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Tomb in Crimea a Triumph of Ancient Greek Architecture

Crimea ancient Greek
The entrance to the Royal Kurgan Tomb in the Crimea at the site of the Ancient Greek colony Panticapaion, which was founded by the Asia Minor city of Miletus. Credit: Investigatio /CC BY-SA 3.0 Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

The monumental tomb known as the “Royal Kurgan of Kerch” in Crimea was constructed in the 4th century BC; its ancient Greek architecture is evidence of the colony there that was founded by the Greek city of Miletus of Asia Minor.

The Royal Kurgan, also called the Tsarskiy Kurgan, is one of the most impressive tumuli, or burial mounds, in eastern Crimea. The tomb, with its uniquely sloped entranceway, is located in the present-day town of Kerch, which was the ancient Greek town of Panticapaion (Παντικάπαιον), or Panticapaeum, founded in the late seventh or early sixth century BC.

This area of eastern Crimea is rich in tumuli, or kurgans, with approximately two hundred in Kerch and its immediate vicinity alone. The Royal Kurgan is approximately five kilometers (three miles) northeast of the town center.

Ancient Greek architecture of the tomb in Crimea is unique

The mound is almost 20 meters (66 feet) tall and the perimeter of its base is an incredible 250 meters (820 feet). The burial chamber within it has a square floor plan measuring 4.39 meters (14.4 feet) X 4.35 meters (14.3 feet), which gradually morphs into the circular shape of a corbelled dome, or “false vault,” resembling the shape of a beehive.

The total height of the burial chamber is 8.84 meters (29 feet). Its unique dromos, or entrance passage, is only 2.80 meters (9 feet) wide but is 37 meters (121 feet) long, built using the corbelled vault technique. Both parts of the building were constructed of yellow limestone blocks; the floor of the tomb is a tamped mix of clay, lime, and limestone.

Historians believe that the Royal Kurgan, which is universally considered to be a unique masterpiece of ancient Greek architecture, was the final resting place for a ruler of the Bosporan Kingdom, which was founded in the fifth century BC from the Greek colonies in the northern Black Sea region and at the Sea of Azov.

The tomb could have been the final resting place of Leukon of Bosporus, who reigned from 389 to 349 BC. The kurgan was opened in the course of systematic excavations which went on from 1833 until 1837; however, archeologists found that by that time it contained only remnants of a wooden sarcophagus.

Crimea ancient Greek Miletus colonies
The many colonies of Miletus, the Asia Minor city which went on to found many other cities in the time of Ancient Greece. Credit: SAİT71 /CC BY-SA 4.0

Therefore, they believed that the kurgan had been looted in ancient times or in the intervening centuries. By the time of Christianity, the tomb may even have served as a place of refuge or religious sanctuary since there are Christian symbols etched on the inside walls of the tomb.

Panticapaeum (or Pantikápaion, from the Scythian “Pantikapa,” or “Fish-path”) was an ancient Greek city founded by colonizers from Miletus. Located on the eastern shore of Crimea, which the Greeks called Taurica, the colony thrived for many centuries as a Greek enclave.

Miletus was considered the greatest Greek metropolis of all, founding more colonies than any other Greek city. Pliny the Elder mentions an amazing ninety colonies that were founded by the people of the city in his work “Natural History.”

Crimea ancient Greek
The Prytaneion, or gathering place of officials, of the Ancient Greek colony of Panticapaion (Panticapaeum) in the Crimea. Credit: Derevyagin Igor /CC BY-SA 3.0

Panticapaion was built on Mount Mithridat, a hill on the western side of the Cimmerian Bosporus.

The city minted silver coins from the fifth century BC and gold and bronze coins from the fourth century BC, some of which survive, many of them portraying the image of the Greek god Pan. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Kerch Museum contain many objects found at the site of ancient Panticapaion, which is still being excavated.

The small museum in Kerch displays archeological finds from ancient times, including pedestals, grave stelae, and sarcophagi.

Crimea ancient Greek
Interior of the Tomb, which was most likely looted many centuries ago, showing human scale. Credit: Klaus-Norbert/GNU Free Documentation License

At its greatest extent, the city occupied an area of one hundred hectares (250 acres). During the fifth to fourth centuries BC, the city became the residence first of the Archaeanactids and then of the Spartocids, dynasties of the Thracian kings of Bosporus, and was itself sometimes called the Bosporus.

Its economic decline in the fourth to third centuries BC was the result of the conquest of the steppes by the Sarmatians and the growing market competition posed by grain from Egypt.

Historians believe that the last of the Spartocids, Paerisades V, apparently left his realm to Mithridates VI Eupator, the king of Pontus. This transition of power was arranged by one of Mithridates’s generals, Diophantus, who earlier had been sent to Taurica to help local Greek cities against Palacus of Lesser Scythia.

The mission did not go smoothly however, as Paerisades was murdered by Scythians, led by Saumacus, and Diophantus escaped to later return with reinforcements to suppress the revolt in around 110 BC.

Fifty years after that event, Mithridates took his life in Panticapaeum, when, after his defeat in a war against Rome, his son and heir Pharnaces and the very citizens of Panticapaeum turned against him.

But centuries later, this masterpiece of ancient Greek architecture still stands, evidence of the great city founded by Miletus.

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