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Chersonesos site on list of world's endangered treasures

by Taissa Bushnell Special to The Ukrainian Weekly

KHERSONES - Chersonesos, one of the most important archaeological sites on the Black Sea, has been included on the 2002 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites. The list was announced on October 11 by the World Monuments Fund at a press conference at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The World Monuments Fund (WMF) is a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and safeguarding the historic, artistic and architectural heritage of humankind. According to the WMF press release, "the biennial watch list is a call to action on behalf of threatened cultural-heritage monuments, bringing them to international attention and helping to raise the funds needed for their rescue." Chersonesos appeared on the annual list previously in 1996 and 1998.

Located on the outskirts of Sevastopol in western Crimea, present-day Khersones was founded as a Greek colony, Tauric Chersonesos, in the fifth century B.C. and continued to play a vital civilizing role in the area down to the 14th century A.D., when it was overrun by the Mongols.

[Editor's note: Some sources list the name of the ancient city as Chersonese, or Chersonesus, both Anglicized or antiquated verions of its proper Greek name, Chersonesos. The Ukrainian-language version of the city's name, the one that appears on maps of present-day Ukraine, is Khersones.]

Chersonesos was a Roman military base and the principal Byzantine outpost on the northern coast of the Black Sea. In 988 A.D. Volodymyr, grand prince of Kyivan Rus', was reputedly baptized in Cherson, the medieval name of the city, bringing Christianity to the Slavic East.

The significance of the site cannot be overstated: no other Byzantine city has survived so completely. The entire fabric - houses, public buildings, churches, basilicas and cemeteries - remains virtually intact. Chersonesos has been called "the Ukrainian Pompeii" because of the extent to which a way of life can be so completely reconstructed from the archaeological remains. The city walls, begun in the fourth century B.C., are the largest standing monument of classical antiquity on the Black Sea, while the ancient theater, dating to the third century B.C., is the only one known in the region.

Another unique characteristic of Chersonesos is the fact that its chora, the surrounding ancient agricultural territory, survives in its entirety. Pompeii's has long since disappeared. The grid of ancient stone roads dividing the chora into 402 plots of 26 hectares and the 140 impressive stone country estates within the landscape have no equal in the world.

Today the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, consisting of the museum, the ancient city and the chora, faces many challenges due to a host of reasons: a lack of funding, claims on property of the preserve by the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, urban sprawl and coastal erosion.

Most of the architectural remains of the ancient city are in urgent need of conservation. Further excavation of the ancient city is slow (only about a third of the total area of the ancient city has been excavated), because subsequent conservation of exposed structures is inadequate. Some mosaic floors, which presently lie in their original locations within early Christian basilicas, are open to the elements and to crowds of unsupervised visitors to the preserve. Museum buildings housing staff offices and storage spaces are in a state of disrepair. In the chora, the excavated country estates have, with one exception, not been conserved at all.

In an effort to assist the preserve in addressing these problems, the Institute of Classical Archaeology (ICA) at the University of Texas at Austin, which has conducted joint archaeological excavations with the museum at Chersonesos since 1994, has been leading an outreach campaign to international organizations on behalf of the preserve. Last year a working group was established for the preserve consisting of the Ukrainian vice-minister of culture and the arts, the Office of the Mayor of Sevastopol, the director of the preserve, and Joseph Carter, founding director of ICA.

Prof. Carter first visited Khersones in 1991, when Sevastopol was still a closed city, and has since worked tirelessly to bring international attention to Chersonesos. He successfully nominated the site to the World Monuments Watch List three times, which has heightened awareness in the Ukrainian government and the international community of the site's historical and cultural significance. In 1997 the chairman of the WMF intervened with a letter to the minister of culture with positive effect when claims on preserve property by the Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate intensified.

Inclusion on the 2002 List of 100 will further help the local authorities in persuading governmental organizations to institute legislative protection from urban sprawl and in seeking specialized technical consultation on issues like shoreline protection.

The success of the campaign has resulted in funding from private donors and organizations. This past summer Prof. Carter founded a non-profit organization in Sevastopol called "Pidtrymka Khersonesu" (Support for Chersonesos), which has already begun to finance projects on site. The goal of the organization is the protection and preservation of cultural heritage located within the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesos, which is manifested through the preservation of historical and cultural monuments, and the support of the development of scientific research.

The programs financially supported by Pidtrymka Khersonesu include archaeological excavations within the preserve; the purchase and maintenance of computers and telecommunications equipment; the renovation and construction of scientific laboratories and storage facilities for archaeological finds; consultation on archaeological conservation and preservation of cultural heritage by invited specialists; and the creation of an archaeological park, among others.

Prof. Carter is further working in conjunction with the preserve and the Ministry of Culture and the Arts of Ukraine in efforts to raise the status of Chersonesos to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thereby guaranteeing ongoing protection for the preserve.

The future of Chersonesos is closely tied to that of Sevastopol and Ukraine. The declining military budget, the basis of the economy of Sevastopol in the Soviet period, could, in part, be compensated for by a thriving international tourist industry. Southwestern Crimea boasts one of the last great and relatively unspoiled coastlines in Europe, numerous historical sites and architectural monuments, and a major port on the Black Sea. Chersonesos could be an integral component of this new economy. The interest demonstrated by the Mayor's office and the ministry of Culture signals a realization of the potential of the preserve for the local economy.

The recent visits to Chersonesos by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine the Carlos Pascual, and a former prime minister of Ukraine, Viktor Yuschenko, are a significant indication of the high-level recognition and support that the site so desperately needs if it is to survive. The conservation and further development of Chersonesos is a long-term project that will involve various entities: private foundations, as well as non-profit, governmental and international agencies.

WMF President Bonnie Burnham stated: "Simply because a landmark has endured for centuries does not mean that it will be with us forever. Indeed, every day, in every corner of the world, we are losing irreplaceable monuments to human cultures. The World Monuments Watch was established in order to stem this loss by calling sites at risk to global attention. It is a challenge, as well as a source of inspiration, for us to respond to the needs of these sites and the communities they represent."

The response to the plight of Chersonesos is indeed encouraging, yet much more needs to be done in order to direct the site's growth as a leading archaeological preserve and regional research center.


Taissa Bushnell, a Ukrainian American who hails from Maplewood, N.J., currently works at Chersonesos as representative of the Institute of Classical Archaeology, University of Texas-Austin, and director of the non-profit organization, Pidtrymka Khersonesu. She may be reached via e-mail at taissabushnell@hotmail.com.

To learn more about Chersonesos and the Institute of Classical Archaeology visit www.utexas.edu/research/ica.

Copyright The Ukrainian Weekly, November 4, 2001, No. 44, Vol. LXIX

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