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Crosscurrents in the Black Sea : History and time and place flow together in a superb, encompassing story of a volatile region : BLACK SEA, By Neal Acherson (Hill and Wang / Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $23; 304 pp.)

November 26, 1995|Mary Lee Settle | Mary Lee Settle's latest novel is "Choices" (Nan Talese/Doubleday)

In 1680, a young Italian named Luigi Fernando Marsigli dropped a weighted line into the Bosphorus at Istanbul. The corks attached to the line flowed west to the Mediterranean. Then, when the line sank deeper, the corks changed course. He had found that the waters of the Bosphorus flow both ways, east to the Black Sea, and, deeper, west into the Mediterranean.

This double flow, east and west, of waters and populations and cultures and legends, the differences and the fusions, informs Neal Acherson's superb, encompassing story of the Black Sea region. History and time and place flow together, not as disciplines, but as true time and place, where the past, the languages, the customs and even those deep imitations of power that we call cultural change are a part of the present.

The heart of his story is the Black Sea itself, not as a ring of shore inhabited by strange people, but as a volatile, life-forming, death-dealing body of water.

That region that we know, in our Eurocentric language, as the Middle East has been discovered, lost and rediscovered more often and longer than any polyglot of cultures on Earth. If you were a Crusader or, today a politician or an oil magnate from the West, it is the eccentric East. If you came from the East with your flocks in your search for grass or culture, the Black Sea region is the gateway to the civilized West. Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, all in their time and for their immigrants, were and still are centers of the civilized world. To the Victorian English travelers, it was exotic; its inhabitants were lesser breeds beyond the law, charming and dangerous--in a word, strangers. Acherson sees it as the center it has been for centuries.

There the present reflects the past. The past is a map of the present. Acherson is on a bus going through the late night from Sevastopol to Yalta in Crimea. He is the only passenger awake. He sees a small light in the distant darkness at the turnoff for Foros, a resort on the Black Sea. The time is Aug. 18, 1991. The bus sweeps by. There has been no road accident but there is an ambulance with its revolving lights and a tangle of men standing at the side of the road. It is only a glimpse, and then the darkness returns.

What he has seen is the capture of Gorbachev at Foros, and the light in the distance has signaled the end of the Soviet Union. Once again, as it has for so long on that sea coast, waves of change flow west and east into a future that changes the international landscape. Another empire has fallen--not the first, and, as the past there reflects the future, not the last.

Change, pausing for centuries, and then volatile again, has made the Black Sea a crossroad in time. There have been crosscurrents of language since the capital of the Roman Empire was moved from Rome to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, to be nearer the center of the empire. From the name of the czar, an echo of Caesar, to the modern icons whose great eyes reflect ancient icons from Cappadocia or Sumela, the more it changes the more it is the same. Nothing dies there. It only seems to.

In language, the tangle of place-names reflects this. Mount Mithradates, reflected in the Sea of Azov, is from the ancient ruler of the Pointus at Amasya on the river Halys, now called the Kisilirmak. This is the river that the Argonauts thought flowed out of Hades in the ancient Greek legend of the first voyage into the Black Sea, seeking the Golden Fleece in Colchis, in the adventures turned legends of the Aegean fishermen who sailed beyond the Bosphorus into the strange new sea.

There are Turkish names from the old language that came to Anatolia with the Asian invasions. A mountain on the Russian side of the Black Sea has a Turkish name, Shatir Dagh. A castle is a kale. There is Eskikrim, from the Turkish words for old and noble, perhaps the source of the name Crimea. There are still the ancient Greek names of cities that have been modified into the modern language of today. And there is always the shadow of Rome, Rum, Romania, and still the pride of Trabzon, Trebizond, the last capital of that 1,000-year-old empire.

It was on the shore of the Black Sea that Rome finally died, not the Eurocentric Rome of Italy, but the strong world of Byzantium, resurrected wherever Orthodox Christians and the children of the eastern tribes--half-animistic, half-Muslim--meet, live together for centuries, then explode with ancient hatreds. All of them receive legends of their pasts, sometimes replacing the true past, and as false as the burial of the Piltdown man. Nowhere was it more evident than the Nazi fake revival of a history of the Black Sea. We have learned, or we should have, to beware of herenfolk .

Acherson defines that center of the world, where the past is as hoped for as the future, and long-exiled people look back on homelands handed down in legend and religion and find them changed when they return, over and over, to legendary places turned modern, real and volatile.

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