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The Black Sea: Civilizations at the Crossroads of Europe and Asia

All-Day Program

Saturday, November 4, 2017 - 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Code: 1H0275

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Map of the Black Sea, ca. 1559

From antiquity to our own day, the Black Sea has been a crossroads of civilizations, empires, and strategic interests. A parade of invaders and traders—Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Tatars, Italians, Turks, and Russians—have shaped the mixed cultures that ring this ancient sea. But until recently, the Black Sea world was considered the far edge of Europe, divided between the Russian and Ottoman empires and later divided again between the communist and capitalist worlds during the Cold War.

Today, the Black Sea remains a fascinating bridge between Europe and the Middle East and between the cultures of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, journeys into the turbulent past and present of this fascinating region—from ancient Greek seafarers to the glories of Ottoman Istanbul to the current issues in Ukraine.

10–11:15 a.m.  Mysteries of the Black Sea World

Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian, painted a picture of the Black Sea as the domain of barbarians and monsters. Explore what this region was really like in antiquity, including Greek encounters with non-Greek tribes and the creation of vibrant trading centers, most spectacularly at Byzantium. The strange ecology of the Black Sea played a role in ancient patterns of settlement and gave rise to some of the most enduring of the Greek myths—the intrepid Argonauts and the quest for the Golden Fleece.

11:30 a.m.–12:45 p.m.  The Age of Empires

Travelers to the Black Sea today are often surprised to find architectural evidence of a forgotten age, a time when the great Italian trading empires of Genoa and Venice maintained commercial centers all around the coastline. The arrival of Tatar-Mongol invaders and the slow rise of Russia brought new powers into the region. In the 19th century, the rivalry between Russia and Ottoman Turkey led to the Crimean War and made the Black Sea one of the centerpieces of European strategy. 

12:45–1:45 p.m.  Lunch (participants provide their own)

1:45–2:45 p.m. Odessa and Istanbul: Cosmopolitan Cities

The two most important cities around the Black Sea, Odessa in Ukraine and Istanbul in Turkey, have long had reputations as cosmopolitan centers. Odessa's mixed Russian, Ukrainian, and Jewish heritage and Istanbul's Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions made both into urban environments where culture, art, and commerce flourished. But in the 20th century, the fate of each illustrated the fragility of multiculturalism in an age of nation-states.

3–4 p.m. Strategy and the Future

Over the last quarter century, the Black Sea has been one of Europe's most turbulent zones. Understanding the past can give a more nuanced understanding of contemporary predicaments, such as the conflicts in Chechnya and the Caucasus, the dilemmas of Turkish foreign policy, and the tensions over Crimea and eastern Ukraine.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)