Fountain of Tears

Dr. Syed Amir on a tale of love and tragedy from Muslim-ruled Crimea that inspired the legendary Pushkin

Fountain of Tears
Built nearly four centuries ago by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the majestic Taj Mahal has stood defiantly against all adversities as an eternal embodiment of human love and undying devotion. Thousands of miles away and on a different continent, stands another testament, far less grandiose than Taj, but equally emotive, showcasingthe profound grief of another ruler on the loss of his young beloved wife. The Fountain of Tears, as it has been known, has stood for two-and-half centuries in the Bakhchisaray Palace that served from 1532 to 1783 as the royal residence of 48 Muslim Tatar Khans of Crimea.

Crimea was part of Ukraine until five years ago when it was seized by Russia. However, the legend of the Fountain of Tears dates back to the time when the Peninsula was ruled by the Tartar Khans. Originally, the Khanate was part of an empire established by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan, that flourished in the 13th century in the north western part of the Mongol Empire. Since Batu Khan, when on campaigns, lived in a golden tent, his army was often referred to as the Golden Horde.

The Fountain of Tears, at the Khan's palace at Bakchisarai on the Crimean Peninsula

The empire, overwhelmed by Emir Timur (Tamerlane) in 1441, splintered into several independent Khanates, which adopted Islam as their faith.

Of these, one of the principal domains was the Khanate of Crimea, under the nominal sovereignty of Ottoman Sultans, that lasted from 1441 to 1783. At one time, it became so powerful that the Russian Tsars were paying tribute to the Khans.

Weakened and in a reversal of fortunes, it was conquered in 1783 by the Russian Tsarina, Catherine the Great, who annexed it into her empire. Her real ambition was to go on further, retake Constantinople from the Ottomans and restore it as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. She never could achieve that goal.

The Fountain of Tears was built to commemorate a tragic love story that has been immortalized by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), considered the greatest Russian lyric poet, playwright and novelist. In 1820, he visited the fountain at the palace at Bakhchisaray, the former capital of the vanquished Khanate, and was powerfully moved by the love story he heard. His emotions found expression in a 3500-word romantic poem The Fountain of Bakhchisaray composed in 1822. It is recognized as one of his most memorable literary creations. The poem later became the theme of a popular ballet at the renowned Bolshoi Theatre.
Pushkin picked up two fresh roses (symbolizing red for love and yellow for distress) and placed them on top of the fountain. Since then it has become a tradition followed by all visitors

The story gleaned from Pushkin’s poem is masterfully related by Sheldon Chad, a prominent journalist and screen writer.In his scholarly essay, The Palace and the Poet, in Saudi Aramco World, he writes, “The Palace was home, a long time ago, to an imperious Lord of nations, a khan whom Pushkin names simply as Giray. In the inner court was the harem where only he was permitted entrance. There Zarema was the harems’ queen, love’s brightest star. That was the situation until the arrival of Maria Potocka, a fourteen-year-old, orphaned princess snatched by arms from a castle in Poland. The Khan fell secretly and madly in love with the beautiful Maria.”

The young maiden apparently did not respond to the Khan’s overtures, too distraught from her captivity and separation from her family. Yet, the senior queen, Zarema, became intensely jealous of her rival, the beautiful woman from Poland. Driven by jealousy, she entered her apartment and murdered Maria.

The Khan, who witnessed the murder, was incensed at the loss of his beloved Maria and ordered the execution of Zarema. Having lost both, Khan was griefstricken and inconsolable. He built a giant tomb for his beloved Maria. “Tears scored his cheeks in scalding streams and ennobled by his romantic love, gave orders to an Iranian sculptor to erect a marble fountain” to symbolically immortalize his tears of sorrow flowing until eternity.

The love of Giray Khan for his young wife is described in more colourful language by the former Indian ambassador to Russia (1952-1961), Kumara Padma Sivasankara Menon, in his memoirs, The Lamp and the Lampstand. When Khan was asked by the French trainer of his army as to what made him so profoundly love the young girl, the Khan supposedly replied,“Because she was wise as a serpent, brave as a lioness, strong as an eagle, tender as a child, fond as a mother and passionate as a lover.”

Bakchisarai was greatly beautified by its Khans, especially Khan Qirim Girai - who also commissioned the Fountain of Tears at the palace

Pushkin, on his visit, picked up two fresh roses (symbolizing red for love and yellow for distress) and placed them on top of the fountain. Since then it has become a tradition followed by all visitors. An estimated 250,000 tourists come every yearfrom Russia alone to visit the charmed fountain. It has been suggested that if it were not for Pushkin’s epic poem, the storied fountain would have long ago been erased from public memory.

The identity of the object of the Qirim Giray Khan’s intense passion has remained somewhat a subject of controversy. The Russian invasion of Crimea in 1736 destroyed much of the archival material about the Khanate, making it hard to place historic events in their true perspective. Some historians have argued that the woman in whose memory the foundation was erected was not Maria Potocka, the Polish princess, but a Georgian girl named Dilara Bikech. Not much is known about her. Some would argue, however, that it is not the identity that is so important, but rather the sublime emotion of love that the fountain symbolizes.

Following the Russian conquest of Crimea, the Fountain of Tears most likely would have been decimated like many other historic monuments in Bakhchisaray if the Empress Catherine had not been moved by the legend when she came from St. Petersburg in 1787 to visit her newly acquired territory. It took her six months to cover nearly a thousand miles to Crimea by horse-driven coaches. Her top commander in Crimea, Gregory Potemkin, had made every effort to ensure that her long arduous journey was secure and her stay comfortable.

Clash on the steppes - Crimean Tatars in battle with Zaporozhian Cossacks, in a painting by Jozef Brandt

The conquest of Crimea had special significance for Catherine, as the Muslim Tatars for generations had been menacing Russia, raiding and pillaging the countryside. Now, Crimea had become part of her vast empire. For the first time, she experienced sights and sounds that she would never have been exposed to. This was, after all, a northern outmost of the Islamicate empires that dominated huge tracts of Eurasia.

The Khan’s grand palace had been especially refurbished for her brief stay.

Author Robert Massie, in his best-selling book Catherine the Great, has described the palace as follows: “The palace had preserved the atmosphere of Islam. There were inner courts and scented gardens, enclosed by high walls and hedges of myrtles. Catherine could see minarets rising above the walls and breath the scent of roses, jasmine, orange trees and pomegranates. Surrounding the palace was the town, dominated by nineteen mosques and their high minarets from which five times a day, voices summoned the faithful to prayers.”

While in Crimea, Catherine ordered the relocation of the Fountain of Tears to the Bakhchisaray palace grounds, a grander setting than where it was originally located. Much like the attention of Viceroy Lord Curzon rescued the Taj Mahal from destitution, the interest of the Tsarina may have ensured the survival of the Fountain of Tears.