Mikhail Kizilov

Crimean Gothia

History and Fate

Simferopol 2015


(by kind permission of the author)

The main aim of this book is to present and analyze a corpus of little known late medieval and early modern sources about the Crimean Goths – a most interesting ethnic group which lived in the Crimea from the third century A.D. until the sixteenth (or perhaps even until the eighteenth) century. Many of these sources remain hardly known to students of Crimean and Gothic history. The book also surveys the history of the study and perception of the Crimean Goths from the nineteenth century until today. The author placed special emphasis on the political and ideological misinterpretation of this academic problem in the twentieth century. Special attention was given to the use and abuse of the “Gothic question” by the Soviet and Nazi historians and ideological leaders.

The Goths and other Germanic tribes invaded the south-western and south Crimea and Bospor not later than the 250s. In the 260s and 270s they carried out a number of raids which devastated the south coast of the Black Sea and Asia Minor. In the 370s the Goths were attacked by the Turkic-speaking nomadic tribes of the Hunns who destroyed the empire of the Gothic king Ermanaric and forced the Goths into the south-western part of the Crimea. This region, subsequently called Crimean Gothia, was destined to be the homeland of the local Goths.

In the second half of the fifth century the Goths who remained in the Crimea had the second clash with the Hunns. It is not entirely clear where this event took place – either in the narrow part of the Kerch peninsula between Theodosia and Arabat gulfs, or in the area adjacent to Perekop isthmus. As a result of this battle the Goths were divided into two large groups: Tetraxite (Trapezite) Goths, who moved to the Taman peninsula, and their brethren, who decided to remain in the south-western Crimea. While the further destiny of the Tetraxite (Trapezite) Goths remains virtually unknown, the history of the Crimean Goths is documented in numerous written, archaeological, and epigraphic sources.

Already in the fifth century A.D. the Crimean Goths stopped cremating their dead. It seems very likely that by the middle of the sixth century many Crimean Goths converted to the Byzantine Orthodox Christianity; the earliest evidence to this fact date back to the fifth century. In the early medieval period the Goths who lived in the Crimea were under the military and political dominion of the Byzantians. Crimean barbarians (first of all, the Goths and the Alans) were often hired as military federates, especially during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527–565). According to Procopius of Caesarea the Crimean Goths, who provided Byzantians with an army of 3000 men, lived in the “country of Dory” located apparently in the Crimea’s south-west. Medieval town of Doros (a.k.a. Dory / Theodoro / Mangup / Mangup-Kale) was apparently its capital. Political situation in the Crimea considerably changed after the invasion of the Khazars at the end of the seventh century. At the end of the eighth century the Khazars invaded also the south-western part of the Crimea. According to the Vita of St. John of Gothia the Khazars conquered the town of Doros (Mangup) in 787. In response to this conquest, bishop John and kir (lord) of Gothia organized an uprising and expelled the Khazars. Unfortunately, inhabitants of a local village seized the bishop and delivered him to the Khazars. This was the end of the rebellion. Bishop John (St. John of Gothia) spent some time in the prison in the town of Phullae (Qırk Yer / Çufut-Qale?); at some point, however, he managed to escape and according to the Vita was buried in a church in Parthenit (the South Crimea).

It seems that the Gothic eparchy was organized after the end of the uprising. Its boundaries were limited by Aluston (Alushta / Lusta) in the east, Kalamita (Inkerman) in the west, and Kacha valley in the north; bishop’s residence was apparently in Doros. The Gothic eparchy of the Crimea received the status of a metropolitan see in the thirteenth century. In 1678 the Gothic see was connected to that of Caffa. This joint Gotho-Caffa see existed until the death of its last metropolitan, Ignatius, in 1786. In the mid-ninth century Doros and apparently the whole of Gothia was again subjected to the Byzantine jurisdiction. Nevertheless, from the tenth to the fourteenth century the town was practically abandoned. It is only in the second half of the fourteenth century that Doros (now called Theodoro) became repopulated.

Scholars have only a precious few early medieval written sources about the Crimean Goths. One of them, Vita of St. Cyril (Constantine the Philosopher), briefly mentioned the fact that the Goths used their own language for liturgical purposes. It seems very likely that “the people of Phullae,” who abandoned their pagan practices under the influence of St. Cyril, also were the Goths. “The Tale of the Host of Igor,” a Russian source which dates back to the end of the twelfth century, briefly mentions “the fair maidens of the Goths” who sang on the shore of the blue sea “tinkling in Russian gold.” Some think that these maidens were in fact Crimean Gothic captives brought by the Kypchaks to the Azov region. In 1253 William de Rubruquis visited the Crimea and mentioned that the numerous Goths, who lived between Soldaia (Sudak) and Cersova (Cherson / Chersonesos), spoke “the Teutonic tongue.”

In 1223 the Tatars for the first time invaded the Crimea; they had subsequently settled down in the eastern part of the Crimea, having made the town of Solhat (Qırım / Eski Qırım) their first capital. It is very likely that during the reign of Batu khan (lived from 1209 to 1255/1256) the Tatars subjugated Crimean Gothia and made the Goths pay them tribute.

In the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth centuries the town of Doros (Theodoro) seemed to be in the state of decline. It is apparently only from the 1360s that the life in the town resurrected. The Genoese document from 1382 provides us highly important information about the fact that not later than 1381 there had already existed the principality of Theodoro; the same document mentions that the name of the local prince was Affendizi (apparently a corruption of the Greek αύφέντης or the Turkic effendi). This highly important document was overlooked by most students of Gothic history. Greek inscriptions from Mangup and some other documents allow one to suggest that in the second half of the fourteenth century there also were representatives of the Crimean ulus of the Golden Horde living in Theodoro and sharing their power with the local princes.

Genoese documents mention the name of Alexis, the prince of Gothia, in 1411. He ruled until 1446; it is only during his rule that the principality of Theodoro became a strong and independent political power. The principality included the lands from Cherson to Alushta, including Cherson, Calamita (Inkerman), and Funa, but excluding the territories belonging to the Genoese (the port of Cembalo / Balaklava and capitanateus Gothiae). It is not entirely clear what was the ethnic origin of the principality’s ruling dynasty. Sources and secondary literature suggest that the princes of Theodoro could possibly be of Greek, Armenian, Gothic, and Cherkessian (Adygian) origin. The theory about their Cherkessian (Adygian) origin seems to be the most plausible because two independent sources of the fifteenth century called “Cherkessians” two members of the local ruling dynasty.

The Goths, who settled in the Crimea in the third century, originally spoke the East-Germanic Gothic tongue. From the sixth century onwards they were culturally and linguistically Hellenized (Byzantinized). Nevertheless, under the influence of the Turkic environment they apparently began to speak also the Tatar language. Byzantine historian George Pachymeres mentioned ca. 1290 the fact that the Goths had adopted customs and the language of the local Tatars. Thus, we may assume that starting from this period onwards many Goths were trilingual and were able to speak the Gothic, Greek, and Tatar languages. Tatar and Greek were used as the languages of communication with other peoples while Gothic remained to be the language for internal community use.

There are three sources on the Crimean Goths from the beginning of the fifteenth century (Johannes de Galonifontibus, Johannes Schiltberger, and anonymous Venetian merchant). The Goths are mentioned in these sources alongside the Tats (this Turkic term designated a conglomerate of different Greek-speaking Christian peoples living in the Crimea’s south) with whom they shall be assimilated in the early modern period. Especially important is the travel account by Iosafat Barbaro who testified that in the mid-fifteenth century the Goths still spoke the Gothic language. Furthermore, he mentioned that by the time of his visit the Crimean Goths together with the local Alans had become a unified ethnic group called Gothalani. The ethnonym Gothlans was also employed by another fifteenth-century traveller, Bertrandon de la Brocquière, to designate the Crimean “rude Christians”. Highly romantic and imprecise story related to the Crimean Goths was left ca. 1475 by Wilibald Pirckheimer. According to this story, the traveller met near Bospor (unclear whether it was Crimean or European Bospor) a Gothic youth who was singing the song with “Germanic words.”

From 1434 to 1458 Theodoro was governed by prince Olobei (his name is apparently a corruption of the Turkic Ulu Bey, i.e. “great / grand prince;” until 1446 Olobei ruled together with prince Alexis). From 1458 to 1459 (?) the town of Theodoro was ruled by prince Alexis II; from 1459 to 1465 (?) – by prince Cheyhibi (Kâhya Bey?); from 1465 to 1475 – by prince Isaac (Isaiko of Russian chronicles). Prince Isaac, who understood the danger of the growing power of the Ottomans, tried to improve relations with his political neighbours. This is why in 1472 Maria Asanina Paleologhina, the princess of Mangup, was married to Stefan III, the king of Moldavia (1429–1504). In 1475 Isaac also tried to marry off his daughter to the son of the Russian Tsar Ivan III. Unfortunately, this matrimonial project has never been accomplished because of the drastic events that followed soon after. In May–June 1475 prince Isaac, who was friendly inclined to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, was overthrown and killed by his own brother Alexander. Alexander, who arrived to Theodoro from Moldavia with the army of 300 armed “Siculi” lent him by Matthew Corvinus and Stefan III, made the principality of Theodoro member of the anti-Ottoman league consisting of several European states. Nevertheless, the Ottoman army turned out to be too strong for the small Christian principality. In December 1475, after the prolonged sixth-month siege, the town of Theodoro (Mangup) was seized by the army of the Ottoman vizier, Gedik Ahmed paşa.

This event signified the end of the political independence of the principality. Since then its capital ceased to be called Theodoro; Mangup (Mencüb / Mangup Qale) became its new name. Mangup became the centre of the large Ottoman administrative unit – qadılık. Christian population began to gradually abandon Mangup; in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries its main inhabitants were the community of the Turkic-speaking Karaite Jews (Karaites) and a small Ottoman garrison.

According to two sixteenth-century authors (Jakob Ziegler and Georgius Torquatus), after 1475 the Goths continued using the Greek and Tatar languages to communicate with their ethnic environment while employing the Gothic language for the internal community use. The best source of information about the Crimean Gothic language is the Fourth Turkish letter composed by the Flemish diplomat Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq. Between 1560 and 1562 Busbecq met in Constantinople two ambassadors from Crimean Gothia – the Greek and the Goth. Somewhat surprisingly, the Goth was unable to speak Gothic and spoke only Greek, while the Greek was fluent both in Greek and Gothic. Busbecq wrote down as many as 101 Gothic words including nouns, numerals, adjectives, some expressions and the beginning of the song-cantilena.

As has been mentioned above, starting from the fourteenth century on the Crimean Goths began to be associated with the Tats. Seventeenth-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi mentioned that the Crimean Tats had “a special language” different from the languages of their ethnic neighbours; it seems very likely that this “special language” was Crimean Gothic. European authors continued writing about the Crimean Goths and their language in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Joseph Juste Scaliger stated that the Crimean Goths read the Bible in Wulfila’s alphabet. Juste Schottel quoted several other authors who mentioned the fact that die alte Teutsche Sprache was still in use in the Crimea in the seventeenth century. Quite a few Swedish authors (Swen Lagerberg, Olaus Rudbeck, Johan Sparvenfeldt, Olaf Verelius, Johannes Peringskiöld, and some others) wrote about the Crimean Goths in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because of the general wave of interest in Gothicism in early modern Sweden. Stanisław Jan Siestrzeńcewicz-Bohusz was chronologically the last author to claim that he personally met the Crimean Goths. In 1783 he visited the Crimea and in 1817 he wrote that the Tartatized remnants of the Goths, who lived in the vicinity of Sevastopol and in Mangup, spoke the language similar to Plattdeutsch. This was the last testimony about the existence of the Crimean Goths as an ethnos; Hellenized and Tartarized remnants of the Goths were finally assimilated by the local Greeks and Tatars at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1778/1779 most of them emigrated together with the Greeks to the Azov region.

In spite of the fact that the earliest studies on the history and language of the Crimean Goths appeared already in the early nineteenth century, the ideologization of this topic began perhaps only in the 1870s as a reflection of the controversy between the Normanist and anti-Normanist scholars. The earliest studies on the Crimean Goths were published by Arist Kunik and F.K. Brun. One should also mention such important works as Wilhelm Tomaschek’s Die Goten in Taurien (Wien, 1881); Fedor / Friedrich Braun’s Die letzten Schicksale der Krimgoten (St. Petersburg, 1890); Richard Loewes Die Reste der Germanen am schwarzen Meere (Halle, 1896). Many scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries attempted to trace Gothic anthropological features which were, in their opinion, preserved among those peoples who assimilated the Goths – the Azov and Dobruca / Dobrudzha Greeks, and the mountain Tatars of the Crimea. In spite of the fact that many Greeks and Tatars indeed possessed “Germanic” anthropological features (blue eyes, light hair, fair complexion etc.), ethnographers were unable to find any remaining Gothic loanwords in the Crimean and Azov Greek and Tatar dialects. The only exception is the word razan (razn) which, according to B.A. Kuftin, was used by some “Tatars” (remnants of the Goths?) to designate a special type of the wooden houses in the mountainous Crimea.

The earliest archaeological excavations of Mangup and Eski-Kermen at the end of the nineteenth – early twentieth century did not provide scholars with much information on the Goths. On the other hand, the cemeteries of Suuk-Su and Bal-Gota excavated between 1903 and 1905 by N.I. Repnikov provided important data on the Gothic and Alanian funeral tradition. The situation with the study of Gothic history in the Crimea considerably changed after 1917. Soviet scholars initially also tried to study the history of the Crimean Goths. One of them, famous Byzantinist Alexander Vasiliev, published in 1921 and 1927 important study on the Crimean Goths in Russian; later he reprinted its enlarged version in English as the monograph The Goths in the Crimea (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1936). Unfortunately, most Soviet scholars who were engaged in the study of Crimean Gothia in the 1920s and 1930s did not manage to avoid Stalinist purges. If Braun and Vasiliev managed to leave the country in time, other scholars (N. Ernst, A. Mehrwart, F. Schmit, S. Platonov, and some other) were repressed and arrested; some of them were executed. In 1930, in order to control the study of the “Gothic question,” Soviet scholars decided to organize within the State Academy of the History of Material Culture the so-called Gotskaia gruppa (Gothic group), a sort of think tank which was supposed to carry out research on the history of the Crimean Goths. This group, headed by V.I. Ravdonikas, somewhat surprisingly turned out to be rather “anti-Gothic”: most studies written by its members declared the Goths to be descendants of the local Irano-speaking peoples (the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans). Thus, in their opinion, the Crimean Goths in fact had nothing in common with Germanic peoples apart from the ethnonym “the Goths;” the ethnonym itself was understood in this context as a misnomer.

The “Gothic problem” was heavily abused by the Nazi authors, “scholars”, and ideological leaders during the Second World War. Historical presence of the Germanic Goths served them as a good pretext for proclaiming the Crimea genuine “German land.” The Crimea was supposed to be renamed Gotenland and populated by the Germans from South Tirol. This project was elaborated by famous Nazi ideological leaders such as Alfred Rosenberg and Alfred Frauenfeld; it was personally authorized by the Führer. The Nazi Ahnenerbe society planned to undertake serious archaeological study of several Crimean Gothic settlements and cemeteries. Fortunately, they did not managed to do this because of the activity of the local partisans and the general retreat of German armies from the occupied territories in the east.

In order to erase all traces of German presence in the post-war Crimea, Soviet scholars continued to ignore Germanic nature of the Crimean Goths. This was clearly seen in May 1952, during the joint session of the Department of History and Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and the Crimean department of the Academy of Sciences. Scholars, who took part in the session, received a directive to “Russify” the history of the Crimea; as a result, it became even more difficult to study the Crimean Goths. Nevertheless, Soviet scholars continued actively excavating the Crimean settlements and cemeteries whose history was related to the Goths. A number of articles and monographs related to this topic were published in the Soviet Union from the 1960s through the 1980s. Unfortunately, in these publications many Gothic historical monuments were characterized as belonging to the Crimean Alans or Gotho-Alans, but not to the Goths. At the same time western scholars (M. Stearns, F.I. Nucciarelli, V.R. Solari, O. Grønvik, M.M. Székely, Ş.S. Gorovei, and others) published a number of important studies related to the Crimean Goths devoid of any ideologization of this scholarly problem.

Situation with the study of the “Gothic problem” in the Soviet Union drastically changed in 1990, when it finally became possible for local scholars to write studies without any ideological preconceptions. From the 1990s on a few important studies on the Crimean Goths were published by Russian-speaking authors such as A.G. Gertsen, I.S. Pioro, A.I. Aibabin, V.L. Myts, N.A. Ganina, and H.-V. Beyer (the last author is a German-speaking scholar who published in 2004 a large monograph on the Crimean Goths in Russian). On the other hand, absence of Soviet censorship opened the road to numerous pseudo-scholarly publications which seriously misinterpreted this problem.

Today quite a few western and Russian-speaking scholars continue studying the history, archaeology, language, and epigraphy of the Crimean Goths. The author of this study hopes that his book shall persuade even most sceptical readers that the Goths, whose presence in the Crimea can be traced at least from the third through the sixteenth / eighteenth centuries A.D., represent one of the most interesting pages in the multiethnic and multicultural history of the Crimea. 

Mikhail Kizilov
© Christian T. Petersen, A.D.2016