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"Swimming the Hellespont" By Richard Halliburton


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Posted 22 December 2003 - 19:43

"Swimming the Hellespont" By Richard Halliburton Part -I-

Swimming the Hellespont

The author crosses the famous straits, swimming in the wake legends.

WE ALL HAVE OUR DREAMS. OTHERWISE WHAT A DARK AND stagnant world this would be. Most of us dream of getting rich; many of us of getting married; and some of us of getting unmar- ried. I've met people whose great dream it was to visit Jerusalem, or Carcassonne, or to look upon the seven hills of Rome. I'll con- fess to a sentimental lifelong dream of my own-not of riches, or weddings, or Jerusalem, however--something far less reasonable than that. I've dreamed of swimming the most dramatic river in the world-the Hellespont. Lord Byron once wrote that he would rather have swum the Hellespont than written all his poetry. So would I!
Sometimes, once in a long, long while, sentimental dreams come true. Mine did, and it was as colorful and satisfying as all my flights of fancy had imagined it would be. To me, the Hellespont was not just a narrow strait of cold blue water, discharging the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara into the Aegean. Far more than that: it was a tremendous symbol-a symbol of audacity, of challenge, of epic po- etry, and heroic adventure.
The nature of the Hellespont's first records seem to have set an example for all the historic events that have clustered about it. Its very narning is a dramatic story. The name of "Hellespont" ("Dardanelles" on the modern maps) goes back to legendary ages, receiving its title from "Helle," the King of Thessaly's daughter who fell into the channel from the winged ram with the golden fleece, on whose back she was fleeing from her enemies.
Through this same Hellespont, Jason, in his immortal ship, the Argo, sailed in quest of this same fleece. For ten years, from 1194 to 1184 B.C., the fleets of the Greeks were beached at its entrance, while their armies, led by Agamemnon, Achilles, and Ulysses, thundered at the lofty walls of Troy. It was across this stream that Leander nightly swam to keep his clandestine trysts with Hero. In the very wake of Leander, in one of the most spectacular military exploits in history, King Xerxes of Persia, the mightiest ruler of his time, crossed from Asia to Europe with a colossal army for the in- vasion of Greece. Here, in the following century, Alexander the Great ferried his Macedonians from Europe to Asia to begin his conquest of the world. Back once more in the fourteenth century rolled the tide of invasion from east to west: this time the Turkish conquests that were to turn the Hellespont from that day to this into Saracenic property. Through this strait the piratical Turkish cruisers moved for generations, making all of the eastern Mediterranean a Turkish lake. Since 1600 Russia has fought peri- odic wars for the possession of this storied channel. And now the shores of this same Hellespont are dotted with the wrecks of sunken Allied battle fleets and strewn with the graves of a hundred thousand French and English soldiers, whose blood was squan- dered in rivers in the desperate attempt in 1915 to plant the Allied flags over the rocks where Hero joined her drowned romantic lover in dim antiquity. Indeed one's spirits surge to read the amaz- ing record of this fateful stream and realize how repeatedly it has shaped the destiny of the world.
This, then, is the Hellespont, and the scene where my dream came true.
Nature was most capricious when she created this eccentric corner of the earth. She drives the enormous volume of the Black Sea past Constantinople through a narrow channel called the Bosporus-and then again by more,reluctant, prolonged, tortuous degrees, through a winding canal-like gash in the mountains, forty miles long, and from one to five miles broad. Down this insuffi- cient Hellespont, with Europe on her right side and Asia on her left, the Black Sea, unleashed at last, rushes at top speed, foaming with indignation at her long imprisonment. For ten thousand years she has poured herself into the greater ocean, season in and season out. Tides she scorns. South--south--south, her waters always swirl so that one may well call the strait a river since, but for its briny nature, it qualifies in every respect to this term.
Few watercourses can boast of having seen the rise and fall of as many stately cities on its banks as can the Hellespont. Of these the two most familiar to us (though they have long since crumbled into dust) are Sestos and Abydos: the former on the European side of the narrowest part of the Hellespont; the latter almost opposite on the Asian, some three miles away. And why are these two cities, from among the scores of their contemporaries, alone favored with immortality? Is it because of their great military conquests, or their celebrated soldiers, or their marble temples? No, none of these. They are immortal because a youth-an undistinguished, unde- scribed youth of Abydos, named Leander-tragically loved an equally undistinguished maid of Sestos named Hero: the legends of love refuse to die.
One loved fiercely in legendary Greece. Hero, priestess of a temple though she was and consequently sentenced to a loveless life, was no less human than her lay sisters. She craved love as they, and when on the occasion of the popular Sestos Temple festival, her eyes caught the concentrated glance of a graceful and sturdy youth, she did not run away. The moment he guardedly spoke to Hero, her vows, her veil, quite properly, lost their power. She learned that his name was Leander and that he had sailed across the straits in his boat from his home in Abydos to attend the festival. They must not be seen together, since she was a priestess, prohib- ited by the gods from the society of man-by day. But that night, might he come in the moonlight, to the temple garden? Find me the girl of ancient Greece, or modern Greece, or any other land, who would have said no.
And so they met in secret, high on the Sestos cliffs, and looked out over the glittering ripples of the Hellespont that swirled cease- lessly past. And the next night again, and the next. All went well until one of the temple orderlies saw the lovers together and be- trayed them to his superiors.
In a rage the head priest seized the unfortunate girl. He dragged her down the cliff-path to the very edge of the Hellespont, and then up to the top of a tower where the wretched maiden was left in solitary imprisonment, safe from the approach of any more sac- rilegious lovers.
From his homeward-bound boat Leander, in the moonlight, had witnessed the figures entering the tower-prison that rose above the wave-lapped rocks, and in his heart he rejoiced. They were casting her into his very arms-for he was the strongest swimmer in Abydos.
Impatiently from his Asiatic shore he watched the sun go down beyond the cliffs of Sestos, across the swirling Hellespont. While they were only three miles away, it was necessary to take horse and servant and ride upstream along the Abydos side until he reached a point well above Sestos. Sestos lay sharply upstream, and the tide- less current, squeezing through the narrowing channel, raced past at such a rate that no swimmer, save a god, could have swum against it. From above, though it would require four miles or more of furious swimming to reach Hero's tower and not be carried past, he might hope to succeed.
Strange and desperate things are done in the name of love. Shortly after nightfall, Leander, ready to face any obstacles for one caress of his mistress, plunged into the Hellespont. He had hoped Hero would guide him by.means of a light from her tower win- dow-nor was he disappointed. A spark from her small oil lamp cast a faint path across the water. Thus directed he steered his course to Sestos, and drew himself up on the rocks beneath the tower. Hero was half expecting him to come, and watching.
Tearing the cover of her couch into ' strips she made a rope by which, on the hidden offshore side, he could pull himself up to her apartment. And then, what an eager reunion!
Partir, c'est toujours mourir un peu. Yet part they must, while dark- ness hid them.
The journey back, though difficult and cold and unrewarded, was not so long as the first crossing, for the Abydos point ex- tended deep into the stream and assisted the swimmer to reach the Asian shore.
Did I not say that love drives us to desperate ends? Again the next night, undiscouraged, unsubdued by the sinister river's power, Leander swam his way back to Hero's arms-and many nights that followed.
But high on Olympus the fates were spinning to an end the im- mortal lovers'thread of destiny. They saw the storms and the winds that were churning the Hellespont as winter seized the land; they saw the madness for Hero that burned increasingly in Leander's heart, driving him recklessly into the face of any danger. Indeed, whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.
And it was madness for the youth to defy the faries on such a night as this, and attempt as usual to swim across to his mistress's tower. Heaven and earth warned him back. But Hero's eyes beck- oned, and to them he surrendered. Plunging through the surf he met the oncoming rollers. He looked anxiously for the little light- house. Nowhere was it to be seen, for the storm had obliterated the faithful lamp.
The usual hour of Leander's arrival had come and long since gone; and dawn, shrill and ominous and glowering, found Hero still at her heart-breaking vigil. And then she saw that Leander had come at last. There on the seething rocks below her window, the strong white body of her lover lay, tossed at her feet by some pity- ing water god. A flame swept through Hero's heart. In despair she cried out Leander's name, and plunged from her window into the swirling waters.
And so today, because a man died for a maid and a maid for a man, Sestos and Abydos are not forgotten as were their great contemporaries. Time annihilates all things but romance. In every land, in every generation it is romance that the human heart per- petuates. I do not doubt that in some distant time, when our mod- ern world is dust, the story of Hero and Leander will stir mankind far more than all the futile foolishness of our own unheroic age.
Three thousand years later, Lord Byron was so gripped by the sapphire beauty of the Hellespont, and by the drama of its storied shores, that he ceased his restless wanderings and for an entire year rested in a charming little house at the very edge of the water near the site of Abydos. Like every true romanticist, Byron was deeply moved by the story of Leander, and decided, being a swinuning enthusiast, to try to swim the Hellespont himself.
Early in April, 1818, ac Early in April, 1818, ac- companied by a friend, he undertook the crossing from Sestos to Abydos. Finding the water of an icy chilliness, the two swimmers postponed their venture until the fol- lowing month. It was the third of May when the at- tempt was made again, and although, as Byron wrote in one of his notebooks, "the water was still extremely cold from the melting of the mountain snows, we swam from Sestos to Abydos. " This was slightly incorrect because, as the poet added, he began the swim high above Sestos to make sure of gaining the sand point at Abydos. "The whole distance," he continues, "from the place where we started to our landing on the other side, including the length we were carried by the current, was computed roughly by our companions at upward of four English miles, though the actual breadth is less than two. The rapidity of the current is such that no boat can row directly across. Its rate of flow may be esti- mated by the fact that the whole distance was accomplished in one hour and ten minutes. The En2hsh consul at Dardanelles could not

Byron most likely became a "swimming enthusiast" because he was born with a clubfoot, a painful disability and disfigurement that embar- rassed him, pushing him to excel at sports.
-jv


"Swimming the Hellespont" By Richard Halliburton Part -I-

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Posted 22 December 2003 - 19:50

"Swimming the Hellespont" By Richard Halliburton Part -I-

Swimming the Hellespont

remember the straits ever tiaving been swum before, and tried to dissuade me from the attempt. The only thing that surprised me was that, as doubt had been entertained of the truth of Leander's story, no traveler had heretofore endeavored to ascertain its practicality."
The poet, on landing safely at Abydos, in one of his typically facetious moods, celebrated his swim in the following familiar verses:
If in the month of dark December, Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?) To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!
If, when the wintry tempest roard He sped to Hero, nothing loth,
And thus of old thy current pourd, Fair Venus! How I pity both!
For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May, My dripping limbs I faintly stretch, And think I've done a feat to-day.
But since he crossd the rapid tide, According to the doubtful story,
To woo-and-Lord knows what beside, And swam for Love, as I for Glory;
'Twere hard to say who fared the best:
Sad mortals! Thus the gods still plague you; He lost his labor, I my jest;
For he was drowned and I've the ague.
It was not many years after this that Byron followed Leander to Hades. However, the house in which the poet lived at Abydos on the edge of the Hellespont continues to stand intact to the present day, for Roderic and I occupied it.
In the actual wake of Ulysses at last, we had left Skyros behind, and, like Ulysses, returned to the mainland of Greece-he (proudly escorting Achilles) to reunite- with his fleet, we to find a ship that would take us to Troy at the entrance to the Hellespont,
We found such a ship, but not being on the warpath for the re- covery of anybody's wife, as was Ulysses, and having all the time we wanted to indulge in side excursions, we did not disembarkat once on the long sandy shore of the Trojan plain where the 1,186 Greek ships were drawn for ten long years. Instead we passed by for the moment, a stone's throw from it, and twenty miles on up- stream to Abydos, to investigate the Hellespont swim.
We found any "investigation" unnecessary. The sites of Sestos and Abydos were conspicuously, unmistakably, there. At the former place the acropolis ruins establish its exact location. The Mound of Xerxes, up the slopes of which Abydos climbed, and the sand peninsula, which is a spur of the mound, establish Abydos with equal certainty. The only way to "investigate" my ability to swim the intervening distance was to dive in and swim. As previous en- durance tests I had swum the Nile and the Mississippi, but either of these was mere paddling compared with the Hellespont.
The first problem was to reach Sestos, the starting point, in a boat big enough to buck the savage current, and yet small enough to escort and safeguard me on my return journey. The Turkish of- ficials (suspecting we were British spies) made this exasperatingly difficult. In order to move at all against the relentless flow of the water and constant south wind, it was necessary to push off at four A.M., at which time the elements were comparatively calm. Each morning for a week the police delayed our departure till almost noon by which time all the oars and sails we could muster were utterly futile to combat the onslaught of the current.
Each day with renewed determination we tried to beat and tack our way upstream with every device in our power. Back and forth, back and forth, sailing endless miles in the blistering sun, trying to gain a yard. Then by sunset, utterly exhausted, we would look back toward the Asiatic shore to find we were still just off the Byron house, exactly where we'd been that noon.
On the eighth day, in desperation, we managed to sail straight across to the European shore, and, though we were almost as far from Sestos as ever, we wereat least free of the obnoxious and sus- picious Asiatic officials.
That night we spent in one of the Gallipoli battlefield grave- yards, with thousands of wooden markers of thousands of British soldiers spreading grin-Ay across the hillsides. We slept on the ground, using a grave for a pillow. Next morning long before day- break, when the wind was stilled, Roderic and the two boatmen and I each took an oar, and heading our sailboat straight upstream, bent to the task. One moment's relaxation, and we would lose ground. For five hours we fought our way toward Sestos-and at- tained it. But this was not enough. Being by no means a swimmer of Leander's caliber I thought it wise to take the precaution Byron had taken, and continue on upstream some two miles more above Sestos in order to give myself more time to get across before the current swept me past Abydos Point.
Finding a serni-sheltered cove, we anchored our craft and waded ashore for a rest. From the top of the bluff we could see Abydos din-Ay visible through the summer haze about five miles away. Up to this moment we had been much too busy to think about a meal. Now with our first objective attained we turned rav- enously to our provision basket. It was absolutely empty. During the night the two Turkish boatmen had consumed every vestige of our food. Not so much as a crumb of bread was left. No, not quite as bad as that-a small can of Norwegian sardines they had been unable to open. It was this or nothing. Roderic, realizing I had to make the swim, magnanimously insisted I consume the entire available supply of fuel; so I did.
Then at two o'clock I removed my clothing, and, my heart pounding with excitement, stood at the water's edge, praying to the water gods to deliver me safely on the other side. The sum- mer sunshine blazed from a cloudless sky upon the sinister, sap- phire stream that lapped invitingly at my feet. With nerves keyed up to the highest pitch, I yet held back in fear lest I fail. Despite the fact that Xerxes had scourged the Hellespont with chains in punishment for having destroyed his bridge of boats, I knew its beautiful, villainous waters had not been humbled. Here was my Siren Dream, beckoning to me. This was the Great Hour. I re- called a similar moment, in Japan, when on a zero January morn- ing I faced the iceberg of Fujiyama at the timber line, ready to plunge up the glassy slopes to the blizzard-swept summit. Again, and stronger, came the spiritual exultation, the sudden strange pulse of power that makes cold chills of courage race through one's blood. My body whispered: "You cannot possibly swim five miles in such a current," but Inspiration shouted: "This is the Hellespont-what matter if it's fifty!"
I plunged. The Asiatic shore across the channel rose hazily. I struck out straight for it, with Roderic and the boat hovering close beside. Before I had gone half a mile, whatever "form" I may have begun with soon vanished, and I thought only of covering the greatest possible distance with the least possible exertion: back- stroke, sidestroke, dog paddle, idle floating, any old thing to keep going. A big Greek steamer bore upon us, rushing furiously down- stream. It was our place to get out of the way. The officers of the bridge, not seeing me in the water, made frantic gestures. To pro- tect me, our sailboat stood its ground in the very path of the on- coming ship, and the steamer had to take a violent veer to one side to keep from colliding with our craft. As she passed by, not forty feet away, the officers hurled upon our heads every unprintable name in their broad vocabulary@but it was all Greek to us.
By half past two I looked back toward Europe to find, to my alarm, that I was already abeam the Sestos bluffs. It made me real- ize how relentlessly I was being swept downstream. And Xerxes' Throne, the conspicuous last-chance goal above Abydos, where the Persian king sat to watch his army cross the Hellespont on a bridge of boats over the very channel I was swinuning, seemed to have moved laterally miles up the coast, though not toward me.
Before three o'clock I was in midstream. The wind had con- standy increased, and was now churning the water with white caps. Every few minutes I was half-drowned when the resentful waves broke unexpectedly over my head. It seemed to me I swallowed half the Black Sea. Nausea seized me so painfully that several times I was ready to give up. But the increasing cold was the worst thing of all. The water flows so rapidly, even the surface has no opportunity to be warmed by the sun. After the first hour I began to grow un- comfortably numb.
However, the Throne of Xerxes was not far off now. All along, this had been a guide-point. And yet, as I drew near to it, I real- ized the ricocheting current was sweeping me parallel to the shore about ten times as fast as I was approaching it. The trees and rocks began to gallop past. From midstream I had calculated that I would land half a mile above the tip of Abydos Point, but the mile soon became a quarter, a sixth, a tenth. After two hours in the water, within 300 feet of shore I was being swept past the "last chance" of solid ground,just as, and where, Leander had been swept 2,500 years before ... and should I fail to reach the beach by ever so little, the current would drag me across the Hellespont, back to the European shore whence I had started.
Never have I felt such utter despair: a five-mile swim-my Hellespont-to miss achievement by 100 yards! Never have I struggled so desperately. My eyes became blurred, seeing only the land not far from me. I ceased to know where I was, or what I was doing, here in this cold, tormenting, boundless ocean. Mechanically I thrashed the water with my weary arms and legs.
Then-burnp!-my knees struck bottom. I was swinuning hys- terically in less than 3 feet of water, for the shore sloped so gradu- ally that, even at 300 feet out, the water was not waist deep. With not one second to lose, I stood upright and staggered ashore, with Rod, who had jumped into the surf, right beside me, and flopped on the last foot of ground at the point.
And so the Hellespont, that treacherous and briny river, was swum once more. Though I am but one of several to have battled successfully with its evil current, I have a distinction no one else can claim. Leander swam to look into a lady's eyes; Lord Byron, that he might write another poem; but I can boast of being the only person, dead or alive, who ever swam the Hellespont on a can of sardines!
Richard Halliburton was a writer, lecturer, and world traveler He published numerous books in his short lifetime, including The Royal Road to Romance, The Complete Book of Marvels, and The Glorious Adventure,from which this story was excerpted. Halliburton is knownfor having paid the lowest toll to cross the Panama Canal, which he swam in 1928, paying thirty-six cents. Born in Tennessee in 1900, Halliburton died in 1939 as he and his crew attempted to sail a Chinesejunk, the Sea Dragon,from Hong Kong to San Francisco as a publicity stunt.

"Swimming the Hellespont" By Richard Halliburton Part -II-

#3 Mineenunnisse

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Posted 07 September 2012 - 19:44

nice article.... Posted Image



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