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Swimming Across the Bosphorus

What makes Istanbul — the only city that spans two continents — so magnificent?

January 26, 2002

What makes Istanbul — the only city that spans two continents — so magnificent?

Whenever I told a Turkish friend of mine about my ambition to swim across the Bosphorus, the reaction was the same: “Why?” Each gave me a different warning. The Bosphorus is too dirty, its currents are too unpredictable, the giant tankers and freighters that traverse it are too dangerous. On top of all that, it is illegal to swim anywhere but along the shore.

I was not dissuaded. No one can live near the Bosphorus and see it every day without falling in love with it. I wanted to immerse myself in it, possess it, make it mine.

Istanbul may or may not be the world’s most magnificent city, but it is certainly the most magnificently situated. Over the centuries it has been described as the pole to which the world turns, the envy of kings, city of the world’s desire.

“O city of Istanbul, priceless and peerless!” rhapsodized the 18th-century Ottoman poet Nedim. “I would sacrifice all Persia for one of your stones.”

This is the only city that straddles two continents — and the Bosphorus is what divides and unites it. Without this strait, Byzantium — turned Constantinople — turned Istanbul would be unimaginable. It would not have been so enormously important over so many centuries, so eagerly sought after by so many of history’s greatest conquerors. Nor would it be nearly so rich, beautiful or romantic.

The Bosphorus is the link between the Black Sea to the north and the Sea of Marmara and Mediterranean to the south. So since time immemorial it has been the key to empires. The 16th-century French scholar Pierre Gilles described it as “the strait that surpasses all straits, because with one key it opens and closes two worlds, two seas.”

It winds and twists for 19 incomparable miles. I never tire of seeing it, walking along its shores or sailing on it. Every day, it has a different color, a different texture, a different mood. It is a world unto itself.

Many scientists now believe that the Bosphorus did not slowly swell to its present size as a river might, but was flooded in a single day 75 centuries ago.

What a day that must have been! Ten cubic miles of water are thought to have surged northward through what was then a dry valley. And then ten more cubic miles every day for months, coursing into the black sea and submerging vast regions along its shores. This cataclysm may well have been the great flood described in the Bible, the Gilgamesh epic and other ancient texts.

The Bosphorous is not only a place of surpassing beauty, but also Istanbul’s heavily trafficked main street. Ferries cross it and shuttle among its villages a thousand times a day. They and the hundreds of skiffs from which fishermen ply their trade are reminders that a great city depends on this artery for its daily life. It is also the world’s busiest commercial waterway.

About 150 vessels, lumbering Russian and Ukrainian rust buckets or giant tankers carrying oil and liquefied natural gas from the rich fields of the Caspian, pass through it each day. Under clauses of the 1923 Lausanne treaty and another signed in Montreux 13 years later, the Turkish government has no control over them. It cannot require them to take on pilots — or even to prove that they are insured.

Many are not, like a Lebanese freighter that sank in 1992 with a cargo of 10,000 sheep and goats — and lies at the bottom to this day.

How much else could be found at the bottom of the Bosphorus! I imagine not just sunken treasures and evidence of a thousand crimes, but the weighted sacks into which royal plotters or unfaithful harem women were sewn before being thrown to their watery deaths.

The novelist Orhan Pamuk once wove a fantasy of the day the Bosphorus dries up and becomes “a pitch-black swamp in which the mud-caked skeletons of galleons will gleam like the luminous teeth of ghosts.” Besides fields of jellyfish and soda-pop caps, he expects that “among the American transatlantics gone to ground and Ionic columns covered with seaweed, there will be Celtic and Ligurian skeletons open-mouthed in supplication to gods whose identities are no longer known.”

To me, the Bosphorous fantasy that burned most brightly was that of swimming across. After entertaining it for far too long, I finally found a friend with a boat who was willing to accompany me. He advised that we start before dawn, since traffic is lighter then and the waves and currents more predictable.

We set out from near my home in Tarabya, a village near the north end of the Bosphorus, and motored northward toward the entrance to the Black Sea. I wanted to swim westward from Asia to Europe because that is the direction of Turkish history.

We found a small inlet below the ruins of Anadolu Kavagi, a 12th-century Byzantine castle on the Asian side. And there, after waiting for a freighter to glide silently by, I started.

The sun had not yet risen and the waves of the Bosphorus were rippling gently. Its water was warmer and cleaner than I expected. I felt exuberant as I made my way steadily across, thinking of Jason, Darius and Mehmet the Conqueror.

Other than my friend’s small boat and a couple of jellyfish, I was alone — and grateful to be in this place. To orient myself I focused on a green shape on the shore that I first thought was a yali — one of the prestigious summer homes built along the Bosphorous by the 17th century Ottoman elite — but turned out to be a fishing vessel docked at Yeni Mahalle, the northernmost settlement on the European side.

I swam to it and past it. Just 39 minutes after setting out, having covered a distance of slightly more than a mile, I touched the seawall. No moment of my life in Turkey filled me with such rich and complex satisfaction.

Adapted from Crescent and Star by Stephen Kinzer. Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Kinzer. Used by permission of the Farrar Straus & Giroux.

Stephen Kinzer is a veteran foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He is currently the New York Times’ national culture correspondent, based in Chicago.