This is how Rose Macaulay described the Black Sea in her masterpiece “Towers of Trebizond”, a:
“…long strange, frightening, and romantic drama for which the Black Sea and its high forested shores seemed to me to be the stage. Some tremendous ancient drama long since played, by Argonauts, by Jason and Medea, by the Greeks, by the Ten Thousand, by Imperial Rome, by the Goths, by an army of Christian martyrs, by Justinian and Belisarius, by the Byzantines, by the Comneni, by the Latins, by the romantic last Greek emperors commanding the last Greek corner of the Euxine, and ultimately by the Turks who slew the empire; and still the stage was set, and drama brooded darkly in the wings. The deep ravine, shaggy with woodland, the high ruined palace and keep, the broad shining of the sea beyond the curve of the littered shore, the magnificent forested mountains that ranged to right and left behind…”
We in the west tend to think of the Mediterranean as the ancient roots of civilization after it crept west out of Mesopotamia to find trade upon the waters of the Mare Nostrum. Perhaps the Mycenaeans or the Minoans, the ancient Tuaregs of the Maghreb who may have built the pyramids. But actually the Med came afterwards – it was the Black Sea, deep into prehistory, where the Greeks first went, where Jason and his Argonauts sailed in search of the Golden Fleece six centuries before Homer wrote down the tale. Upon whose ringed mountains Prometheus was chained after giving man fire.
Trebizond, the “gateway to Armenia” that most ancient of lands where Noah walked. Erzurum and Lake Van, who came before the Hittites. The gateway of east and west, of ancient trade along silken roads; north and south, of Circassian slaves and pelts from deep in the Russian forests long before the Slavs or Vikings – Amazon and Iberians, the tremulous mountain tribespeople about which legends are still written and read. Trebizond, the first of port-towns; the last seat of empire extinguished, still holding the ephemeral remains of luxury for a few last, desperate years of Byzantium. These places are to be approached with a sense of magic and mystery – they command a nostalgia born of unknowing that is a product of legend and myth still wrapped in the beautiful forested mountains and crystalline alpine lakes where you can still find traces of the ancient – amazingly untouched – which connects us with the unending line of history. The sense of continuity that lends meaning.
Incidentally, I feel the same as Rose – now long dead as well – about the Black Sea and its extraordinary basin – though I have yet never bathed in her waters. There is something so conservative – in the civilizational sense, meaning quite literally that which is worth saving – that it’s hard not to walk down the mountains upon which a petroglyph is written or into a monastery black with the soot of two millennia of candle-smoke without not the sense of one’s insignificance (like so many say) but instead the sense of tremendous human significance (and our part in that), of the struggle still un-fulfilled. Because it never will be.
And who best to introduce this to us than Rose Macaulay – a novelist of such prodigious talent that she captures you to transport you to the silent shores of the sea; with the power of prose to be sure but also with such a sparkling wit and joi de vivre that I often found myself laughing out loud. “Towers of Trebizond” is a story, set in the cold war, of a woman who accompanies her aunt on a trek to Trebizond and then into ancient western Armenia; where Aunt Dot escapes across the Iron Curtain in search of the ancient churches and high mountains of the Caucasus. It is a clever story of religion and compassion and brimming with so much humanity and charm that the humor is contagious even in these the humorless days of the perpetually offended.
Capped off with the final admonishment, which I also feel about the Black Sea basin: “Still the towers of Trebizond, the fabled city, shimmer on a far horizon, gated and walled and held in a luminous enchantment. It seems that for me, and however much I must stand outside them, this must for ever be. But at the city’s heart lie the pattern and the hard core, and these I can never make my own: they are too far outside my range. The pattern should perhaps be easier, the core less hard. This seems, indeed, the eternal dilemma.”