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Ukraine: Church, Archeologists Seek Control Of Ancient Site

Since Ukraine's independence in 1991, the Ukrainian Orthodox church has been demanding the return of property confiscated during the communist era. But sometimes the church's demands conflict with the aims of historians and archeologists. RFE/RL Kyiv correspondent Lily Hyde looks at how archeologists and priests have reached a partial compromise over one ancient site in Sevastopol.

Sevastopol, Ukraine; 1 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Founded as a Greek trading outpost in the fourth century BC, Chersoness, on the outskirts of Sevastopol, is one of the world's great cultural cross-roads. Here the ancient Greeks met the nomadic Scythians. The Romans came next, followed by the Byzantines, and it was here that Christianity entered Kyivan Rus.

More than two millennia on, Chersoness is once again the site of a clash of cultures. Ukrainian archeologists want to preserve the site as a monument to ancient civilizations. The Moscow patriarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, however, has laid claim to much of the site, now a national reserve, in the hopes of turning it into a working monastery.

It's a common conflict of interest in Ukraine, where the church is demanding lands that were confiscated under communism. Archeologists and historians are concerned that the church is showing scant respect for any other cultural and historical significance a site may possess.

In Chersoness, the two sides have reached a compromise at least over the rebuilding of Saint Volodymyr's cathedral. The cathedral was erected in the mid 1800s over an ancient basilica believed to be where Volodymyr, the first Christian King of Kyivan Rus, was baptized. The cathedral was destroyed in the Second World War and is now being rebuilt by the central government and by Kyiv's city council, with the support of both the local museum and church.

In an interview with RFE/RL the museum's director, Leonid Marchenko, calls the cathedral a 'present' to the Orthodox church, restoring at least some of the land it once possessed.

In the early 1800s, shortly before the ancient ruins had been discovered, the church was granted the site to found a monastery. According to Father Ieromonakh Paisiy, who lives near a small church which has already been rebuilt, it is thanks to the monks that ancient Chersoness was ever discovered. Paisiy spoke with RFE/RL:

"They made the first archeological excavations here and they were guardians of the find. You could say that the museum from the beginning had spiritual origins. The reason for starting excavations was the search for the place of King Volodymyr's christening."

Once the ruins were discovered, archeologists became far more interested in the site's pre-Christian remains, which have attracted new international interest since Ukrainian independence opened up Sevastopol to the rest of the world.

Museum director Marchenko has archeologists from the University of Texas and the World Monument Fund on his side when he says the site provides a unique glimpse of ancient civilizations. While he has supported the rebuilding of the cathedral, he wants other parts of the reserve protected for scientific and historical purposes.

"Chersoness is preserved the best of all, firstly, secondly, it has several epochs, Greek, Roman, Byzantine. The third reason why it's unique is that Ancient Greeks engaged in trade, ceramics and agriculture. Of these places in the world, Greece, Italy and so on, there's hardly anywhere left where we can trace where ancient peoples engaged in agriculture. Here on our territory we can."

Marchenko is concerned that if the church is allowed to take over the land, it would not make an effort to preserve older ruins. He does have a precedent. In 1997, church representatives used a helicopter to place a painted iron gazebo, or cupola, on the site of an ancient basilica where some experts believe Volodymyr was christened. It was placed without the museum's permission. At the same time church members broke open the gates to the museum grounds and brought in bulldozers in order to fix the object in place.

Marchenko fears much could be lost to archeology if the church's concerns dominate.

"There's excavation work [to be done] for the next 500 years, because so many monuments are still underground. So it's not permissible to give this land for a monastery again, it would be a mistake. We're ready to share nicely, to be reasonable, so that those who are believers can come, and [so can] those who want [to study] ancient remains. Modern religion doesn't recognize ancient monuments, but [people] also had their own gods in antiquity. We need [to preserve both] an orthodox basilica, an ancient theater, a mint, and other monuments."

Church representatives in Simferopol and Sevastopol are now anxious to downplay the events in 1997 and talk instead about the agreement on rebuilding the cathedral. Father Alexander Yakoshechkin, secretary for the Crimean Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox church, tells RFE/RL the church has always done its best to preserve Ukraine's heritage and will continue to do so in Chersoness. Nevertheless, he argues the Christian significance of the site far outweighs its more ancient history.

"Its a historical place where ancient people lived but first of all its a Christian sacred place and everyone knows why this place became known, and why it has such a place in history and culture. If we take a history book, first of all we will speak of Chersoness and read that it is first and foremost the cradle of priesthood, the cradle of Christianity for Ukraine, Russia and Belarus."

The cathedral is scheduled to be finished by July 2000. Neither representatives from the church nor the museum seem to expect the schedule to be kept, however, as work is progressing slowly.

Meanwhile, Father Alexander says believers are still praying for the re-establishment of the monastery. Both he and museum director Marchenko express the hope that believers and scientists can exist peacefully side by side here, but on whose land is still debated.