t the international airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, a ticket checker waves me toward the
distant domestic airport for my flight to Simferopol, even though the Crimean city is in
independent Ukraine. "We always considered Crimea part of mother Russia," she explains.
"We still consider it our own."
Many books have been written about Russia's geopolitical interest in the strategic Black Sea
peninsula of Crimea, dating back to the times of Peter the Great. But it only takes one slim
volume of poetry to understand Crimea's hold on the Russian soul: Alexander Pushkin's 1824
"The Fountain of Bakhchisaray." It recounts a romantic legend set in the 500-year-old palace
of the Crimean khans—one of only three palaces of Islamic design surviving in Europe
today—and it is the source of a national love affair with the locale itself.
Pushkin is regarded as the founder of Russian literature and its greatest lyric poet. Among
his works, "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray" not only was one of his most popular poems, but also
served as a kind of Russian One Thousand and One Nights: a 3500-word verse that
recreates the world of the palace's builders, the vanished Crimean Khanate.
The tale's allure over these 200 years springs from the story: A love between a soulful conqueror
and a captive maid, doomed by a vengeful harem queen. So deeply does his poem resonate that
still today, moved largely by Pushkin, some 250,000 people a year come from all over Russia to
the palace, primarily to set eyes on the poem's set-piece—the actual Fountain of Tears,
which Pushkin turned into one of the most profound symbols of eternal love in all of literature.
But to today's descendants of the 800-year-old Crimean Tatar Khanate, Bakhchisaray
(pronounced bah-chih-sah-rye) means even more, says Yakub
Appazov, director of a local museum. The palace, he explains, "is the heart of the nation,
and all that belongs to the nation is Bakhchisaray." The nameplate on the palace, he adds,
reads "Bakhchisaray Palace of the Crimean Khanate" not only in Ukrainian and Russian, but i
n Crimean Tatar as well.
Since ancient times, successive civilizations in Crimea have tended to erase the traces of
their predecessors. This was nearly the fate of both fountain and palace. But they endure
because the story of "The Fountain of Tears" moved not only the Russian people, but also
czars, a great empress and the First General Secretary of the Communist Party. If not for
Pushkin's poem, the palace would have been lost.
But now let's find it.
rom the 16th to the late 18th centuries, the town of Bakhchisaray, whose name means "the
palace in the garden," was the capital of the Crimean Khanate, the state that in 1438
broke away from the Golden Horde, the alliance of Mongol and Turkish tribes whose empire
reached from the Pacific to the Volga River. The Khanate, extending east from the Black
Sea to the Caspian-Volga region, was a formidable power, and its line of kings descended
from Genghis Khan himself. The founder of the dynasty, Menli i
Giray, took the imperial title "Sovereign of Two Continents and Khan of Khans of Two Seas."
Over some 250 years, from 1532 until 1783, the palace at Bakhchisaray was the residence of
48 khans of the Giray dynasty, and the sumptuous complex lived up to its name, with gardens
and a life-giving, sustaining and purifying supply of water as the focal point of its design.
But now it's been 235 years since the khans were masters at Bakhchisaray. Over these years,
the palace has taken on a Russianized, "Asian Baroque" appearance—"greatly distorted
compared to its initial look," admits the palace's former assistant director Oleksa Haiworonski,
a devotee of Crimean Tatar history. More-over, due to a Russian attack in 1736 that destroyed
the palace's archives, the palace lacks any ethnographic information on the everyday life of
the khans and other inhabitants there, as well as any documents from the period, says Haiworonski.
All of which suits Bakhchisaray better to legend and poetry than history.
Luxuriance to this day enthralls
Those vacant pleasances and halls
Where now the Khans? The Harem where?
All now was silent, all was dreary,
All had been altered but not there
Was what bestirred the spirit's query....
Inside, the L-shaped Fountain Court's cement walls are barren. Its uneven floors have been
smoothed by millions of steps over the centuries. It's shaded and cool, dappled with sunlight
from the open door to the harem garden.
The Fountain of Tears itself is tucked into a corner, with a bust of Pushkin alongside.
From its grey marble and floral arabesques, a sequence of nine basins descends.
"Poetically described to me as la fontaine des larmes [the fountain of tears], I
saw a broken fountain; from a rusty iron pipe water dripped drop by drop," wrote Pushkin to
a friend after first seeing the fountain on his visit in 1820. But later, he saw the glint
of poetic gold in the image of the fountain as a desolate eye, weeping endlessly. From 1821
to 1823, he worked on his poem, which was published in March 1824. It became his best-selling
poem. Soon afterward, in 1826, he published a shorter, reflexive verse titled "To the Palace
of the Fountain of Bakhchisaray."
Frankly, Pushkin's prosaic, even shabby, first impression in 1820 is still accurate. American
traveler Matt Brown reacted to his first sight of the fountain: "Before I walked in, I read
Lonely Planet where it described the weeping fountain. You expect to walk into the
place and see such a fabulous structure, and it was so disappointing."
But Russians disagree: Read Pushkin's poetic rendering, and your reaction may be like those
unending lines of tourists who approach the humble-looking fountain with solemnity, open-mouthed
curiosity and visible emotion. With trembling hands, a few put in place two white roses,
mimicking Pushkin's hauntingly beautiful gesture from his second poem:
The stream of love, the stream alive,
I brought to thee two roses, as a present.
I like the ceaseless murmur thy,
And lyric tears, still and pleasant.
Ludmila Nosoyan is a Moscow fashion designer who tries to visit the fountain once or even twice
a year. She remembers first hearing Pushkin in early childhood. "It's a story from the magical
world that has nothing to do with the reality of the Orenburg steppe [in Siberia]. Magical people,
strange and beautiful clothes—a dreamy story."
She acknowledges, barely, that the fountain itself is so modest. "While the reality is not so
striking, it still keeps that dream intact," she says. "Here, I'm enchanted in a different time.
I see the fountain, I see Zarema, Maria, and Giray. It's an unfading love story."
In the story Pushkin tells, the palace was home, long ago, to an "imperious lord of nations,"
a khan whom Pushkin names simply Giray. In the inner court was the harem, where only Giray was
permitted entrance. There, Zarema was "the harem's queen, love's brightest star"—until the
arrival of Maria, an "orphaned princess snatched by arms" from a castle in Poland. ("She was her
greybeard father's pride / Joy of his years' receding tide.") Giray secretly falls in love with
the beautiful Maria, but his love is unrequited. She is shy, alone, distraught by captivity, and
chaste. She desperately resists him and "in this spare lodgement set apart / From envious wives,
she grieves her heart." But that doesn't stop envious Zarema, who steals into Maria's room and
murders her. Giray witnesses the crime, and he casts Zarema out. That night she, too, dies. Giray,
grief-stricken by his losses ("Then whisper something and it seems / Tears scored his cheeks in
scalding streams") and ennobled by romantic love, gives orders to his sculptor:
Back home the Tatar chieftain came;
A marble fountain he erected
To honor poor Maria's name
Deep in a corner of the Court....
There's writing, too; the probing whirls
Of time have not erased it yet.
Behind its curious curves and curls
Within the stone the waters fret
Then gush and rain in tearlike pearls,
Undried, unsilenced evermore.
Thus mothers mourn in grief unmeasured
Sons done to death by savage war.
This tale of woe from ancient lore
The maidens hereabouts have treasured;
Each age the mournful mark reveres,
And knows it as The Fount of Tears.
What people today see in the fountain, says Emil Ametov, a young palace assistant historian,
are teardrops from a human eye, filling first the large basin, a "broken heart," and then spilling
over into the pairs of smaller basins, thus offering the relief that comes with tears—but
then, as memories rise up again, the pool of tears refills and the heart repeats the cycle again a
nd again in inconsolable grief and continuous love.
folk tale," says Haiworonski about Pushkin's epic poem. "Actually, we don't know how factual this
story is of Dilara Bikech, the noblewoman whom the Khan fell in love with. We know nothing about her."
Most historians believe that the original location of the Fountain of Tears was a niche in an
octagonal mausoleum built on a hill above the palace by Khan Qirim Giray in 1764. On the mausoleum
was inscribed only a woman's name: Dilara Bikech.
Haiworonski, a Polish-Ukrainian who grew up in Bakhchisaray, finishes his third pour of tea into
a small porcelain bowl, in the Crimean Tatar style. "No evidence, just speculation: Even a khan's
love could not be the basis for burying a woman in a mausoleum as if she were a saint," he says.
"We can find much more substantial reasons for that, because we know Dilara Bikech as a donor of
mosques in the town. One of the mosques in Bakhchisaray, the so-called Green Mosque, was inscribed
with her name. We know the tradition of rich women building mosques did exist in the Crimean court.
So perhaps it was not the khan's love that was the reason to bury her with such a special honor.
Unfortunately, for now, we do not have any documents that would help us discover who she was."
Visiting Bakhchisaray at about the same time as Pushkin, the traveler Muraviev-Apostol wrote of the mausoleum,
which still stands, "Very strange that all the people here vouch that this beauty was not a Georgian but a Polish girl,
allegedly kidnapped by Qirim Giray. However much I argued with them, no matter how I assured them that the
traditional story has no historical basis, and that in the second half of the eighteenth century it was not so
easy for Tatars to kidnap a Pole, all my arguments were useless. They maintain as one: The beauty was Maria Potocka."
There may indeed have been a historical Maria Potocka, a Polish noblewoman who had been kidnapped on a Crimean
Tatar raid and held in the khan's harem, and who ultimately became his wife. But the timing is off: The tale
is first mentioned in the writings of Crimean historian Sayyid Muhammad Riza. In his account, it was Khan
Fetih ii Giray (ruled 1736–1737) who was given the captured maiden—
and who restored her to her family in exchange for a ransom in gold. Since the fountain was built in 1764, the a
ccepted historical wisdom is that it actually commemorates Dilara Bikech, who was likely a Georgian girl who
died young, for dilara is a Turkish word meaning "beloved," and bikech was a name usually
given to concubines.
Adding to the legend, just 20 years after the fountain was erected and after the death of the "last khan"
who built it, the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, came calling at Bakhchisaray. The accounts of her
visit in 1787, and her own words, show that even then the palace already had a claim on the Russian romantic
Bakhchisaray was the last stop on Catherine's eight-month victory tour celebrating her defeat of the Ottoman
Empire in the Russo-Turkish war, which had ended in 1774, and the Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783. It must
have been a sight to behold: 12,000 horsemen of the Tatar cavalry, richly clothed and armed, escorted Catherine,
the guard of honor and her retinue of 2300 to the palace of the former khans.
Mastermind of the visit was Prince Grigori Potemkin, Russia's most powerful statesman and Catherine's intimate,
who had given orders for the khan's palace to be completely restored and refurbished, with the ultimate goal of
making it into his own "Russian Alhambra."
He succeeded in impressing Catherine. From Bakhchisaray, the empress wrote these words to Potemkin, as
translated by Andreas Schnle:
I lay one evening in the Khan's summer-house,
In the midst of Muslims and the Islamic faith.
In front of this summer-house a mosque was built,
Where five times a day the Imam calls the people.
I thought of sleeping, but as soon as I closed my eyes,
He shut his ears and roared with all his might...
O, godly miracles! Who among my ancestors
Slept peacefully from the hordes and their khans?
But what prevents me from sleeping in Bakhchisaray
Are tobacco smoke and this roar. Is this not the place of paradise?
One of history's great romantics, Catherine stayed three days in Bakhchisaray. As part of his coup de
théâtre, Potemkin had moved the fountain that Pushkin would immortalize 37 years later
from its original location in the mausoleum to its present location, in an inner courtyard, so as to put it near
the empress's apartment, certain that she would appreciate what was then already local folklore: the tale of the
khan, the harem queen and the captive maiden. One can imagine Catherine and her suite whiling away the evening with
their guests, listening for the fountain's teardrops falling. The echoes are long in that courtyard.
ne late afternoon at the palace, I met Amit Refetov and his bride, Elmaz, who had come with members of their
family to the Great Khan Mosque in the palace for a blessing on their marriage. "It's our Crimean Tatar mosque,"
Refetov said. "Even the walls can bless the new family."
Many of those walls, however, except in the oldest and best-preserved part of the palace, have long since been
altered. When Pushkin came here in 1820, he told about "walking around the palace greatly irritated by the neglect
in which it is decaying, and by the half-European alterations to some of the rooms."
He could blame Potemkin, in part, who had enlisted the services of the architect Joseph de Ribas, who was not
well acquainted with Islamic styles or principles, to refurbish the palace. They wanted to please the empress
with beautiful mansions that catered to European and imperial expectations, so they mixed Asian and European
styles—not always with success.
Further changes to the palace usually coincided with the visit of the next czar or czarina. This came to mean
demolition, too: In the 1820's alone, several buildings of the harem, the Winter Palace, a large bath complex and
other parts of the palace were destroyed. Over the decades, the palace was reduced from an area of 18 hectares to
four—from 44 acres to 10.
Pushkin's influence, however, was immediate and—architecturally, at least—favorable. While "The Fountain
of Bakhchisaray" helped promote a popular, romanticized picture of the Islamic world, the changes made to the fabric
of the original palace began to elicit protests from architects, artists and even czars.
Within a year after Pushkin's visit, a parade of writers came to the palace, and some even reprised the drama.
Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz is now renowned for his Crimean Sonnets, one of which speaks of Bakhchisaray,
translated here by Dorothea Prall Radin:
A vessel hewn from marble stands untouched
Within the hall the harem's fountain-spring;
Seeping pearl-tears, it sobs across the waste,
"Love, glory, potentate! where are you now?
You claimed eternity,
You have fled; infamy! the spring runs on.
There were many others: Alexsander Griboyedov, Aleksey Tolstoy, Ivan Bunin, Sasha Cherny, Ukraine's Mykhailo
Kotsyubynsky and dozens more. Artists came too: Russian romantic Karl Bryullov worked on a painting for 12 years,
an orientalist, idyll-in-a-harem canvas titled "The Fountain of Tears." Like Pushkin's poem, every Russian knows it.
On the screen, the great filmmaker Yakov Protazanov made his first feature film in 1907, which he titled "The
But it was a ballet based on Pushkin's poem that did the most to save the palace from destruction.
In 1944, during World War ii, the Soviets deported Crimean Tatars en masse to territories
in what is now Uzbekistan and other parts of Central Asia, in retaliation for the collaboration of some Tatars with Nazi
Germany. Forty percent of the deportees died within two years.
This ethnic cleansing was followed by a cultural one, as historical and linguistic traces of the Crimean Tatar people
on the peninsula were expunged. Crimean Tatar and Turkic place names of villages, towns and cities were Sovietized. Cemeteries
and mosques were destroyed. The Soviets proposed to rename Bakhchisaray palace "Pushkinsk" ("Pushkin") or "Sadovsk" ("Garden").
According to the director of the palace's museum during those post-war years, Maria Yustara, who was in Moscow at the time,
there were plans to raze the palace as well.
Fortunately, Boris Asafyev's ballet "The Bakhchisaray Fountain" happened to have been first performed on stage
some 10 years earlier, and it had toured all the major Soviet cities to great popular acclaim. Most importantly,
one of its fans was none other than Soviet leader Joseph Stalin—indeed, it was his favorite ballet. Pushkin
too was beyond Soviet reproach, having been claimed "entirely our own, a Soviet" in the Communist Party's official
newspaper Pravda on the centennial of the poet's death in 1937.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the poet Pushkin's imagination gave not only life but also, ultimately,
sanctuary to the fountain and palace, whose name remained unchanged, and whose buildings endured the Soviet era intact.
Today, the khans' palace, with its mosques, cemeteries and other buildings, is the only major remaining monument
of the Tatar visual arts of the Crimean Khanate. As Haiworonski puts it, "the palace still remembers its past, that
once it was a paradise." But if you go, know your history. And bring your Pushkin.
O magic shore! O visions' balm
All there inspirits: peak and pine,
The graceful valleys' sheltering calm,
The rose and amber of the vine,
Cool brooks and toplar shade nearby...
Sheldon Chad ([email protected]) is an award-winning screenwriter and journalist for print and radio. From his home in Montreal, he travels widely in the Middle East, West Africa, Russia and East Asia. In October, he was a featured speaker at the Dialogue of Civilizations in Rhodes.
||Photojournalist Sergey Maximishin ([email protected]) is a native of Crimea. He has been recognized regularly since 2001 by both the Russia Press Photo Contest and World Press Photo. He is a former staff photographer for Izvestia, and his work appears frequently in leading world magazines.