When people talk about Crimea, they usually mention the thousands of bodies piled up on the beaches between the piers. They rarely forget to mention the disagreeable sellers and waiters, the rude locals, and the insane housing prices. All of that is served up as part of larger context of seized territory or the hated Soviet past.
But when I remember Crimea, my head is full of the endless sea, bays and bights, cypress alleys, and amazing mountains. But one can’t say Crimea is only wilderness with nothing else to see. The peninsula has a history several centuries, nay, millennia long.
Crimean palaces of emperors, the residences of writers and artists, the ancient Khersones and…the Cave Cities from the First Millennium. Mangul-kale, Chufut-kale, and Eski-Kermen.
One can reach them as part of guided tours. Most of them take you to Mangula and Chufut-Kale. I hate the tour buses and groups, therefore I always move under my own power. Using cars or public transport. Or on foot with a backpack.
Eski-Kermen in the Crimean Tatar language means “Old Fortress”, and is located a bit off the beaten path, therefore few groups reach it and there aren’t many tourists there. Moreover, to study the fortress city, one must climb mountains and walk trails that are uncomfortable to most, but which lead to the caves and ancient churches.
And if you go really late in the day, it’s possible you’ll be there absolutely alone.
Granted, we spent a lot of time finding our way because there are no signs on the roads pointing out which way to go. But in the end we arrived just in time for the sunset.
It is believed Eski-Kermen became a settlement in the 6th century A.D. by the Goths at the behest of the Byzantines. It is a Christian cave city. Along its perimeter, Orthodox churches dating to 6-9th centuries AD, were discovered by archaeological digs.
It is, in essence, a city within a mountain, or, more properly, within a solid rock with unassailable walls which are continued to be discovered.
We met a few guys from the Crimean Institute of the East, who are performing digs on its territory.
The Sudilishche Basilica Church, 7-9th century AD.
The city covers approximately 9 hectares, and is not all that far from civilization–it’s only 14km to Bakhchisaray.
But when you traverse the caves and the battlements of the former fortress, it seems that you are all alone and very far away from everything.
It was built on a table-like plateau, with walls up to 30m high.
This Byzantine city existed until approximately the 14th century. It’s history prior to the 10th century is little known. That century marks the beginning of its growth, and the “Old Fortress” reached the peak of its development in the 13th century, when the number of its inhabitants exceeded 2000.
If you wander about the city, you will discover great many caves that used to be inhabited. In some cases they are practically one-room apartments in the rock, with small carved-out niches.
Some of the caves served as churches.
The majority of them are destroyed, but one can identify their doors, as well as windows with their astounding views.
There are broad avenues between the rock dwellings, down which even a horse-drawn carriage could travel. The city was not tiny, its walls and fortifications protected its dwellers against nomads for a long time. The city housed the regional Episcope, judging by the remnants of a cathedra in the church by the main entrance.
The Three Riders Church, 13th C. The church is carved into a free-standing rock formation. The church is closed, but it is known that inside it there are parts of a fresco in its northern portion depicting three riders with halos, while the floor contains two graves, one of an adult and one of a child.
In the 14th C., the city was destroyed by Tataro-Mongols, and was not rebuilt afterwards.
As of today, some 350 caves have been discovered in the city itself (on the plateau) and 50 more next to it. Most of them were built in the 12th-13th centuries.
The discoveries include a siege well with very steep steps. It consists of several wings and dates back to approximately 6th C. It leads to a huge cave where drinking water was collected.
Most people are better off not climbing these steps. We tried to find the lower-level entrance, but the archeologists said that if you don’t know where it is, you won’t find it.
If you decide to go to Eski-Kermen, you will encounter in the city below guides who will tell you that you can’t get there on your own because the path is 4.5km long and takes you over steep mountains, and then offer the services of their all-terrain vehicles. Don’t fall for it. One can reach the trailhead on any vehicle or simply walk. It’s really close.
The views from there are fantastic.
Not tired yet of the views and photographs?
Crimea’s cave cities are also remarkable in that, due to their difficult tourist accessibility, you have an opportunity to come face to face with antiquity.
You will not simply be looking at everything from behind ropes with a labels, which kill all the joy in exploring history.
Instead you will submerge yourself in it, feel it on your own skin. You will breathe its wild and ancient beauty.
For a brief moment, you will become part of that history.
We captured one of my life’s most beautiful sunsets there.