The Hellespont, also known as the Dardanelles, leads from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and thence, through the Bosporus, to the Black Sea. These Turkish Straits are the only maritime route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Our notions of geography lead us to designate one side of this route as as “European” and the other as “Asian,” but of course, since both sides are nowadays ruled by Turkey, there is culturally nothing distinguishing one side from the other. The passages themselves remain of vital strategic interest. Maritime transit through them is governed by the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (1936), which gives Turkey ultimate control but guarantees free passage of civilian vessels in peacetime. Warships are another matter, and post-WWII Soviet obstreperousness on the issue was one of the reasons why Turkey joined NATO in 1952. (With Turkey threatening to leave this alliance, will the Russians finally realize their dream of controlling the route?)
The shortest distance across the Hellespont appears to be from the vibrant city of Çanakkale on the Asian side to a small town called Kilitbahir on the European.
I had fun imagining that this is where Xerxes built his pontoon bridge (Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7), although it was probably built elsewhere, and regular ferry service now obviates the need for such an expedience.
In the late Bronze Age, of course, entrance to the Hellespont was guarded by the city of Troy, on the Asian side (the “Troad”). One iteration of Troy was besieged and ultimately destroyed by Mycenaean Greeks around 1250 BC, although the city was soon rebuilt. The story of this Trojan War is one of the great themes of Western literature, and Troy itself became one of the great sites of nineteenth-century archaeology.
I enjoyed walking around the site, which was more extensive than I was expecting, although it’s a bit of a hodgepodge. Troy kept getting destroyed and rebuilt from the early Bronze Age until the Byzantine era, when any status it had as the guardian of the Straits was superseded by Constantinople (and enervated by a retreating coastline). This means that there are any number of layers to the site, but they are all mixed together – or at least that is how they now appear after a century and a half of archaeology, and you really have to use your imagination to perceive how each successive settlement may have appeared in its day. But I would say this activity is preferable to getting your photo taken at the reconstructed Trojan Horse near the entrance.
Actual artifacts from the site (i.e., what Schliemann allowed the Turks to keep) are on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (You’ll have to go to Moscow to see the rest of this horde.)
On the other side of the Hellespont is the Gallipoli Peninsula, a name that has become synonymous with a military campaign that took place there over three thousand years later. During the First World War, the Ottomans had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary against France, Britain, and Russia. Britain (specifically, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty) thought it would be a good idea to land troops at Gallipoli, march on Constantinople, and secure the Bosphorus for Russia. We’re used to thinking of the Ottoman Empire as the sick man of Europe, but they were competent enough in 1915 to repel the allies’ naval attack, and pin their troops on the beach for ten months, despite repeated attempts at breaking through. The whole thing has gone down as another futile campaign in a futile war.
However, even the futility has become meaningful. The sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand (“Anzac”) troops at Gallipoli are solemnly commemorated in those countries every April 25, the day when Anzac troops first landed. The location of the battle, and its ineffective progress, have also drawn specific comparisons to the Iliad, the chief literary representation of the Trojan War, which does not dwell on the ultimate Greek victory but the endless and apparently pointless killing that had to transpire first. The ostensible reenactment of this at Gallipoli “served as a military origin myth” for Australia, and could “contextualize the nation and its people within the continuous mythical and historical narrative of Western Civilization.”
A silver lining of sorts.
On the Turkish side, of course this campaign launched the career of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a great morale boost during the war, and set the stage for the Turkish War of Independence. It wouldn’t surprise me if it also contributed to the contemporaneous Armenian Genocide, although the Turks would never admit to that. (Wikipedia is blocked in Turkey on account of the article on the Armenian Genocide, which has been protected from Turkey’s manic insistence that the atrocity never happened, or that it wasn’t as great a crime as claimed, or that it was never their intention to kill so many people, etc., etc. Why the Turks feel they have to do this has always baffled me. Quite apart from the blatant pigheadedness of denying reality, why bother, when it was the Ottomans who carried it out, not the Nationalists?)