Russian annexation caused destruction of 1,474 mosques in Crimea

In an exclusive interview with Kuzey News Agency, Kanchal, who participated in a comprehensive archive study to register Crimean historical architectural work of arts in 2012, said most of the Islamic works including mosques were destroyed. Today, the number of mosques in the region is only 80.

Russian annexation caused destruction of 1,474 mosques in Crimea


Art historian Nicole Nur Kanchal stated in 1784 when Russia first annexated Crimea, a disputed land between Russia and Ukraine nowadays. Back then, there were 1,474 mosques in the region that was predominantly populated by Muslim Tatars.

The Crimean Khanate was established during 1400s. Where did they come from and how was their cultural heritage they carried to Crimea? What is the relationship between the culture in Crimea and Arab-Ottoman understanding of culture?

Crimea is geopolitically very important for it stands on the Silk Road and the coastal cities in its south. Actually, Turkish influence had begun there in 5th century with the migration of tribes when Kipchaks, a Turkic tribe, gained political control of Crimea. Northern Crimea is still defined as Desht-i Kipchak. After them, the Turkic-Mongolian Golden Horde took authority in the region in the 13th century. Shortly afterwards, the Golden Horde accepted Islam as its state religion. Thereon, Crimea had become a part of the Islamic geography which led to the establishment of Turkish-Islamic culture in this part of the Black Sea.

Today there are only a few buildings left from that period. The Old Crimea, which was the center of the Golden Horde state, is in the east of the Crimean peninsula. A mosque in this part of Crimea which is known as the Uzbek Khan mosque and Inji Bey public house are two rare pieces of architecture from that time. At the same time, a madrasa is especially important since its sponsor was a female Muslim. Ibn al-Battuta is a great source for historians who seek important details about that period in Crimea.

Some of the tombs which have survived till this day in the Old Crimea, along with the ruins of a mosque in the Chufut castle, are two important pieces representing the Golden Horde era. There are unfortunately no gravestones from the Golden Horde except for those in Crimea. There are many gravestones around the Uzbek Khan area in addition to Kirkyer, Eski Yurt and Hansaray.

The successor of the Golden Horde was the Crimean Khanate, which was formed in the mid-15th century by Haji Giray Khan. Coins from his term have been found. He redesigned Crimea as the center of his power but today we consider his grandson Mengli Giray Khan as the founder of the Khanate. Having lived in Istanbul for a period of timei, Mengli Giray Khan provided support to Fatih the Conquerer when the latter was fighting to conquer Kefe in 1475, where the Ottoman Empire established a new city. Mengli Giray Khan was an important person in Ottoman history. He was the father in law of Sultan Selim I, who was the first Ottoman Caliph of the entire Muslim world. Mengli Giray Khan’s daughter Aisha Hafsa Sultan was married to Sultan Selim I and according to some sources she was the mother of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificient, but this claim is disputed.

You said the real founder of the Crimea Khanate was Mengli Giray. What has his legacy left today?

The tomb of Mengli Giray Khan is in Salajak, west of Bakhchisaray. But for some historians this tomb belongs to his grand father, Haji Giray Khan.

How did the relations between Crimean with Ottoman Empire develop beyond marriage links?

These kind of marriages were a common thing among nobles and aristocrats. For instance, the leaders of the Crimean Khanate viewed it important to create marriage links not only with Ottomans but also local aristocrats like the Shirin Begs tribe that settled in Karasubazari. After Mehmet the Conquerer, marriage links with Crimea were suspended.

The Crimean Khanate was founded after the Golden Horde and had very close relations with the Ottoman Empire which caused interaction and mutual influence. How can we interpret the effect of this relationship on the art works in Crimea?

Beginning from the period of Mengli Giray Khan, Ottomans had pursued the following policy: One or two sons of the Khan were forcefully held in Istanbul. When some disturbance occured in the Ottoman capital stemming from the Crimean Khanate, the Sultan released one of the sons and sent him to Crimea to be with Khan. As the indication of leader change, the Khan's son was given an official document and several gifts. This is a clear intervention.

When the son of Mengli Giray Khan, Sahip Giray Khan, was sent from Istanbul to Crimea. He was accompanied by a special unit of Ottoman soldiers whose salaries were paid by Istanbul. This was a turning point in which Ottoman influence started to expand. Since the 16th century, it can be stated that the cultural atmosphere in Istanbul and Crimea was nearly the same. There was no remarkable difference. This can be seen in literature, music and architecture - which is my field of interest.

One example from literature is Bora Giray Khan, who was the Khan in the first half of 17th century. He had written a set of traditional Ottoman poets which is seen a part of Ottoman literature. The Ottoman sultan sent an orchestra for Bora Giray Khan. Khan Mosque in Gozlev is the first example of Ottoman influence in Crimea. It was built in 1550’s by Devlet Giray the first. He has a special place for the history of Crimea since he organized a military campaign towards Moscow and destroyed the city. One of three mosques with a dome in Crimea is the Khan Mosque. The architect of this mosque is Mimar Sinan and there is a particular sign confirming the architecture of the mosque is Mimar Sinan.

In that time, mosques with domes were very rare. The Khan mosque has the same pattern as the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul. Another important point of the mosque is its two minarets. Mosques with two minarets could be only built with special permission from the Ottoman Sultan. Again a tomb at the rear belonging to Mehmet Giray the Second is still standing in west of Bakhchisaray, which also reflects the architectural character of the Ottomans. Since Kefe was an Ottoman front, a large number of buildings were built there in the 15th century. However, today only the Mufti Mosque, which built in 17th century, remains. Another mosque was destroyed in the 20th century.

From an architectural point of view, Crimea had no difference from other parts of the Empire. The best example is Hansaray, which was first established by Mengli Giray Khan in the 16th century, but the real establishment was achieved by Saib Giray the First. It is possibele to interpret the existence of a synthesis with the Topkapi Palace (in Istanbul) and the palace in Edirne. This is very important. The style of the palaces in Crimea did not change afterwards. Hansaray, also a palace, was damaged in the beginning of 18th century. Hansaray is also significant for its geography. It was the Ottoman palace standing at the northest point of the Ottoman sphere of influence. It is one of the limited examples of Turkish-Islamic architectural style. When the palace was destroyed by Russians in the 18th century, the Crimean Khan called Ottomans for help, who sent construction materials and architects to restore it. Documents in the Turkish Prime Ministry’s archive are found regarding this development with every detail including the type of wood used, which was sent from Sinop.

The oldest component of Hansaray is the Harem building. There were many Harems in the palace but only one of them remains today. The building is estimated to have been built in the beginning of the 18th century. The similarities between the Harem building in Hansaray and some parts of the Yeni Mosque in Istanbul is very notable. Although several renovations have been undertaken, the porcelain of Hansaray remains intact as they were brought from Istanbul. We should add that the renovations were also made by preserving its Ottoman style. The wars beginning in 1771 and finally the Crimean war in 1778 initated a transformation in this region. Massive migrations started in 1771 and continued till 1784. More than half of the Crimean Tataras moved to Turkey, which resulted in the Russification of the peninsula. This development caused a cultural change in Crimea and life for the Tatars still living in Crimea got much harder.

The second wave of massive migration happened in 1853-1861. These moves had considerable consequences on mosques. Since the Muslim population was exponentially decreasing, mosques had become useless and started to be used for other reasons. The worst happened in 1917 after the Communist Revolution and later pre-war period in 1940’s. At the end of the Second World War, the Muslims in Crimea were completely evacuated. In 1944, Stalin ordered what is known today as ‘The Great Exile’. They had the chance of returning to their homeland in the beginning of the 1990s but with numerous difficulties.

When I first visited Crimea in 1993, I was deeply affected by the poverty and severe conditions under which people were forced to live. But returning home was very important especially for the old Tatars. We conducted interviews with them - some of whom are not living today. Still we were happy due to the increase in the number of Tatars in Crimea and we thought they would protect their cultural heritage.

During the Stalin era Tatars were forced to leave their homeland and non-Muslim groups were placed. Were the Muslim architectural works adversely affected by this change? Was there a systematic destruction?

In some periods, systematic destructions were carried out with the Russification policy which started in 1784, which at the same time marked the extensive destruction campaign. But after 1944, instead of breaking down buildings, they were used for different purposes. Mosques were turned into museums and cultural centers where communist propoganda was made. Interestingly, for this goal, some additional parts were built to some mosques. Old cameras can be found in some of these additional parts because a few of them were used as cinemas.

My first trip to Crimea was in Eid al Adha and we observed very interesting things. Tatars came back recently and they were not allowed to settle in their homes but were instead settled in irrelative lands. For the religious fest, a group of Tatars decided to go their villages and invited us for company. This was very impressive for me. When we arrived, most of them rushed to the fountain where they had written their names. All of them were erased. The second thing I was hurt by was the fact that their large reisdences were given to Russians. They went in front of their houses and saw them but could not enter. This was tragic.

Did the collapse of the Soviets bring any relief to the region?

Of course. But still Tatars were not given resident permits and they did not get identitiy. Therefore they were unable to find jobs. Since Russians burned all the place names Tatars had no chance to claim right over territories they had.

Now I am trying to understand today's developments with the past's experiences. Twenty years ago Ukraine declared independence and you mentioned the poor situation of returning Tatars. How do you correlate today's developments with the past?

The Tatars' condition in Crimea has developed in recent years. Large constructions have started to be erected in their neighborhoods. Some of them even received lands. Tatars constitute 12 per cent of the total population in the peninsula. Turkey's support and their attempts to re-build old mosques may create disturbance in Moscow.

You have recently launched a project for collecting information about historical buildings. How has what you study been affected by the recent events?

We are working to create an inventory of historical works and for this aim we have travelled to more than 50 places. The total number of buildings we added to the inventory exceeds 150. This study has so far indicated that the number of mosques according to a study made just after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 1784 is 1,474. Another study conducted in 1912 showed the number decreased to 729 in 130 years. And today our study determined all of the mosques, including the harmed and inactive ones. The number is only 80.

Could you please elaborate the details of your study?

Turkey has launched a very good study. The head of our study group is Dr. Hakan Kirimli from Bilkent Universty, Ankara. This study is sponsored jointly by the General Directorates of Foundations and a unit in the Turkish Prime Ministry which is responsible for the relations with Turks living abroad and Turkic communities. Our aim is to constitute an inventory of all historical and cultural works of art in Crimea. Our group is composed of four people and three colleagues who joined us in Crimea.

We have travelled all of the peninsula. This study will be published this year. Another project I am committed to is to collect information about tablets and inscriptions in Crimea. Gathering information of inscriptions belonging to both mosques and gravestones is important and is being given more attention with the current situation. These inventory studies may be helpful for Tatars to claim ownerships of some mosques. We have cooperated with the Mufti of Crimea. We have conducted an archive work in the office of the mufti. The mosques we have identified were generally built in the 19th century. But it is known that they were built on the ruins of the mosques from the time of Crimean period. The link between Crimea with the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey is significant for me. They had a constant relationship with the Ottoman Empire. I mentioned how the politics of Crimea were managed from Istanbul. I should add that the overthrown Khans were settled in Rumelia. They may be sent to Crimea again as the Khan. 24 of a total of 47 Crimean Khans, more than half of them, were buried in Ottoman territory. In Thrace, in a district called Sarayyize and another called Catalca, there were foundations established by the Crimean Khans.

Another example showing the close connection is that Turkey is among the few countries Tatars moved to after the Great Exile along with Romania and Bulgaria. The Crimean Tatars in Turkey have not cut off their relations with the homeland. After the tensions eased, some of them decided to return to Crimea. This shows that a living relationship has always existed between Anatolia and Crimea starting from the period of the Golden Horde.

How do you evaluate the current situation in Ukraine and Crimea from the point of Tatars who are in a minority position?

Crimean Tatars of course want to be under the authority of the Ukrainian government and they would never consider the alternative of being a part of Russia.

You said being a part of Ukraine is in the interest of Crimean Tatars?

Like the previous times, Crimean Tatars are always looking to Europe and Ukraine. They turned their backs to Russia. The majority of the population there is Russian and want to reunify with Moscow as does the Russian government, because of the geopolitical importance. This would create a trauma for the Crimean Tatars. They phone us to call for help to get out of Crimea with their families. The young people and veiled women have problems. The homes of Muslims are signed like in Nazi Germany. I attended the rally where I had the chance to talk to Tatars. They have real concerns.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 07 Nisan 2014, 18:04