Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Black Sea: A History

"There is a deep landlubber bias in historical and social research. History and social life, we seem to think, happen on the ground."

A couple of years ago I read Charles King's Midnight at the Pera Palace (looking at 20th-century Turkey though the lens of a luxury hotel/night club in Istanbul) and liked it a lot. More recently I read his Gods of the Upper Air (about American anthropologists, such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead) and liked it, though a bit less. I didn't manage to blog about either. 

But then, in a moment of idleness, I was looking through Charles King's back catalog and checking what my library had, and there was this volume: The Black Sea: A History. We've all been thinking about the Black Sea far more lately. I thought I should check this out. (Both literally and figuratively.)

The volume begins by discussing why we should consider the Black Sea a unit; it's often not these days; the countries involved are divided under Russian studies or Balkan studies or Near Eastern studies. He makes a good case, but I have to say I wasn't necessarily engaged with that question. Then he discusses the geography and geology of the region, which was pretty fascinating. Good harbors, which products were available for trade, where and when the fishing was good are all hugely important questions to anyone near the sea. 

But that's all pretty quick. Then we're on to the history. As I said once before, any history that can conceivably start with Herodotus ought to do so, and the historical part of this one does, too. One of King's recurring motifs is that the Black Sea is an inland sea for somebody--or it's not. Is it a place of trade or of conflict? For the Greeks, it seems, at least in the early years, it was an inland sea, with a number of Greek colonies trading with their respective hinterlands, but in fairly regular communication with each other and the Greek homeland. Most of the Greek colonies were of Milesian origin. But already by the time we think of as high classical Greek civilization (5th-4th century B.C.) this was falling apart. Alexander's ascendancy didn't last long, and none of the successor kingdoms dominated the sea.

Nor did the Romans. Their inland sea was, of course, the Mediterranean (Mare Nostrum) and the Black Sea was the frontier, where they fought against states they bordered on the east: Pontus, Parthia, Armenia.

It was closer to an inland sea for the Byzantines at their peak, but never quite. Italian city states--Venice, Genoa--pick up a fair amount of the trade and maintained entrepôt of their own. And by the later years of their empire the Byzantines controlled very little of the Black Sea littoral.

But then the Ottomans, after they took Byzantium (1453) again held the sea under one power. Some of the states on the Black Sea were tributaries and not directly part of the empire, but for roughly 300 years after the fall of Byzantium, the Black Sea was an Ottoman lake, and trade was relatively free and easy. 

Eventually the Ottoman empire grew weaker--and the Cossacks came on the scene. The Cossacks were perfectly happy--and perfectly capable--of conducting piracy on the sea in addition to their raids on horseback. But by themselves they weren't able to dominate the Black Sea. But their piratical successes were one of the things that revealed the increasing weakness of the Ottomans. The Russians took note.

The latter history of the Black Sea is story of the conflict between Russia and Turkey over control of the Black Sea--and the efforts of other players, the British, the French--to keep one party from dominating. The Crimean War, among other conflicts, was the result. Among the results of the Crimean War was an attempt to de-militarize the Black Sea.

The book comes out in 2004 and at that time King was optimistic. There were new environmental initiatives to counteract years of neglect and damage. "[C]onflict among the states of the Black Sea zone is now virtually unthinkable." [p.240] Alas. As Yogi Berra may (or may not) have said: It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

Still, it's a pretty fascinating book, even if it needs updating. If you've read his other books you'll know, King likes anecdotes and uses them well. There's some good stories in it and it's pretty readable. And especially now, worth reading.


As King notes in the beginning, six countries currently border the Black Sea; if you counted the countries in the Black Sea drainage area, there are 22 possibilities. Out of all those choices, I guess I won't pick the most obscure... King is a professor in the foreign services school at Georgetown, and at least at the time of this book held the Ion Raţiu chair in Romanian studies. Romania is important in the book, I need to keep up my Romania streak, and so...Romania it is! for the European Reading Challenge.

6 comments:

  1. If I had to write a post on the Black Sea without using anything but the information in my own mind, my post would be virtually blank. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

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    1. My knowledge is pretty thin, too. (Though less!) But I read the Greek historians back in school.

      This was a good introduction.

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  2. It does sound like an interesting book; so much history has happened in that one area over the years!

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    1. I feel like I learned a bunch from it, and with all the stuff going on over there, one wants to know more nowadays.

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  3. Great review! You've made me want to read it. And not only that, you've made me want to read Herodotus again. However, I'm attempting to slog my way through Aristotle so both will have to wait. But yes, predictions are hard to make and I have a feeling we will hear more about it presently. Great that you now have a historic baseline.

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    1. It's made me want to reread Herodotus, too. In fact, Herodotus is now sitting by my chair...we'll see what happens.

      I saw you were about to take up the Ethics, which is definitely challenging enough by itself.

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