The Gates to the Black Sea
The Dardanelles, The Bosphorus, And The Sea Of Marmora

By Harry Griswold Dwight

[The National Geographic Magazine, May 1915]

To those who have a passion for maps the maneuvers of the Allied fleets in the Near East would scarce be needed to draw attention to those inmost recesses of the Mediterranean—the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmora. There is something alluring in the very shape and position of these lakes, separating as they so nearly do the two most historic continents of our globe, and communicating with each other and with the outer seas by openings that seem almost miraculous.

And those landlocked waters, at once a barrier and a highway between East and West, have been from the earliest times, as they happen again to be today, the theater of epic events. It may be that Chinese and Indian legends of the Eastern seas point back to a more ancient period in the story of the world; but for us of the West no legends are older than those of Zeus and lo, of Phryxus and Helle, of the Trojan war, of Jason and the Argo, which commemorate the earliest voyages into the Great Lakes of the Levant.

Of the two, the Marmora—the Propontis, if you prefer to be classical—is by far the smaller. Not much more than 100 miles long and some 40 miles across at its broadest point, it is about the same size as Lake Champlain. The Marmora is a sort of vestibule between the outer and -inner doors of the Black Sea—the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus is the shorter and narrower of the two straits. It is about 20 miles long, and at one point of its tortuous course the hills of Europe and Asia come within 550 yards of each other. The Dardanelles, or Hellespont, is a little more than twice as long and nearly twice as wide as the Bosphorus, varying from 1,400 yards to 5 miles. Its right, or European, shore is formed by the peninsula of Gallipoli, the Thracian Chersonese of the ancients, whose steep ridge overlooks the plain of Troy on the Asiatic bank and the broken foot-hills of Mount Ida.

The Marmora and the Black seas are no more than 20 miles apart at their nearest point; but it is astonishing what a difference in aspect 20 miles may make. The Marmora has much of the softness of air, vividness of color, and beauty of scenery that we associate with the Aegean and Ionian seas. Thread the narrow slit of the Bosphorus, however, and you pass into an entirely different world—sterner, barer, rockier, colder. It is partly perhaps that the Black Sea is very much larger.

If the Marmora may be compared to Lake Champlain, the Black Sea is about four times the size of our greatest lake. Lake Superior is 412 miles long by 167 wide, while the Black Sea has a length of 750 miles and a breadth of 385. That there is something dark and unfriendly about it is more than a legend. It has, of course, its suaver moments and its happier strips of coast, as in the Crimea and under the shelter of the Caucasus; but much of its European shore is bordered by steppes rolling unbroken to the north.


While its two historic gateways—the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus—are strategically the most important features of the Marmora, that picturesque little sea has a character of its own, and one not to be caught from the deck of a Mediterranean liner or from the windows of the Orient express. Such impressions as the passing tourist takes away are chiefly of the flat arid treeless Thracian shore. The longer Asiatic coast, however, is much more indented, and rises on the southeast to the white peak of the Bithynian Olympus. A high, green headland divides the eastern end of the Marmora into the two romantic gulfs of Nicomedia and Moudania. The-south shore again is broken by the mountainous peninsula of Cyzicus.

Off its windy, western corner lies a group of islands, of which the largest is the one that gives the Marmora its name—a mass of marble 10 miles long, famous from antiquity for its quarries. Another considerable island is the long, white sandspit of Kalolimnos, just outside the Gulf of Moudania; but best known are the Princess Isles, a little archipelago of rock and pine that is a favorite summer resort of Constantinople.

In any other part of the world this inland sea would long ago have become a place of sojourn for yachtsmen and summerers, so happily is it treated by sun and wind, so amply provided with bays, capes, islands, mountains, forests, and all other accidents of nature that make glad the heart of the amateur explorer. As it is, the Marmora remains strangely wild for a sea that has known so much of life; yet its shores are by no means uninhabited and between them plies many an unhurried sail.

The focus of this quaint navigation is, of course, Constantinople, standing high and pinnacled on either side of the crooked blue crack that opens into the Black Sea. In the meantime the busiest town in the Marmora after Constantinople is Panderma, on the south shore, joined to Smyrna by a railway that taps one of the most fertile districts of Asia Minor. In its vicinity exists one of the few borax mines in the world. Another little railway climbs through the olive-yards of the Gulf of Moudania to Brusa, on the lower slopes of Mt. Olympus. This delightful town, the first capital of the Turks and their most picturesque city, is the Hamburg of the Levant, enjoying a renown of many centuries for its hot mineral springs. It is also the center of an ancient silk industry, first introduced from China in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian. Its cocoons are considered to rank in quality above those of northern Italy and are much exported to this country and to France.

Another ancient watering place of the Marmora is Yalova, in the wooded hills above the Gulf of Nicomedia, whose baths were visited of old by the Emperor Constantine, and there are many less frequented hot springs in this region. It is not for an amateur geographer to say whether this fact is connected with the one that the basin of the Marmora is a center of seismic disturbance. Constantinople has often been damaged by earthquakes, of which the last serious one took place in 1894. In 1912 the strip of coast between Gallipoli and the thriving town of Rodosto was shaken very severely.

This little Riviera is famous for its grapes and wine; so is the charming bay of Artaki, under the western point of Cyzicus, and the neighboring island of Pasha Liman. But the southward-looking slopes of the Gulf of Nicomedia produce a white grape, locally called the chaoush, of a flavor to spoil those who taste it for all other grapes in the world.

The Marmora is reputed for its melons, too. Gay cargoes of them, heaped high in picturesque sailing boats, make in the summer the most characteristic touch of local color, and many an olive plantation means a livelihood for many a cluster of red roofs beside a blue bay.


More numerous than the settlements of today, however, are the ruins of yesterday. Every harbor, every headland, has some fragment of ancient masonry, and the workmen in the vineyards are constantly turning up coins, pieces of broken pottery, bits of sculptured marble, that have come down from who knows when or where. About no body of water in the world, of equal size, have stood so many stately cities.

It is almost impossible indeed to give any coherent account of the story of the Marmora, so much history and legend have crowded its shores. I have already spoken of the Argonauts, a good part of whose adventures took place in these waters, and of Troy, buried in the marshy plain at the mouth of the Dardanelles. The latter name is derived from that of Dardanus, son of Zeus and Electra and mythical ancestor of the Trojan kings and, through Aeneas, of the Romans. The town of Dardanus stood farther in the strait. Colonies from the Greek cities and islands emigrated along these shores in the dawn of European history, carrying with them the spirit of their race and not ceasing to play a part in its politics. Thus Byzantium entered the second Athenian League; and the battle of Aegospotami, which closed the Peloponnesian wars, was fought in the Dardanelles.

The true question of the straits arose as early as the fifth century B. C., when Alcibiades of Athens counseled the people of Chrysopolis, the modern Scutari, at the southeastern extremity of the Bosphorus, to take toll of passing ships. Yet another aspect of the question of the straits had already risen earlier in the century, when the Persian expeditions against Scythia and Greece crossed the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. What success they had we know, and how a counter-invasion under Alexander crossed the Dardanelles, in 334 B. C., crushing the Persians at the battle of the Granicus. That small stream, now known as the Bigha, flows into the Marmora half way between Cyzicus and the Dardanelles, at a spot associated in mythology with Priapus, god of gardens.


It was in the period following the death of Alexander, when the kingdoms of Bithynia, Pergamos, and Pontus flourished, in northern Asia Minor, that the cities of the Marmora began to take on their greatest importance.

Chief among them was Cyzicus, on the southeastern side of the peninsula of that name. Founded earlier than Rome or Byzantium, possessed at different times by Athens and Sparta, by the Persians and Alexander, by the King of Pergamos and the Republic of Rome, Cyzicus was long celebrated as one of the most splendid cities of the ancient world. Its gold staters were the standard of their time.

With the rise of Byzantium, however, its glory passed away. Goths and earthquake ravaged it; Constantine and the Turks found it an inexhaustible quarry for the public buildings of Constantinople. Today there is almost no trace of its marble among the vines and olive trees of the peninsula.

Nicomedia and Nicaea, in Bithynia, were also accounted no mean cities in their day. Indeed, Nicomedia, bequeathed to Rome with the rest of his kingdom by Nicomedes III, in 74 B. C., became for a moment, under the Emperor Diocletian, the capital of the world. As for Nicaea, it has three times been a capital. Nicaea, now Isnik, is not in all strictness a city of the Marmora, but the lake on which it lies is geologically a continuation of the Gulf of Moudania. A place of importance long after the Bithynian period, it is chiefly remembered to-day for the two councils of the church which took place there in 325 and 787.

In 1080 the Seljukian Turks seized it from the Byzantines and made it for a few years a capital whose brilliance rivaled Cordova and Bagdad. Reconquered by the Crusaders in 1097, it was, from 1204 to 1261, while the Franks were in possession of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. In 1330 it fell into the hands of its present owners, under whom it became famous again as the seat of the manufacture of the beautiful tiles that line the Turkish mosques and tombs of the sixteenth century.

A third Bithynian city, which we have already mentioned—Brusa—has more than one title to celebrity, not least among which is that its foundation was ascribed to the advice of no less a personage than Hannibal. At any rate, the great Carthaginian fled after the Punic wars to the court of King Prusias of Bithynia and committed suicide there, in 183 B. C., to escape falling into the hands of the Romans. Legend has placed his grave on the north shore of the Gulf of Nicomedia.

Space fails me to make even the barest catalogue of the cities of the Marmora that have enjoyed historical renown. I have already spoken of Rodosto, to which Bulgarian raiders came in 813, in 1206, and in 1912, and where the Hungarian royal exile, Francis II Rakoczy, lived for 18 years and died in 1735. Another illustrious exile, Alcibiades of Athens, lived in another Samiote colony farther along the Thracian coast. This sleep fishing village of Eregli, Heracleia Perinthos of old, was for a moment the administrative superior of Byzantium, when that city was destroyed by the father of Caracalla. A thousand years later Heracleia was given by the Emperor Michael Palaeologus to the enterprising traders of Genoa.

More eastward still lies Silivri, the Athenian colony of Selymoria, which the Emperor Anastasius I made the terminus of the great wall he built across Thrace from sea to sea—precursor of the modern Lines of Chatalja. Lady Mary Montagu stopped there a night or two and mentions it in one of her Turkish letters. Then there is Chalcedon, now an Asiatic suburb of Constantinople, founded a few years earlier than Byzantium by colonists from Megara and renowned for the magnificence of its public buildings, for the councils of the early church which took place there, and for the memorable sieges it sustained against Macedonians, Persians, and Saracens.


The history of the greatest city of them all has for nearly 2,000 years been the history of the little sea that lies before it. It was founded, a little later than Rome, by seamen from Megara. Always an important center of trade and long accounted one of the strongest cities of antiquity, it was not until Constantine, on that opposite shore of the Bosphorus where Xenophon camped with the remnant of his 10,000, conquered his last rival in 324 and, became master of the Roman world, that Byzantium achieved its undisputed supremacy.

As the imperial city of Constantinople it remained for nearly a thousand years the true capital of the western world, the center of fashion, of art, of learning. During that long period it was attacked by many an invader from East and West. It resisted them all until 1204, when it fell for a time into the power of the Franks and Venetians of the Fourth Crusade. The short-lived Latin dynasty was expelled in 1261, but Latins continued in possession of many parts of the Greek world and became the paramount power in the Marmora.

Their occupation has left its mark to this day in the Romaic Greek language and in the navigating terms of Greeks and Turks alike. The Genoese, obtaining a permanent foothold first at Heracleia and then in Galata, at the very gates of the capital, gained control of the Bosphorus, where the ruins of their two castles still exist at the mouth of the Black Sea, and of the Dardanelles. They built a stronghold at the narrowest part of the latter strait, on the Asiatic shore, at the point known today as Chanak Kalesi.


The hold of the Genoese on the Marmora was shaken in 1306 by the Grand Company of Catalan mercenaries, originally hired by the emperor Andronicus II to oppose the incursions of the Turks. The Grand Company established itself at Gallipoli and played havoc with the traffic of the strait until it was dispersed in 1310; but the Turks continued, to advance. These nomads of the East whose very name was unknown to the ancients had long been filtering into Asia Minor. They reached the Marmora in 1326, seizing Nicomedia and establishing their capital at Brusa.

Thirty years later they crossed the Dardanelles, whence they spread into Thrace, captured Adrianople, and penetrated the Balkans. After the battle of Nicopolis, in 1396, which made the invaders secure against European interference, Sultan Bajezid I tightened his grip on Constantinople and the Marmora by building forts at Gallipoli and on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus, at its narrowest point.

His plans were cut short by the invasion of Tamerlane, who nearly annihilated the growing power of the Turks. But no later than 1452 the great-grandson of Bajezid was able to build a second and stronger castle on the European shore of the Bosphorus, only seven miles from Constantinople.

He thus disputed the control of the strait with Greeks and Genoese alike and at the same time established a base for his operations against the doomed city. The next year it fell into his power, and with it the last pretension of the Genoese to control the adjacent waters. To secure himself against surprise by sea, Mohammed II built another pair of castles at the narrowest part of the Dardanelles.

Since that time the Marmora, that storied lake of the Greco-Roman world, has been an essentially Turkish lake. But the Turks have never succeeded in giving it a purely Turkish atmosphere. Greek it was from the beginning of time and Greek it remains in great part today. The language of the towns, the cultivation of the vineyards, the navigation of the sea, are after 500 years of subjection more Greek than Turkish.

Since the Balkan war, accordingly, the Turks have attempted to remedy this state of affairs—by the simple process of expelling their Greek neighbors. From the European coast of the Marmora they have driven whole villages into exile and seized their lands, on the pretense that the Turks in Macedonia were so treated by the Hellenic authorities.


If the Black Sea lacks the charm of its southern neighbor, its physical features are on a scale befitting its greater size, and it forms the natural outlet for a territory of far vaster extent and commercial importance. Into it pour from different points of its low, northern coast four of the greatest rivers in Europe-— the Danube, the Dnieper, the Don, and the Dniester—all of them longer than the Rhine and exceeded in length only by the Volga. Our own Mississippi, of course, is longer than any of them, having a course of 2,616 miles while that of the Danube is 1,725.

Its greater depths—which are very deep indeed, sinking to 7,000 feet—contain no discoverable form of organic life, which does not prevent it, however, from harboring an astounding variety of fish. Like the Mediterranean, the Black Sea is also tideless, or imperceptibly tidal, and a strong surface current flows out of it through the Bosphorus, another one returning at a lower level.

Upon the eastern end of the Black Sea abuts the noble range of the Caucasus, loftier than any other in Europe and not unworthy to compare with the Rocky Mountains, the Andes, or even the Himalayas.

In contrast to the generally flat northern shore, the southern is a series of high arid broken scarps that hold up the plateau of Asia Minor. These are largely wooded. In natural harbors the Black Sea is not well provided. In fact, the only landlocked anchorage is found in the Crimea.

But the Russians, the Rumanians, and the Bulgarians have improved their various ports, and from them lines of communication radiate by land and sea to every part of the world, tapping the great wheat and oil fields adjoining the Black Sea and the rich agricultural regions of Transcaspia. The Turkish coast is still innocent of harbors or railroads, although it does a considerable trade in foreign bottoms. It is one of the principal tobacco-growing districts of the world, besides exporting wool, gums, nuts, and other natural products.

The history of the Black Sea has always been associated with that of the lesser lake forming its outlet. The Greeks ventured into it at a very early period, bestowing upon it the name of Euxinos, friendly to strangers, by a euphemistic interpretation of its real character. The country of the Golden Fleece lay in the romantic glens of the Caucasus, where also the Greek imagination set its greatest myth of Prometheus. And the littoral of the Black Sea was dotted with Greek colonies, whose ruins or whose modern successors exist today.

Like the Marmora, the Black Sea also had its post-Alexandrine and its Roman periods, when the Kingdom of Pontus flourished in the south and in the north Emperor Trajan founded his colony of Dacia (now known as Rumania). The Roman imprint still persists in the language and the faces of the Rumanian coast, where the poet Ovid died in exile. The Byzantine Empire left an even stronger mark, giving letters and a religion to the people of the Black Sea. Into those waters also penetrated the Genoese, planting along the south shore a chain of factories whose towers and escutcheons may still be seen in more than one sleepy Turkish town.

Then came the Turks, a century or so after they reached the Marmora. The fantastic little empire of Trebizond, erected by the Comneni after the capture of Constantinople by the Franks, survived the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. It was from the mountains behind that ancient Greek city that Xenophon and his returning ten thousand caught their historic first glimpse of the sea.

Trebizond owed to its position at the terminus of the time-honored caravan route from northern Persia and central Asia a prosperity taken from it only in our day by Batoum and the trans-Caucasian Railroad; but, like the neighboring Seljukian principalities and the Khanate of the Crimea, it fell at last into the hands of Mohammed II. And at the height of the Ottoman power—that is, during the last part of the fifteenth, the whole of the sixteenth, and the greater part of the seventeenth century—there was no coast, of the Black Sea which the Turks did not directly or indirectly dominate. It became, like the Marmora, a Turkish lake.

Unlike the Marmora, however, it has not remained a Turkish lake. Its history has undergone an evolution of such nature that in this century we are more inclined to think of the Black Sea as a Russian lake; yet so recently as 200 years ago the Turks denied the right of the Czar to call himself an emperor!

Although the Black Sea now washes the shores of four nations instead of one, it has retained much of the character, of a lake, and a Turkish one, from the fact that the Turks still control its outlet. We have seen how Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Genoese, and Turks, one after another, have throughout the centuries exercised that right of control simply by virtue of a geographical accident.

Until 1774 Turkey was able to bar the Russian flag from the Black Sea, just as Russia bars the Persian flag today from the Caspian. The Treaty of Akkerman renewed and enlarged in 1826 the right of navigation of the Russians, and in 1833 the Treaty of Hunkyar Iskelesi bound Turkey to close the Dardanelles to foreign ships of war. This principle the Powers Agreed in 1841 to respect, though that did not prevent their fleets from entering the straits to participate in the Crimean War.

The Treaty of Paris which followed that war declared the Black Sea neutral and closed to warships of any nation, including Russia; it also made free and put under an international commission the navigation of the Danube.

Russia, however, took advantage of the Franco-Prussian War to repudiate the clause of the Treaty of Paris relating to her own warships in the Black Sea; and her successful war against the Turks brought her, a few years later, within sight of the realization of her old dream of a free path to the ocean. But the British fleet took that occasion to enter the Marmora and to anchor off the Princes Isles, while the Russians camped at San Stefano; and the subsequent Treaty of Berlin further dashed the Russian hopes.

Since that time the case has remained more or less at a standstill, except that in 1891 the Russians obtained for their so-called volunteer fleet, which in reality are transports and auxiliary cruisers, the right to pass the straits. Otherwise the Turks have allowed no foreign man-of-war to enter the Marmora unless under rare and special circumstances; and not only do they exercise surveillance over the traffic in the straits, but twice during the last four years they have closed the Dardanelles to navigation of any kind.

At the moment at which I write the fleets of France and England are hammering at that historic gateway. Thus the question of, the Black Sea, which is the ancient question of the straits, is posed anew, more dramatically than ever before. Is it for a final solution? No solution can be final, however, which will give any one nation an absolute right of control over the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

The Russians believe that they have every right to insist that they be not throttled at the gate of their own house. The rapidly increasing development of their railways, their industries, their agricultural and mineral resources, both in Europe and beyond the Caspian, make it imperative, they contend, for them to have the freedom of their own front door.

But while the Black Sea becomes every year a more important highway, and while the Russians are the preponderant power in the Black Sea, they are not the only power. They have a neighbor to whom it seems even more vital that the straits be open.

For Rumania has no back door upon another sea. And if Rumania happens to be small, that is no reason why Rumania should be throttled. Bulgaria is also interested in the matter, though less so since she gained an outlet into the Aegean; and so to a degree are Servia and Hungary, who have access to the Black Sea through the Danube. Even the Turks deserve to have a voice in the matter.

What the Allies are now seeking to teach them is that a double freak of nature does not necessarily fit them to be masters of the fate of other nations, and that in the eyes of the rest of mankind the defenses of one city are less important than free access to wheat and oil fields among the greatest in the world. But if the Turks shall learn that somewhat bitter lesson they will still remain neighbors to the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmora, and concerned in their future accordingly.

The question is so great, it involves so many interests, the industry of such vast territories, the destiny of so many million people, that it should have no petty or partial answer.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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