of Tarkhankut.”

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