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The Treasures of an Ancient Sea

Image of Istanbul

The Black Sea is steeped in history and culture, a vital trading center linking Europe with Asia.

Named Pontus Exinus ("the inhospitable sea"), the Black Sea was navigated and its shores colonized by the Greeks as early as the eighth century before Christ and later by the Romans in the third to first centuries B.C.

Image of Hagia Sophia Church
Hagia Sophia, the "Church of the Holy Wisdom," in Istanbul, was the largest Christian church in the world for 1,000 years. Photo by George Luther.

Many of the colonial and commercial activities of ancient Greece and Rome, and of the Byzantine Empire, centered on the Black Sea. After 1453, when the Ottoman Turks occupied Constantinople (and changed its name to Istanbul), the Black Sea was virtually closed to foreign commerce. Nearly 400 years later, in 1856, the Treaty of Paris re-opened the sea to the commerce of all nations.

Among its vast historical riches, the Black Sea region is home to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece, and the Biblical account of Noah's Ark. Troy, Constantinople, Istanbul, Sevastopol, Odessa, and Yalta are just a few of the names in this coastal area that have been etched in world history.

From the Crusades to the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, the Black Sea has witnessed often-tumultuous religious and political change. In the face of countless conquests through the ages, the people of the Black Sea region have endured, and today represent a remarkable mixture of cultures and religions.

Image of Hagia Sophia Church
The Blue Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet I across from the Hagia Sophia (above). Photo by George Luther

Today, this ancient sea means many things to the people who live on its shores. Still vitally important as a regional trading center, with major ports dotting its coast, the Black Sea continues to provide its inhabitants with treasured resources — major commercial fisheries, a diversity of marine life, world-class beaches, and perhaps a more tangible record of our past than previously imagined. The recent discovery of ancient wooden ships in the Black Sea, well-protected from shipworm attack in the oxygen-deprived waters, points to the new wonders these ancient waters may yield.

The Black Sea and its six bordering countries — Bulgaria and Romania on the west, Ukraine on the north, Russia and Georgia on the east, and Turkey on the south — each have rich histories and cultures worthy of considerable exploration. Below is a brief snapshot of each country. We hope this Web page serves as your starting point for a closer look at this fascinating region!


Turkey

Julius Caesar proclaimed his celebrated words, "Veni, Vidi, Vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered) in Turkey when he defeated the Pontus, a formidable kingdom in the Black Sea region of Turkey.... Part of Turkey's southwestern shore was a wedding gift that Mark Anthony gave to Cleopatra.... The Famous Trojan Wars took place in western Turkey, around the site where a wooden statue of the Trojan Horse rests today.

These are just a few facts that point to the dramatic role that Turkey and its Black Sea shores have played in world history. While one of the oldest known human settlements is in Catalhoyuk (7500 BC), present-day Turkey was created in 1923 from the Turkish remnants of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Image of Hagia Sophia Church
The Great Bazaar in Istanbul has 4,000 shops. Photo by George Luther.

Istanbul, the bustling port city on the Bosporus, the narrow strait connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, is the only city in the world on two continents — Europe and Asia. Over a period spanning more than 2,000 years, it has been the capital of three great empires: Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman, undergoing name changes from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul along the way.

Before leaving port from Istanbul on their month-long expedition, our Black Sea expedition team visited several major attractions, including the palace of Suleyman the Magnificent, the famous Ottoman sultan, who wrote over 3,000 poems, some of them criticizing the greed of mankind; and the Great Bazaar, a 540-year-old covered shopping mall containing 64 streets, 4,000 shops, and 25,000 workers!

 

 

 

 

 




Did You Know That?
— About Bulgaria

  • In Bulgaria, shaking your head from side to side means "yes," and nodding your head up and down means "no."

  • Sofia's Alexander Nevski Church is the largest Orthodox Church in Europe.

  • The Cyrillic alphabet was developed in Bulgaria by the saints Methodious and Cyril.

  • Orpheus, the great musician of Greek myth, whose songs could charm wild beasts and coax even rocks to move, was said to have been born in the ancient land of Bulgaria.

  • Bulgarian food uses minced or grilled lamb, beef, veal, pork, pickles, lamb's cheese, and yogurt. Ayran, a yogurt thinned with water, is a popular drink that looks like milk. Traditional Shopska salad is made with tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers and topped with feta cheese.

 

Bulgaria

The Bulgars, a Central Asian Turkic tribe, formed the first Bulgarian state in the late 7th century. In 1389, Bulgaria was overrun by the Ottoman Turks and nearly 500 years later regained independence with Russia's help.

Bulgaria fell under the Soviet sphere of influence and became a People's Republic in 1946. Communist domination ended in 1990, when the country held its first multi-party election since World War II and began moving toward democracy. In 2001, Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg, the former king of Bulgaria who was forced from his throne after World War II, returned to power as prime minister.

Bulgaria is a tremendous mix of ethnic groups — Bulgars, Slavs, Thracians, Armenians, Greeks, Romans, and Turks. Some villages have a church, some have a mosque, and some have both. The former Soviet satellite is a peaceful nation — a rarity in the Balkans.

Bulgaria relies on the Black Sea for fishing, commerce, and tourism at major beach resorts. Varna is the country's largest seaport and second-largest city. Bourgas and Sozopol are the primary fishing ports.


 


Did You Know That?
— About Romania

  • Ancient Tomis (present-day Constanta) has been associated with the legend of Jason and the Argonauts who embarked on a long voyage from Greece to Kolchis (Georgia) on the Black Sea coast in search of the Golden Fleece.

  • The Roman poet Ovid was exiled to the Romanian coast by Emperor Augustus in 8 A.D. He wrote some of his most important work there, such as Tristia, which expresses his sadness at being far from home.

  • Romania's Lake Rosca is home to Europe's largest pelican colony.

  • Famous Romanians range from Count Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) in Transylvania to the modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

  • Zakuska is a traditional spread made from roasted eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. Almost all Romanians enjoy mamaliga (polenta). Tripe soup is a specalty along the Black Sea coast.

Romania

This nation's history can be traced to the Roman colony of Dacia. However, there are both strong European and Turkish influences, as Romania was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1877. Romania's political history of the past century has been marked by instability, violent revolution, and a current move toward economic restructuring in hopes of joining the European Union. Between 1930 and 1940, there were more than 25 different administrations.

After World War II, newly crowned King Mihai was forced to abdicate, pressured by the Communists, and Romania became a "People's Republic." In the 1960s, Nicolae Ceausescu took over the Communist Party leadership and instituted increasingly oppressive measures. He was overthrown and executed in late 1989. Currently, the Social Democratic Party forms a nominally minority government, which governs with the support of the opposition Democratic Union of Hungarians.

Romania has a chain of resorts, a "string of pearls," along the Black Sea coast. The largest urban center and seaport is Constanta. The sun, air, Black Sea water, and thermal mud treatments at these resorts are said to have restorative powers.


 

Did You Know That? — About Ukraine

  • Sevastopol and Balakhava, important sites in the Crimean War, were immortalized in Tennyson's poem, "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

  • The battleship Potemkin, the subject of the silent movie by Soviet filmmaker Sergey Eisenstein, was the scene of the 1905 mutiny in which the sailors joined angry Odessa residents in an uprising against the czarist government.

  • Among Ukraine's many flavorful foods are borscht, Lvov sausage, and chicken Kiev.

  • Fur caps, caviar, vodka, hand-painted pisanki and krashenki (Easter eggs), balalaikas are among the products that characterize Ukraine.

  • In 1945 at Yalta, a resort on the Crimean Peninsula, the Allied leaders Churchill (UK), Roosevelt (US), and Stalin (USSR) completed plans for the defeat of Germany in World War II.

     

Ukraine

In the 9th century, Scandinavian traders conquered the area and established a kingdom in Kiev known as Kievan Rusin. During the 10th and 11th centuries, it was the largest and most powerful state in Europe.

Weakened by Mongol invasions, Kievan Rus was absorbed by Lithuania, then Poland, then Russia. Following the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917, Ukraine was able to bring about a short-lived period of independence (1917-1920), but was reconquered and forced to endure a brutal Soviet rule that resulted in the death of over 7 million due to mass famine. Independence was achieved in 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR.

Ukraine has many strong connections to the Black Sea in terms of commerce, naval defense, fishing, and tourism. Famed literary figures Anton Chekov and Alexander Pushkin were said to have been inspired by the sea coast.

 

 




Did You Know That?
— About Russia

  • Russian interest in the Black Sea extends over more than two centuries. Catherine the Great annexed the Crimea in 1783 and subsequently established a Russian naval base and Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Ukraine and Russia recently signed an agreement allowing the Russians to continue to use the base.

  • Among Russia's many contributions to science and technology are Mendeleev's Periodic Table of the Elements and the "Sputnik" space flights.

  • "No dinner without bread," goes the Russian saying. Russians eat more rye bread than any nation in the world. Their cuisine is famous for exotic soups, cabbage schi and solyanka, which is made of assorted meats.

  • Among the most popular handicrafts in present-day Russia are wood carving and painting, lacquer painting, clay toys, bone carving, lace making, and rug making.

Russia

The defeat of the Russian Empire in World War I led to the seizure of power by the Communists and the formation of the USSR. The communists then began more than 70 years of total domination of all aspects of society in the Soviet Union's 15 republics.

Josf Stalin rose to power after Lenin's death in 1924. His brutal rule (1924-53) strengthened Russian dominance of
the Soviet Union at a cost of tens of millions of lives.

The Soviet economy and society stagnated in the following decades until General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) introduced glasnost
(openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt to modernize Communism, but his initiatives inadvertently released forces that by December 1991 splintered the USSR into 15 independent republics.

Since then, Russia has struggled in its efforts to build a democratic political system and market economy to replace the strict social, political, and economic controls of the Communist period.

Russia's only deep-water port on the Black Sea is at Novorrossijsk. Sochi is a major resort on the Russian Riviera, where palm trees and other lush plants thrive in the sub-tropical climate. Stalin's summer house is found here as well as numerous health spas.


Did You Know That? — About Georgia

  • The eastern shores of the Black Sea were dominated by Georgian tribes, which began to work with bronze as early as 3000 B.C. Colchis, the main city of the Kulkha (Colchians), one of the most powerful Georgian tribes, was known for its fabulous wealth and gave rise to the legend of Medea and the Golden Fleece, the magical hide sought by Jason and the Argonauts (gold miners still use sheepskin to "pan" for gold in Georgia's streams).

  • "Every Georgian dish is a poem," said Alexander Pushkin. According to Georgian legend, God took a supper break while creating the world. He became so involved with his meal that he inadvertently tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus, spilling his food onto the land below. The land blessed by Heaven's table scraps was Georgia.

  • Georgia boasts a flavorful cuisine, which makes extensive use of walnuts which are used to thicken soups and sauces. Popular foods range from pkahi, spinach leaves mixed with spices, to shashlik, a lamb shish kebab. Some claim that wine was invented in Georgia. It has been made in the country for at least 7,000 years.

Georgia

The Georgians have long had to fight for their independence. Georgia was absorbed into the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Independent for three years (1918–1921) following the Russian revolution, it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Ethnic separation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, poor governance, and Russian
military bases deny the government effective control over the entirety of the state's internationally recognized territory. Despite myriad problems, progress on market reforms and democratization support the country's goal of greater integration with Western political, economic, and security institutions.

Coastal Georgia is renowned for its beaches fringed with palm and eucalyptus trees.

 


 


 

Noah's Flood   Noah's Flood

 

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