“ Sightseeing Type: Castles / Palaces „
The Khan's Palace at Bakhchysaray in the Crimean region of Ukraine is the focal point for a whole nation that most people know little about. It is the symbol of the Tatar Khanate established in the thirteenth century although the palace complex as it stands today is a collection of buildings that has been added to over the centuries coming to an end in1783 when Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, annexed the region from the Ottoman Empire. Today the Palace is a fascinating museum and working mosque that is open to the public.
The Tatars are a confederation of originally nomadic peoples who lived in Mongolia. In 1206 Chingis Khan united the Tatar clans and under his rule they became a strong army, known as the "Golden Horde", intent on conquering the world. By 1237 their campaign had taken them as far as Moscow.
A Khanate was established in the Crimean Peninsula, now one of the regions of Ukraine; it was the westernmost point of the Tatar Empire and remained under Tatar control until the region fell to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth century. The Ottomans, however, allowed the Khanate to continue to exist, even granting local rule for some matters.
When the Russians annexed the Crimea most Tatars stayed and although no self-ruling, the Tatars continued to live in the Crimea. Just after the Revolution of 1917, a Tatar artist suggested that the now disused Palace should be preserved as a museum to prevent it from becoming any more run down. Thanks to the renovation work - still ongoing - the Khan's Palace is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
During the Second World War the Crimea was occupied by German forces and after the war, the Russian government claimed that the Tatars had collaborated with the occupiers and the entire Tatar population - around 190,000 were deported to Siberia and Uzbekistan.
In 1967 the Communist Party renounced this declaration and said that there was no evidence to suggest that collaboration had occurred. Since they did not say they could return, it was really an empty gesture. It was not until the end of the 1980s with the advent of perestroika that any concrete assistance was offered to Tatars wishing to return the Ukraine. Today the Ukrainian government directs about US $10 million for the purpose of helping Tatars to Ukraine and the community in the Crimea numbers around 300,000.
THE KHAN'S PALACE
Bahkchysaray means "gardens of the palace" and the Palace buildings and mosque are situated in a square around what is now a shady garden, although it was originally a treeless square used for ceremonial military parades. Each building is linked to the next by a decorative gate with a passage way over it linking the rooms on the upper floors.
The main rooms are the Divan Hall - meeting place of the State Council - and the great Mosque - not so great if you've ever visited the Blue Mosque, perhaps, but rather beautiful all the same. You can also see the Harem - the women's quarters of the palace, the Khan's private living rooms and a series of meeting rooms in which the Khanate's business would have been executed.
The Divan Hall is the epitome of sumptuous eastern elegance, its centrepiece being the elaborate Khan's throne. It was here that the Divan (like a Parliament) would legislate on matters affecting the Khanate. There are other ceremonial rooms that can be seen too.
The living rooms are more comfortable but no less opulent rooms are equally as opulent; divans covered with cushions in a rainbow of colours with rich golden embroidery. A frieze of stained glass circles the room and ornate golden lamps hang from the ceiling. Just above the windows a frieze of golden script - lines from the Koran - decorate the walls. Most of the rooms feature the Islamic influence heavily using the designs one might see on ceramic tiles in Turkey, North Africa and Andalusia.
On the upper floors, some of the rooms are not furnished but house exhibitions of costumes, photographs, historic documents and household items that place the Palace and the people who lived there into context. Many of the captions were in English but unfortunately not all. No English language tours were available when we visited so we were forced to admire more than learn.
In the courtyards there are two interesting "fountains". They aren't fountains as we would expect but decorative stone panels in a wall from which a small spout of water emerges. The "Golden Fountain" is very ornate and decorated with grapes and flowers motifs; this one is used for worshippers to carry out the ritual ablutions before entering the mosque for prayer.
The other one dates back to 1756 and was commissioned by one of the last Tatar Khans, Krim Grei. He fell in love with a Polish girl living in the Harem and when she dies tragically the usually cruel Khan decided to have a fountain made so that the rock would cry forever, just like he said he would. Again, it's more of a trickle than a fountain but I'm sure his heart was in the right place. The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin famously wrote a poem about it - "Bakhchisaraisky Fontan".
With its twin minarets towering 28 metres, the Great Khan mosque is dominates the Khanate palace complex. Originally the mosque had a series of elaborate domes but now it has a simple low red-tiled roof. Inside, however, the walls are adorned with inscriptions from the Koran painted in rich gold and bronze. The mosque is open again for worship - it was closed during the Soviet period - so visitors must leave their shoes outside and women must cover their heads. Scarves are provided in the porch if you do not have one.
There is a small gift shop in the complex and a café where drinks can be purchased. Outside the main gates Tatar women have set up stalls selling delicious pastries and other snacks and handmade souvenirs. We bought his and hers embroidered Tatar hats!
In the courtyard you can don a Tatar outfit and have your photograph taken against the backdrop of the palace. The outfits are like hospital gowns - you just slip them on over your normal clothes; it was comical to see another couple walking to their position with the gowns billowing, exposing khaki shorts and hiking boots!
Although I am someone who usually finds group travel quite tiresome I do think I would have got more out of my visit if I had been on a guided tour. However, I had not originally planned to visit the Khan's Palace and if I had, I would have read up beforehand.
That said, the grounds and the interiors are very beautiful and I would certainly recommend a visit to anyone visiting the Crimea. There are two other worthwhile attractions in the village and visiting all three would comfortably occupy a whole day (these being the Armenian Cave Monastery and the Chufut Kale cave city).
You can reach the central square of Bakhchysaray by minibus - the town is on the route between Simferopol and Sevastopol.
You can also catch a train from Simferopol to Bakhchysaray and the station is next to the bus terminus.
From the square the Palace is a 2 KM walk or you can take a local bus and ask to be put off at the Palace.
The Palace is open 9.00 a.m. - 4.00 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Entrance costs 20 AUH for adults (approx £2.00)
""Bakhchisaray is a small town in central Crimea. The palace is now a museum and noted for its white marble fountains; it was built in the 16th century.""