For Roads & Kingdoms‘ Edge of Europe series, writer Joshua Kucera is traveling along the disputed border between Europe and Asia, from Istanbul to the Russian Arctic, to explore the ancient history and current politics of how we divide up the world.
It’s not easy to find a ferry across the Black Sea these days. The volatile geopolitical situation around the Black Sea’s shores—an occupied Crimea, Russian conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine, on-again-off-again Russian-Turkish relations—complicates commerce and means that ferry routes are frequently changed or canceled.
But I’m trying to travel along the geographical border between Europe and Asia as closely as possible, and the Black Sea is part of it. The border stretches across the sea southwest to northeast, from the Bosphorus straits next to Istanbul to (opinions here vary) somewhere in Russia or Georgia on the eastern edge of the Black Sea. So after a good deal of hunting, I find a ferry from Burgas, Bulgaria—not far from Istanbul—to Batumi, Georgia.
The Black Sea has played a formative role in the creation of the idea of Europe. It was where the ancient Greeks first came into contact with the nomadic Scythians, out of which developed the Greek discourse of “civilization” vs. “barbarism,” argues Neal Ascherson in his brilliant Black Sea. “In this particular encounter began the idea of ‘Europe’ with all its arrogance, all its implications of superiority, all its assumptions of priority and antiquity, all its pretensions to a natural right to dominate,” he writes, “a ruthless mental dynasty which still holds invisible power over the Western mind.”
The trip took 3½ days, and my fellow passengers on the boat were a sort of latter-day group of nomads: mostly long-haul truck drivers from all over the Black Sea region, mainly Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. They spent their days sunning their ample bellies on deck, watching Russian movies, or smoking and playing cards or chess in the bar. If any part of me wants to engage in that “ruthless mental dynasty,” my traveling companions belie the urge with their conspicuous lack of barbarism. One day I notice a small plastic container with a bit of water, a rock, and two tiny turtles sitting nearby. I ask the man sitting with them if they were his, and he explains that they are named Tati and Papi (“grandma” and “grandpa” in Armenian). He works with two other drivers in a team, and they take Tati and Papi everywhere with them. “They’re our friends,” he says.