Cruisin' the Black Sea: From the Golden Fleece to the Golden Arches

by Paul Cantor by Paul Cantor

Take it from me: The best way to approach the historic city of Yalta is from the sea, the Black Sea to be precise. Seen up close the city looks a bit rundown, but viewed from a ship, Yalta is an impressive sight, nestled up against the Crimean Mountains, just the way the Russian Czars wanted it when they chose this spot for their summer getaways. But the tourist seeking out the old Czarist playground has a surprise in store as he draws near Yalta. Looming up just behind the docks is a monumental statue of a familiar figure, but it is not one of the Romanovs – instead it is the man who brought their dynasty to an end – Vladimir Lenin. I hardly expected to see a monument to Lenin when I traveled to post-Soviet Yalta.

But my shock was cushioned by the appearance of an even more familiar shape right next to Lenin as viewed from the sea. The monument to the Communist leader of the Russian Revolution is now partially eclipsed by one of the grand international symbols of capitalism – two large McDonald's banners. Lenin famously said that, come the revolution, capitalists would be found willing to sell the rope by which they would be hanged. He did not foresee that, when the communists were at the end of their rope, the capitalists would be back to sell burgers, fries, and a shake, right under his stony eyes. I took pleasure in the fact that Lenin now casts a rather lonely figure in the harbor of Yalta, whereas the McDonald's seems to be filled with satisfied customers at all times, day and night.

The juxtaposition of Lenin and McDonald's is curiously symbolic of the whole history of the Black Sea region. For over two thousand years, two forces have contended with each other in this strategically located area. On the one hand have been would-be conquerors like Lenin or Suleiman the Magnificent, men who wanted to impose a single way of life on the whole region, whether a political ideology like Communism or a religion like Islam. On the other hand have been the commercial forces like McDonald's, merchants and businessmen who have taken advantage of the fact that people live differently in the region and therefore want to trade with each other. This contrast became evident to me in the course of a two-week cruise I took on the Black Sea last summer, a trip that included three ports in Turkey, three in Ukraine, one in Romania, and one in Bulgaria. With visits to one historic or archaeological site after another, and plenty of deck time to read up on the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, I began to see a pattern unfold.

The Black Sea is as natural a trading area as one could find on earth. Over the centuries, the region has continued to embrace a wide variety of peoples, with a wide variety of natural resources at their disposal (fertile land, mineral deposits, timber, and the like). For all this variety, however, the region is compact, and the Black Sea itself has always furnished convenient trading routes. Moreover, the Black Sea is perfectly positioned between the East and the West, and has long served as a junction for larger trading patterns between Asia and Europe. It is no accident that the city that commands access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, variously known over the years as Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul, became one of the wealthiest communities in history. To this day, wherever one goes in the Black Sea region, one finds merchants peddling their wares, from fruit and vegetable stands that probably have not changed much in a thousand years to the latest developments in merchandizing – the ancient marketplace in Istanbul now advertises its own web site:

The wealth of the Black Sea region caught the eye of people in distant lands as far back as we have records. If a Trojan War was really fought, it may well have been over access to the Black Sea. Ancient Troy commanded the first of the straits from the Mediterranean, the Dardanelles, just the way Istanbul commands the second, the Bosphorus. The ancient Greeks began founding trading outposts and colonies around the Black Sea as early as the seventh century, BC. The legend of Jason and the Argonauts and their heroic quest for the Golden Fleece may reflect more purely mercenary interests the ancient Greeks had in the Black Sea, which they imagined as a land of fabled wealth. Our cruise docked in several of the ports Jason supposedly visited, and had I not had a fit of homesickness in Yalta, I could have skipped the McDonald's and dined in a harbor restaurant built in the shape of the Argo.

The story of Jason is emblematic – for as long as we can tell, the wealth of the Black Sea region has tempted would-be heroes in search of conquests. It sometimes seems as if everybody who ever wanted to conquer the world at one point or another had his sights set on the Black Sea, beginning with Alexander the Great, who began his Asian campaign by crossing and securing the Dardanelles (known in the ancient world as the Hellespont). The Romans took a special interest in the region, and with colonies dispersed as far away as what is now Constanta, Romania and Sevastopol, Ukraine, they seemed to have ambitions to turn the Black Sea into a second Roman lake (after the Mediterranean). Just about every port we visited, no matter how small, had a decent archaeological museum, which offered testimony to how far Greek and Roman influence had penetrated into the Black Sea region. The Roman amphitheater at the Chersonesus archaeological site in Sevastopol is perhaps the best evidence of how the Romans tried to impose their distinctive way of life on the remote shores of the Black Sea.

In the next phase of history in the region, religion began to play an increasingly dominant role. Shortly after the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he moved the capital of the Empire to Byzantium (330 AD), thereby acknowledging the strategic importance of the Black Sea. When the Roman Empire broke up into eastern and western parts (395 AD), for centuries the Eastern Empire was the more important and powerful segment, in part because it was able to draw upon the resources of the whole Black Sea region. What we know as the Byzantine Empire managed to exploit its strategic base on the Bosphorus to extend its dominion deep into the Middle East and Eastern Europe. And that means to extend Christianity; the Byzantine Empire was a Christian Empire and succeeded in converting many of the pagan tribes it encountered on its borders.

But the Christianity of the Byzantine Empire eventually met its match in the Islam of a number of Turkish tribes emanating out of Central Asia. The Selçuk Turks dealt a series of major blows to the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Turks finally succeeded in conquering Byzantium itself (Constantinople) in 1453. They went on to build their own Ottoman Empire, and gradually turned the Black Sea into an Ottoman lake, which it remained for centuries. Under rulers such as Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520–66), the Ottoman Empire expanded in all directions and repeatedly threatened Europe from the east. As late as the seventeenth century, Ottoman armies almost conquered Vienna (in 1683), and might have spread Islam even further west if they had not suffered a series of military reversals.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the tide had turned against the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire managed to drive the Turks out of the northern shores of the Black Sea, finally giving the Russians their long-sought goal of access to warm-water ports. During the nineteenth century the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire jockeyed for position in the Black Sea, the one claiming to champion the cause of Christianity, the other the cause of Islam. The Crimean War, which erupted in the 1850s, actually grew out of a dispute over the visitation rights of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem (then under Ottoman administration). In one more sign of the strategic importance of the Black Sea, both the British and the French felt compelled to get involved in the Crimean War (on the side of the Turks). On our trip overland from Yalta to Sevastopol, we drove right through the "valley of death" immortalized in Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," an ode that strangely celebrates a British military disaster in the Crimean War.

I could go on with this crash course in Black Sea history – I have not begun to speak of the role of the region during World War I (the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign) or its significance during the Cold War, when Turkey as a US ally confronted the Soviet Union across the Black Sea. But I believe that I have already made my point – that the Black Sea is something that has been fought over time and again in history, and in the name of one empire after another – the Roman, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Russian, and, more recently, the evil empire itself, the Soviet Union (even Germany's Third Reich made a play for the region during World War II). I find it particularly interesting how many of history's "greats" have had designs on the Black Sea – Alexander the Great, Constantine the Great, Justinian the Great, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great (and I suppose we could throw in Suleiman the Magnificent for good measure).

Sometimes, as in the cases of the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, the dominion over the region was linked up with religious claims. More recently, totalitarian ideology came into play in the region, with the involvement of communist rulers like Lenin and Stalin. Admittedly we are dealing with very diverse historical phenomena here, but they all have one thing in common – an attempt, with varying strictness, to impose one will upon the whole region – to make it Christian, or Moslem, or Communist, or whatever cause the conquerors were pushing at the moment. What is attractive about the world of the Black Sea is precisely its variety and complexity, and yet over and over again some ruler has tried to bring it under heel and fix his image upon it. That after all is how you get a statue erected in your honor.

But the people of the region have repeatedly paid for such statues with their blood. The overall body count in the region, from the mythical Trojan War to the all-too-real carnage of World War I and II, has been staggering – hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have died on the storied battlefields of the Black Sea, from Balaclava to Gallipoli. As the mention of these two battles suggests, the Black Sea has been notable for particularly senseless warfare. By the end of the Crimean War, no one was sure anymore why it had started or what it had accomplished. The great Liberal statesman, Richard Cobden, reproached his fellow Englishmen with the absurdity of the conflict: "It was a war in which we had a despot for an enemy, a despot for an ally, and a despot for a client" (respectively Czar Nicholas I, Napoleon III, and Sultan Abdulmecit I). The Black Sea stands today as one vast graveyard of empire, with one monument after another ironically pointing to the futility of trying to bring the region under imperial rule.

What drove one empire after another to try to take over the Black Sea, despite the enormous expenditure of resources, human and material, that was always involved? Different motives were advanced at different times. But beneath the variety of religious, ideological and other impulses feeding imperial designs upon the Black Sea, one assumption remained central: that to have influence in the area, and to benefit from its resources, one had to conquer it militarily and also forcibly impose one's way of life on all the people of the region. But an alternate model of penetrating the region was, as far as we can tell from the archaeological evidence, always available. Merchants plied the Black Sea far in advance of their homeland navies and armies, showing that peaceful trade could accomplish what warfare, with all its dreams of imperial conquest, could not.

Trade is based on the principle of exchange, rather than conquest. You have something I want and I have something you want, and so we get together for an exchange of goods or services and we both benefit from the transaction. The long and destructive military history of the Black Sea is shadowed by an equally long and productive economic history, in which enterprising merchants led the way in showing people how they could enrich their lives by freely exchanging the goods they produced. And the premise of trade is difference, not homogeneity – the more different two people are, the more they have to trade with one another.

At this point any self-respecting Marxist, and that means most of my academic colleagues, would rise in protest: "You're making a false dichotomy between Lenin and McDonald's; in fact, if anything McDonald's is a more sinister force for conquest than communism ever was; haven't you heard of economic imperialism?" I have indeed heard of economic imperialism – in the form of mercantilism it is exactly what Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was directed against. But the fact that imperialism can take an economic form does not mean that all economic transactions are imperialistic; in fact, as Smith shows, capitalism originally defined itself precisely in opposition to economic imperialism – free trade vs. mercantilism. Indeed, when I talk of trade here, I am talking of free trade – not absolutely free trade, since we are dealing with a region ruled by one form of despotism after another, but relatively free trade – the kind of transaction that results when one person deals directly with another in an open process of exchange. And that is very different from what results under imperialism, or, more generally, despotic rule. No one puts a gun to your head as you walk by McDonald's and forces you inside to buy a Big Mac. But Lenin, at least figuratively, did put a gun to the heads of millions of Russians and forced them to do his bidding. McDonald's has gained a foothold in the Crimea because it offers products and services that the local people desire, and they seem quite happy to have this option now available to them. Lenin, and the other would-be despots of the region, never offered the people any choice at all. Instead, they presumed to speak for them, claiming to know what was in their interest better than the people themselves did. In McDonald's you get a menu from which to order; from Lenin and his ilk you just get orders.

The difference between imperialism and trade as models of human interaction has all sorts of cultural implications, as the history of the Black Sea region attests. In the empire model, one culture tries to impose its forms on others and remake them in its own image. In varying degrees, one can see that model in operation in the history of the Roman, the Byzantine, the Ottoman, and the Russian Empires. But always working against this model, even in ages of empire, is the model of trade, or voluntary exchange, which assumes, more or less, the equality of the trading partners. The cultural reflection of this kind of economic interaction is cultural hybridity, rather than cultural homogeneity. That is, the forms of two cultures meet and fuse, producing new forms that cannot be traced simply to one or the other, but often represent a higher synthesis of the two, or at least a higher degree of cultural complexity. The rich and varied cultural forms that have emerged over the centuries in the Black Sea region are a tribute to the principle of cultural hybridity.

One can see forms of cultural hybridity wherever one looks around the Black Sea, but let me begin with one that is more amusing than profound: a tourist brochure produced by the little city of Samsun on the northern coast of Turkey. Samsun does not have much to offer the international tourist, although the local museum does have a Roman bronze statue of an athlete that any collection in the world would be proud to display. In an effort to attract tourists Samsun tries to exploit its proximity to the legendary land of the Amazons. The city has created a scene in its brochure with an ancient representation of an Amazon on one side and on the other, the image of Xena, Warrior Princess, the Amazonian heroine of a popular TV series produced in New Zealand. I was not expecting to see such awareness of the world television market in a Turkish backwater, but the impulse to amalgamate wildly disparate cultural forms has evidently become irresistible in our day.

This example might be dismissed as trivial or as a mere artifact of the twenty-first century, a product of the advanced globalization or even Americanization of the contemporary world. But no matter how far back one goes in the history of the region, one finds examples of cultural hybridization, and many of them have genuine cultural value (in fact, one might say that the Black Sea has been experiencing the positive effects of what we call globalization for over two thousand years). To start small, in a tiny museum in Amasra, Turkey, we saw a beautiful example of Ottoman silver plate – only the fact that it portrayed a train locomotive and two railroad cars allowed me to date it to the mid-nineteenth century, when a local artisan obviously decided to use his traditional craft to represent some very untraditional subject matter, the new railroad technology being imported into the Ottoman Empire from Europe. West of Yalta, we visited the Alupka Palace, built by the Czar's viceroy in the region, Count Vorontsov, in the mid-nineteenth century. It may be difficult to believe, but this palace tastefully blends the architectural style of a Scottish castle (modeled in fact on Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford) with that of a Moorish seraglio (vaguely resembling the Alhambra). I thought the most exotic place we visited on the whole trip was the remarkably well-preserved sixteenth-century palace of the Tartar Khans at Bakhchisaray in the Crimea, which provides a unique glimpse into a vanished way of life, and one quite remote from European culture. And yet our local guide explained that the Khans had brought in artisans from Italy to work the marble that decorates their palace. Extending the cultural interaction, the Russian poet Pushkin wrote a verse tale about one of this palace's marble fountains – a poem modeled on the oriental tales of the English poet, Lord Byron. A Russian poem modeled on an English poem, dealing with a Tartar palace decorated by Italian artisans – sometimes the complexity of cultural hybridity in the region can leave one's head spinning.

And sometimes this cultural hybridity can rise to sublime heights. Take the case of the extraordinary mosaics and frescoes in the Church of St. Savior-in-Chora in Istanbul (also called Kariye Camii). Byzantine art, for all its beauty, is usually known for its flatness and rigidity. In art history books, Italian artists of the fourteenth century are usually credited with liberating painting from the limitations of Byzantine art and especially its stiffness. But my visit to Chora changed my view of Byzantine art, at least in its late phase. The Chora mosaics and especially the frescoes – above all the one called the Anastasis (Resurrection or Harrowing of Hell) – have everything Byzantine art is supposed to lack. In the Anastasis, the composition as a whole is fluid in movement, and individual figures are molded with subtle shades of color into three-dimensionality (especially the central figure of Christ with His flowing white robe).

We do not know the name of the artist who created these frescoes but they can be reliably dated to around 1320 AD. That makes them contemporary with the work of the great Italian painter Giotto (c.1266–1337), with which the Chora frescoes are often compared. To my eye, they even more closely resemble the work of Giotto's forerunner, Pietro Cavallini (c.1273–1308). His masterpiece, a fresco of the Last Judgment, dating from around 1293, can be viewed in the Santa Cecilia Church in Rome, and strikes me as virtually a dead ringer for the Last Judgment at Chora. The evidence of Chora suggests that Byzantine art was well on its way toward its own Renaissance (until the fall of Constantinople made any further progress impossible), or rather, by the early fourteenth century, Byzantine and Italian artists were moving in tandem toward a greater realism and liveliness in their painting.

The key term here may in fact be "in tandem." In trying to account for the similarities between the Chora frescoes and those of Cavallini and Giotto, one can point to the centuries of active trade between the medieval Italian city-states and the Byzantine Empire (which also explains why some of the greatest examples of Byzantine art can be seen in Italian cities such as Ravenna). Venice and Genoa took a special interest in the Black Sea trade; they both maintained a substantial presence in Constantinople. In the Black Sea port of Amasra, Turkey, we saw ruins of the Genoese colony once planted there, amidst remnants of earlier Greek, Roman, and Byzantine settlements. With all the evidence of commercial contact between medieval Italian traders and the Byzantine Empire, it is not difficult to imagine that cultural contact took place as well. Thus when we look at the convergence between the Chora frescoes and those of early fourteenth-century Italy, we are almost certainly dealing with an example of cultural hybridity at its most productive, a situation in which Italian and Byzantine artists learned from each other (even at a distance) and prodded each other to new artistic heights.

We might be able to say more about the Italian-Byzantine connection if we had more evidence to go on, but unfortunately the Chora mosaics and frescoes are almost all we have of this late phase of Byzantine art. That even this much survived is a miracle. When the Turks conquered Constantinople, they converted Chora into a mosque and covered over all the Christian art. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that this magnificent cycle of art was uncovered and painstakingly restored by a team from the American Byzantine Institute. This restoration was a true triumph, but it is also a painful reminder of the long and sad history of the destruction of art throughout the Black Sea region.

Chora was of course not an isolated incident. The conquering Ottomans converted all the churches of Constantinople to mosques, including the greatest of them all, Haghia Sophia – destroying in the process an untold amount of Christian art, most of which was lost forever (the mosaics and frescoes of Haghia Sophia have been partially restored). But we should not regard Islam as somehow uniquely destructive in its attitude toward art. More than two centuries before the Turkish Moslems sacked Constantinople, the Byzantine city was attacked by fellow Christians. The Fourth Crusade somehow got diverted from its objective – the recapture of Jerusalem – and in 1204 Roman Catholic armies from the west of Europe conquered and sacked Constantinople as the headquarters of the rival Greek Orthodox sect of Christianity. The Catholic armies may have destroyed more art in Constantinople than the Moslems later did, including countless treasures from the ancient world which the Byzantine emperors had hoarded (among them, the legendary statue of Athena from the Parthenon in Athens).

But the Greek Orthodox Church itself was not blameless in the long history of destroying art in the Black Sea region. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III in the eighth century, the so-called Iconoclastic movement developed in Constantinople. As its name suggests in Greek, this proto-Puritan movement was vehemently opposed to any representation of religious figures whatsoever in art, and during the century or so when it prevailed in the Byzantine Empire (726–843 AD), the churches were "cleansed" of artistic pollution, which, among other things, meant that thousands of precious icons were destroyed. I could go on chronicling the sad tale of the destruction of art around the Black Sea, but let me offer just one more example, to avoid giving the impression that only religious fanaticism could drive people to wreak havoc on the artistic splendor of the region. Anti-religious fanaticism could do just as much damage. Stalin, in his vicious campaign against the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union, had thousands of Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches closed and sometimes even blown up, once again wiping out a valuable artistic heritage. A recent History Channel biography of Stalin featured remarkable footage of Soviet citizens dutifully tossing icons into a bonfire, thus reviving iconoclasm, although under the new banner of Communism.

The double history of the creation and destruction of art all around the Black Sea is the epitome of the duality in the region I have been analyzing. Again and again, art has been destroyed, often on a massive scale, by the kind of would-be world conquerors we have been discussing, whether out of religious or ideological motives. By contrast, the creation of art has been sparked by the kind of cross-cultural contacts that simple commerce helps to bring about. On the one hand, we see the human impulse to impose uniformity on the world, which often takes the cruel and destructive form of wishing to stamp out anything that looks different from what one is used to, even when to other people it looks like great art. On the other hand, we see precisely the opposite but equally human impulse – the eternal quest for novelty, the urge to seek out and benefit from different ways of doing things and looking at the world. The same curiosity that, on a low level, leads people to line up to taste this strange thing called a Big Mac whenever a McDonald's opens anywhere in the world also no doubt led Byzantine and Italian artists to check out what the competition was doing and thereby achieve a higher level of complexity in their painting. It is an irony of history that the images of Lenin and McDonald's have for the moment come to stand as twin sentinels over Yalta harbor. If the larger history of the Black Sea teaches us a lesson, it suggests that in the long run we will be better off following the lead of commerce rather than that of the commissar.

Paul Cantor [send him mail] is Professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization.


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