‘Like the terminal moraine of a glacier, the Black Sea shore is a place where the detritus of human migrations and invasions has been deposited for more than four thousand years’
In the summer of 1991, a group of senior Communist conspirators seized Mikhail Gorbachev at his summer home in the Crimea. Instead of reinstating hardline Communist rule, the incident led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Neal Ascherson was travelling on a coach through the area at the time, and the incident made him aware of the importance of the region: the place where East meets West. From this starting point, Ascherson takes the reader on a dazzling journey around the shores of the Black Sea. He revisits its earliest history – anchors dropped by Mycenaean ships still lie on the seabed; Classical times – the poet Ovid was exiled to what is now the coast of Romania; and Byzantium – when caviar was so abundant it was a poor man’s food, and the bonito fish was so significant it featured on the Eastern Empire’s coins.
Across the ocean of grass that forms the Steppe travelled Mongols, Goths, Scythians and Russians; over the waters came traders and colonists from Greece, Turkey and Germany. Ascherson describes the fabled cities they built, from Trebizond to Odessa, and the terrible wars and pogroms that have cursed its shores. From ancient struggles over resources to clashes between Jew, Christian, Muslim and pagan, the Black Sea has witnessed bitter and bloody struggles. In the 20th century, the region was scarred by the purges of Stalin (who even murdered archaeologists whose discoveries threatened cherished notions of Russian identity); by the Katastrofē in which Turks were forced from Greece and Pontic Greeks from Turkey, and by Hitler, who had a vision of a German Gothic Crimea.
Ascherson combines a personal narrative with a historian’s insight, in a lyrical and philosophical examination of the place where ‘civilisation’ met ‘barbarism’; trader encountered nomad, and different worlds collided. He ends this thoughtful book with the physical state of the Black Sea – the beluga, anchovy, sturgeon and dolphins, which once abounded, have fallen to record lows. It may be the ecological story, and not the human, which proves the final tragedy.
TOP: Coin depicting a griffin, gold stater, 4th C. BC. (© British Museum)
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