Saturday, May 26, 2007

Crimea's Tatars: Yevaptoria and Bachiksaray

In Yevaptoria we visited the Tatar Mosque. The Crimean Tatars are a turkic people descended from the Turkic speaking muslim Tatar groups that formed the main troops of the Golden Horde. For centuries they were independant, and during medieval times the Tatars were knwn as great slave traders, raiding for slavic christian slaves to be sold into sugar plantation slavery in Sicily and Cyprus, a trade that came to an end with the discovery of the Americas. So from the very beginning, the Russians were never very keen on the Tatars. Absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in 1475, the Crimea was annexed by Russia after the Russo-Turkish wars ended in 1783. For the next 150 years, Tatars began emigrating into a diaspora, moving to Anatolian Turkey (especially around Eskisehir, near Ankara) Romania, Bulgaria, and beyond. Those that remained were forcibly deported by Stalin during WWII, and sent to Central Asia. For almost fifty years the Crimea was devoid of its original inhabitants. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tatars have been coming home to squat wherever they find empty land. Today, more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars are living in the Crimea and another 250,000 are still in exile in Central Asia.
The Imam of the Yevaptoria mosque was happy to recieve dozens of unexpected Jewish guests. Most Tatars are bilingual Russian speakers, and many of the younger Tatars speak only Russian, but using my incredibly bad Turkish I was able to manage a basic conversation with the Imam and his assistants, who, it turned out, had taken some of their religious training in Istanbul. Tatar is not very different from Anatolian Turkish... about the same relationship as Portuguese and Spanish. I've always had a soft spot for Tatars, coming across communities of Tatars in Romania and Bulgaria I have always felt welcomed wherever my bad command of Turkish finds me. In Istanbul Tatars would walk up to Fumie and say "Look! You have eyes just like ours!" and offer us tea. History flung communities of Tatars far and wide - military settlements of Tatars were hired by Polish and Lithuanian Dukes to patrol as far away as Gdansk and Helsinki, where Tatar communities remain to this day. One friend of mine, a Polish Tatar, explained that the Tatars in Poland were enobled in the 18th century, and thus they are considered as noble Poles who "are not Catholic" - which is to say they are Muslim in an otherwise monolithic definition of Poles as Catholics. One of the first Mosques in New York City was founded by Polish Tatars in the 1870s. And the late actor Charles Bronson - born Charles Buchinsky - was a Polish Lipka Tatar.Bakhchisaray was the capitol of the Tatar Khanate, and is the location of the Great Palace of the Tatar Khans, the Hansaray. Preserved in no small part because of a fountain that inspired a poem by Pushkin, the building was a beautiful example of Ottoman architecture.We started to get a bit impatient with our guided tour - in Russia, you don't just wander around museums. No. There is a defined set way to experience a museum, and your tour guide will explain this to you. You will spend twenty minutes in this room. You will regard the ornaments on the wall, you will not wander off, you will not sit down. So we escaped, and found that the entire municipality of Bachiksaray was celebrating Soviet Victory day in the courtyard of the palace.And what is Soviet Victory Day without the March of the Much Decorated Veterans! When you ask to take one's photograph, they will pose with grace and pride - and usually offer to tell you then and there what they did to earn these decorations, even if you speak no Russian at all... And among them, the Afghantsi, the hardened veterans of the USSR's own war in Afghanistan. But all around - smiles and flowers for the foriegn visitors lucky enough to visit on such a proud holiday. We were treated like rock stars by the schoolchildren eager to practice their English on us. Being with a guided tour, we couldn't spend as much time as we would have liked in Bachiksaray... but if I had to choose a place to return to, this would be it.

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