Bakhchisaray (Бахчисарай), about 20 miles (33 km) southwest of Simferopol, is a region with a long and diverse history. The area has been home to Khazars (possibly), Crimean Karaim, Crimean Tatars and Russians. The name, Bakhchisaray, is derived from a Persian phrase meaning "garden palace". The area outside the city offers some spectacular hiking.

The Crimean Tatars and the Crimean Khanate

Bakhchisaray today is best known as former capital of the Crimean Khanate and the present-day home of many Crimean Tatars. Like the Khazars (and perhaps the Karaim), the Tatars are an ethnically Turkic group having their roots in central Asia.

The Crimean Khanate has its roots in the dissolution of the Golden Horde, one of the successor empires to the great Mongol empire created by Genghis Khan. Over the years, the Golden Horde had become a mix of Mongol and Turkic peoples and the formerly nomadic warriors had begun to create permanent settlements. In 1441, Haci I Giray declared independence from the Golden Horde and established the Crimean Khanate. The Khanate came under the protection of the Ottoman Empire, but remained a largely independent entity. Islam was the official religion, though other religions were tolerated and the Crimean Tatars lived peacefully with their close neighbors, the Karaim. From the 16th until the 18th century, the Crimean Khanate was one of the strongest powers in Eastern Europe. Much of their economy depended on supplying cavalry troops to the Ottoman Empire (and the booty carried home by returning troops) and raiding points north to kidnap ethnic Slavs and sell them into slavery. The Tatars regularly invaded all the way to Moscow and, in 1571, burned the city to the ground and enslaved 150,000 Russians. By some accounts, three million ethnic Ukrainians, Russians and other Slavic individuals were sold into slavery during the Crimean Khanate. Russia paid tribute to the Khanate until 1680. In the 18th century, however, as the Ottoman Empire began to decline and the Russian Empire became stronger, the Crimean Khanate was no longer able to exert the influence it once had. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, Russia gained control of Crimea and formally annexed it in 1783.

The Crimean Tatars were persecuted under Russian rule and, during the 19th century, it is estimated that one million left Crimea for Turkey and other safer havens. In May 1944, more than 190,000 Tatars were rounded up over a period of three days and deported to central Asia, primarily to the Uzbek SSR (what is now Uzbekistan). Stalin had accused the Tatars of collaborating with the Nazis, who had occupied Crimea from 1941 to 1944. While some certainly had – indeed there was an official Nazi "Tatar Legion" – many others had fought with the Red Army. Nevertheless, all were rounded up and deported. Many died along the way or in the deplorable conditions they found in the Uzbek SSR. Although the charges against the Tatars were formally lifted by the Soviet government in 1967, no efforts were made to allow them to return. Not until after Ukrainian independence in 1991 were large numbers (some 250,000) of Tatars able to return to their homeland in Crimea.

Bakhchisaray's most famous attraction is the Khan's Palace (Hansaray), started in 1532 by Khan Sahib I Giray when he established the city as the capital of the Khanate. It is the only Khan palace left extant in Crimea. Visitors to the palace today can see the Big Khan Mosque, one of the first structures to be built in the complex, and a nearby cemetery that holds the remains of nine khans plus other members of the royal family and aristocracy. The former living quarters of the palace have been restored and furnished in period pieces and other areas have been converted into a museum to display artifacts from the period. (For more on the Khan's Palace, visit the official website.)

Chufut-Kale (Çufut Qale) and the Karaim

High atop a steep hill outside of present-day Bakhchisaray stand the remains of the ancient fortress of Chufut-Kale (or Çufut Qale, a name that means "Jews' Castle" or "Jewish Fortress" in Turkish and related Crimean Tatar). This fortress was once the stronghold of the Crimean Karaim who inhabited the area until the 19th century.

The origins of the Crimean Karaim, who practiced a form of Judaism, are obscure. Some say they are descended from the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people from central Asia who occupied parts of Crimea between the 7th and 11th centuries. Many Khazars, including the royal families, converted to Judaism beginning in the 8th century, if not earlier. The Khazars, however, practiced a form of Rabbinical Judaism that recognized the Talmud (Rabbinical interpretations and commentaries on the Hebrew Bible) as authoritative, while the Karaim recognized only the Hebrew Bible and not the Rabbinical traditions. Others assert that the Crimean Karaim are descended from the Karaites, Jewish groups originating in Mesopotamia that similarly rejected the authority of the Talmud. The Crimean Karaim, however, deny this connection. It is also possible that the Karaim are simply local residents of Crimea who converted to the Karaim faith. Strangely, during World War II, a special decree from Berlin ordered that Karaites in general – and the Crimean Karaim in particular – were not to be classified as Jews under Nazi law. Indeed, there is evidence that several hundred Crimean Karaim served in various Nazi legions and SS groups.

Whatever their origins, the Karaim thrived in Chufut-Kale and the surrounding area, and in several other areas of Crimea, including Yevpatoria. They lived in peace with the Ottoman empire, which controlled most of Crimea at the time, and later with the Crimean Tatars who selected Bakhchisaray as their capital. Interestingly, in 1400, a group of Karaim were brought to Trakai in Lithuania to serve as royal bodyguards. Today, however, only a few hundred Crimean Karaim remain scattered in various small and assimilated communities throughout Crimea.

The remains of the ancient fortress and cave settlement of Chufut-Kale, can be seen outside the city of Bakhchisaray. The fortress had various inhabitants over the years. It appears the Tatars used it for while during their wars of independence against the Golden Horde and before establishing their capital in Bakhchisaray. The last inhabitants were the Karaim who occupied it from at least the 16th century (and perhaps earlier). Inside the fortress are several caves that were once occupied as well several free-standing buildings, including a Kenassa, or Karaim place of worship. In the forest below Chufut-Kale one can see the remains of an old Karaim cemetery with Hebrew lettering clearly visible on the elaborate tombstones (most of which have been toppled over). It was quite an eerie experience to suddenly come upon this ancient cemetery in the midst of the forest. A road leads from the fortress down into the cemetery.

The Christian Influence

Outside of town, cut into the rocky cliffs of the Crimean Mountains, is the Dormition Cave Monastery (Свято-Успенский мужской монастырь), an Orthodox Christian mens' monastery. (The monastery is also known, in English, as the Uspensky Cave Monastery, or the Assumption Monastery of the Caves.) By some accounts, the monastery was founded in the 8th or early 9th century by Byzantine monks devoted to the veneration of religious icons after the Council of Hieria in 754 decreed that all such icons should be destroyed (the first of two "iconoclastic" periods in early Christianity). This early monastery fell into disuse as Byzantium, and its influence on Crimea, declined.

The monastery as it exists today dates to the 15th century. It was closed, however, by the Soviets in 1921 and fell into disrepair. After Ukrainian independence, the monastery was restored and in it reopened in 1993. The complex consists of a number of separate buildings, but the most interesting feature is a church built in a cave in the solid rock. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside the church.