Image - View of Bakhchysarai, Crimea, Ukraine. Image - Bakhchesarai: Historical and Archeological Museum (formerly Khan's palace). Image - Bakhchesarai: Historical and Archeological Museum (formerly Khan's palace). Image - Bakhchysarai: The Dormition Cave Monastery.

Bakhchysarai or Bakhchesarai [Бахчисарай or Бахчесарай; Baxčysarai or Baxčesarai]; in Crimean Tatar transcription, Bağçasaray, meaning ‘orchard palace.’ See Google Map, see EU map: IX-14. City (2021 pop 28,600) in the valley of the Churuk River, tributary of the Kacha River (to the south), on the northwestern slope of the Crimean Mountains, on the south side of a pass below a northwest-facing cuesta, on Highway H06 and railway (single-track, electrified) between Sevastopol, 30 km to the southwest, and Simferopol, the capital of the Crimea, 30 km to the northeast; a raion center in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, Ukraine (since the [unrecognized] annexation of 2014, in the Republic of Crimea, the Russian Federation). It is the historic capital of Crimean Tatars. Within the Bakhchysarai raion (area 1,589 sq km, 2014 pop 90,911), the Bakhchysarai city’s council includes delegates from the town of Nauchnyi (2014 pop. 780) but not the other two towns of Kuibysheve (2,441) and Poshtove (3,214).

History. Bakhchysarai was established as the Crimean Tatar capital in 1532. Yet traces of human settlement in this area date back 100,000 years and skeletal remains of modern humans about 50,000 years to the late Paleolithic Period. Artefacts of Cimmerians date back 3,000 years, followed by the influence of Greek colonists (see Ancient states on the northern Black Sea coast) of Chersonese Taurica (5th century BC) on the locals, whom the Greeks called Taurians; the Scythians came from the north (mid-3rd century BC) and built fortifications (Ust-Kalminske, near Pishchane, and Alma-Kermenske, near Zavitne). By the end of 1st century AD, a Roman fort and settlement (on the left bank of the Alma River near the coast, NW of Bakhchysarai) provided security in this area until the 3rd century AD. Then from the north the Alans (a branch of Iranian-speaking Sarmatians) penetrated into the domain of the Scythians, who farmed and raised livestock in this area. In the 3rd century the Goths conquered this Scythian-Alan domain. The Huns (end of 4th century) demolished what remained of the local forts. In the 5th-6th centuries AD, in the mountains to the SE of present-day Bakhchysarai, forts and fortified towns were rebuilt by the locals (Helenized descendants of Taurians, Scythians, Alans, and Goths), who learned construction techniques from the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. Closest to the site of present-day Bakhchysarai and overlooking it from the cuesta was the fortified city of Kyrk-Yer (probably from Sarmatian, meaning ‘fort to defend the rear’), the Dormition Cave Monastery and other nearby fortified towns (now known as cave cities) and monasteries. From the 4th century AD, they were within the province (Byzantine thema) of Chersonese Taurica.

In the 7th century the Khazars penetrated into this area, settling in Kyrk-Yer, but a rebellion against their rule was staged in 787. From the 10th century, other Turkic tribes (Pechenegs, Cumans) entered the Crimean steppes.

The Mongol-led Tatars of the Golden Horde reached the Crimea in 1223, penetrating its steppes in 1237. The Golden Horde revived the northern branch of the silk route that the Khazars once controlled, granting (in 1267) the Genoese and Venetian merchants trading right in the coastal cities of the Crimea. Thus caravans passed through Eski-Yurt (now part of central Bakhchysarai) and monitored from Kyrk-Yer on their way to the ports of Kalamita (now Inkerman), Chersonese Taurica, and Cembalo (now Balaklava). When the Genoese merchants of Caffa refused to pay taxes and murdered its emissary, however, the Golden Horde (led by Nogay, 1299) took not only Caffa (now Teodosiia) and Soldaia (now Sudak), but also the ports of Kalamita, Chersonese, Cembalo and the mountain cities of Eski-Kermen and Kyrk-Yer, and Mangup (the capital of Theodoro). The Goden Horde (with its headquarters at Sarāy al-Jadīd, on the lower Volga) chose the city of Solkhat (inland from Caffa and Soldaia) as its Crimean administrative center and re-named it Kirim. One of its beys (of the Yashalavsky clan) established himself at Kyrk-Yer. Later, Haji-Girei, a pretender for leadership of the Golden Horde (which was weakened by the Tamerlane campaigns from Central Asia, 1391, 1395) fled to Kirim. Having endured two punitive campaigns (1396, 1397) by the Golden Horde for his attempts that failed, Haji-Girei decided to pursue independence for the Crimean Khanate (by aligning with Lithuania-controlled Rus’ and others, eventually falling under the influence of the Ottoman Empire with its market for slaves). For security, he moved (1430–40) his residence to the better fortified Kyrk-Yer. By 1449, independence of the Crimean Khanate was achieved.

Kyrk-Yer had three communities at the time: Christian, Jewish (mostly Karaite), and Muslim (mostly Tatars). To grow the city, in 1459 all three communities were granted remission from taxes. Even so, the Christians were the first to relocate from the citadel, in the process reviving the abandoned Dormition Cave Monastery below it. The Tatars were next.

Below Kyrk-Yer (in the narrow valley of Churuk headwaters at Salachyk, now called Starosillia) Haji-Girei’s son, Mengli-Girei, had his palace built (about 1503, which did not survive to the present day) and alongside, the Zindzhirli Madresa and a mausoleum for Haji-Girei and himself (see Girei dynasty). Later, he built (1519) in the more spacious valley of the Churuk River a new large palace named Bakhchysarai. It became the official residence of his successor, Sahib-Girei, the founding date (1532) of Bakhchysarai, which replaced Kyrk-Yer as the capital of the Crimean Khanate. With the move of the Tatars from Kyrk-Yer to Bakhchysarai, the fortress was left to the Karaites; by the 1650s, the Crimean Tatars named it Chufut-Kaleh, the ‘Jewish Fortress.’ The ban on Karaites to settle in Bakhchysarai was lifted in 1783; by 1867 Chufut-Kaleh was abandoned.

In the mid-17th century Bakhchysarai was a thriving capital with a palace, mosques, inns (caravanserais) and 2,000 homes, of which about one-third belonged to the Greeks. There was a large slave market where merchants bought captives from Tatar raids. Chufut-Kaleh, however, remained a citadel of Bakhchisarai and a place where aristocratic captives were incarcerated. The Peace Treaty of Bakhchysarai that was signed here in 1681 by the Tsardom of Muscovy, the Ottoman Empire, and the Crimean Khanate gave 20 years of respite during the period of the Russo-Turkish wars. By the end of the 17th century Bakhchysarai became the second largest city in the Crimea after Caffa. With a population of about 6,000, it was divided into 30 neighborhoods (quarters) with a mosque in the middle of each quarter. Its craftsmen had 32 workshops and were renowned for leather tanning. The Russo-Turkish War of 1735–39 took a heavy toll on the city, with its complete fiery devastation by the Russian forces, led by Field Marshal Burkhard Christoph Graf von Münnich, in 1736. The city and the khan’s palace, with some Turkish features added, were re-built (by the khans Selamet-Girei and Krym-Girei) in the next two decades; they have been preserved to this day.

Following the annexation of the Crimean Khanate by the Russian Empire in 1783, Bakhchysarai became an ordinary town, having lost its administrative significance. However, it retained its oriental heritage: the khan’s palace and mosque on the main street, neighborhood mosques and traditional houses (two-storied, abutting rocky slopes, with plain street facades but inner gardens) on terraced narrow streets, and a clay pipe duct providing water to 70 fountains. Its inhabitants included Tatars, Greeks, Armenians and Jews, though the last khan, Shagin-Girei, and a significant number of Tatars emigrated to Turkey. A 1794 description of the town lists 5 mills, 20 bakeries, 13 leather workshops, 6 smithies, 2 wineries (Georgian and Moldavian) and 17 caravanserais.

During the Crimean War of 1853–56, the khan’s palace in Bakhchysarai and other buildings served as hospitals. Indeed, one of the earliest battles of the war took place at Alma River, not far from the city, in 1854. But although the city was close to the front line, the Turks and their European allies never took it, as the port city of Sevastopol was their primary wartime objective. After the war more Crimean Tatars emigrated to Turkey, reducing the population back to about 6,000. Emancipation of the serfs in the Russian Empire in 1861, however, provided economic stimulus. By 1875, with the construction of the railway to Sevastopol, Bakhchysarai obtained its railway station and some food processing and quarry industries, built close to the railway line in the broader valley. Residential and commercial uses also followed. Although its population doubled by 1897, reaching 12,960, there were 11,148 (86 percent) who spoke Crimean Tatar. Thus Bakhchysarai remained the cultural center of the Crimean Tatars and an attraction and inspiration for the visiting literati (Aleksandr Pushkin, Adam Mickiewicz, Lesia Ukrainka, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky).

In the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Bakhchysarai became the center of Crimean Tatar national awakening. It was fostered by Ismail bey Gasprinsky (aka Gaspirali, named after the Crimean town Gaspra, 1851–1914). He founded in Bakhchysarai the newspaper Tercüman (1883–1918), in which he advocated for unity and solidarity among the Turkic peoples and their social and cultural reformation through the revival of pristine Islamic teachings and at the same time European-style modernization—the Jadid movement. For the Crimean Tatars, it meant Tatar literacy and the introduction of current disciplines in the heretofore medieval-like Muslim schools, the madrasa. Since the 1880s the city had a Crimean Tatar theater and other cultural establishments. On 26 November 1917 it hosted in the khan’s palace the Crimean Tatar convention—the Kurultai—which declared it to be the national parliament and adopted the first Constitution of the Crimean Democratic National Republic. On 12 December 1917 the Kurultai proclaimed the establishment of its government, the Directory of Crimea, and sought confederation with the Ukrainian National Republic.

By December 1917 the Bolsheviks established a local organization in Bakhchysarai. Bolshevik forces from Sevastopol routed the Crimean Tatar forces and dissolved the Kurultai that had relocated to Simferopol (17 January 1918) and in its place declared the Soviet Socialist Republic of Tavrida (19–21 March 1918). Their control of Bakhchysarai was interrupted by the Ukrainian and German forces with the establishment of the German proxy Crimean Tatar government (25 June 1918), and then the Anton Denikin and Petr Wrangel forces, until the return of the Bolsheviks on 14 November 1920.

Following incorporation into the Soviet Union (as part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, within the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic), Bakhchysarai served as a raion center since 1921 (and since the mid-1920s until about 1937 one of 5 designated Crimean Tatar national raions in the Crimean ASSR). Its population fluctuated: in 1921 it was 12,361, of which 9,718 (78.6 percent) were Crimean Tatars; in 1926, 9,540, of which 6,884 (72.1 percent) were Crimean Tatars; and in 1930, 10,450, of which 7,420 (71 percent) were Crimean Tatars. From 1923 until 1927, when non-Russian nationalities were courted, Bakhchysarai acquired a school for Crimean Tatar teachers. Beginning in 1928, however, Sovietization was initiated: the Crimean Tatar cultural-political leaders were purged, collectivization enforced, and Russification ensued. One mosque on the main street was converted into a movie theater, a tourist bureau was opened at the palace, technical schools were established in applied arts, medicine and construction, and a hospital, a clinic, two pharmacies and a library were set up. A textile mill and a fruit processing plant (in the 1920s) and a plant for the processing of essential oils from roses, lavender and salvia (in the 1930s) were added. Improved water supply, with the construction of the Egiz-Oba (aka Bakhchysarai) Reservoir (1927-1935), enabled urban growth. By 1939 the city’s population reached 10,884.

During the Second World War, while under Nazi German occupation (2 November 1941 to 14 April 1944) there was partisan resistance in the area, but the Russian partisans distrusted Crimean Tatars and would not allow them to join. In May 1944, upon the orders of the Soviet government, all Crimean Tatars were declared traitors and deported from the Crimea. In Bakhchysarai as elsewhere their dwellings were taken over by newcomers, mainly from central RSFSR. Although there were wartime losses and Crimean Tatars were replaced by others, the overall size of the population of Bakhchysarai hardly changed: from 10,884 in 1939 to 10,852 in 1959.

After post-war reconstruction, as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the population of the city continued to grow: 15,912 in 1970, 22,321 in 1979, and 25,363 in 1989. Industrial expansion or reconstruction involved the food industry (grain milling, baking, fruit canning and wine-making), construction (cement, woodworking, and roadbuilding), and textile (wool spinning). The city’s historic jewel, the khan’s palace, was restored by correcting earlier errors and its external appearance fixed to approximate the original. By 1989 Crimean Tatars were beginning to return from exile.

Following the 1991 Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, the return of Crimean Tatars intensified. Thus despite the depressed economy (the closing of the juice extracting, cannery, dairy, and textile mill), the city’s population grew from 25,363 in 1989 to 27,200 in 1992 and 28,500 in 1998. Unable to reclaim their lost homes, the Crimean Tatars became squatters and then built their own homes to form 3 neighborhoods. They opened the Crimean Tatar Cultural Educational Ethnographic Center (in 1992), restored mosques (the Great Khan’s Mosque [Crimean Tatar: Büyük Han Cami, Ukrainian: Велика ханська мечеть, built in 1532 by Sahib I Girei and bore his name in the 17th century] and the Takhtali Cami [built in 1707] in the 1990s, the Orta Cuma Cami [built in 1674] in the 2000s) and the Zyndzhyrly Madrasa (built in 1500 to become the largest center of Muslim religious education in the Crimea, restored in the 2000s). Moreover, the Dormition Cave Monastery (presumably originated in the 8th century, abandoned when Byzantium lost its hold on the region; re-established in the 15th century; closed in 1921 by the Soviet government) was renovated and re-opened to the public in 1993. In 2013 the central city park was redesigned into the Bakhchysarai park of miniatures. Old Bakhchysarai developed into a tourist center, featuring many cafes, restaurants, 8 small hotels; the Khan’s Palace, the Dormition Cave Monastery, and Chufut-Kaleh become the most popular sites for the tourists of the Crimea. While some stayed locally, many more were bussed in on day trips from larger cities where they stayed in the Crimea.

Following the Russian Federation’s invasion in 2014, the Crimean Tatar cultural-political vitality of Bakhchysarai and international tourism declined.

Population. The 1897 census classified males and females by the language they spoke and the religion they observed (see Table 1). At the time the Tatar speakers, mostly Crimean Tatars, formed an overwhelming majority. The Karaites, also Tatar-speaking, were a significant subset by religion. Russian speakers formed a large component. Despite the removal of many Greek speakers to the Mariupol area, many still remained. The higher male to female ratio among the Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and some other speakers suggests their recent immigration.

The 1926 census provided a base for comparing the composition of ethnic groups in the city’s population to that in later years (see Table 2). In 1926, the Crimean Tatars, numbering 6,884, still formed a majority (72.1 percent). Over time, however, Russians, Ukrainians, and others increased, whereas, the Crimean Tatars and other native Crimean groups declined and were removed entirely in 1944, placing Russians in a majority. Only in 1989 the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland and came back mainly when the Crimea became part of independent Ukraine. By 2001 the city’s Russians were reduced (in percent) to a plurality (49), the Crimean Tatars (25) attained second place and the Ukrainians third (23), with few others (3).

The lack of economic growth and demographic aging reversed the city’s population growth and initiated its decline: from 28,500 in 1998 to 27,549 in 2001, 26,628 in 2005, and 26,067 in 2009. Revival of the economy, however, renewed annual population growth: from 26,144 in 2010 to 26,482 in 1913. 

After the Russian Federation annexed the Crimea, a population census of the area held in autumn 2014 revealed that the number of Russians grew to a clear majority, Ukrainians declined to a third position and Tatars were registered alongside Crimean Tatars, whose minority position also declined (see Table 2). The city’s counted population of 27,448 comprised (in percent): Russians (59.2), Crimean Tatars (22.5), Ukrainians (10.1), Tatars (3.8), others (2.9), and non-declared (1.5).

Culture and Education. Educational institutions in Bakhchysarai derive from the Soviet past: The College of Construction, Architecture and Design, the Bakhchysarai Tekhnikum of Construction and Transportation, 5 secondary schools (4 with Russian language of instruction and 1 in Crimean Tatar), a residential school, a central raion library, a raion library for children, a nature interpretation center, a tourist center and an excursion center.

The rich Crimean Tatar past was preserved largely through the efforts of individuals and their organization of the Bakhchysarai Historical-Cultural and Archeological Museum-Preserve. The museum is centered in the former mosque (rebuilt in 1740) and the former palace (built in the 16th–18th century) of the Crimean khans. The only example of a Crimean Tatar palace, it is a UNESCO tentative world heritage site (2003).

The museum was established on 17 October 1917 by the Provisional Crimean-Muslim Executive Committee; its director was Husein Bodaninsky, a respected Crimean Tatar educator; its funding came from the city and donors. Directors comprised of known cultural leaders, who encouraged people to preserve historic documents, cultural objects and donate them to the museum. In 1921 Husein Bodaninsky prevailed to open, at the former publishing house of I. Gasprinsky & Son, where his Tercüman was printed, the Ismail bey Gasprinsky Memorial Museum as part of the museum at the khan’s palace.

In 1921 the Crimean authorities nationalized all cave cities, including Chufut-Kaleh, all khans’ mausoleums and all mausoleums in the Bakhchysarai raion and unified all museums under one Crimean administration: the Crimean Oblast Committee for Museums and the Preservation of Heritage, Art, Nature and Folk Culture. In 1922 the Bakhchysarai museum was included with other state museums, which provided for state funding, more staff, expeditions, and scientific work. With Sovietization in the 1930s, the staff was reduced, the historic and ethnographic sections were closed, and its expositions politicized. The Gasprinsky Memorial Museum was closed and most of its collection lost. During the Second World War Nazi German occupation 283 objects were taken from the collection of the Bakhchysarai museum. Following the deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944 another 2,000 items were taken, some to other museums of the USSR.

In 1955 the palace museum was combined with the archeological museum of cave cities and re-named the Bakhchysarai Historical-Archeological Museum. After a major competent restoration of the palace (1961–64), it was renamed (1979) the Bakhchysarai Historical-Architectural Museum.

Following the 1991 Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, the Great Khan’s Mosque, which housed the archeology division and lapidaries, was restored for the faithful in the 1990s, while its archeological collection was relocated to the restored Zyndzhyrly Madrasa complex at Salachyk (Novosillia); the Ismail bey Gasprinsky Memorial Museum was restored as well, and what remained of his collection at the palace transferred there. The palace underwent careful restoration.

The Bakhchysarai Historical-Cultural and Archeological Museum-Preserve now has several locations with specific collections: the khan’s palace (administration, museum of history and culture of Crimean Tatars, ethnography, paintings and sculptures by masters of the 18th and 19th century and paintings by modern artists); the Gasprinsky Memorial Museum (books, documents and archives); the Zyndzhyrly Madrasa complex (archeological collection); the newly-built (2011) Museum of Crimean Tatar Antiquities ‘La Richesse,’ established on the basis of the collection of Guliver Altin, president of the association ‘France-Crimea’, consisting of documents, maps, art, and literature produced by the Crimean Khanate he acquired (2004–) that were otherwise systematically destroyed by the Russians. The present collection, divided into archeological and historical sections, comprises 80 percent of objects collected before the Second World War. There are more than 145,000 artifacts in the museum.

The preserve also includes within the city limits the mausoleums and ruins of Chufut Kaleh and its structures (such as walls, gates, caves, Karaite Kenesa [both large and small], mausoleums), the mountain fort remains of Tepe-Kermen and the Kachi-Kalon cave monastery. Beyond the city limits in the Bakhchysarai raion, the museum is responsible for the preservation of the ruins of Mangup (the former Byzantine Doros), the fortified cave town Eski-Kermen, the Siurean Fortress, the cave town of Bakla, the fort Kiz-Kule, the ruins of Kiz-Kermen, the cave monasteries of Shuldan and Chilter-Marmara and a mausoleum in the Aivove village.

City Plan. Bakhchysarai occupies an irregular circular area of 29.3 sq km; its city limits, however, were extended after the Second World War to the southeast into the cliffs and wooded mountains with marked hiking trails to Chufut Kaleh and other points of interest; together, the built area and woodland occupy about 55 sq km.

The old, historic Bakhchysarai extends from the current city’s center southeast of the railway station to the east-southeast up the Churuk River valley. It forms a belt about 4 km long and 0.5 km wide that occupies about 25 percent of the city’s built area. It is a typically oriental city, with narrow, winding streets, fountains, and mosques. Its most famous architectural landmark is the group of buildings that once constituted the khan’s palace (16th–18th century). The most interesting buildings in it are the Golden Cabinet (18th century), the Hall of Assembly (16th–18th century), and the Fountain of Tears (built by master Omer in 1764).

The arterial to old Bakhchysarai starts at the railway station as Rakitsky Street, passes east southeast through the current city center, then changes to Lenin Street past the Friendship Stadium (home of the Bakhchysarai Soccer Club), the city park ‘the Crimea in Miniature’ and the Palace of Culture, entering the historic Bakhchysarai with its many cafes, hostels, and a mini market, then past Orta Cami, and the former khan’s palace. At Takhtali Cami, it changes to Ismail bey Gasprinsky Street and beyond the Gasprinsky Memorial Museum, to Basenko Street, past the Zyndzhyrly Madrasa at Salachyk (Starosillia). Another branch of Basenko Street leads into the Mariam Dere (Ravine), to the Dormition Cave Monastery and several other churches (Saint George the Victorious, and Apostolic Tsars Constantine and Helen) and beyond that, along a trail up the scarp, to the ruins of the fortress city of Chufut Kaleh.

The current city’s center is located near its main intersection of Rakitsky Street (southeast of the railway station towards old Bakhchysarai) with the main thoroughfare (on the southeast side of and parallel to the railway line) called Simferopol Street (on the way to Simferopol) and Frunze Street (to Sevastopol). Built up in the late 19th–early 20th century, it includes the area where Eski-Yurt once stood and occupies about 15 percent of the city’s built land area. Its diverse land uses include institutional (city hall, palace of culture, post office, a church [Theodore’s Icon of the Mother of God] and a house of prayer), commercial (central market, hotel, many stores, restaurants), industrial (cannery, transformer station), recreational (the Bakhchysarai Soccer Club stadium and city park ‘the Crimea in Miniature’), older residential buildings and two Crimean Tatar mausoleums (one for Mehmed II Girei and two other beys, and the other for Yude-Sultan Bey) and a small military depot.

South of the city center, at the fork of Frunze and Soviet streets, is a modern Soviet (1960s–1980s) mini-center: the Lenin Square with a court house and the Bakhchysarai shopping mall on its south side and on its east side, across Soviet Street, the Bakhchysarai Raion Administration building and next to it, the city’s main post office. Beyond it, to the west and approaching the Ehyz-Oba Reservior to the south, are two neighborhoods of 5-storey (1960s) and high rise apartments and hospital (post-1960s to 1980s), that occupy about 10 percent of the built area.

Three recent Crimean Tatar neighborhoods (single story houses with gardens on grid pattern streets) are on the gentle slopes, adjacent to the south (5th and 6th microraions) and north (7th microraion) of the historic Bakhchysarai; the first two occupy about 20 percent and the last about 10 percent of the city’s area. Beyond the city center, at the northeastern end of Simferopol Street is the inter-city bus depot and nearby a larger military depot. Along the railway, and mostly on its northern side, is a mix of industries and housing, occupying the remaining 20 percent of the city’s area; to the north is a large excavated pit and next to it, along the railway, a large cement-making plant and a road-construction enterprise; after 2014 a limited access bypass was built on the north side of the city to expedite traffic to Sevastopol. City transit is provided by mini-buses on 5 routes.

Nagaevskaia, E. Bakhchisarai (Simferopol 1976)
Bakhchysarai’ in Heohrafichna entsyklopediia Ukraïny, vol 1 (Kyiv 1989)
Vyrs'kyi, D. ‘Bakhchysarai’ in Entsyklopediia istorii Ukraïny, vol 1 (Kyiv 2003)
Loza, Iu. Istorychnyi atlas Ukraïny (Kyiv 2015)

Ihor Stebelsky

[This article was updated in 2023.]

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