Ukraine, the most western part of the great grasslands that extend across all of Asia as far as Manchuria was inhabited by nomads who developed sophisticated art-work in gold and silver as early as the 16th century BC (Maikop tomb in the Kuban). In the 12th century BC it was occupied by the indo-European Cimerians who were overrun in the 7th BC by another group of indo-European tribes, the Scythes (or Saka) moving north-west from Central Asia. In the 3rd BC these were displaced in turn by another wave of indo-Europeans, the Sarmatians from the steppes north of the Aral Sea who had the upper hand until they were overrun in the 4th century AD by the turkic speaking Huns (descendants of the Hsiung-nu from Siberia).
This indo-European and turkic cultural base was overlaid by slavic language tribes who expanded east, west and south from their original lands north-east of the Carpathian mountains in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. The western slavs became Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, the southern branch produced Bulgarians, Macedonians, Serbians, Bosnians, Croatians and Slovenes while the eastern slavs gave rise to Belarussians, Russians and Ukrainians.
In the 6th century shamanist, mongol speaking Avar tribes moved in from the eastern steppes, overran and assimilated the turkic speaking Hun descendants of Attila's hordes before moving against the slavic tribes to the north and the germanic tribes to the west where they were defeated by the Franks in 562. In the 7th they allied with the Persians against Constantinople and were repulsed with heavy losses. They were finally destroyed as a major force by Charlemagne on the Danuble at the end of the 8th century.
After the decadence of the Avar, it was the turn of Bulgar and Mayar tribes to dominate the steppes north of the Black Sea for a while until the turkic Khazar tribes moved in from the area around today's Chechnia in the 9th century. The Slavs who had established themselves in Kiev overcame the Khazars in the 10th century only to find that this opened the door to the savage turkic Pechenegs and the fiercer Polovtsy (turkic Qiptchak tribes) who sacked Kiev in 1093.
Worse was still to come as Genghis Khan's grandson Batu devastated Ukraine in 1240 and took possession of its grasslands for the Golden Horde. The Mongols adopted Islam, grew soft, and were weakened by Lithuania's invasion of northern Ukraine. In the 14th century the Mongols were no longer a great force and could not cope with Tamerlane's turkic hordes who razed their capital Sarai on the Volga in 1395. A century later the mongol Golden Horde had disintegrated into several small Khanates struggling for survival against the growing power of Poland and of Cossack settlers who were invading the plains.
Ukraine was still a frontier land but the days of the mounted nomad archer were over, henceforth its history would become a matter of struggles between agriculturalists...
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One of the major landmarks of Odessa is this great staircase made famous by the massacre scene in Sergey Eisenstein's 1925 film "Battleship Potemkine". It connects the port, where it is 21 meters wide, to the upper town where it narrows down to only 13 meters to give an impression of greater height.
Odessa is very much a port town. There is an almost Mediterranean atmosphere about it.
I would have liked to come here by boat from a Georgian port but the unsettled situation in that country had made that route uncertain so I had to fly from Yerevan.
Boats from all over the world tie up here provoking dreams of travel to exotic shores.
These days, there are more dreams than voyages because of the very severe economic regression that affects Ukraine since the breakdown of the soviet empire. This luxury cruise ship has no more customers so it has been transformed into a hotel, hoping that better times will allow it to sail again someday.
These fine bourgeois houses facing the port, high on Prymorsky Bulevar at the upper end of the "Potemkine" stairs, have been carefully maintained in their original early 19th century condition.
It is thanks to Levon and Arthur Hachikian's personal invitation that I managed to get a visa to visit Ukraine. The Greek colonnade behind us graces the gardens of the 1826 Vorontsov palace also overlooking the port.
A few blocks south of the steps, Derybasivskaya vuilitsya is where all the action is. There is a park, several sidewalk cafés, fancy shops and fashionable bars and it is not far from the Opera and Ballet Theatre and no less than six excellent museums and art galleries.
Elaborate doorway decoration inside the fancy 19th century mall called Pasazh (from the French "passage"), near Derybasivska vuilitsya.
The old center of the city is definitely European in a refined way even now after 70 years of soviet rule.
Streets shaded by plane trees give the city a distinctive French flavour.
Pantelyemonovsky Church, across from the train station.
The Black Sea coast offers a series of fine beaches stretching for endless kilometers on both sides of the city. This one, called Arkadia, is about 6 kms to the southeast.
A little further away from town is the very long "Bolshoi Fontan" beach.
Much further still lies this deserted beach, whose name I cannot recall, where we visited the sister of Levon's wife Lilia in her small dacha. Meeting the Hachikian family and their friend Roman made all the difference and explains why I think so highly of Odessa.
The next day, Levon and Arthur brought me to the bus station very early in the morning. The difficulty of saying goodbye is the price to pay for heart warming friendship.