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Russia is destroying 16th Century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace in occupied Crimea

Halya Coynash

Russia is destroying 16th Century Crimean Tatar Khan’s Palace in occupied Crimea

There are compelling grounds for fearing that Russia’s so-called ‘restoration work’ on the world-renowned Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai could forever destroy this vital monument of Crimean Tatar cultural heritage.  While Russia is denying the accusations, photos smuggled out of the site are alarming, as is the lack of any experience in restoration work of the construction company and Moscow architectural firm commissioned to carry out the work.

The Khan’s Palace in Bakhchysarai was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List back in 2003, but the necessary work for establishing its international status was unfortunately not completed.  According to Edem Dudakov, the former head of the Crimean Committee on Inter-Ethnic Relations and Deported Peoples, if the work now underway continues, the complex which includes the Palace itself, a hall for receiving visitors, two mosques, a harem and other buildings, will lose any chance of gaining UNESCO recognition in future. 

It is also a major attack by an occupying force on a monument of considerable historical and cultural importance for the Crimean Tatar People and for Ukraine  The complex was built as the main residence of the monarchs of the Crimean Khanate - the state of the Crimean Tatar people – and was the political, religious and cultural centre of the Crimean Tatar community until the collapse of the Khanate in 1783.

Restoration work on any building of historical significance needs to be carried out by specialists with maximum use of the same materials and technology.  Instead, the work has been passed to a construction firm called Kiramet, working for the Moscow-based Atta Group Architectural and Planning Holding as General Contractor. What motives are behind these companies getting the job can only be guessed at, but relevant experience was certainly not a factor.  The design has been kept secret, and there is no information as to where (if?) the mandatory expert assessment was carried out. What is clear is that the workers are in a big hurry. 

Although the territory has been closed to the public, people have managed to get through and take photos.  Even without seeing the design, some parts of the work are already clear.  It is known, for example, that the original tiles are to be removed and replaced by ‘old-style’ Spanish tiles.  The experts condemn this as deliberate destruction of the palace’s authentic nature.  Each missing tile, they insist, should be made by hand, using the original technology.

Krym.realii has spoken with Elmira Ablyalimova, former head of the Bakhchysarai Historical, Cultural and Archaeological Museum-Reserve who is appalled by the photographic evidence of wanton destruction.  She notes, for example, how parts of 16th century walls under the roof of a mosque have been broken off while authentic stones are left lying around as if they’re rubbish.  She calls what is taking place a crime.

A heavy metallic shell is reportedly being built around the main body of the palace, with plans to cover this with a canopy roof.  Experts warn that the ground may not withstand the weight of this construction and could sink.  They also point out that the workers have not put up any proper protection for gravestones and the calligraphic wall painting.  Most incredibly, 300-year-old beams appear to have been cut down and the wooden fortification simply covered in concrete.  This is clearly no ‘restoration’, but the foundations of a new construction.

Dudakov believes that Ukraine should raise the current status of the monument from one of local (Crimean) significance to one of national importance, so as to draw greater attention to this act of shocking vandalism.  The problem, however, is that Ukraine’s voice will simply be ignored, unless the international community becomes involved. Intervention is urgently needed, since each day is bringing about new irreparable damage.

Well-known Crimean Tatar rights lawyer Emil Kurbedinov announced recently that their team of lawyers and legal experts were planning a legal battle to protect the Khan’s Palace from what he called an “unjustified attack on the historical heritage of the Crimean Tatars, a site of cultural heritage”.  He did not wish to reveal all measures they were planning, but said they would first be seeking official answers from the Russian Federation before turning to international bodies, including UNESCO.  The lawyers will be seeking to ascertain where the dismantled materials are taken, and who initiated and agreed to such ‘dismantling’.

Kurbedinov noted the obvious hypocrisy if one compared this situation with the excuses given for throwing the Mejlis [representative assembly] of the Crimean Tatar People from the building they had always occupied in Simferopol.   Initially, several rather vague pretexts were given for ordering the Mejlis to vacate the building within 24 hours, Kurbedinov mentions, however, that the Russian occupation regime used the fact that air conditioners had been installed and some cosmetic repairs carried out to claim that the Mejlis was guilty of violations against a historical monument.  Now work that is anything but cosmetic is being carried out by the Russian occupiers themselves.

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