Forts, Cossacks, and the Deep Black Sea

Yoros Castle sits on a steep, high hill on the Asian side of the Bosporus. From the summit, from the shade of the castle, you can see the confluence of the Bosporus and the Black Sea and, of course, you can rain down cannon fire on any Cossack armada that thinks to menace Istanbul, twenty miles and five centuries down stream.

I can barely number the reasons to love such places. The Lonely Planet says you can gain the summit above the sweet fishing and fish restaurant village in about 50 minutes. The chief waiter and cat shusher looks you up and down and declares “thirty minutes up, fifteen down” and appears to be waiting for you when you return to check on his estimates. He probably does well in the markets. So, when you make it in thirty-five minutes, having stopped for ten minutes at a mountainside café for a peach ice tea and a quiet sit-down to watch the freighters shrink from Bosporus-stuffing behemoths to Black Sea water bugs, you begin to stare old age in the face and say, “I can still do this, pal.”

Another reason: the history of hubris is so beautifully told in the biographies of such fortresses. Of course they’re in perilous places and will be on any foe’s hit list. Nevertheless, the castle ruins are the constant; they are what has remained after successive captures by Byzantines, Ottomans, back to the Byzantines, back once more to the Ottomans, over to the Genoese, once more, and finally, to the Ottomans who were able to beat back the Cossack navy in the 1620s. (I think my historical sources this afternoon are seriously lacking because this narrative peters out in the seventeenth century. But there’s still to come the expansionary history of the Russian Empire and the Ottoman’s efforts to repel it. There’s the Crimean War. There’s the growth and importance of Odessa. All these waves require access to the Bosporus so that the Mediterranean opens to all those Black Sea countries. The castle has seen it all, as participated in much of it, has outlasted the several empires.

Another reason: Building castles on mountaintops has got to be a tedious, backbreaking exercise. Near the summit, outside the iced tea café, I saw a 12-foot rowboat used as a planter filled with flowerpots, red, yellow, and gold. How handsome. But who would drag a boat all this way, up so steep a slope? To plant flowers? Then I looked another 15 minute’s climb straight up to the remnants of the eight tower fortress which, once upon a time, was fortified with heavy cannons, thousands of cannon balls, and enough powder to sink a Cossack navy. So the issues of human initiative, stick-to-itiveness, and drama shower like manna from every crevice of the ruin.

Yet another: Drama showering like manna doesn’t mean a foolish gathering of resources. It can mean a measured, wise, sometimes witty reuse of the materials at hand. For instance, if there was once a Roman temple on this hill, there’s no point in preserving it for historical purposes. It’s just going to be fired on by the Cossacks anyway. So rip down that pediment, that column top with the faint reminder of a Corinthian scroll still intact, that worn down grind stone that no longer reaches the edges of the baker’s barrel, and stick them all in the fortress wall. An additional pleasure in noticing such things is this: while all the world about you is photographing the seemingly infinite reaches of the Black Sea as it grows out of the glorious Bosporus, you’ve turned your back to the sea, have the telephoto lens extended, and are trying to bring into focus a battered stone thirty feet off the ground. After a time, people notice, and the free lecture is on.

And one more pleasure: Forts protecting waterways share a common history of failure. I’ll just remind you of one, the Palamidi Fortress in Nafplion, Greece. Its venue is so perfectly beautiful, overlooking the Argolic Gulf on one side of the narrow peninsula it protects, and the broad harbor of Nafplion on the other. It has its roots in Byzantine, Frank, Venetian, and Turkish occupations. The French captured it in 1212 and sold it to Venice 170 years later. The Venetians, having made improvements, lost it to the Turks, who improved it, in 1540. The Venetians were back in 1685 and built what is now formally called the Palamidi, and finished their renovations in time for the Ottoman re-conquest in 1715. Finally, as part of the Greek war for independence, the Turks were starved out after a yearlong siege.  And yet, standing there, looking out over the Gulf, turning to imbibe the exquisite town half-smothered in bougainvillea, wondering if you’ve the nerve to attempt the 999 steps along the defensive wall down to sea level, there is no sense of impermanence. This is forever. This is solid. This is the implacability of human history no matter what the Cossacks say.

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