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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 87/July 1915/Eurasian Waterways in Turkey



THE circumstance of contiguity by which the southeastern end of the Balkan peninsula almost abuts against the extreme northwestern shore of Asia Minor provides an Eurasian ford which has facilitated human intercourse between Europe and Asia. The Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora and the Bosporus constitute in reality a single strait. From Tertiary times to our day a normal and interdependent sequence of events has occurred on its site. In the prehuman period it is possible to trace land-fracturing followed by gorge-carving, valley submergence and strait formation. The post-human development witnesses conversion of the locality into an important section of one of the most widely traveled highways of mankind. Two main routes intersect each other in the dividing waters. Their courses leading from northwest to southeast and from northeast to southwest are at right angles to each other. In considering the value of the region as part of a much trodden route, it is necessary to ascribe proper importance to its lines of communication with Europe and Asia.

A Balkan zone of depression extending west and south of the Balkan uplift affords natural access between the valley of the Danube proceeding from the heart of Europe and the Dardanelles-Bosporus passage. It is constituted by the wide valley of the Morava and the narrower Nichava course leading to the Sofia basin, whence penetration into the Thracian plains is obtained by the Maritza valley.

The corresponding function for the Asiatic shore is performed by the valley of the Sakaria and to a lesser degree by the Pursak river depression—both trending westward from the high plateau of western Asia.

The main roads from the Bosporus or the Dardanelles to the Sakaria river valley skirt the shores of the straits and the Marmora as they follow a coastal lowland fringing the Dardanian and Bithynian heights. At Panderma, however, the old highway strikes inland slightly south of east to Brusa in order to avoid the elevated plateau intervening between the Marmora and Lake Abullonia. Thence, still following a line of least elevation, it wends its way towards the small harbor of Ghemlik (the Cius of Græco-Roman times) until beyond Isnik (ancient Nicæa of ecclesiastical fame) it debouches into the waters of the Sakaria.

The geological evidence at the shores of the Dardanelles and the Bosporus reveals the probable continuity of land at both points in a time not far remote. A narrow band of the Miocene beds of the Gallipoli peninsula extends along the eastern coast of the Dardanelles. The lower Devonian strata and igneous flows of the European side of the Bosporus reappear on its Asiatic shores. In both straits the land-splitting fracture which gave rise to watery channels is an event of late geological times. Originally gorges of rivers flowing from northeast to southwest, the straits assumed their present geographical form as a result of depression. As one stands on the Sheitler hill midway between the Black Sea and Marmora entrances of the Bosporus the correspondence of promontory to bay and bay to promontory is discernible in the entire range of vision swept by the eye to right or left. A similar relation between opposite shores recurs in the Dardanelles with the only difference of size of landforms for, in the longer strait, the headlands are bolder while the bays attain deeper and wider proportions.

The importance of the region as a fording place can be gathered from the distribution of the larger cities within its boundaries. Setus, Abydos and Madytus on the Hellespont grew on the site of the nearest convergence of the European and Asiatic land-masses. The same is true of Byzantium, with the added circumstance that the promontory on which it was founded afforded an admirable strategic site. Ilium, at the southwestern entrance of the waterways, also owed its importance during antiquity to commanding position. Its disappearance as a center of urban life was the result of geographical disadvantages. The ancient city lacked a convenient harbor, above all. Land communication with Asia Minor was arduous on account of the mountainous character of the country extending beyond the city walls. Byzantium, however, at the opposite extremity of the straits had been provided by nature with the very facilities for intercourse which had been denied Troy. The economic conditions which were responsible for the passing of the latter city determined the survival and increasing importance of the Byzantine capital.

The narrowness of the Eurasian waterways permitted continuity of travel over this intercontinental route while the very existence of the straits allowed uninterrupted maritime travel from Black Sea harbors to the farthest known seaports of the western world. Modern railway communications have been benefited by the former circumstance. The sea commerce of medieval days thrived on the latter. In fact, the configuration and location of the region has always affected humanity.

Assumption of the wandering of Alpine brachycephals from the Hindu Kush to as far west as Brittany appears to be substantiated by the distribution of the type. The connecting link between members of the race in western Europe and their Asiatic prototypes is found in the Armenoid group of Asia Minor.[1] Probably the earliest fording of Eurasian waterways was undertaken by this race in the course of its westerly spread.[2]

This specific case of migration may be considered as part of the powerful "trans-humanizing" process moving in an east-west direction which has taken place on the Eurasian continent. Interdependence between this movement and the conformable trend of the main lines of Eurasian structure as well as correlated climatic zones still remains to be determined. Ultimately the entire problem may be found to be connected to mechanical effects of our planet's rotation.

Since the dawn of historical times the Propontine area and its outlets have borne the vessels of adventurous traders and colonists. Early extension of Hellenic influence to the easternmost shore of the Black Sea was rendered possible by the advantages offered by this water route to Greek pioneers. The foundation of Byzantium in 657 B.C. promoted the intercourse between the east and west which at that time was largely restricted to relations between the Ægean and Black Seas. A half-way station was established on the unique site of the modern capital of the Sultans. Here a system of powerful defenses reinforced by the encircling waters of the Golder Horn, Bosporus and Marmora provided long lease of existence to the city which both Europeans and Asiatics regarded as the gateway to rival continents.

Between the Ægean mouth of the Hellespont and the Euxine outlet of the Bosporus, Asiatic invaders of the western world and European colonizers of the east have always found the shortest watery stretch of their respective routes. This was an important point at a time when control of natural forces was in a still undeveloped stage. The danger of impairing the cohesive strength of an army of invaders was also minimized.

These considerations probably led Darius to adopt the Bosporus route in the expedition sent against the Scythians in 513 B.C. His cohorts tramped from Asia into Europe over a bridge of boats thrown across the Bosporus in that year.[3] From that time on various incursions of Asiatics into the western continent were to cross the water of these straits.

During the second Persian war the bridging of the Hellespont by Xerxes' generals is commonly reported as having been undertaken between Abydos and Madytus. Both of these sites lie north of the narrowest section of the Dardanelles,—the Kilidbahr-Chanak gap, barely a mile in width. They correspond approximately to Nagara Point and the paltry hamlet of Maitos, between which the distance of the straits attains three miles. The current at the wider section is not as swift. There the double row of pontoons built by Xerxes's engineers in 480 B.C. could be moored with less danger of their drifting with the southerly flowing waters. It is not improbable that the bridge thrown across the Hellespont on this occasion was started near the conveniently situated mouth of the Rhodius River and extended to a point about two and a half miles south of Madytus.

Half a century later the Hellespont was crossed by a counter human current which was destined to flow to the shores of the Indian Ocean. Macedonian supremacy over Greek states at that time depended largely on the conquest of Asia where ready help against the kingdom bequeathed by Philip to Alexander was always to be found by the states of Thessaly and the Peloponnesus. The bulk of the Macedonian phalanxes were transported from Europe to Asia between Sestus and Abydos in 334 B.C. It is likely that minor contingents crossed between Elacontus and the Achean's cove with Alexander who was proceeding to Ilium.

The main fording points selected on this occasion lie north of the previous passage. The distance between Sestus and Abydos is also approximately one mile. The advantage of the site, however, is due to the moderation of the current which flows between these points with about half the swiftness characterizing its onward rush through the contracted outlet on the south.

When the convergence of all roads to Rome had become well established in the first century after Christ, the Bosporus was the shortest watery section of a long highway which began at the Appian way and extending through Ancyra, Tarsus and Antioch, attained Egypt and Mesopotamia by way of branches diverging at the last-named city.

The easterly spread of the Roman Empire, however, caused the Bosporus to replace the Roman Tiber as the hub of spoke-like roads leading to the remotest confines of the Cæsars' vast administrative domain. The evidence afforded by the Peutinger Table and the Antonine Itinerary on this translation of center is conclusive. In the words of Ramsay[4] the map

was made in the Byzantine period, by a person who was accustomed to the Byzantine system of roads radiating from Constantinople across Asia Minor, and who tried to represent the roads on this idea. . . . But no road which leads across country from the Ægean coast is represented with any approach to completeness: the roads in this direction are given in fragments with frequent gaps.

The same remark applies to the Antonine Itinerary: the compiler is interested chiefly in the roads to Constantinople. . . .'

In the early centuries of the Christian era the advantageous location of the waterways favored the development of trade intercourse between Europe and Asia. From the European coast roads led to the great commercial cities of lower Austria which at that time, and especially from the sixth to the twelfth century, were the depots and distributing centers of Oriental merchandise. Thither traders from the northernmost and westernmost sections of Europe came to supply themselves with the spices and rareties of the Orient. The Avars, who had settled in the valley of the Danube and who traveled back and forth in the wide valley of their choice, were the principal commissioners between Constantinople and the storing centers of Lower Austria.

At the apogee of Byzantine might the region occupied an eminently central location in the civilized world. In the sixth and seventh centuries from north to south and between east and west the Byzantine Empire was in every sense the country of the core. A large proportion of world commerce carried on between cardinal points of the compass passed through Eurasian waterways. This trade route grew in importance during succeeding centuries. It flourished especially throughout the period in which Italian cities acquired commercial supremacy.

Between the eighth and ninth centuries the commerce of Europe centered at Constantinople "more completely than it has ever since done in any one city." A commercial aristocracy was created in Byzantium as a result of this remarkable trade activity. The body of wealthy merchants rapidly acquired political power, and it became necessary for usurpers to obtain their support. Finlay, basing himself on Theophanes, records the case of Empress Irene, who was obliged to lower the toll levied at the straits of the Hellespont and the Bosporus in order to find favor with the business men of the capital at the time she was preventing her son from reigning.

In the course of the eight crusades between 1096 and 1270 the straits of the Bosporus provided easy passage from Europe into Asia to the soldiers of the cross marching against the infidel. Throughout the two centuries of faith-inspired fighting the nations of the world met in Constantinople. From the very start of the religious movement the bands of crusaders followed the roads provided by nature to this city, there to unite forces before proceeding through Asia Minor to Palestine. The four leaders of the first crusade set the precedent by convening in the Byzantine city. From Ratisbon along the valleys of the Danube, the Morava and Maritza, Godfrey of Bouillon led his host to the shores of the Bosporous. Adhemar of Puy and Raymond of Toulouse, proceeding from Burgundy through northern Italy, western Croatia and Bosnia, also attained the classic strait after crossing Albania, Macedonia and southern Thrace. The army of Bohemond and Tancred left Brindisi and landed in the bay of Valona, whence it was directed across the Balkan peninsula to the Byzantine capital. Robert of Flanders and Hugh of Vernandois marched through central Italy and, taking ship at Bari, crossed to Durazzo, there to begin the overland journey, the first stage of which ended at Constantinople. Beyond the imperial city, in Asia Minor, the four routes which had marked the progress of the first crusade in Europe merged into a single trail over which the motley crowd of friar, beggar and adventurer, gathered from every European nation, steered its way towards Jerusalem.

From B.C. 1250 to 1425 Black Sea coast towns constituted western termini of important caravan routes proceeding from the heart of Asia. Tabriz, the great rendezvous of traders traveling from China, India or Arabia, was connected to Trebizond by the valley of the Arax. The seaports of Samsun, Poti and Tana also received the products of Asia destined for western Europe. The bulk of this Black Sea commerce was in the hands of Venetians and Genoese. Natives of the independent cities of Italy had their agencies in every Euxine harbor of any consequence. The Eurasian waterways had permitted the establishment of Italian commercial colonies on the coast of the Black Sea. Families claiming descent from Italian medieval settlers are found to-day in many harbors of ancient or modern importance.

If abundance of nomenclature on ancient maps be considered as expression of the commercial importance of a given region the names on the Black Sea coast preserved on medieval maps suffice to reveal the extent of trade relations between Italy and the Levant. The tonnage of Italian traffic with the East was derived not only from the important agencies like that of Galata founded by the Genoese within the present limits of Constantinople, but from numerous smaller posts and colonies scattered on the Black Sea coast.

The westerly spread of the Turks resulted in the gradual closing of the eastern waterways to Christian traders. In particular the control of the Dardanelles-Bosporus sea road by the Turks in the sixteenth century destroyed the most convenient avenue of intercourse between the prosperous Italian republics and their Black Sea colonies. From this time on trade relations between north-central Mediterranean ports and the Ægean and Black seas dwindled to insignificance on account of the restriction imposed by the Turkish government and the vexations to travelers caused by its officials.

The destruction of this Levant trade, however, did not end the demand of Europe for the products which the East had hitherto supplied. Spices consisting principally of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg were still sought. The stocks of silk, gum, lacquer and certain perfumes and precious stones were being gradually depleted. These products now reached Europe intermittently and by way of southerly routes through Asia Minor, Syria and Arabia. The journeys to which traders had to submit were long and perilous. The result was that spices sold in Italian ports three or four times higher than in Calicut. Incense could only be obtained at six times its selling price in Mecca. Furthermore, the scarcity of gold and silver was beginning to be felt acutely about that time in Europe. After paying its eastern purchases with the precious metals for centuries the west had reached the stage in which its supply of coins was failing.

These are some of the economic conditions which led to westerly explorations in the course of which America was discovered.

The consolidation of Ottoman dominion in Europe after the fall of Constantinople marked the highest development of the strategic value of the waterways. This feature was considerably enhanced by the introduction of artillery as an arm about that time. Prior to the establishment of the Turkish capital at Constantinople the strategic position of the straits had proved valuable in two important directions. For long it had acted as a natural moat defending European sections of the Byzantine Empire from Turkish attacks. In still earlier times and with the stronghold of Constantinople at its northern end the Eurasian ford had acted as the barrier deflecting barbarian invasions through Illyricum to Italy and the west. With armies and navies resting on the triple circle of Byzantine ramparts the narrow waterway was converted into a natural obstacle in the path of barbarian hordes which had succeeded in crossing the Danube in the course of recession from the northeast. Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt were thus spared the effects of the passage of invaders coming from the north.

The existence of the straits has profoundly affected the destinies of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey's disintegration marked by successive southeasterly recession of its European boundary was retarded considerably by the impregnable character of the defensive works constructed on the winding shores of the Dardanelles. This narrow strait attains a length of forty miles between the Ægean and the Marmora. A contracted channel, marked sinuosity of course and a line of hills on each shore commanding the intervening watery space provided all the elements which nature could bring together to form a fortress.

In modern times the waterway has played an important part in the rivalry between western and eastern nations for its possession. In particular, whenever the pressure of Slavic might tended towards a final effort to subjugate the Turk a convenient check could be promptly administered by an armed force sent through the straits to protect the Sultan's capital.

The international status of the waterway has been affected by its intercontinental location. As a section of an important world route its fate concerned every nation whose subjects made use of this highway. The long-deferred expulsion of Mongolians and Tatars from European soil can only be explained by the fact that the Turks descended from these races were the convenient masters of this important waterway. The occupation of this region by a power of the first magnitude could not be tolerated by the other large nations in view of the menace constituted thereby to unimpeded transit of men and merchandise.

Expression of the tense political situation resulting from the importance of the site is given in the number of treaties forbidding the transit of armed vessels through the straits. Conventions signed by Turkey and European powers prior to the nineteenth century had closed the straits of the Dardanelles as well as the Bosporus to men-of-war. In the middle of the nineteenth century these agreements acquired validity as declarations of a principle deserving permanent application. An international conference, held in London, ratified on July 13, 1841, all previous agreements by the signing of a convention in which the Sultan bound himself to forbid access of the Dardanelles or Bosporus to foreign war vessels. The European signatory powers to this agreement were Great Britain, Russia, France, Austria and Prussia.[5] Since then the value of mastery of this watery stretch of an intercontinental route has acquired such proportion that the presence of storm-tossed war-vessels seeking refuge from the fury of the elements sufficed to raise vehement protests against their presence in the forbidden waters.[6]

To our own generation at a time when the economic importance of a region is the prime consideration affecting its world relation the gauging of the value of the Eurasian waterways must be determined by their central location with reference to the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. Between Paris and Bagdad or Aden the overland route is continuous save for a short mile of water at the Bosporus. Here a bridge will undoubtedly connect the two continents in a day which can not be delayed much further. Man's achievement will thus have crowned nature's work once again. A minimum width of channel breaking the continuity of land along the northwest-southeast intercontinental road provided by nature is a requirement of modern conditions no less than it was in former centuries. Present exigencies differ, however, from the necessities of early days. Security had formerly been sought in the well-nigh unbroken stretch of land affording access from Europe to Asia, and vice versa. Rapidity of communication has now become the desideratum of greatest import.

Thus the advantages inherent in the site of the Dardanelles to Bosporus Strait determined its relation to humanity settled far from its limited area. A road is to a large degree the joint property of its users. The political status of the Eurasian waterways hence affects the interests of the entire community of European nations. In this a determining factor is obtained which may lead to the eventual formation of an independent political unit formed by the elongated zone of coastland enclosing the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmora and the Bosporus. The boundary of this territory in the Balkans, if made to coincide with the line determined for Turkey's western boundary at the Treaty of London of May 30, 1913, would conform fairly accurately with natural divisions. On the Asiatic side the valley of the Sakaria and a long fault line revealed by the lakes east of the Marmora provides ready-made frontiers which could be conveniently extended to the Ægean. This line had constituted the Asiatic boundary of the Latin Empire of Constantinople in the period intervening between the years 1204 and 1261. To-day the establishment of an internationalized area or neutral zone in this region would be an added instance of conformity to geographical principles observable in many sections of the world.

  1. Ripley, "The Races of Europe," New York, Appletons, 1899, p. 448.
  2. Cf. map of Asiatic Migrations in The Wanderings of Peoples, by A. C. Haddon, Cambridge, 1912.
  3. Herod., B. IV., 86-89.
  4. "The Historical Geography of Asia Minor," p. 48.
  5. P. Macey, "Statut International des Détroits," Lechevalier, Paris, 1912.
  6. In October, 1849, a British fleet under the command of Admiral Parker while at anchor in Besika Bay was driven by a violent storm to seek shelter at Hauslar Bay in the Dardanelles. The incident elicited a protest from the Russian ambassador in Constantinople, notwithstanding the retirement of the English men-of-war to Besika Bay after the storm had subsided.