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ESKI-KERMEN CAVE TOWN [the final chapter of the article]


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A large cave church with a baptistry is hewn into rock near the main gates It was constructed simultaneously with the defensive works in the 6th—7th centuries. It had two entrances from the side of the passage leading to the main gates and a window between them. The sanctuary faces the entrance. A so-called synthronon. stepped benches with a bishops throne in the middle, runs in a semicircle along the sanctuary niche wall. The chancel was separated from the rest of the church by an altar screen. In its middle the threshold to the Holy Doors has survived; on the sides are grooves for parts of a wooden iconostasis. The chancel was painted with frescos but, unfortunately, these have not survived. Above, in the ceiling there was a ring for a lamp. Near the chancel a niche was hewn most probably for holding praying-books. To the right of the entrance there is a bench for parishioners. To the left of the chancel was the baptistry. The chancel, baptistry and benches are the most ancient part of the church, which was later widened to the north and east.

   A cave casemate which protected the approaches to the main gates was arranged at the western perimeter of the plateau. The fortification wall came up to it from the main gates along the bend of the rock. The casemate was hewn into the ledge of the rock overhanging the start of the first section of road. The casemate was arranged in the following way: a large cave was hewn into the solid rock Its ceiling was supported by a massive pillar. From the surface of an adjoining rock a staircase led to this cave and from the lower landing of the stairs, wooden footbridges spanned the cleft.

   The cave had two lateral sections. There are six apertures in the casemate walls. Three large window-like embrasures, now greatly ruined by the elements, once appeared as rectangular windows located at floor level. Some of these embrasures have retained traces of collars, which shows that they were covered with planked screens. These embrasures are wide and low. Defenders could use a bow while standing on their knee. But they had another purpose: stones were rolled down from them onto enemies who tried to access the plateau.
   There were lateral auxiliary premises in the casemate: the right one was a pantry, where in holes in the floor along the walls stood some fifteen pithoi with food and water; the premises on the left were a small barracks where the fortress defenders could rest on benches hewn into the rock along the walls.
   On the upper ground of the adjoining rock, from which a stairway led to the cave casemate, ten grain pits were hewn into the rock, which was typical for the early period of Eski-Kermen. Grain pits were found near every centre of resistance. The reserves were stock-piled beforehand, possibly by nearby residents, who also took part in the defence of the town. After the destruction of the forti-
fications, the grain pits were widened and
turned into caves for husbandry needs. At the same time a church was built over the casemate, from which only an altar has remained. The town had several cave churches; some of these have retained their fresco paintings.
   The Dormition Church is the most interesting of these. It has some peculiarities in its architecture. Being very small, the chancel is not situated in front of the entrance, but to the right of it, in a corner. A miniature altar table stands very close to the wall. There is a small hollow in the altar for relics In front of the niche in the wall and on the floor slots and sockets have been cut for a wooden screen, possibly an iconostasis.

   Upon close examination of details of the church structure, it becomes evident that the premises had been used earlier for another purpose and were adapted to the church. At first it had been a grain pit (a hole is seen in the ceiling, covered with a stone slab), then a cistern for water. When the defensive walls lost their significance and were demolished, the cistern was widened and a winery was set up here. A tarapan was hewn into the western corner to press the grapes and the juice trickled down flutes into containers set in a large rectangular cutting. Later a church appeared here.  The tarapan was carelessly trimmed and disguised as a bench for parishioners The cutting in the floor was filled up and a chancel hewn into the right corner.
   Mural paintings in the church have survived only partially. The altar niche bears a representation of Christ in a purple cloak sitting on a golden-yellow throne, with two full-length figures: on the left-the Virgin Mary and on the right-an apostle. Hardly anything is left of paintings on the north-eastern section (the wall nearest to the chancel). The ceiling contains scenes of the Baptism and the Nativity.
   On the north-western side of the wall (in front of the entrance) a large fresco of the Dormition has been preserved, which gave the church its present-day name. It is executed on a wet-lime ground. The figure of the Virgin Mary is in the centre of the composition. She is stretched out on a bed, Her arms crossed on Her breast, and is surrounded by mourning figures. An angel with a sword is pursuing a profane. The painting dates from the turn of the 13th century, at about the time the church appeared.
   Along the eastern precipice of the plateau stand defensive casemates which, together with the fortification wall, were part of the town's defence system.
   The residential area was located to the west of the casemates. Archaeological excavations have shown that the cultural layer of Eski-Kermen lies within the 6th—13th centuries. Dwellings stood close together and faced narrow streets, which often finished in dead-ends, the inevitable result of such crowded construction.

   Sections of buildings from the last period of the town's existence have been excavated. Four separate courtyards can be traced, which are separated by a street running parallel to  the precipice, and a narrow side street. The houses were built in the 12th—13th centuries in place of earlier ones. The buildings did not adhere to the previous floor plans.
   The households were not large, 150—200 square metres each. Houses were two-storeyed. The lower storey was of stone, while the upper was wooden. The small premises of the lower storey were used for husbandry needs and handicrafts. There were larders with rectangular cellars cut into the rock. Cellars contained pithoi, for which holes were cut into the floor. The ceilings of the cellars were wooden. The upper storey was a living area.
   Houses were built of stone. Gently sloping roofs were covered with massive tiles. The upper storey had projecting balconies. Because of lack of space, inner courtyards were small. Sheds for household needs adjoined the houses. Light lean-tos were built over the tarapans. Archaeological finds throw light on the everyday life of the town's inhabitants, their occupations. Pottery shards, both glazed and unglazed, are among the most frequent finds, they are locally made and imported.
Numerous fragments of tiles have been found.
Of female adornments, the most frequent are
simple bracelets made of glass.

   All the dwellings were destroyed by fire in the late 13th century. During the excavation works burnt human skeletons were found which testifies to a surprise attack; people had no time to leave their houses.

   A basilica stood among the dwellings at the highest point of the plateau. It was one of the principal types of Christian temple. Some researchers assume that the Eski-Kermen I basilica was built in the 6th century, simultaneously with the appearance of the town. Recent archaeological excavations, however, date it at no earlier than the 8th century. In plan, the basilica is rectangular, with three polygonal apses. The chancef is in the central japse. Two rows of marble columns divide the basilica into three aisles. The floor of the nave was tiled with red slate. Walls were laid from
well-hewn stone with rubble filling. The ceiling
was wooden, the roof tiled. The wooden ceiling
burnt down and fell inside the building. The
walls fell down later. The basilica was ruined probably by Khazars in the late 8th century. Martin Broniewski, the Polish king's envoy, wrote: "The former significance and glory of Eski-Kermen is testified by a church adorned with marble and serpentine columns, though it is in ruins."
   For every fortress ensuring water supply for its defenders during a prolonged defence was a vital problem. In Eski-Kermen this was solved with the help of the construction of a so-called siege well. It was near the dwellings, at the edge ot the precipice. An entrance hatch leads to it from the top of the cliff. A steep staircase of 84 steps cut into the rock descends in six flights. Between flights there are landings, the middle one has a window to illuminate the staircase. The window looks onto the precipice. The staircase ends in a 10-metre long pipe gallery. Water filters through the gallery  ceiling.  Perhaps  a small spring flowed out of a natural cave, whose water the fortress builders intercepted before it emerged from the cave. Water accumulated in quantities sufficient for the town's defenders to withstand a prolonged siege.
   The well was possibly constructed simultaneously with the fortress in the 6th century. Water was drawn from the well by hand. Though the well was destroyed simultaneously with the fortress, it remained in use until the late 18th century.
   The Eski-Kermen plateau has a natural access from the north, so a northern watchtower complex was constructed here. It was intended not only to control the approaches to the fortress, but to attack the enemy's flanks and rear.
   The entrance into the watch-tower complex began with a doorway cut into the rock. The single door opened inside and was locked with a bar. Behind the door a staircase with two flights was cut into the rock and led to the top of a small isolated plateau. To the right of the staircase two small caves had been hollowed out. The first of these possibly served as a rest area for the defenders of the complex. It had a door and light entered through a window. Slightly higher is another cave - a
casemate with two openings. One of them is
a window-like embrasure at floor level, while the other is a small loophole. The embrasure was used to roll down stones and has a small aperture. Alongside it were depressions for holding water. The embrasure and loophole allowed the approaches to the plateau to be defended with shelling. But it was insufficient to hold back an enemy attack. In all probability, the main thrust of the defence of the approaches to the plateau and the northern gate was delivered from above the rock.
   The ground of the northern watch-tower complex reveals a majestic panorama of the entire area of foothills, approaches to the town and the northern section of the gulleys, which flank it on the east and west.
   On the edge of the promontory which juts out to the south, rather deep sockets have survived that served possibly for fastening a parapet behind which the fortress defenders hid. At the northern end of the ground there is an elongated rectangular cutting over the precipice, and another, symmetrical one is located on the opposite edge of an isolated rock several metres above the ground. In olden times wooden footbridges probably spanned the precipice to communicate with the northern extremity of the mountain, now inaccessible.
   From here the northern section of the Tapshan plateau is easily seen. A small castle-fortress, Kyz-Kule, was built here in the 10th - 11th centuries. From the south a road led to the castle tower along the mountain slope. In front of the tower was a rather shallow moat which was spanned by a footbridge. Archaeological excavations near the tower revealed the remnants of a miniature singleapse chapel from the 11th—13th centuries, inside which burial vaults have been cut out.

   Like many of the Crimea's medieval monuments, this fort has its own mysteries. Its name is translated as Maiden's Tower. But the sweeping views from the tower suggest an-other interpretation of the Kyz-Kule toponym - Koz-Kule, where Koz means eye - thus we
have a watch tower.
   The ancient ruins steeped in legends, the caves and picturesque cliffs remind us of events in the remote past. They are associated with ancient history, peoples who vanished long ago, whose passions have died and whose lives have long since faded.

Yalta Sevastopol private guide
Sergey Tsarapora

November, 2012

Category Name: Articles about Crimea | User Add Dates: sergoyalta
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