While excavating the ancient city of Phangoria, located north of the Black Sea, in the Taman peninsula of southern Russia, archaeologists made an odd discovery: A single copper coin, minted in the year 1570, far far away in the Cypriot city of Famagusta.
One hesitates to read too much into a single coin. But it had been perforated, probably to serve as a pendant, and the archaeologists suspect that it wasn’t used to buy goods, but was brought from Cyprus to Phanagoria by an Ottoman soldier as a trophy.
That in turn suggests that people from Taman participated in the 16th-century Ottoman conquest of Cyprus, says numismatist Prof. Mikhail Abramzon of the Magnitogorsk State Technical University, senior researcher of the team. Archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology Russian Academy of Sciences led by Prof. Vladimir Kuznetsov, back the assertion.
The city of Phanagoria was founded around 543 B.C.E. on the shores of the Taman peninsula by Greeks. In its heyday, it was a sprawling polis and served as the eastern capital of the Bosporan Kingdom, a Greek state spanning today’s eastern Crimea and Taman. The kingdom also arose about 2500 years ago: its western capital city was Panticapaeum, located smack across the Kerch strait.
The kingdom itself survived in one form or another through the Byzantine period, and control over Phanagoria changed from time to time subsequent to invasions, including a sacking by Germanic Huns in the late 4th century C.E. After arising anew some centuries later, the city soldiered on through to the 10th century C.E., and has lain untroubled by humanity since, with the exception of the archaeologists who discovered its location.
Today, about a third of this once-vast port city is submerged. Exactly how parts of the city sank is unclear. Separate research published in 2019 suggests that the city’s earliest harbor and beaches were flooded by the 1st century C.E.. The researchers suggest that a new pier was built in the 3rd century and was also flooded five centuries later.
Kuznetsov has suggested that when Phanagoria was founded, it lay on the shores of a closed lake named Korokondamitis, which was meters lower than the level of the Black Sea today. When the water level rose, it flooded the settlements along the lakeside and Korokondamitis became what is now the Taman Gulf.
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Yet another theory suggests that the Black Sea and Mediterranean have been connected for about 7500 years, since which time their water level has been the same.
Now, Phanagoria couldn’t have been built underwater. If the Black Sea and Mediterranean were connected, and there is no sign that the Mediterranean dropped in level during the last 7500 years, let alone by several meters – the Black Sea wouldn’t have been any lower. This theory suggests Phanagoria flooded because of natural land subsidence.
Phanagoria’s excavation, now focusing on the city’s medieval period, has been funded since 2004 by Volnoe Delo, a nonprofit organization and charity. Volnoe Delo’s founder, industrialist Oleg Deripaska, grew up in the region and personally suggested supporting the project. The foundation also sponsors the diving team exploring the submerged part of ancient Phanagoria and is building a museum there.
From Mithridates to the Most Serene Republic of Venice
Moving onto the Cypriot city of Famagusta. In the 15th century it was vanquished by Venice, or, as it was known at the time, the “Most Serene Republic of Venice.” From that point on, Famagusta became a key trading hub for the Christian Levant, which encompassed present-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
In 1570, the Ottoman Empire attacked, hoping to gain control of the region’s largest port city. In 1571, Sultan Selim II’s troops conquered Famagusta after a protracted siege – apparently, we now know, aided by troops from the Turkish village located on the territory of formal Phanagoria.
The Phanagoria expedition, which is continuing the excavation of the site that began in 1937, found the telltale Famagustan coin in a medieval layer.
As previously mentioned, the coin has a hole bored in it, which could indicate that it was worn as a pendant or other piece of jewelry. “Of course it was a souvenir – a decoration,” says Abramzon, adding that its discovery had been a surprise.
Today the Taman Gulf or peninsula is part of the Krasnodar Krai region in southern Russia. But in the last quarter of the 15th century, Crimea and the peninsula had come under the sway of the Ottoman empire, Abramzon explains. The region features more than a few Ottoman-era fortresses and other sites, and an Ottoman fleet made its base in the area that was once Phanagoria.
“The Taman peninsula was part of the Ottoman Empire administration system,” he says. “We know there was an Ottoman village, or several, in the territory of Phanagoria because excavations found a cultural level, with piles of pottery, mouthpieces for smoking pipes, and Ottoman coins from this time, the 16th century. A very big Turkish village called Alibey was located a few kilometers from Phanagoria.” So the Black Sea, Taman Gulf and city were part of the Turkish hinterland when the coin was minted hundreds of kilometers away in Famagusta, apparently during the siege of 1570-1571.
As for the coin, its origin is not in doubt. Many such coins were issued in Famagusta, Abramzon explains. That said, it is Venetian in style: One side shows the Lion of St. Mark (representing Mark the evangelist), which was an emblem of the Republic of Venice. The tail side shows an aviating cherub, aka the Christian evolution of Cupid. “In the 15th century, Famagusta had become home to Christians who were driven out of the Holy Land and hoped to return to Palestine one day,” he adds.
“This find is a significant event for archaeologists. The conquest of Famagusta by the Ottoman army is one of the turning points in the history of the Mediterranean, and the coin we found shows that the inhabitants of medieval Taman were directly involved in it,” Kuznetsov says.
This hint of a Turkish soldier fighting far from home is just the latest discovery in this archaeological site. In 2009 the Russian archaeologists excavating Phanagoria discovered what they believe is the palace of King Mithridates VI, the ruler of Pontus and bitter enemy of Rome (and, in the other direction, of the Scythians). According to the Roman historian Appian, the palace had been burned down by rebels, but it bears adding that any Roman accounts of this nemesis merit scrutiny.
Coins were found among the ruins, dropped by fleeing palace residents, Kuznetsov postulated at the time. Just this July, the Phanagoria expedition reported finding a hoard of coins that may attest to a completely different spate of violence. The assemblage of 80 coins was found in a 6th century layer, a time when the city was under Byzantine rule, but dated to the slightly earlier epoch of Bosporan kings from the 3rd and 4th centuries. Kuznetsov believes the broken amphora with the treasure had been hurriedly buried by its owner as the Turkic peoples attacked.