Tymur Bobrovsky: “We had a chance to present what has been preserved in Chersonese as unique heritage of the world scale”

23 September 2015, 20:08

The Tauric Chersonese had been home for ancient Greeks, Romans and Byzantines who left their traces there. Obviously, similar archaeological sites can be found elsewhere. What is the unique meaning of this historic city on the Black Sea coast?

One of the unique features of Chersonese is that the city developed continuously from the 5th century BC to the 14th century AD. People never left it, it had times of heyday and decline, but it was never abandoned. Its uninterrupted architectural history stretched for almost two millennia. Another unique feature is that the layout of the streets laid down in the 4th–3rd centuries BC following the system known as Hippodamus of Miletus did not change for thousands of years. The width of the streets changed a little over the time, but the overall direction and planning of the residential quarters remained the same.

There are only few sites where the original urban planning was preserved this well in the world. In Miletus, where Hippodamus, the architect and inventor of the system of rectangular blocks, lived, such planning has not been preserved, because the city was radically rebuilt in Byzantine times. But the main value of Chersonese is its preserved chora, which put it on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

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Chora is the agricultural area adjacent to the city that developed simultaneously with it. Some kinds of choras we use in modern times: examples include garden plots of the townsfolk. In ancient times, the residents of Chersonese grew mostly grapes, so 80–90% of this territory was occupied by vineyards. Choras accompany almost any ancient polis, and have been discovered in many places in Greece, Italy, and Asia Minor. However, in many cases they were used as farmland or were used in urban or rural constructions. In other words, they were destroyed.

In the case of Sevastopol, the city since developed as a military base since it was founded in the 18th century. Therefore, large fragments of the ancient chora were used for firing grounds or garrisons, but were closed to the public. Thanks to this, the chora was perfectly preserved, as well as its archaeological landscape that cannot be found at any other archeological site in the world. According to some reports, the choras of ancient cities in North Africa have been equally well preserved, but they have not been properly researched, and information about them has not been introduced into scientific use. So, we had a chance to present what has been preserved in Chersonese as unique heritage of the world scale.

With the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine lost all of its cultural heritage items in the peninsula, including the Chersonese National Reserve included in UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites. Is there any way for Ukraine to protect it while having neither direct access to the site nor de facto jurisdiction over Crimea?

To my mind, solving the issues with reserves, including the Tauric Chersonese in the annexed Crimea, is much easier for Ukraine than taking care of museums and museum collections in the area of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO). The Tauric Chersonese reserve is a World Heritage Site and is protected by the international community, not just by our country. To protect this site, Ukraine would have to apply to UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee with this problem: the reserve in question is located in the territory annexed by Russia, and Kyiv that earlier took the commitments to preserve this site is no longer able to meet them.

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The Tauric Chersonese should be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. This list included, for instance, the complex of Buddhist monasteries in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan built in the early centuries AD, with huge statues of Buddha. After the Taliban destroyed the statues, the site was added to the List of World Heritage in Danger. After that, the international community joined efforts under the auspices of UNESCO. Permanent monitoring missions and constant political pressure on the Taliban helped resolve the issue. Moreover, ambitious restoration work has been going on there in the recent years. Of course, the statues of Buddha could not be fully restored, but the Buddhist monastery complex was preserved, and today the situation is stable. I think, Ukraine should do the same to create a precedent. There have been no instances of a country nominating its own objects for the list of endangered sites. This could be the first time. Actually, all other situations did not deal with the annexation of part of a country by another one, as is the case in Crimea. For Ukraine today, this would have been the best option, because if the Tauric Chersonese were put on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, Ukrainian experts would be able to take part in international UNESCO monitoring missions. After all, this is an intergovernmental organization, not your average NGO. Russia just could not ignore it. I think that such a move would be correct both politically and diplomatically, we well as from the standpoint of securing additional protection for Chersonese.

Bakhchysarai Palace. A palace complex of the Crimean Khanate and the residence of the Girayan Dynasty (16th-18th centuries)

Would it be easier for UNESCO observers to get to Crimea than to Bamiyan in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban?

We should distinguish human rights monitoring missions and UNESCO monitoring missions. These are completely different political aspects. Russia ignores the jurisdiction of the Court of Human Rights, but it has not given up on international cooperation in the field of World Heritage. 26 sites in the Russian territory have been included in the UNESCO list, 12 more are candidates. Russia should think about how they will get there. So, ignoring UNESCO is not an option for Moscow.

Crimea is not a closed territory. French senators have visited it recently. This is not a problem. Another matter is what they will show in Chersonese and the credibility of the information they will provide. However, this is something the monitoring mission will have to deal with. It could request Russian representatives in UNESCO to check the condition of a site included on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Today, it has no grounds to do so. The nearest monitoring of endangered World Heritage Sites is planned for 2017. Ukraine does not bring up the issue of recognizing the site as an object in danger. When it does so and receives a positive response, it will get a monitoring mission to the Chersonese reserve.

How do you explain Russia’s negligence concerning this very important item of historical heritage? It was obvious even in the appointment of the reserve's director…*

I think that Russia does not need the Tauric Chersonese as a World Heritage Site. This is too much trouble, because if Ukraine applies to UNESCO with a request to include this Crimean reserve on the List of World Heritage in Danger, monitoring missions will be sent to Sevastopol on a regular basis. Crimea today has no tourists from the US and Europe, the countries that are, so to speak, in opposition to Russia. There are no international tourists on the peninsula, and they will not go there any time soon. This is an annexed territory with an undefined legal status, and it has few visitors, so why bother having a World Heritage Site there?

The Chersonese reserve while in Ukraine had a whole number of land allotments, but it is difficult to determine whether these deals are still valid. There are various unverified rumors in this respect. A UNESCO monitoring mission could find out what is going on there. We are talking about 450 hectares of land within Sevastopol city limits. The area is surrounded by garden plots. This land is interesting to both civilians and the Russian military. The so-called 10th allotment in Yukharynа ravine has 160 hectares of land of a former tank training ground and is a part of the land in question. In Ukraine, it was not used, and the territory was transferred for archaeological research. The ruins of several ancient mansions were discovered there. This is the best preserved, undeveloped part of the chora of the Tauric Chersonese, owing to which the object was nominated to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This land plot was preserved specifically for tank training, and there is no guarantee that Russia will decide to leave this piece of land to the reserve instead of driving tanks on it.

Following this logic, we may soon see the reserve reduced to the church reconstructed in the Byzantine style and the church shop, while the ancient city could be paved over?

I don't think it can go so far. However, Chersonese will be presented in a completely different way. Its world value as the ancient, pre-Christian heritage will be gone. The only things that matter will be the baptism of Prince Volodymyr, Christian antiquities, and Russian military glory. The thing is that the artillery batteries from the times of the Crimean War, World War I and the Siege of Sevastopol have been preserved in the Chersonese territory. This could turn the reserve into a historical and patriotic site, where the antiquity will play a minor role.

Ancient Lviv. A complex of historical buildings in the center of Lviv from the Ancient Rus and Medieval eras

What do you think of the current situation with Ukraine’s historical, archaeological, and cultural reserves in general? What major challenges are they facing?

Ukraine has very few purely archaeological reserves. I am aware of only three: Kamyana Mohyla in Zaporizhya Oblast, Tustan in Lviv Oblast and Olvia in Mykolayiv Oblast. The rest are historical and cultural or historical and architectural reserves. Many of them have archaeological components, like St. Sofia of Kyiv or Kyiv Cave Monastery. Other reserves include Ancient Podil or Ancient Lviv, which virtually have no land allotments. They have directors, but no sites that they are supposed to preserve. Historical reserves in Ukraine are subordinated to either the Ministry of Culture or local authorities. In both cases, they have various problems. The first ones are better off in terms of land allotments and documentation, but worse off in terms of staffing issues. The Ministry of Culture issues numerous decisions, without consulting with ​​the expert community or the personnel. In this respect, it is very much like the Sevastopol "governor" and the appointment of the priest. The reserves that are subordinated to local authorities have much greater problems with land allotments and protected areas. Interestingly, they have fewer scandalous appointments and dismissals.

There are no national historical preserves in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the area of the anti-terrorist operation, but there is a large number of archaeological sites in the areas of active hostilities and occupation. In fact, their fate is unknown, because the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture does not deal with the issue.

Ancient Podil in Kyiv. A complex of archeological monuments, including parts of the town's log buildings from the 10th and 11th centuries

At the beginning of the interview you mentioned that it is easier for Ukraine today to protect the Chersonese reserve in the annexed Crimea than the museums located in the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine. Is it, again up to the civil society rather than the state to take care of this heritage?

It's no secret that the exhibit space of the Donetsk Local Ethnographic Museum has been destroyed by shelling. The exhibits have been collected and taken to a safer place, but the museum continues to work. However, we have to take into account that its director, for what I know, is on the side of the separatists. So finding out what is going on there is not easy. As for other Donetsk and Luhansk museums, no cases of robbery or looting of their collections have been recorded, according to the colleagues working there. We have to maintain contacts with them very carefully. Museum workers in Crimea and Donbas would share the news more readily if they knew that leaking the information which local (occupational or separatist – Ed.) authorities want to hide would not bring them trouble. So far, we can only obtain information that we cannot verify.

More than a year ago, a working group was established at the Ministry of Culture to provide assistance to endangered museums in the ATO area and the surrounding territories. It is clear that nothing can be done in the occupied territories. I can say so because I was part of this group. It has developed a number of very specific documents: which collections should be taken care of, and how to organize an emergency evacuation of the artifacts to temporary storage in Central and Western Ukraine until the end of hostilities. Top people at the Ministry of Culture have been completely indifferent to this work. The decision to secure the funds of Mariupol museums and to take them to Mykolayiv or Dnipropetrovsk has not been approved. What exactly museums and collections were concerned is sensitive information, but their directors and staff agreed that at least the articles from the so-called Red List, i.e., the most valuable exhibits of the first category, had to be taken to a safer place. The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine has not yet given its approval.

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How does the Ministry explain its inertia about evacuating at least the most valuable museum pieces from the frontline areas?

They argue that it's not urgent. On the contrary, Culture Minister Kyrylenko talked at length that it was necessary to take from the National Art Museum of Ukraine a 10th century Byzantine icon originally found in Mariupol to return the holy picture to some local church to help protect the city against the Russian aggression. This icon comes from Crimea, it was brought to Mariupol by the resettled Greeks, found in the 1960s in a very bad condition in а church storage and restored at the National Art Museum. Today it is one of the most valuable items in the museum collection. It was preserved in fragments, and even after the restoration it could not be used for church purposes. For that end, it has to be painted anew. This transfer has not taken place so far, but I think that the National Art Museum is still in correspondence with the Ministry of Culture to make them understand that it is impossible to take a museum item to the war zone or to the front line.

The attitude of the current Ministry of Culture to museum collections and various historical and archaeological sites is exactly the same as the attitude of the Sevastopol "governor" Myenyaylo to the Tauric Chersonese. For them, these are items of propaganda, historical, patriotic, and educational work. They are not interested in the fact that this is national heritage and the treasure of the Ukrainian people and of the world. Minister Kyrylenko heads the council for patriotic education, where he feels quite at home. Hopefully, we will soon have a new head of the Ministry of Culture, because if nothing changes, Ukraine will suffer further material, moral, and diplomatic losses.


Tymur Bobrovsky is a Ukrainian archaeologist, speleologist, epigraphist, and heritage expert. He holds a PhD in History and the title of the Honored Worker of Culture of Ukraine. In his PhD thesis, Mr. Bobrovsky researched cave monasteries and cave monks in the medieval history and culture of Kyiv. In 2003, he headed the Archaeological Heritage Department at the Heritage Research Institute of the Ministry of Culture (Deputy Research Director of the Institute in 2009–2013). While working at the Institute, he developed projects of protective areas for such archaeological sites as "The Ancient Tira and the Medieval Belhorod" in Odesa Oblast, "Tustan Fortress" in Lviv Oblast, and “Ancient Chersonese" in Crimea. He was research consultant in the development of historical and architectural plans of Kerch, Crimea, and Myrhorod, Poltava Oblast. In 2010–2012, in collaboration with Larysa Syedikova, currently Acting Director of the Tauric Chersonese. he developed the full package of nomination documents for "The Ancient City of Chersonese of Tauria and its Chora". Thanks to this, the site was included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2013. In 2010, together with Valeriy Naumenko, ex-director of Bakhchysarai historic and cultural reserve, he developed an application to include "Cultural Landscape of the Cave Cities of the Crimean Gothia" in the Tentative List of Ukrainian properties to be considered for the nomination to the World Heritage List. In 2012, Mr. Bobrovsky was awarded the title of the Honored Worker of Culture of Ukraine for outstanding personal achievements in the protection of Ukrainian heritage.

Kamyana Mohyla. A sanctuary of the Stone and Bronze Age with several thousands of carved petrogrlyph inscriptions in caves

*In late July 2015, Serhiy Khaliuta, a Sevastopol archpriest from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, was appointed director of the reserve. This caused protests of the reserve employees who complained about a priest, especially one with no academic background, overseeing the historical site. This conflict is believed to be one of the reasons why, on September 1, news of Vladimir Putin’s order to include the reserve into the list of valuable cultural sites and put it under the federal jurisdiction, appeared on the Russian president’s official website

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