The Forgotten Mosques of Ukraine





Ukraine is known as an orthodox country located in Eastern Europe, bordering Christian countries and Turkey on the other side of the Black Sea. But since centuries its history was largely linked to the Ottomans and Crimean Tatars. And of course, the local culture and heritage were very much influenced. Some of the regions were under ottoman regiment. Crimean Tatars often participated in wars along with Ukrainian Cossacks. Sometimes they have been enemies. All those events brought to Ukrainian land a mix of customs and traditions that would reflect some elements of the Orient and some from the western world. Islam was present in Ukraine since the Ottomans and the Crimean Tatars started its military campaigns in this region. With the spread of Islam, more and more mosques were built. But unfortunately, today they remain rare and forgotten. There are only a few of them since those times.



The occupation of territories of Turkish states on the Northern Coast of the Black Sea region in XIII – the beginning of the XIX century by Russian Empire brought the disappearance of the local population and partial destruction of its historical monuments. The mosques were damaged the most. In the middle of the XIII century, there have been few hundreds of mosques situated between the banks of Dniester and Don rivers.



In 1695-1696 the Russian army undertook the Azov-Dnieper military campaign, which was covering the territory of northern regions of the Black Sea. The soldiers of the Tsar Peter the Great conquered some cities and fortresses: Kizikermen, Azov, Tavan, Islam-Kermen, Shagin-Kermen. Partially those cities were destroyed and the mosques were rearranged as Orthodox churches. The population was exterminated; some people had migrated to Crimea. This military strategy became common during all Russian-Turkish wars of XIX century.


“On the 2nd of August, we have arrived in a village called Suvorov, where Timothy, the son of the ruler, used to live. The citizens came to us and invited to a new church of St. Michael… We have noticed a few big stones as part of the building, which has surprised us a lot. When we asked, the locals told us, that those stones were brought here from a city belonging to Tatars, 5 miles away from here, where Tatars used to have a big mosque. The ruler had destroyed it and taken the stones to build this church.” – from the letter of Pavel of Aleppo, where he is describing the church of Ilyin, famously represented on the bill of 5 hryvnyas in Ukraine.



During the war of 1787-1791, Russia had occupied huge territories in the north of the Black Sea coast. Its western border was determined by the river Dniester. Russian Empire jurisdiction spread out on 4 cities where Muslims used to live: Balta, Hadjibey, Ochakov and Dubossary (today part of Moldova). All mosques in those places were completely destroyed. Only one building remains in the city of Ochakov.



The city Ochakov was taken by storm in 1788. The witness of that day, the employee of the office of the Count G. Potemkin, R. Tsebrikov had noted in his diary: “On the 6th of December, on a day of Saint Nicolas, the city of Ochakov was taken by force at 8 am, the Turkish fortress – at 1.15pm. The war prisoners were taken to the stable – scared women, frozen children – horrible scene! The crying is everywhere. Death is triumphing. The 7th of December: cruel cold and a lot of prisoners had died. Terrifying scenes and human suffering are everywhere. The 8th of December: these days they are taking children from mothers. Screaming, some were sent to the city but people are wounded. During baptizing of the church in Ochakov, the prayers of gratitude were given”.


After that, the building of the mosque was rebuilt a few times. During the Soviet period, it has hosted a museum. Today the building belongs to the Orthodox Church.



During the Russian-Turkish war of 1806-1812, the Russian Empire annexed the south of Bessarabia – Budjak. Muslims used to live here from the end of the XIII century. And till now, the only building of Ottoman mosque outside of Crimea remains located in a city of Ismail. In 1810 it has been given to the Orthodox Church. In 1908 the historians have discovered a stone wall with some historical information about this place: “ The church of Saint Dimitry was baptized on September 13th 1810, from a mosque, that the Turkish army left after being defeated by the Russian army on September 13th 1809”. In 2007 during the archaeological searches by the expedition of the Ismail Institute of Archeology, the historians have found the exact location of the minaret, that had been destroyed during the first half of XIX century.


Some research published in 1900 confirms that between 1810 and 1813 at least 9 mosques were given to the Russian Orthodox Church. With time most of them were modified or destroyed.


The German historian Utte Shmidt in his work “Bessarabien. Deutsche Kolonisten is Schwarzen Meer” has published a photo of a mosque of Ottoman period from the village of Budaky taken in 1940. Nowadays this building does not exist anymore.



It is also known that in the XIX century there has been another mosque in the region of Odessa. It was situated next to the Orthodox Church, a Catholic Cathedral and a Synagogue. The buildings of the mosque and the synagogue did not survive till now. Another mosque of XVIIIth century still exists in Hotin. On the photos of the beginning of the XXth century, we could notice that the minaret and the building have been in good condition. Today, almost nothing remains from it. During the Turkish ruling, this place was essential for Muslims and the practising of Islam.



Few Muslim mosques remain standing in Crimea. The most famous is the mosque of Khan-Djami in the city of Evpatoria. It has been build by the famous Turkish architect Khodja-Sinan in the middle of the XVIth century.






Another mosque is situated in the city of Pheodosia, called Mufti-Djami, it has been build in 1623-1630. Both places were restored during Soviet times. In the 90s both mosques were returned to the Muslim community of Crimea and today represent the valuable part of the local cultural heritage.



The south of Ukraine is also known for its famous Akkerman Fortress, which is located in the region of Odessa. There has been a famous mosque of the XVth century, mentioned by the Ottoman traveller Chelebi in his writings as the Mosque of Sultan Bayside.


The history of the city of Akkerman is older than 2500 years. It is one of the ancient cities in Ukraine, the centre of Islamic culture and civilization in the northern part of the Black Sea coast. In middle ages, the city of Akkerman has been build on the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Tira. Till now the visitors can see its ruins located on the seacoast. The set up of Akkerman as a huge trade town and fortress is directly linked with Mongolian - Tatar invasions of the region of Bessarabia in the 40s of XVIIIth century. It had quickly become an active commercial hub, especially because of its unique and advantageous position as a crossroad for traders of Poland, Russ of Kyiv, Crimea, Caucus and Central Asia. It was also called the “Black Castle”.


In the XIVth century, the city has been developing thanks to the protection of Khans of the Golden Horde - Uzbek and Djanibek. The archaeological researches prove a large number of Muslim populations in Akkerman. But with the beginning of internal conflicts within the Golden Horde and the pressure from Moldova, the Muslims start to leave the place.


As per the theory by the historian, Russev, the original name of “Akkerman” was related to the prosperity and the wealth of the town. In the 30s of the XIVth century, Arabic authors Abu Al Fida and Al Omari had mentioned the name of “Akchakermen”. “Akcha” in ancient Turk language would mean a silver coin ( “akcha” is a monetary unit in Ottoman Empire).


In 1484 Sultan Bayazid the 1st with the help of the Crimean Khan Mengli-Girey occupied Akkerman. His first decision was the construction of the mosque.


From the end of XVth century till the XVIIIth century the trade and the science were flourishing. These are marvellous times for Islam. During this period the castle and the areas around were full of mosques. A very well known author of religious and scientific manuscripts, Muhammad Bin Mustafa Al Akkirmani used to live here during the XVIIIth century. He is famous for more than 60 writings in Turkish and Arabic.


In 1711-1712 Akkerman was also a centre of the provision of food for the Cossacks under the ruling order of Philip Orlyk, the commander of Ukrainian Cossacks, known as the author of the first constitution in the world (1710).


But during the Russian-Turkish wars end of the XVIIIth century, the Russian army occupied Akkerman. Every time they were obliged to return the city back to Ottomans, till in 1806 the army of Duke Richelieu conquered the city again. That was the end of 3-centuries governess of Turkish. Remaining Muslims were obliged to leave the city.


The mosque of Sultan Bayazid had been transferred to the Orthodox Church and destroyed with time; only its minaret is still standing reminding about the glorious past of the great Akkerman. Nowadays the territory of the fortress is still under archaeological study. A new expedition is about to be prepared under the direction of Irina Tyslenko. The historians noticed, that the mosque of Sultan Bayazid, build in 1484, was rebuild in the second part of XVIIIth century. A new archaeological digging could be damaging for the remains of it. But such research is necessary for the history of Ukraine as the most of Muslim cultural areas have been never really studied. The archaeological mission will take place in summer of 2017. The main goal is to gather more information about the mosque. Previously the Romanian expedition was working near the minaret but they stopped once discovering the wall of the mosque itself. The northeast of the mosque is completely unknown to researchers. The historians wish to study the remaining walls in order to open the city for visitors and for the restoration.


The history of Ukraine is pretty unknown to the large audience, we often ignore about the influence of Islam on its culture and heritage. By discovering such significant places, by relating it to the main historical moments, we are about to understand the impact of Islam on Europe that has started long ago.


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