Bosporus and Black Sea

To arrive in Istanbul by sail is one of life’s special experiences. The modern city is vast – the sixth largest in the world – and the outline becomes distinct on the horizon six hours before you finally round the point of the old city with the Topkapi  Palace framed by the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia – surely one of the world’s great views. A sense of history would need to be cauterized for you not to gaze in wonder; and wonder also at the inhabitants of the ancient city of Chalcedon on the Asian shore who were known as ‘the blind ones’ for not seeing the site of Byzantium as a perfect place for a city. The stretch across the mouth of the Golden Horn to the Bosporus Bridge is testing on the nerves of the helmsman. I counted at one moment twenty-three ferries – not to mention five small fishing boats and three leviathan oil tankers all crisscrossing the waters opposite the Golden Horn. They are all pros – and I’m not.

The Bosporus itself is, in geological terms, a modern waterway. In early settled history – from about 10,000 BC to about 6500 BC the Black Sea was cut off from a Mediterranean whose sea level was lower than now as a result of the last ice age. The Black Sea was a fresh water lake fed, as now, by five great rivers including the Danube, Don and Dnieper, which are the second third and forth largest rivers in Europe, and it was about a hundred metres lower than at present. In contrast the much bigger Mediterranean has only three major rivers draining in to it.  Somewhere around 6500 BC the rising waters of the Mediterranean, perhaps abetted by an earthquake, spilled over into the Black Sea and the force of water routed a canyon between Europe and Asia creating a cascade probably a hundred times bigger than Niagara Falls. For the inhabitants of the lakeshore littoral this was a catastrophe as the lake, now rapidly becoming a sea, encroached on their settlements at an estimated half a mile a day. It was a flood of epic proportions and it is surely no accident that Noah’s Arc in legend came to rest on Mount Ararat on the borders between Armenia and Georgia at the Eastern edge of the Black Sea.

All this has been attested by geologists and biologists who have found in core samples evidence of changes in the salinity of the water and the type of marine life: fresh water species could not survive in the new saline environment though the huge existing body of fresh water would have taken some time to have mixed completely – resulting in a few making the transition. Robert Ballard, famous for finding the Titanic, discovered remains of human settlement about three hundred feet below the current sea level off the Turkish Coast. There is argument about the violence of the flood – but the fact of it seems highly likely.

The Black Sea’s strangeness doesn’t stop there. It is a continental drain for both Europe and the Russian Steppe. The Danube rises in Germany and is the final destination of most of the rivers of Eastern Europe. With the water has come a vast quantity of vegetable material that has changed the chemistry of the Black Sea. The surface layer is saline H2O down to about two hundred metres. Below that – and the abyssal depths go down to two thousand metres – it is H2S, Hydrogen Sulphide, a poisonous and lifeless environment. Two possibilities flow from this. Because neither worm nor wood-eating biology can survive in that environment, Ballard found a 5th century Byzantine ship with its rigging intact. There is also a possibility, remote thankfully, that the marine layers could perform an inversion and the Hydrogen Sulphide rise to the top. The poison gas released would kill everything around the sea’s edge and the explosion, if it caught fire, would be one of the biggest the world has seen.

Even though, famously, the Black Sea provides Russia with a warm water port, with its reduced salinity and continental climate the Black Sea forms ice. It seems strange to think of Istanbul and icebergs but in the 8th Century AD the famous walls of Byzantium were badly damaged by ice floes. Jason and his Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece in Colchis - modern Georgia - had to pass the Clashing Rocks which threatened to crush their fragile craft. Could these have been icebergs?
The modern journey down the historic waterway of the Bosporus is rather less eventful but still memorable. The traffic for big ships is one way. As you drive from the Istanbul airport along the Sea of Marmora there are scores of ship lying at anchor almost as far as the eye can see, waiting their turn to transit. Once the metaphorical lights change they process their way through and head east – the majority being tankers in ballast on their way to the Caspian Sea pipeline terminals that provide much of Europe’s oil. As an aside, the time taken to extract the oil that has lain for millions of years below the Caspian, pipe it to the Black Sea, tanker it to the Adriatic, pipe it to a refinery in Bavaria and put the resulting petrol into a BMW in Munich is twenty-two days. For obvious reasons you give these behemoths a wide berth, favouring the European shore where the current is less fierce. The surface current flows from the Black Sea towards the Sea of Marmara but there is also a strong current at the bottom flowing the other way. In the days before engines, fishermen in the Bosporus – and maybe Jason on his way to Colchis – used to sling a net of stones on a rope over the side and be dragged against the surface current.

The Bosporus is in some ways a sketch of modern Turkey. Old, decaying wooden yalis - though many less of them now - sit alongside the new weekend retreats of wealthy Istambulis. Fishing boats line the quays of harbours that also contain marinas filled with the plastic pleasure craft of the rich. The Second Bosporus Bridge overshadows the fortress built by Mehemet the Conqueror in an astonishing four months as a prelude to the final assault on Constantinople in 1453. The fort was then known as The Throat Cutter as it cut off beleaguered Byzantium from the Black Sea. And finally, as the Bosporus opens out and you feel the swell of the five hundred mile stretch of seawater ahead under the yacht’s keel, there is a new bridge under construction that frames the location of the catastrophic cataract of eight millennia ago. In the small fishing town that overlooks the straight, under the flashing of an Ottoman lighthouse, there is also the traditional Turkey: no alcohol for sale and no women amongst the evening gatherings in the town square.


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