Posted by: Rachel Atwood Mendiola, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer
Ukraine’s long and diverse history is highlighted by the recent recognition of Khersones as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Joining numerous other UNESCO sites in Ukraine, Khersones stands in testimony not only to Ukraine’s ancient past, but also to the role of multiple civilizations, over many centuries, in this land.
Founded about 2500 years ago in the Sixth Century BC by Greek settlers from Heraclea Pontica, Khersones has a long history. Its name comes from the Greek word, Chersonēsos, meaning “peninsula.” It is located on what is known today as the Crimean Peninsula (in ancient times it was called Taurica), near present day Sevastopol on the shore of the Black Sea.
The Greek colony began as a (mostly) democratic society ruled by elected officials called archons and a council called the damiorgi. As time passed, they became more oligarchic, with power concentrated in the hands of the archons.
After those first few hundred years, the colony changed hands numerous times. In the late Second Century BC, it became a dependency of the Bosporan Kingdom. Next, it was subject to Rome from the mid-First Century until the 370s AD when it was captured by the Huns. In the early Middle Ages (sometime around the Fifth Century), Khersones became a Byzantine possession, withstood a siege by the Gӧktürks in 581, then fell to Kievan Rus in the 980s. After the Fourth Crusade, which ended in 1204, the colony became dependent on the Empire of Trebizond before coming under Genoese control in the early 13th Century. The armies of Nogain Khan sacked the city in 1299 and about a century later the colony was destroyed by Edigu and permanently abandoned.
Under Roman and Byzantine rule, Khersones was a popular place of exile for those who angered the current government. In fact, it became the place of legends. According to one famous story, after Vladimir the Great captured the colony, he agreed to evacuate the city only if the sister of Basil II (Byzantine Emperor from 976-1025) would be given to him in marriage. However, in order to be able to marry the imperial princess, Vladimir had to be baptized into the Christian faith.
With such a long and interesting history, it is no surprise that Khersones has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The certificate was prepared in Paris, and presented at a ceremony in Sevastopol on September 20. U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt congratulated everyone attending the ceremony with the following statement:
“On behalf of the U.S. Embassy, I would like to congratulate the Khersones National Preserve and its staff for their impressive accomplishment in getting the cultural and historical monument entrusted to their care recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When the ‘Ancient City of Tauric Chersonese and its Chora’ was inscribed on UNESCO’s List on June 23, it was a great day not just for Ukraine but for everyone in the world influenced by Classical Greek civilization where the idea of democracy was first born.
I’m also very pleased that the Institute of Classical Archaeology at the University of Texas at Austin under the leadership of Centennial Professor of Classical Archeology Joseph Carter played such an important role in helping to put Khersones on the world map and bring it to UNESCO’s attention through their excavations, publications, and continued close cooperation with the Ukrainian staff at the National Preserve. This is a wonderful example of what a successful U.S.-Ukrainian partnership can accomplish for the benefit of the entire world.
Last year, the U.S. Embassy was able to bring John Jameson – a Senior Archaeologist with the U.S. National Park Service who specializes in interpretive program development – to the Khersones National Preserve in order to explore new ways to make the site more accessible to the public while minimizing the impact this increased attention would bring. I look forward to visiting Khersones myself soon and seeing what else we might be able to do to help you preserve your site for the world.
Earlier this month, I was thrilled to travel to Drohobych where I presented a U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation grant to the Church of St. George which was one of eight Ukrainian wooden churches inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List on the same day that you received the same great honor. In the same way that we are helping save this amazing wooden masterpiece in the Carpathians for future generations, I look forward to working together with our Ukrainian and American partners to keep this Crimean architectural wonder alive and well for its next 2,500 years. Congratulations!”
It is a great accomplishment that so many historical and cultural sites in Ukraine have received world-wide recognition. Hopefully, the naming of Khersones as a UNESCO World Heritage site will support its preservation and increased research for the benefit of future generations.