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Bakhchisaray, Russia: Capital of the Khans

Bakhchisaray today is a sleepy town of about 35,000 people located in the Crimea, a peninsula belonging to the Ukraine but historically part of Russia. It was from Bakhchisaray that numerous wars and invasions of Russia were directed by a succession of powerful Khans and warlords.

For nearly 300 years, Bakhchisaray was the hub of a mighty nation that controlled the east-west trade routes that passed north of the Black Sea and profoundly influenced the fortunes of not only Russia, but of great empires from Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks to the rich and powerful Islamic Caliphate.

Although people had lived in the fertile valley of the Curuk Suv River from time immemorial, it was not until the breakup of the huge Mongol Empire that Bakhchisaray would assume a greater prominence. One of the succeeding nations, the Crimean Khanate, evolved from the Khanate of the Golden Horde which was itself an offshoot of the great Mongol nation established by Genghis Khan in the 13th century. Although one of the smallest successor states, able management by its leaders would see the Crimean Khanate outlast every other Mongol state, finally falling to the Russians in 1783. In a sense, the fall of the Crimean Khanate and the capture of its capital, Bakhchisaray, was sweet revenge for Russia who had suffered the sack and burning of Moscow by the Crimean Tatars in 1571.

Although the Crimean Khanate boasted many rich cities and sumptuous palaces, only one remains today: the Hansaray or Khan’s Palace in Bakhchisaray. Preserved and maintained as a museum and open to the public, this lone remaining relic of the Crimean Khanate dates from the mid-16th century and contains the royal living quarters, the harem, private gardens and a small mosque, all behind sheltering walls. Perhaps the most famous artifact in the palace is the Fountain of Tears, which came to popular notice when the famed Russian writer Pushkin visited the city and heard the story of the fountain’s creation. The story goes that the Khan fell in love with a beautiful woman who was poisoned by a jealous rival in the harem. The Khan was so moved by his loss that he commissioned the fountain in her honor. Tears, in the form of water, pour from a flower at the top that represents an eye. The tears fill a cup representing the Heart, from there to another cup which is Memory, and finally to a spiral at the bottom representing Eternity. If the Khan’s desire was to preserve the sorrow felt for his beloved, then he succeeded beyond his expectations!


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