In 2004, lone Australian adventurer Tim Cope set out from Kharkorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia, to travel the length of the Eurasian steppe on horseback, all the way to the Danube River and Hungary. The 10,000-kilometre journey took three years to complete, on a succession of 13 horses (many of which were stolen along the way). It was a journey that had not, as far as is known, been completed since the 13th century and the days of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire. The Great Khan would launch a series of invasions that resulted in the conquest of most of Eurasia.
Cope sailed from Krasnodar Krai, in Russia, across the Kerch Strait, in 2006, to continue his journey through Crimea. While in the autonomous republic, he witnessed some of the tensions that are making the current tussle between Ukraine and Russia for ownership of Crimea such a volatile issue. In the town of Bakhchisaray, Cope saw first-hand how decades of conflict between ethnic Russians and Muslim Tatars – who had been forcibly deported from Crimea by Soviet authorities in 1944 and were not permitted to return until the mid-1980s – were affecting everyday life.
Late last year, a first-person account of Cope’s journey, On the Trail of Genghis Khan, was released. Here are two extracts from the book, taken from the chapters on Crimea.
FROM EDEM’S FARM I rode for three days along mountain and forest trails. It was the peak of summer, my third on the steppe, and a part of me was mentally weary and comforted by the thought it would be my last in the saddle. The mosquitoes stressed the horses, and the heat increased the risk of saddle sores. Additionally, I was beginning to feel claustrophobic in Crimea. In wider spaces, people bearing historical grudges with each other were separated by the muting qualities of distance. Here, trapped on such a small, sought-after chunk of land, cultures, layers of competing histories, and even environments were compressed, and I found myself bandied from one to another. There was no let-up, and ahead of me, things were only about to get more intense.
In the evening of my third day out from Edem’s farm a Russian horseman led me as far as the edge of the forest, where oaks gave way to an old Tatar walnut orchard. Pressing on, I took the opportunity to enjoy a passing moment of aloneness. I slowed the horses to a walk, soaking in the way their hooves shifted quietly along a track of powdery white clay.
I leaned back in the saddle, watching the outstretched branches of the walnut trees and their broad leaves glide over us. Like Tatar elders who had survived deportation and returned, these elegant trees had outlived the Soviet years and were obstinately rooted in Crimean soil.
Beyond the orchard we emerged from the shade and descended into the head of a gorge-like valley. Ears pricked and tongue out, Tigon (Cope’s dog) craned his neck to look at the high slopes that now blocked much of the sky. Rising above were limestone bluffs running like ramparts along both our sides. The rock high up to our left was honeycombed with caves – the remnants of a seventh-century Byzantine stronghold that was taken over by the Tatars in the fourteenth century. The further on we rode, the deeper we sank into this curious landform, and as the gorge narrowed we began to pass homes, stables, and even an Orthodox monastery carved out of the rock at the base of the bluffs.
Where the gorge seemed to have run its course, the cliffs converged and the track shrank to a narrow cobbled alleyway between old stone houses. Then, unexpectedly, it hooked sharply to the left, and a valley opened up, filled from wall to wall with a riot of minarets and red ceramic-tiled roofs. Right in front of us they mingled majestically with the bustle of cars and pedestrians in the dusty summer evening.
Bakhchisaray was formerly the capital of the Crimean khanate and once an important crossroad of the Silk Road, where traders met from across the Black Sea, the steppes of Central Asia, Russia, and eastern Europe. In its heyday during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the town had boasted eighteen mosques and several important madrasas.
Nowadays, it is the cultural center for returning Tatars and, as I would learn, a bottleneck of tourism, religion, and conflict.
Nestled among the cobbled streets of the old part of town lay the khan’s palace. It had been the seat of power for generations of Crimean khans dating back to the sixteenth century. On one hand, the palace represented the sophistication of the Crimean Tatar khanate, which had once wielded much power, but on the other, now that it was a museum and part of a heritage park with a Russian director, it symbolised the passing of the Tatars’ way of life into the archives of history and its once proud empire into subservience to Russia.
Out of sight of tourists at the other end of town – but still little more than half a mile from the palace – lay the market. Here an ugly stand-off between Tatars and Russians was under way in which the same clashes of history documented at the palace were still being played out.
Lying between these two places, and caught in the crossfire, were my host, Volodya – impoverished, fiery, half Tatar, half Russian – and a Ukrainian girl named Anya, with whom I fell in love.
Ismet had arranged for Volodya to look after me in Bakhchisaray, and so I carried on down the steep cobbled street into the old town, where he led me through the grand wooden gates of the khan’s palace. Inside, I rode Taskonir through an archway into the courtyard, where the last fragments of the evening sun cast golden light from over the cliffs above.
As Tigon took the opportunity to bathe in a fountain, I lifted my gaze to the high wall of the palace and let my eyes wander down. Towering minarets inscribed in Arabic cast lean shadows across a courtyard of rose gardens, fountains, lawns, and shady trees. Adjoining the outer wall was the two-storey palace itself, adorned with arches, long verandahs, and walls decorated with Islamic murals. In these luxurious headquarters the Crimean khans – blood descendants of Genghis Khan – had ruled one of the most powerful empires of eastern Europe. There was without question a sense of authenticity about the palace that transcended time and invited thoughts about what might have once been. At a closer look, though, tourist information signs nailed onto walls and museum-style displays were a reminder of the modern reality.
In 1736 Bakhchisaray had been burned to the ground by the Russians, and when Catherine II’s army completed the conquest of the peninsula in 1783, the last khan, Sahin Giray, took refuge in Turkey, where he was eventually executed. The palace had long become a defunct relic paraded by its captors as accommodation for important guests, including Catherine II herself. Two centuries on it was a major tourist attraction to which thousands of Russian tourists flocked each summer to marvel at the lair of their historic foe.
LATER THAT MORNING I visited the market for the first time. It was situated in the new center of Bakhchisaray – a place with none of the allure I had seen the previous evening. Where the gorge spilled out into a wide dry valley, a hot summer wind blew dust through scattered Soviet apartment blocks and crooked wooden houses. Nineties-era shops were tacked on like afterthoughts, perused by token shoppers on foot. Beat-up Ladas drifted listlessly by.
At a central intersection, stretching across the road between an apartment block and a drugstore, was a picket line of demonstrators.
Beyond them lay the entrance to the market and a makeshift barricade hung with the Tatar flag and an unmistakable banner: “Close the Market That is Built on Our Bones!” To one side of the drugstore, a carpet had been laid down, and a group of men wearing traditional embroidered velvet skullcaps – known across Central Asia as the tyubeteika – were kneeling in prayer. A hundred or so elderly Tatars manned the picket line, and others gathered around a cauldron that filled the air with the aroma of boiled mutton.
Meanwhile, lurking in the shade of trees, in cars, and in buses on both sides of the picket line were dozens of heavily equipped berkuts, or riot police, their shields and truncheons at the ready. Another branch of police, special forces known as bars, were roaming about in flak jackets.
Ismet had informed the mejlis (the executive body that represents the Crimean Tatars) about my journey, and on approaching the protestors I found Akhmet, a high-ranking mejlis representative who had been expecting me. He was busy in negotiation with a local police constable but took the time to explain the crux of the issue. “There are eleven mausoleums here that house the graves of several generations of our khans and spiritual leaders who brought Islam to Crimea,” he said.
“They date back at least five hundred years. The market that was built on this holy site by Russians in the early nineties hasn’t been around for more than fifteen years, and we want it removed.”
Akhmet introduced me to a Tatar historian who took me beyond the picket line to the base of one of the mausoleums, a domed, octagonal monument built from stone. Nearby lay the vacant market, a ramshackle collection of insipid stands. Inside its buckled iron boundary fence stood another mausoleum – this one with a Russian-built pit toilet alongside.
The mausoleums were thought to be connected to the ancient city of Eski Yurt, which had been founded on the grave of the seventh century Islamic saint Malik Ashtar – the first to have spread Islam in Crimea. It had subsequently become the cemetery for Tatar khans, and until Soviet times it attracted thousands of pilgrims annually.
In a provocative move, the market had been built during the death throes of the Soviet Union, and ever since then, Tatars had been lobbying the market’s Russian director, Medvedev, to relocate it. They had put forth a plan for the mausoleums to be protected as part of the Bakhchisaray Historical and Cultural Preserve. Medvedev had thus far refused, and only a few months before my arrival he had hired some men to start moving the boundary fence of the market out even further – with the rumored backing of the pro-Russian party Russki Blok and local Mafia.
It was this situation that had led to the violent confrontation I had seen on Islyam’s footage back in Semfiropol. Medvedev had employed a band of thugs to smash through the protestors and reopen the market by force.
Temporarily at least, Medvedev had won the day.
On the Trail of Genghis Khan: An Epic Journey From Asia to Europe (Bloomsbury), by Tim Cope, is in bookshops now.