Is Russia attempting to erase Crimean Muslim culture?

Crimean Tatars fear the Kremlin, after annexation, is chipping away at identity of the 250,000-strong Muslim ethnicity.


Russia's restoration of the Big Khan Mosque has chipped away at the building's authenticity, community leaders have said [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
Russia’s restoration of the Big Khan Mosque has chipped away at the building’s authenticity, community leaders have said [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Bakhchisaray, Ukraine – The mosque looked like a bandaged patient.

The 500-year-old limestone building was wrapped in wooden scaffolding and long pieces of cloth that hid geometric ornaments and Koranic calligraphy.

Next to it lay heavy bundles of steel rods that seemed alien in the courtyard of the seemingly weightless, palatial complex out-of-a-fairy-tale, built for Crimean Khans. The dynasty of Genghis Khan’s descendants was dethroned after tsarist Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula in 1783.

The Big Khan Mosque pictured before the restoration project [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

In January, almost four years after Moscow’s second annexation of Crimea, pro-Russian authorities started restoring the oldest and holiest part of the complex – the Big Khan Mosque built in 1532. They also announced plans to restore the entire palace.

But experts, community leaders and Ukrainian officials have lambasted the restoration as the destruction of the complex’s authenticity. They call it part of Kremlin’s drive to reshape, ban and erase the cultural identity of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim ethnicity of 250,000 that largely resisted Crimea’s return to Russia.

“This is a blueprint for the restoration of the entire palace,” Edem Dudakov, a construction engineer and former official in Crimea’s pre-annexation government, told Al Jazeera. “The palace will be lost; what they’re building is a sham.”

The ATTA Group, a company behind the restoration, specialises in contemporary architecture and uses modern materials such as steel and concrete that will inevitably destroy the fragile building, Dudakov said.


How Crimean Muslims defy Moscow’s pressure

It replaces medieval, handmade tiles with modern, Spanish-made roofing, and whole wooden beams with glued, composite planks.

The company did not reply to requests for comment.

What has been done to the mosque already amounts to “partial loss of the building’s authenticity,” Mustafa Jemilev, a revered community leader expelled by Moscow, wrote on Facebook.

Ukrainian authorities echo his concerns.

The restoration “poses a real danger of destruction” of the palace, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

‘Revenge for disloyalty’

The palace’s gradual destruction and “remodelling” exemplifies Russia’s fraught relationship with Crimean Tatars.

The Turkic-speaking ethnic group once controlled the Great Silk Road’s westernmost branch and warred with Moscow for centuries. Crimean Tatars consider the palace the most significant symbol of their lost statehood.

A Russian army burned the palace and its gigantic library. Westernised tsars changed the rebuilt palace’s interior to make it look more European. They erased elaborate frescoes, destroyed many buildings and dramatically reduced the palace’s acreage.


Categories: Europe, Russia, Ukraine

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