The Fountain of Bahçesaray

The story of the fountain of Bahçesaray consists of myths, legends, and poetic texts, all layered upon one another. Thus an infrastructure object becomes an active participant in social transformations.

According to a legend, khan Qirim Giray built the fountain near a mausoleum in commemoration of his beloved, Dilâra bikeç. The fountain belonged to a type called the “salsabil”, its name derived from the name of a spring in Paradise. The fountain's water was sourced from mountain springs. During the Potemkin “restoration” of the khan palace, the marble fountain was moved to the palace which Catherine II was supposed to visit. After its transfer, the fountain ceased to be a religious symbol and became a part of the infrastructure of colonialism. This infrastructure was also supported by the modified legend: instead of a Muslim, the beloved of the Khan was now said to be an Orthodox woman who had charmed him.

The legend of an Orthodox woman who had charmed the Crimean khan is reproduced in Alexander Pushkin's poem “The Fountain of Bakhchisaray”. Depicting the khan as capable of elevated emotion, the poet nevertheless is torn between two colonial narratives, telling on the one hand of the “hordes of Tatars” who “rushed like a torrent over Poland”, i.e. reinforcing the stereotype about the figure of the “alien”, and on the other hand depicting the khan's harem according to colonial stereotypes, as mysterious and beautiful “Eastern” temptresses. Thus, a text considered a classic for the corpus of Russian literature, has successfully become part of the infrastructure of colonial oppression.

The orientalist fantasy of the “sun of Russian poetry” did not allow the Soviet regime to destroy the Bahçesaray fountain along with other reminders of the existence of Crimean Tatars on the peninsula. In 1960s, a small plaque near the fountain was one of the few traces documenting the existence of an indigenous people in Crimea.

There is another poem, “The Bahçesaray Fountain of Tears”, written in 1981 by the Turkish poet Şükrü Elçin. In 1983 during the trial of human rights activist Mustafa Dzemilev, who was spreading copies of the poem in Turkish, the poem was found to be “permeated by anti-Soviet sentiment”. The poem metaphorically describes the consequences of the deportation of Crimean Tatars in 1944: birds falling silent, fountains bleeding and earth cracking from droughts. The latter reminds us of the many springs, which dried up due to the settler colonisers' inability to manage water and land on the peninsula. Mustafa Dzemilev's dissemination of the poem can be described as the practice of constructing a decolonial infrastructure, granting hope for a decolonial future.


Fountains built by Crimean Tatars are often mentioned in the memoirs of travellers. Many remark on their beauty and large number, but describe them as a unified multiplicity, just as the colonial gaze tends to simplify everything “for its own convenience”. Fountains, however, were used not only for drinking. Located in residential areas, near bazaars, mosques, medreses, mektebs, burial places, fountains were meant not only for the slaking of thirst, but to make it easier for believers to undertake their ablutions, needed to perform rituals in places of worship (the five daily Namaz, the Jumu'ah Namaz and the festival Namazes), as well as to study religion and read the Koran in places of study and to commemorate the dead.

Çeşme were often built by the sides of the road, as giving water to a traveller was considered pleasing to God. Care, manifesting in material objects, was spread through space, creating an entire system for sustaining lives. The fountain Burma-çeşme in Bahçesaray has existed since the XVIII century. Being a part of the infrastructure of care, it breaks the linearity of motion towards colonial “progress”, referring us to successfully functioning systems which had emerged before the colonial settlers arrived on the peninsula.

Some çeşme gave names to entire quarters, the inhabitants of which drank water from them. This is what happened to the Sırlı-çeşme in Bakhchisaray. The fountain was destroyed almost immediately after the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, along with other traces of their existence on the peninsula. Along with the destruction of the fountain, not only the memory of Crimean Tatars was destroyed, but also the systems of care they had created. Decolonial infrastructures of care were similarly threatened by the destruction of waqf property, as fountains were often maintained through it.

Having received permission in 1989 to perform on Moscow television, the Crimean Tatar singer Susanna Memetova sang: “Why are our fountains ruined? Why are our graves destroyed? […] I want to come back to my homeland, but cannot find a way home”. The song characterised very precisely the consequences which colonial destruction wrought on living environment and which the Crimean Tatars faced after returning to their homeland.