Amid the tensions in Crimea, it is easy to forget that less than a year ago the news from the region was cause for international celebration. Last June, UNESCO conferred the status of a World Heritage Site on the ancient city of Chersonesos and its chora, or territory on the Crimean peninsula. But now, Chersonesos is in jeopardy.
The most clear and present danger to Chersonesos is far more destructive than it being damaged in an armed conflict, for it has weathered its fair share of wars in its recent history. The biggest threat is one of mismanagement, corruption and greed. Access to the site may be blocked by the Russians, and there is a strong possibility that the City of Sevastopol could, once again, become a closed city as it was in 1917. That would guarantee an end to the relatively new atmosphere of foreign collaboration, funding and joint research.
Founded as a Greek polis in the 5th century BC, Chersonesos was continuously occupied for nearly 2,000 years. The UNESCO nomination recognized its universal human value. The city of Sevastopol, headquarters to the Black Sea Fleet, had finally begun to embrace the potential of Chersonesos as a major contributor to the peacetime economy, formerly based exclusively on the military.
I first visited in October 1992, a year after Ukrainian independence, to discuss a possible collaboration with the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, which, under various different names, had been carrying out archaeological research and conservation since the mid-19th century. My interest in the agricultural territory of Greek colonies, led me to Chersonesos, just one of two Greek poleis whose chora was as well preserved as its urban center.
I recognized on that first visit that Chersonesos was a magical place, one that the rest of the world should know and love. Over the next 20 years, my team from the Institute of Classical Archaeology of the University of Texas at Austin worked with the National Preserve to make sure the site met the exacting standards for a World Heritage Site. The very generous funding over the last 15 years from the Packard Humanities Institute made it a reality. By 2002, with David Packard’s backing, the Preserve had the finest IT infrastructure of any cultural institution in eastern Europe, a new laboratory, and a state-of-the-art conservation program.
While access to the site is now a very real threat, history suggests there is also a threat to the survival of the archaeological site itself, but not because of an armed conflict. In 988 AD, Volodymyr, Prince of the Kyivan Rus, was baptized here, and thus Christianity entered the Slavic world. This momentous fact was ignored until the middle of the 19th century, when archaeological investigations had already been well established by the founders of archaeology in the Russian Empire, the Count and Countess Uvarov. They made every effort to stop the Orthodox Church of the Moscow patriarchy from destroying the site with the construction of the monastic buildings. These later became the Archaeological Museum after the Russian Revolution and the suppression of the Church. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Church began a very determined effort to reclaim its “property.”
In the summer of 1998, an unmarked helicopter with a kiosk dangling from it hovered over the foundation of the 6th-century AD baptistery of the Uvarov Basilica (named for the excavators). This was followed by an invasion of busloads of the faithful. By 2000, the monks had begun an occupation of the Preserve’s buildings. The World Monuments Fund in New York, to whose list of the world’s most endangered archaeological sites I had nominated Chersonesos in 1996, rose to the occasion. With help from the former Ambassador to the Ukraine, William Green Miller, and Brook Shearer of the National Park Service in Washington, we mounted a successful campaign in Kyiv and Sevastopol to save the site. A key player, the Mayor of Sevastopol at the time, Leonid Zhunko, is now the very effective Director of the Preserve.
It is not unheard of to remove a site’s World Heritage status. We can only hope that reason and respect for history and culture will prevail, and this treasure will be protected. That will be difficult, if not impossible, if the Cold War is resumed, as it seems to be for now. The human value of Chersonesos transcends politics and borders. It should be treasured and protected no matter who is in charge of the site and the region.
Joseph Carter is the Centennial Professor of Classical Archaeology and Director of the Institute of Classical Archaeology at The University of Texas at Austin. He has led excavations in Crimea and Ukraine since 1994.