Those tourists who do come to Russia visit usually Moscow, Saint Petersburg, the Baikal Lake or the Transsiberian railway. A short and obvious list. And yet there are so many other places which are hiding in this vast country just waiting for you to discover them and to get into the spotlight! Today I’ll present you one of those less known places – Astrakhan.
Astrakhan (population 500 thousand) is a city in Southern Russia in its European part. It lies on the lower Volga River, close to the shores of the Caspian Sea, 28 meters below the Sea level, making it the lowest city in Russia. Astrakhan is a city with long history and rich cultural heritage stemming not only from the Russian culture, but also Tatar, Persian and Ottoman.
The fertile Volga delta was home to the empires of Khazaria and the Golden Horde. Astrakhan was first mentioned by travellers in the early 13th century. In 1324 it was visited by the famous traveler Ibn Battuta, who was in awe of the size of the Volga river and named it as one of the biggest rivers in the world. He was also stunned to discover that it freezes in winter.
Tamerlan, one of the greatest military leaders of history, during his war with the Golden Horde, captured Astrakhan and burnt it to the ground. This however did not mark the end of the city. A few years later it was reconstructed and became the capital of the newly formed Astrakhan Khanate. It grew and flourished.
In 1556 the Khanate was conquered by the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible and it became a part of Russia. The tsar built a kremlin (fortress) on top of the hill on the bank of the Volga. This event is considered as the founding of the modern city.
The city became Russia’s gateway to the Orient. As a result, trade flourished and the city developped. Peter the Great built a shipyard here in order to create a Russian Caspian fleet against the Persians and the Ottomans. Catherine the Great gave it several privilages.
During World War II, the Nazi troops reached the vicinity of Astrakhan as the easternmost point of the war. German Luftwaffe managed to even bomb the city, but their troops never entered Astrakhan.
What to see
The heart of the historic town is the Kremlin. Everybody associates Kremlin with Moscow, but it is worth knowing that nearly every historic town in Russia has a kremlin. It served as a fortress which not only protected the area, but also was a symbol of the power of the Russian state. The third purpose of each kremlin, not less important than the first two, is of religious nature. In each one you will find Orthodox churches or cathedrals.
In Astrakhan you can clearly see all the three purposes. The thick outer walls have been equipped with gun shooting points and holes through which boiling water or hot tar was poured.
In 1699 the construction of the Assumption Cathedral begun. The external of the Cathedral was decorated with molded brick and carved with white stone. Windows and dome heads were framed by columns in the style of Corinthian décor. Semicircular arches were filled with paintings with biblical plot. Three of such arches were arranged on each side of the temple.
During his visit to Astrakhan in 1722 Emperor Peter the Great expressed admiration for the exquisitely decorated five-domed cathedral. “In the whole of my empire” – Peter said – “there is not a single cathedral as beautiful as this one”.
The Astrakhan Kremlin ensemble is nowadays on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative List. It is certainly the highlight of the visit to Astrakhan.
Beyond the Kremlin
Be aware that the places worth visiting in Astrakhan are not limited to the Kremlin. The town is a mix of Russian, Tatar, Turkish and Persian heritage and you can see it in the architecture too. Orthodox churches coincide with mosques, both old and modern.
The town has also a certain number of pre-twentieth century architecture. Unfortunately some of it is in shabby state, but it does add to the charm of the place.
Volga and sturgeon
The majectic Volga river is 3531 km long, which makes it the longest river in Europe. It is also the biggest river flowing into a lake (the Caspian Sea is technically speaking a lake, as it has no connection with other bodies of water). Around Astrakhan, the Volga River splinters off into thousands of streams and rivers, known as the Volga Delta Wetlands. The wetlands, filled with birds and animals, are lush and an adventure to explore.
The warm waters of the Volga river are an ideal place to live for the beluga and its cousin – the highly prized Caspian sturgeon, which together produce four-fifths of the world’s black caviar.
During the Soviet times caviar business boomed, but the fall of the USSR devastated the industry. As the fish neared extinction in the 1990s, Russia declared the situation critical. Consequently, it banned all commercial sturgeon fishing in the Caspian basin and the export of all black caviar.
This changed the situation. In recent years, sturgeon has become one of the most attractive segments of Russian aquaculture, largely due to its high growth rates and the increasing domestic demand both for sturgeon itself and for its caviar.
Visiting a sturgeon farm is a unique experience. Caviar will not taste the same afterwards 😉.
Caspian Sea and oil platform
The Caspian Sea is the biggest lake on the planet. It is situated 28 meters below sea level. However, as it is not connected to any body of water, it does not matter.
The Caspian Depression, where Astrakhan lies, is situated North of the Caspian Sea. It is the biggest depression on the planet and has a surface of 200 000 km2.
The Caspian Sea is rich in underground oil and gas reserves, which is exploited by Russia, Iran, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. I had the opportunity to visit a Russian oil rig situated not far from Astrakhan. I must admit that it was indeed a very unique adventure.
Astrakhan is a very interesting destination. It allows you to see a different face of Russia, more laidback, more southern. It has rich cultural heritage stemming from various cultures, ethnicities and religions. The nature around it is thriving and worth discovering for sure.
I will be happy if this post encourages you to visit this place!
Where is Astrakhan
You can learn more about sturgeon farming in Astrakhan from a specialised article on the Fish site.