The Early Modern Hellespont: Crossroads between East and West

This essay was composed for the NEH Summer Institute: Shakespeare from the Globe to the Global (seminar).

Miriam Jacobson, University of Georgia

Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.
—Shakespeare, Othello (3.3.453–60)
On Hellespont, guilty of true love’s blood,
In view and opposite two cities stood,
Sea-borderers, disjoin’d by Neptune’s might,
The one Abydos, the other Sestos hight.
—Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander (1. 1–4)

Shakespeare and his contemporaries were fascinated by Britain’s newly established mercantile identity in the waters of the Mediterranean. The Levant company was founded from 1581–1583, and the East India Company soon after, in 1600, both giving Britain unparalleled access and exposure to the goods, cultures, and religion of Eastern and foreign lands. For playwrights and poets like Shakespeare and Marlowe, the Hellespont was both a gateway to the East and a conduit to the lost ancient worlds of Greek and Roman myth and history. For Marlowe, and his posthumous collaborator George Chapman, the Hellespont becomes a space where East and West, ancient and modern are violently negotiated, whereas for Shakespeare’s Othello, the Hellespont perfectly characterizes the emotional tumult of his identity as an African and Eastern Other in a Western world.

When the English antiquarian and translator of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, George Sandys, traveled East to Ottoman lands in 1610, he told three stories as he crossed the Hellespont, the narrow body of water that cuts between Europe (Thrace) and Asia Minor (Anatolia), best known as the setting for Christopher Marlowe’s and George Chapman’s poem Hero and Leander (1598). Sandys’ first history (a set of stories) concerned ancient classical myths, the second was a medieval romance, and the third was a modern, commercial account of the landscape.

First, Sandys characterized the Hellespont as the site of several Greek myths of tragic loss. In A Relation of a Iourney begun Anno. Dom. 1610 (1615), Sandys states that the Hellespont takes its name from the tragic fate of the maiden Helle, “the daughter of Athamas King of Thebes, and sister of Phryxus, who, flying the stratagems of their step mother Ino, was drowned therein”(24). The ancient city of Troy was located on the Asian side, but rather than describe the Greek encampment and the destruction of Troy (as Fynes Moryson did two years later), Sandys instead dwells on Chersonesus, the peninsula jutting out into the Hellespont, which he links to the story of Hecuba’s post-war captivity and demise. Hecuba was supposedly buried on this peninsula in a tomb called Cynossema:

She in the diuision of the Troian captiues, contemned, derided, and auoided of all, fell to the hated share of Vlysses, when to free her selfe from shame and captiuitie, she leapt into the Hellespont: but Dictus Cretensis saith, that distracted with her miseries, and execrating the enemy, she was slaine by them, and buried in the aforesaid promontory (24).

The other stories of loss tied to this landscape include “the vnfortunate loues of Hero and Leander, drowned in the vncompassionate surges” and the Persian king Xerxes’ bridge of boats built across the water to (unsuccessfully) invade Thrace (on the European side). The general rowed back across the same waters broken and disgraced (here Sandys quotes Lucan, in Sandys’ own English translation): “But how return’d? Dismaid, through bloud-staind seas, / With one boate, stopt by floting carcasses” (24). In the note “Of the Hellespont” to his English translation of Grammaticus Musaeus’ Byzantine Greek poem Hero and Leander published one year later in 1616, George Chapman echoes this, adding that in reference to Helle the Hellespont is sometimes called “the virgin-killing sea.” The history of the Hellespont in classical antiquity, then, was marked by premature death and defeat.

Sandys jumps ahead to the Middle Ages for his second tale, noting that both sides of the Hellespont have been under Ottoman control since the mid-fourteenth century, “in the reign of Orchanes,” also called Orhan I (1326–1359). For Sandys, this is a great tragedy of loss and betrayal that would set in motion the later Eastern Christian “loss” of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Sandys recounts that the defining moment of the loss of the Hellespont came when a Byzantine Christian woman living in Abydos (the city on the Asian side of the Hellespont) betrayed her people for the love of a Muslim Turkish general, “like another Scylla” (26). The daughter of the general of Abydos dreams that she falls into a ditch and is rescued by a gorgeously clothed gentleman who gives her rich garments. She then spots the Turkish general, believes he is her dream lover, and helps him take her castle by stealth. This exogamous romance is actually Turkish in origin. It derives from the chronicles of Hoca Sadeddin Efendi (Sad’ud’din, 1536–1599), the court historian for Sultan Murad III, the first Sultan to allow the English to trade on Ottoman soil. Sandys probably read a paraphrased version in Richard Knolles’ Generall Historie of the Turks (London, 1603). Viewed from the Western perspective, this is a story of female folly, enticement by material goods, betrayal and loss. Desire for rich silks and jewels from the East is typically gendered as feminine in early modern Europe. As Alan Stewart points out in an article in the collection Remapping the Mediterranean, the clearest example of this occurs in Robert Wilson’s play The Three Ladies of London, where merchants poke fun at English ladies’ desires for “trinkets and gew gaws.” But when viewed from the Ottoman perspective, the lady’s dream vision could equally be a metaphoric conversion ritual as she is first cleaned, then clothed with the grace of the Islamic faith.

The illustrations in Sandys’ text aid in shifting readers’ perspectives back and forth between East and West: the first map of the Hellespont appears upside down at first glance, until one realizes that the perspective is from Europe, looking south-east into Asia Minor. An illustration of the Black Sea (Othello’s “Pontic Sea”) looks from East to West, and the viewer is positioned behind two equestrian figures in turbans and Turkish dress (janissaries?), holding what appear to be weapons. The illustration and its title are confusing: the viewer is positioned at the base of a small hillock behind the two mounted figures, which is labeled “Part of Thrace”, and our gaze is directed across the Black Sea, towards the East. Yet the title of the image, displayed in a cartouche, reverses that direction: “The Black Sea entering in to the Thracian Bosphorus.” The turbaned horsemen in front of us look East, while we attempt to orient ourselves between the Westward movement of the picture’s title and the gaze Eastward offered by the engraving. We see only the shadowed backs of the horsemen, and one of them has his arm raised, though it is unclear whether he is saluting, threatening, or merely pointing East.

Sandys STC 21727 copy 2 p39.jpg

All of Sandys’ tales characterize the Hellespont and its banks as spaces permeated by tragic histories of loss and betrayal until his third narrative, a description of the contemporary Hellespont. The late sixteenth-century Hellespont is a busy commercial customs port, heavily policed and guarded on both sides by the Turkish military, echoing descriptions made by earlier European travelers André Thevet and Nicolas de Nicolay in Cosmographie du Levant and The nauigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into Turkie, respectively. On the sites of ancient Sestos (Thrace) and Abydos (Asia Minor), the Turks have built two castles, each of which Sandys describes as more like a military garrison than a palace, “nothing lesse then inuincible, by reason of the ouer-peering mountaines that bracket the one, and slender fortification of the other to land-ward” (26). These edifices are illustrated in the engraving accompanying the text.

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The “castles” operate as customs gate-keepers, detaining the flow of European merchant ships, calling for passports and searching the commodities on board: “All ships are suffered to enter, that by their multitude and appointment to threaten no inuasion; but not to returne without search and permission” (26). Fynes Moryson’s journey across the Hellespont (published two years after Sandys’) corroborates and ellaborates Sandys’ description, emphasizing the military precision and rigor of the Turkish customs searches:

For the ships that come from Constantinople, vse to bee detained here some three daies. … Besides, these searchers and Customers looke, that they carry no prohibited wares, neither can the ship, nor any passenger be suffered to passe these Castles, except they bring the Pasport of the great Turke, which the chiefe Visere or Basha vseth to grant vnto them. Thus when no ship without the knowledge of the chiefe Visere can either passes these Castles leading to the Mediterranean Sea, or the two Castles aboue leading into the Euxine Sea, noted with (D E), surely these foure Castles are the greatest strength of Constantinople by Sea.:(266–7)

Moryson’s text is illustrated with a woodcut map of the Hellespont and its castles, one of which looks boxy and industrial to modern eyes, more of a military complex than a castle.

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The tragic topography of ancient Greek myth and the betrayals of medieval Romance give way to heavily policed Ottoman commercialism. The emphasis here is the global trade that has built and strengthened the Ottoman Empire. The Hellespont flows into the Black Sea (Euxine Sea) to the north east and empties out into the Aegean (which Moryson mistakes for the Mediterranean) to the south west. In other words, the Hellespont is the only way for merchant ships to reach both Constantinople on the Black Sea, the capital and busiest port of the Ottoman Empire, and the Greek Islands, responsible for many of the most valuable commodities of the Mediterranean (Candia, or Crete supplied olive oil and flour to the Ottomans, while Corinth supplied the dried raisins—currants—that kept the European economy rich). By policing the Hellespont, the Ottoman Empire ensured that it controlled access to international mercantile trade, which in turn strengthened its empire. Another illustration from Sandys’ text, following the Hellespont into the Bosphorus that bisects Constantinople, furthers this sense of policing, showing a ship traversing the narrow Bosphorus and surrounded by powerfully built castles on either side.

Sandys STC 21727 Copy 2 p41.jpg

As Palmira Brummett has argued in Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery, the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire was a merchant state in which conquest and commercialism were inseparable: “the political and commercial expansion(s) of the Ottoman Empire are inextricably linked. The economies of conquest are not detached from the economies of trade, and the state is granted commercial intentionality as well as a navy to enforce its intentions” (20). Once this “merchant state endowed with economic intentionality” (4–5) was established, conquest itself took on the fluid nature of commerce: “Conquest was not fixed in time and space. It was negotiable, like commerce” (123). This meant that the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire were unfixed and fluid, located in the seas along trade zones, rather than demarked on maps or patrolled territories (12–13).

Thus to early modern English eyes, the Hellespont appeared as a layered landscape, characterized by ancient loss, medieval betrayal, and early modern commercialism. As a body of water, it is also a space of (literally) fluid borders rather than strict boundaries, one that must therefore be policed and guarded by the Ottoman Empire in order to ensure their continued commercial and imperial success. It was not simply a site where writers and playwrights could explore economic, geographical, historical, racial and religious problems; it was the site where these issues were given imaginative form, and worked out.

Suggested Reading

Brummett, Palmira. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.

De Nicolay, Nicholas. The nauigations, peregrinations and voyages, made into Turkie by Nicholas Nicholay Daulphinois, Lord of Arfeuile, chamberlaine and geographer ordinarie to the King of Fraunce. Trans. T. Washington. London, 1585.

Knolles, Richard. A Generall Historie of the Turks. London, 1603.

Moryson, Fynes. An Itinerary written by Fynes Moryson, gent. First in the Latin tongue, and then translated by him into English, containing his Ten Years travel through the twelve dominions. London: John Beale, 1617.

Sandys, George. A Relation of a Iourney. London, 1615.

Stewart, Alan. “ ‘Come from Turkie’: Mediterranean Trade in Late Elizabethan London.” In Remapping the Mediterranean World in Early Modern English Writings, edited by Goran Stanikuvic, 157—78. New York: Palgrave, 2007.

Thevet, Andre. Cosmographie du Levant. Lyon, 1561.