Black Sea - a place of myth and mystery

The Black Sea is interesting not only for tourism and diving but also from the scientific and historical point of view. Atlantis? The Flood? If you are a fan of myths and mysteries then the Black Sea has something for you, too.

The Black Sea is an unusual sea. Nearly one third of the land area of continental Europe drains into this sea into which seven large rivers flow, including the major rivers of the Danube, Dnieper and Don. However, its only outlet is the narrow channel of the Bosphorus, which is only about 70 metres deep and 700 metres wide. The depth of the Black Sea itself is more than 2,000 metres in places.

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The Black Sea is an unusual sea. Nearly one third of the land area of continental Europe drains into this sea into which seven large rivers flow, including the major rivers of the Danube, Dnieper and Don. However, its only outlet is the narrow channel of the Bosphorus, which is only about 70 metres deep and 700 metres wide. The depth of the Black Sea itself is more than 2,000 metres in places.

The inflowing rivers dilute the Black Sea, reducing its surface-layer salinity to 1.7 % (17 grams of salts per litre of seawater) which is less than half of the average salinity of the oceans at 3.5 %. This reduced salinity is the most important environmental factor influencing marine biodiversity in the Black Sea. Most marine animals and plants cannot survive here. For example, there are no corals (but see below), no octopuses and squids; no seastars, and no sea urchins living in these waters. On the other hand, there are very few dangerous marine creatures in the Black Sea—no deadly jellyfish or stinging sea anemones.

Despite the fact that the Black Sea biodiversity is reduced the marine life here is still full of wonders. Due to the constant supply of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing into the Black Sea from the rivers, it has always been very fertile. Phytoplankton, small marine plants, are therefore very abundant and form the basis of a long marine food chain. The surface waters can therefore support a rich and diverse marine life including Bottlenose and other dolphins, and seals.

There are about 180 species of fish, including tuna, anchovy, herring, grey mullet, mackerel and the white sturgeon.

The sea is unique in having two layers, an oxygenated upper layer and a dead lower layer. Due to the lack of vertical currents there is little exchange of the bottom waters with the top layers. Unlike the upper 180 meters of surface water, replenishment of the bottom waters can take hundreds of years. Bacteria in the bottom waters consume all the oxygen and the sea is mostly dead below 180 meters.

Comb jelly

Although the lower depths were long believed to be completely devoid of life, corals have recently been found at the bottom of the Black Sea. These corals contain micro-organisms processing methane and sulphates in total darkness. It is thought that these corals are the oldest life form on Earth.

Another peculiarity of the Black Sea is the bi-directional current where it flows through the straits of the Bosphorus to the Mediterranean. The surface current flows westwards but there is a deep current which simultaneously flows in the opposite direction back into the Black Sea.

Origin of the Black Sea

The Black Sea was once part of a larger body of water that included the Caspian and Aral seas. About 22,000 years ago the Black Sea began its life as a fresh-water lake. However, it appears that some seven to nine thousand years ago, due perhaps to melting glaciers and polar ice-caps, sea levels rose causing the salty Mediterranean Sea to catastrophically break through the Bosphorus. From this event the Black Sea took its present form.

The dead lower layer may thus have been formed when the denser salt-water flooded in, when it would have plunged straight to the bottom.

Evidence for the flooding

Without doubt, some catastrophic event did occur some 7,500 years ago. The depth of the sea seems to have increased by some 100 metres over about a year. This caused an increase in the area of the Black Sea, with local flooding around its edges. This has been confirmed by archaeological investigations, especially off the Turkish coast. In a series of expeditions, marine archeologists led by Robert Ballard identified what appeared to be ancient shorelines, freshwater snail shells, drowned river valleys and tool-worked timbers at roughly 100 m of water. Radiocarbon dating of the remains of freshwater molloscs indicated an age of about 7,000 years.

What was the nature of the flooding?

Lovers of the supernatural like to claim that this was due to the deluge, a period during which it rained for 40 days and nights, flooding the whole Earth, as described in the events of Noah’s Flood in the Bible, and in the Epics of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. The oldest version of the Flood is the Sumarian, recorded on a fragment of a tablet, discovered in ancient Nippur, which dates most probably to before 2000 BC.

So these and many other historical sources do seem to indicate that there was in fact a flood of some sort or other several thousand years ago. But as to this flooding being that which occurred when the present Black Sea was formed, that is quite another question. There has thus been much written about this topic, much of it pure guesswork, but let us look at just one simple fact.

The deluge

If the rate of rise of the sea level was 100 metres for some 300 days, or perhaps up to two years, many people would eventually have been displaced, and much agricultural land lost.

However, this could hardly be called a catastrophic event as compared to an earthquake or volcanic eruption where people cannot escape in time, and are overwhelmed. For example, the dire events at Pompeii or Heraclitum, or even the recent tsunami event in South East Asia can really be called catastrophic. To put it in practical terms, the sea level may perhaps have risen some 23 cm per day i.e. less than a centimetre per hour. Hardly something you would call catastrophic except perhaps in the long run.

Apart from the indisputable scientific evidence, all modern critical Bible scholars, to quote the editor of the Biblical Archeology Review, regard the tale of Noah as legendary. The flood story should therefore primarily be seen as a moral text not a historical text.

However, Fundementalist Christians claim that Noah’s flood was not a local flood in the Black Sea but was a world-wide flood that has left its mark on every continent on the planet. This is hardly likely, though, as this would require the sudden production and following disappearance of three times more water than is contained in all the Earth’s oceans.

So, it appears to have been a natural event and not the result of some supernatural intervention. But of course, this won’t stop people still trying to associate Noah’s flood with this event.

Diving possibilities

For those who would like to dive in the Black sea there are many possibilities. However, you should be warned that the water is often quite turbid, giving poor visibility. Black Sea water, particularly during warm months, contains large amounts of organic detritus and clay particles brought down by the rivers.

Deck-mounted gun, Destroyer of the Black Sea Fleet, Dzerzhynsky, sunk in 1942.

Underwater visibility rarely exceeds severn meters, although on the South Crimean Coast visibility reaches 20 meters even in Summer. This is because the Crimean peninsula has very few rivers itself, and protrudes into the central part of the Sea, away from the influence of the large rivers emptying into the Black Sea basin.

The rocky sea bays of the Crimea are thus ideal for scuba diving and there are many centres along the coast, for example at Balaklava, where there is a large underwater reef. Close by there are also the underwater ruins of Kheroness, where part of the Byzantine city was swamped by rising sea levels. ■


The Euxine

The Black Sea, also called the Euxine Sea, was originally known by the Greeks as Axeinos, meaning Unkind to Strangers i.e. Inhospitable. By apotropaic euphemism, i.e. in order to prevent evil, the substituting of an inoffensive word for one considered offensive or hurtful, this epithet of Axeinos was later changed to its opposite, Euxeinos, Kind to Strangers i.e. Hospitable. Hence, in Roman times the Black Sea was known as Pontus Euxinus.

Many poets and authors have written through the ages about the Black Sea but perhaps none so poignantly as Publius Ovidius Naso, better  known as the Roman poet Ovid. He had been exiled in the year AD 8 by Emperor Augustus, to Tomis, now known as modern Constanta, on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea, far from his beloved Rome, for offending the Emperor in some, never fully explained way.

Bust of Ovid by anonymous sculptor, Uffizi gallery Florence

He is famed, of course, for his Art  of Love and Metamorphoses. But after his exile to the Black Sea he wrote many poems about his feelings in exile, and sent many letters to his family and friends back home in Rome. These have been collected in two works ‘Tristia’(Sadnesses, Lamentations) and The Black Sea Letters. These give a lively, if somewhat overwrought, description of his life and the conditions that prevailed on the western coast of the Black Sea some 2,000 years ago. His observations still make interesting reading today.

He writes in Tristia:

Still, if today I must pray for something,

return no more, I beg you to such a land so long as I’m still detained in this next-to-the world’s-limit wilderness.

They call it hospitable. They lie.

In short, he hated the place. But what was Ovid complaining about, apart from being exiled from all the delights of civilised and cultural Rome? Why does he consider the Black Sea inhospitable? Most tourists to Romania will know it as a warm summer resort. But as Ovid writes:

I’ve seen the wide sea iced solid, a frozen slippery crust holding the under-water still

not just seen either: I’ve walked the solid sea-lanes, crunching their surface dryfoot.

He realises that his friends in warm Rome might not believe him but writes:

Yet believe it: nor shall I leave you ignorant of the reasons why rugged winter freezes the Black Sea.

He then goes on to explain that the influx of numerous rivers into the sea provides a fresh water layer riding above the underlying salt sea. This fresh water layer, which is more easily frozen, combined with a prevailing cold north wind, causes the sea to freeze. This is scientifically correct. And thus, it still is today. In summer warm and hospitable but in winter, the climate can be terribly cold and harsh, with the Black Sea freezing around its edges.

Why it is called the Black Sea today nobody really knows. In summer it can be a beautiful blue. However, it can be quite stormy in winter, and it is thought that the name was given to it by sailors and fishermen who were struck by its very dark appearance when the skies became overcast with storm clouds. ■

(The above quotations have been taken from Peter Green’s excellent translation and interesting introduction to Ovid: The Poems of Exile. Tristia and the Black Sea letters.)