The town of Bakhchisarai has, over the past couple decades, developed into the biggest tiny tourist town in Crimea, Ukraine. That might not sound like much, but after spending a few hours climbing through old cave cities high on plateaus above the river valley or visiting the recently reopened monastery carved into the side of a cliff I’m betting your attitude changes.
Situated more than one hundred meters up in the hills on the eastern outskirts of town (a 20 minute bus ride followed by 30-40 minutes walking to get to the entrance), Chufut-Kale is the most accessible of the cave cities in Crimea. This makes it one of the more crowded to visit, particularly during the busy summer season. But get up early, before the tour groups from Simferopol or Sevastopol show up, and you can have the site more or less to yourself. It is worth the early wake-up call.
Historians debate the origins of the settlement, some suggesting it is from the 6th century and others placing it in the 10th-11th century range. The town was used as a garrison for Tatar troops who invaded and conquered in 1299 and in the 15th century the town grew a bit, adding a second wall. Leaders of the Crimean Khanate used the town as a seat of government and then, later, a prison complex. By the end of the 17th century only Karaites were living in the town. The Tatars who ruled the area considered the Karaites to be Jews and the town name eventually changed to Chufut-Kale meaning “Jewish fortress” in Turkic.
There is evidence that some residents were actually Jewish. My Hebrew is a bit rusty but a couple of the buildings were clearly marked as kenesas, the Karaite version of a synagogue from the 14th or 15th century. And the interior showed them to obviously be such. They are built into the exterior wall of the the town, virtually hanging over the valley below. The views from inside are incredible (though it is not currently possible to look out the windows because of their status as protected monuments).
There are a number of old homes and meeting places still well enough maintained that they can be explored by visitors. Some paths look to follow ancient roads and peter out in overgrowth which isn’t passable. Other paths lead to unexpected vistas, either of the town or the valley below.
There are two other similar cities not too far away, allowing for those so inclined to make a more substantial (i.e. couple days hiking) tour of the area. But for straight up exposure to the history and culture in just a few hours the site at Chufut-Kale is hard to beat. As an added bonus the hike up to the area passes by the Holy Assumption Bakhchisarai Monastery, similarly situated up in a cliff face. Stop in to the Monastery during your visit to experience a different – and living – version of the history.
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