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Crimean Khanate

Alan Fisher, Anna Münster
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Crimean Khanate

From ancient times the Crimea has been a crossroads for various peoples ranging from Scythian and Sarmatian nomads to Goth and Hun invaders, and from Greek colonizers to Genoese settlers. In 1223 the Tatars of the Golden Horde made the Crimean peninsula their southern headquarters with Solkhat (Eski Kirim) as its capital. The area that subsequently became known as Kirim (the Crimea) played an important role as intermediary between the Tatars of the Golden Horde, the Mamlūk Sultanate in Egypt, the Seljuk state in Anatolia, and the Christian kingdoms of the north (Lithuania, Poland, and Moscow). The Crimean khanate emerged after the disintegration of the Golden Horde along with the Astrakhan, Kasimov, and Kazan khanates. In the 1440s Haji Giray, its first khan, founded the Giray dynasty which governed the Crimean khanate until its dissolution in 1774. He also introduced a three-pronged tamga as a symbol of the Crimean Tatar nation—a symbolism that would to continue until modern times.

Although never completely sovereign and independent of the Ottoman sultans, the khanate's political and social institutions developed in their own ways, blending Tatar and steppe traditions with Ottoman bureaucratic and dynastic practices. The former were characterized by decentralized authority, while the Ottoman system was highly centralized. The khan did not have the same degree of authority as a Turkish sultan because he was subordinate to the beys, the ruling elite. Also, the khan, customarily brought up in the Ottoman Empire, was often appointed or deposed at the will of sultan. In spite of their inferior status, the Crimean khans could trace their genealogy to Genghis Khan—something that the Ottoman sultans could not boast of. This fact may partially explain a degree of independence that the Crimean khanate revealed on various occasions, either by allying themselves with Moscow or Ukrainian Cossacks or disregarding an injunction from the Ottomans to join an anti-Persian campaign.

Tatar institutions included the quriltāy (the gathering of all clan leaders), whose responsibility included the selection of the khan from among Giray candidates; and the kalgay and nurredin sultans (first and second “heirs apparent,” also expected to be members of the Giray clan). In addition, each of the major clans maintained administrative responsibilities for lands “belonging” to them (beylik); each had a “capital” town where the clan leader (bey) resided and in which the beyʾs own officials administered financial and political affairs. These beys, particularly the bey of the Shirin clan, retained much local authority, and their support was essential to the success of Giray policies.

The central government of the khanate consisted of a set of bureaucratic and fiscal offices staffed by servitors (kapikulu) of the Girays, a governing council (divan), and judicial offices headed by a chief judge (kadiasker) and regional judges (kadis; Ar., qāḍī). Law in the khanate combined elements of Tatar customary law (deriving from the Great Yasa of Genghis Khan) and Ottoman kanun law—the former defining social relationships, and the latter establishing fiscal responsibilities.

A third administrative system, outside both central and clan institutions and led by the muftī and various Islamic officials, was responsible for the large number of waqf (endowment) lands in the khanate. Finally, dating from 1475 the southern coast of the peninsula was under direct Ottoman control, with local officials appointed from Istanbul. Many of the large towns of the Crimea were situated in this area, which was called the Eyalet-i Kefe.

Crimean economics were based largely on trade: slaves were “harvested” by Tatar forces from the Slavic settlements north of the peninsula; foodstuffs were produced in the fertile lands along the coast and in inland valleys; fine finished goods were produced by Tatar artisans (jewelry, metal, and leatherwork primarily), and subsidies were received from the Ottomans in Istanbul in return for participation in military campaigns. Crimean society was generally prosperous and as a result fairly well developed. Particularly in the Ottoman sector, but also in the peninsular heartland, Jewish and Christian communities played important economic roles (ironically, it was after the Russian conquest that these minorities were removed and replaced by Russian and Ukrainian peasants).

Muslims had been present in the region from the early thirteenth century, and Muslim institutions including mosques and schools had been built by 1315. One of the earliest of these mosques was built in Solkhat in 1287. The construction was funded by Baybars, originally a slave of Kipchak origin from the Crimea who later became a sultan of the Mamlūk dynasty in Egypt. A second mosque was built there by the Golden Horde ruler O¨z Beg Khan in 1314, and the latter building survives today. From the early sixteenth century onward an important medrese (madrasah [school]), the Zincirli in Solkhat, offered education and training in scholarship that would produce generations of scholars who played important roles in Islamic culture in the khanate and outside. This medrese would provide leadership to Russiaʾs Muslims in the late nineteenth century in their efforts at modernization.

The three major urban areas under the control of the khanateʾs administration were Gözlev (later Evpatoria), Akmechet (Simferopol), and Bahçesaray. In the last city the Girays maintained their palace, and it was there that most government offices were located. These towns supported an active cultural life reflected in a sophisticated historiographic tradition; the most important chronicles include the Tevarih desht-i kipchak and the Asseb’ os-seiiar, the latter composed by Seĭid Muhammed Riza in the mid-eighteenth century.

As the result of Russian expansion and development in the eighteenth century and of Crimean and Ottoman decline, the khanate was invaded twice and ultimately collapsed before Russian armies between 1768 and 1774. After a short “experiment” managed by Tsarina Catherine II, the entire peninsula with all its Tatar inhabitants was annexed to the Russian Empire and became the Tavricheskii Oblast. Although the last khan, Şahin Giray, became one of Catherineʾs favorites, he failed to gain popularity among the people. He abdicated and traveled around Russia before emigrating to Turkey where, shortly afterward, he was executed. Refugees from the khanateʾs ruling classes settled in Istanbul and other Ottoman towns in Bulgaria and Romania; most were ultimately assimilated into the Turkish population.

In 1944 Stalin deported the entire Crimean Tatar population of Crimea to Central Asia. Since then about 250,000 Crimean Tatars have returned to Crimea; some of them still reside in Central Asia, mainly in Uzbekistan. A Crimean Tatar diaspora also exists in Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, and the united States.



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  • Muzaffer Ürekli. Kirim hanliğının kuruluşu ve Osmanlı himâyesinde yükselişi, 1441–1569. Ankara, 1989.
  • Williams, Brian. The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2001.
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