A Ukrainian Summer: where to go, what to do...

Ancient ruins of Khersones and historic Sevastopol area: an unpolished jewel

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

SEVASTOPOL - Even while it is known primarily as a military town, home base for the Ukrainian navy and the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Sevastopol boasts a historical richness and diversity, as well as beaches and beautiful warm weather waters that in any Western country would have long ago made into a tourist hotspot .

A closed city during the Soviet era, this city of 360,000 inhabitants located on the southwesternmost point of the Crimean peninsula, remains a tourist secret - an unpolished jewel hidden from the world.

Few except for serious historians and archaeologists know of the 2,500-year-old Khersones settlement, the northernmost outpost of the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great and of his father, Philip of Macedon, which can be found after a 10-minute drive east of the city.

Few realize that the famous "Charge of the Light Brigade" described in the Tennyson poem about a decisive battle of the Crimean War in 1854 occurred on the rolling hills of Balaklava, located less than 20 kilometers from the Black Sea coast on which Sevastopol lies.

These are historical spots that would draw visitors by the thousands if the city put together a proper tourist campaign and made visitors feel welcome here.

However, Sevastopol lacks, a sense of its economic potential in the tourist business. There is no visitors' center to help tourists find the historic sites. Hotel and restaurant workers are neither very helpful nor very warm in dealing with non-residents. To ensure hot water for a bath in your hotel you must ask for a room that has such accommodations available. Some hotels simply don't have hot water.

In Balaklava nothing tells you that you are standing in Tennyson's "valley of death."

In Sevastopol, the townspeople retain the mentality of secrecy that has come to be associated with the military outpost, that during Soviet times was closed to outsiders or those without special documents.

For it was here that the Soviet Union kept its nuclear submarines and destroyers, which cruised the Mediterranean as a counterbalance to the U.S. 6th Fleet.

Ask a resident for directions to the Russian Black Sea Fleet ships, and you will seldom get a straight answer. A Russian seaman, feigning ignorance, would only excuse himself and say that he didn't know.

Sevastopol's military tradition is evident wherever you look: in memorials to the heroes of the eight-month defence of the city from Nazi German forces and to those who fought in the Crimean War against Great Britain; and museums like the Museum of the Black Sea Fleet and the Museum of the Defense of Sevastopol, to name only two.

Another historical footnote: It was in Sevastopol on April 29, 1918, just before the German occupation of the first world war, that the Ukrainian flag was raised on the ships of the Balck Sea Fleet.

The Russian Black Sea Fleet, which consists of several dozen seaworthy vessels among its rusting ships and submarines, is not easy to hide, and is found quickly if you know where to look. The main portion of the fleet is located in Pivdennyi (southern) Bay, the second largest of Sevastopol's seven deep and picturesque harbors. Today the fleet can be viewed from a relatively close distance. No one discourages photos, although much of the territory surrounding the ships is restricted.

The Ukrainian navy is anchored on the southern side of Sevastopol Bay, a five - minute boat ride from the city center. The Ukrainian fleet consists of 50 or so ships, but only three large sea-worthy vessels: the Petro Sahaidachny, the Slavutych and the Mykolaiv. Although physical access to the docks is not restricted, photographing is strongly discouraged.

The history of the Sevastopol begins with the Greek colonization of Scythian and Taurian towns along the southern coast of the Crimea. The colony that emerged, Chersonesus/Taurica, became an important manufacturing and trade center and the northernmost Greek outpost on the Black Sea. It thrived in the fourth to second centuries B.C., with a democratic form of government. By the first century A.D. it had come under Roman rule and by the fourth century was a part of the Byzantine Empire and an important center of Byzantine culture.

In the 13th and 14th centuries A.D., Khersones' influence waned as the Genoese established their own trade centers in the Crimea. It was destroyed almost totally by Tatar invasions that lasted until 1399.

What remains of Khersones is truly awe-inspiring - and no less a marvel than the Egyptian ruins along the Nile or the Roman remains at Pompeii. The hundreds of acres of open land along the Black Sea that was Khersones are dotted with ancient pillars that once supported Greek temples and government buildings.

Archaeological digs that have occurred since the early 19th century have uncovered layers of civilization, from ancient Greek times through the Roman colonization to the late Byzantine period.

A common well for city residents from the Greek period today looks as if it still could be used.

Khersones is where St. Volodymyr the Great, the grand prince of the Kyivan Rus' empire who ruled during the period of its greatest flowering, had himself christened into the Christian faith some years before he forced the entire nation to give up paganism in favor of Christianity in 988. Today that historic site, on which a large basilica was once located, is undergoing reconstruction.

One danger that Khersones faces is that the archaeological preserve is owned by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which sees little value in saving the ancient Greek ruins of a "godless" people and has done little to continue the preservation of the lands.

The Church has publicly stated that it would like to see the pagan monuments destroyed. Ukraine's Ministry of Culture, however, has not allowed the UOC-MP to touch the lands and the monuments. In 1996, Khersones became the only national archaeological preserve in Ukraine, which means that only cultural authorities can regulate its development.

Another problem is that the grounds are not protected from intruders and vandals. Besides being a popular site for bums and the homeless, it is the victim of random acts of violence and defacement, as well as more organized efforts to raid the site of its cultural treasures.

For Sevastopol, all the raw materials required to build a great tourist spot already exist. In addition to the great historical monuments, there is the beauty of the steep hilly juts that rim the harbors and the rolling countryside outside the city. There are beaches and waters that are cleaner than those in the Odesa region or near Yalta.

What still needs to be done is to put all the building blocks together - better restaurant service, better visitor information and better hotels - to turn this valuable but still unpolished stone into a priceless jewel.

A Ukrainian Summer

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Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 2, 1999, No. 18, Vol. LXVII

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