For years I have been fascinated by the Hellespont, the dangerous strait in northwestern Turkey that joins the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe from Asia. There, so the story goes, a Greek princess named Helle, trying to escape her stepmother aboard a flying ram with golden fleece, slipped and plunged into the salty channel that has ever since borne her name.
Young Helle probably had little chance of swimming to safety, even had she survived her fall. An overwhelming southwest current flows from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean—treacherous going for any boat, let alone a lonely swimmer.
Ovid, in the Heroides, immortalized the first legendary swimmer of the Hellespont: Leander, a passionate youth from Abydos, an Asiatic city on the southwestern side of the strait. His beloved, a priestess of Aphrodite named Hero, lives on the opposite shore in the city of Sestos. In the dead of night, Leander braves the chilly waters of the Hellespont to visit Hero, whose lamp guides him to safety (see the engraving by Bernard Picart at the end of this article). One stormy night, however, Hero’s lamp fails to shine, and Leander drowns. Devastated, Hero plunges into the Hellespont to join her lover.
The Romantic poet Lord Byron was determined to feel Leander’s passion. In 1810 he journeyed to Sestos and attempted the crossing. But after an hour and a half of swimming, he had barely reached midstream and had to be fished out of the chilly waters by his traveling companion, John Cam Hobhouse. Unwilling to admit defeat, Byron finally conquered the strait just two weeks later—despite the presence of “a very large fish,” which Byron saw in the middle of the strait.
In 1993, I traveled to Çanakkale, a thriving Turkish town on the southern, Asiatic shore of the Hellespont, to research a book I was writing on Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann, the first excavators of Troy (see Birgit Brandau, “Can Archaeology Discover Homer’s Troy,” AO 01:01). Calvert was a British citizen who had grown up in Çanakkale and excavated many of the archaeological sites in the surrounding region. It was Calvert who told Schliemann of Homeric Troy’s true location at Hisarlik and of his own excavations there, thus persuading the German entrepreneur to invest his future in the site. In trying to understand Calvert’s life, I read numerous accounts of 19th-century travelers in the Troad, the province surrounding Troy on the Asiatic side of the strait. Many of them were inspired to reenact Byron’s swim—some successfully, some not. My favorite story details the plight of one gentleman, so moved when his ship moored at Sestos, that he plunged into the choppy strait. Some time later he realized to his horror that his ship had lifted anchor and was heading for the Aegean. Miraculously, because the ship was battling adverse winds, he was able to catch up. About 50 years later a young American swam the strait while his friend rowed alongside in a dinghy, feeding him rum-soaked sugar cubes to keep up his courage.
In Çanakkale, I met a Turkish gentleman, Hussein Uluaslan, who, to my amazement, arranged swims across the Hellespont. I had thought such journeys impossible, given that both Sestos and Abydos had long been military zones and therefore inaccessible without a special permit. Hussein happily told me that there was nothing to worry about; swimmers make the Leander crossing all the time. As we sipped sweetened mint tea, the hospitable Hussein showed me his photograph album containing pictures of the many intrepid swimmers he had helped. I kept his card and vowed to return.
In August 1997 I was ready. After three years’ work on my book and seven months of training in the Brown University pool, I returned to Çanakkale and heard about a race organized by the Çanakkale Rotary Club. The course spanned approximately three and a half miles between Eceabat, southwest of Sestos on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and Çanakkale, southwest of Abydos. Although the race did not strictly follow the route traversed by Leander, I decided that swimming with a large group would be more fun—and reassuring—than swimming with a lonely myth. It was also cheaper.
Aboard a ferry heading across the strait to our starting point, I began to feel slightly queasy when I realized that I could barely see Eceabat from Çanakkale. When it took our ferry nearly 45 minutes to get there, I got downright nervous. As we docked, someone pointed to a quay in the distance where swimmers wearing color-coded caps were milling around. Waves were breaking over the pier behind them. As I approached, I saw about 90 swimmers of all ages slathering themselves with a strange pink substance. My stomach churned at the thought of braving the whirling waves at my feet. Someone blew a whistle, and in we jumped.
The next moment I was gulping for air, trying to crest one wave and then another, and another. Fortunately, the salty water seemed clean. But just trying to keep afloat during the first 100 meters gave me a horrid cramp in my right calf. I dragged my inert leg until the cramp let up. Fortunately, as I distanced myself from the shore, the waters grew calmer, and the swimming became less of a struggle.
I thought of Leander, crossing the choppy strait at night. In a poignant letter to Hero, in Book XVIII of Ovid’s Heroides, Leander fondly remembers the pleasures of his first Hellespont crossings:
The waves were brilliant
with the moon’s face
and the silent night
became bright as the
No voice, no call, came to
me; no sound
could I hear but the soft
rippling of the waves
turned over by my
But then my arms felt
weakened where they
to the shoulder and with
all my strength
I lifted myself to the crest
of the waves.
I saw, far off, a light: “My
in that distant flame; it is
my love that is
harboured there on that
With that, new strength
flowed into my weary
and the same wave was
After several minutes I, too, began to feel new strength flowing into my arms. But then I hit my first jellyfish. I had dreaded these slimy creatures, and I screamed as I breaststroked into one. Surviving without a sting, I quickly resolved to deal with them as just another obstacle on the course. Fortunately, I never encountered the leeches once harvested nearby and exported to European capitals. Nor did I meet up with the descendants of Byron’s “very large fish.”
As I calmed myself in the middle of the strait and began to survey the other swimmers (all Turkish residents), I noticed to my relief that I was far from last. I had no intention of winning (nor did I have the ability to do so), but I desperately wanted to finish. The organizers of the race had imposed a two-hour time limit for the contestants, since all traffic on the busy waterway joining the Black Sea and the Mediterranean had been halted—a considerable inconvenience for the numerous ships backed up above and below us, waiting for the race to end.
Since antiquity, ships have crowded the waters of the Hellespont, and control of the strait, a crucial part of the eastern trade route, has been eagerly sought. From the early Bronze Age onward, residents of Troy profited from their city’s fortuitous location near the strait. Because of the powerful wind blowing from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean, Bronze Age ships traveling through the Hellespont were forced to lay up at a protected cove—near the recently excavated site of Besik Tepe, on the Aegean coast west of Troy—and await favorable winds. The Trojans were therefore able to charge tolls and mooring fees.
Athens, in order to regulate the flow of grain arriving from the Black Sea region, fought for control of the Hellespont around 600 B.C. About 150 years later, the Athenians erected a naval base at Sestos (where Leander’s beloved, Hero, supposedly lived) and imposed a ten percent tax on all non-Athenian grain-bearing ships heading west.
During the Pelopon-nesian War (431–404 B.C.), the Spartan navy, hoping to cut off this flow of grain, engaged the Athenians three times in the Hellespont. The final confrontation, the battle at Aegospotami, and Sparta’s subsequent blockade of the Hellespont clinched her victory.
Nearing the end of my swim, I aimed for the old Ottoman fortifications at the Mecediye battery northeast of Çanakkale. By swimming slightly upstream, to the north instead of straight across, I was hoping that the swift current would simply wash me down to Çanakkale, as it did from Sestos to Abydos. At its narrowest—where the Ottoman castles of Çanakkale and Kilid Bahr (southwest of Eceabat) secured “the portal to the sultan’s capital,” as one 19th-century British traveler described it—the strait is only about a mile wide. But one cannot swim at this point because the current, flowing from one to four miles an hour, will quickly sweep unsuspecting swimmers into the Aegean. In the 19th century even swift sailing ships could not enter the Hellespont from the south without a strong following wind. Sometimes as many as 300 ships would become marooned off the Aegean coast. One British traveler of the 19th century recounted tacking with 55 other boats for 14 hours before finally admitting defeat.
And yet, for so many important figures of antiquity, crossing the Helles-pont was the prelude to greater things, bigger conquests. In the spring of 480 B.C., King Xerxes of Persia led his army, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands, across the Hellespont at its narrowest point, in order to invade Greece. Xerxes was exacting revenge for the Ionian Revolt (499–493 B.C.), in which the Greek cities of Asia Minor rebelled against their Persian rulers, and for the Athenian army’s defeat of the invading Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C. How did Xerxes cross the strait? With twin bridges made of boats—a stroke of engineering genius.
Over a century later, Alexander the Great decided to return Xerxes’s favor. In the spring of 334 B.C., he led an army of 40,000 Greeks and Macedonians across the Hellespont into Asia Minor. He quickly liberated Ionia, the Greek cities of Asia Minor, and eventually conquered the Persian Empire, not to mention Phoenicia, Palestine and Egypt.
Continually changing my course, I set my sights on the town hall of Çanakkale, built just to the east of the Calvert family mansion, which no longer stands. Calvert’s story had consumed me for a decade. Now I was aiming for his house. Just imagining the British expatriate family on their seaside parapet gave me new energy, as I breaststroked and backstroked from Europe to Asia. The water was remarkably clean. My only discomfort was my parched face and mouth rimed with the salt of the strait.
Suddenly the inexorable current swept me toward Samothrace. Terrified and exhausted, I struggled on, eventually staggering out rubber-legged on the pebble beach of a small cove, where the current was broken by a cement quay. Gulping air, I tried to calm my tired body. All else blurred at this point, as the sweet ecstasy of accomplishment overwhelmed me. Eventually the cramp returned to my right leg. I had initially planned to attempt the Leander crossing again two days later, but exhausted by the fight with the current, I decided that once was enough. I have no idea how Leander managed to do it night after night.
For years I have been fascinated by the Hellespont, the dangerous strait in northwestern Turkey that joins the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe from Asia. There, so the story goes, a Greek princess named Helle, trying to escape her stepmother aboard a flying ram with golden fleece, slipped and plunged into the salty channel that has ever since borne her name. Young Helle probably had little chance of swimming to safety, even had she survived her fall. An overwhelming southwest current flows from the Sea of Marmara to the Aegean—treacherous going for any boat, let […]