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Crucible of the Gods
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Reality Born From Myth

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By  Erla ZwinglePhotographs by  Randy Olson



Once upon a time in Turkey and Georgia, blood sacrifice to the gods really mattered. People still live that way along this isolated stretch of Black Sea coast.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

No trees. No telephones. No Jesus. The higher you travel into the mountains barricading the Black Sea coast of Turkey and on into Georgia’s Caucasus, the less there is. In remote valleys and along steep stony tracks now forced to serve as roads, familiar components of life fall away one by one. What remains is the immensity of the sky, gaunt slopes scrubby with thistles and wild grasses, the roar of glacial torrents in dark ravines, and the powerful pull of the first gods ever feared by men. In the 14th century B.C. a young Greek named Jason built a boat called the Argo and summoned 50 warriors to join him in a voyage from Greece to the edge of the known world: Colchis, a territory that in the past covered much of the western part of modern Georgia and stretched along the Black Sea coast from the Caucasus to Trabzon. Here a golden fleece hung on an oak tree guarded by a serpent that never slept, and the Argonauts swore to take it, one way or another, from Aektes, the Colchian king. What it took to fulfill this vow, the oaths and offerings and fatal magic spells, became one of the ancient world’s best known myths. 

* * *

Only life on the narrow strip of plain along Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast, connected by land and sea with the world beyond, has kept up with the calendar, modernized along with its roads, vehicles, and general outlook. Otherwise the rugged mountain hinterland of both eastern Turkey and Georgia belongs to an unusual degree to the past. Regardless of variations in language and dress, from the Laz, Hemsin and Gepni, and Rum of Turkey to the Svan, Tush, and Khevsur in Georgia, the people share roots that strike deep into history. Theirs is still the world of sacred honor, blood sacrifice, revenge, the tending of animals, the grinding toil of women.

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Audio
Experience the challenges and frustrations of covering the Black Sea region as photographer Randy Olson reads from his journals.
More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Hydrogen sulfide is one of the deadliest substances in the natural world. One full breath of it is usually enough to kill a human. Additionally, hydrogen sulfide almost instantly destroys a person’s sense of smell—so after the first sniff it is impossible to tell whether you are inhaling more.

The Black Sea today is the world’s biggest reservoir of hydrogen sulfide. The deadly chemical formed at the end of the last ice age when the Mediterranean breached the Bosporus Valley and spilled salt water into the Black Sea Basin, which was a freshwater lake at the time. Below a depth somewhere around 500 feet (200 meters), there is no life. The water is anoxic, or without dissolved oxygen, and impregnated with hydrogren sulfide.

The Black Sea, however, is not the only place in the world’s waters where hydrogen sulfide has accumulated. The Baltic Sea, for example, also has anoxic areas on its floor, and even some Norwegian fjords have them. Off the coast of Peru, hydrogen sulfide is sometimes brought up from the depths to the surface during times of El Niqo, killing ecosystems where this occurs as well as destroying fisheries.

— P. Davida Kales
Did You Know?

Related Links
Black Sea Environmental Programme
www.blacksea-environment.org
This program, created at the request of Black Sea countries, assists them in restoring and protecting the sea’s declining waters. The site outlines current issues in the Black Sea region, reports on efforts to improve sea conditions, and lists recruitment opportunities.

Internet Classics: The Argonautica, by Apollonius
classics.mit.edu/Apollonius/argon.html
An easy-to-read format of this classic book, divided into four parts and accompanied by a section where you can add your own comments or start a discussion.

Linguistic Map of the Caucasus
www.ichkeria.org/english/maps/language_map.html
A map of the Caucasus peoples and the languages they speak—grouped by major families, with population figures provided.

NGO Red Book
www.eki.ee/books/redbook/introduction.shtml
A comprehensive book describing language groups, tribes, and dialects. For this article it served as a source for information about the peoples of the Caucasus and Turkey.

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Bibliography
Ascherson, Neal. Black Sea. Hill and Wang, 1995.

Freely, John. The Black Sea Coast of Turkey. Redhouse Press, 1996.

Koromila, Marianna. The Greeks in the Black Sea: From the Bronze Age to the Early 20th Century. Panorama Cultural Society, 1991.

Nasmyth, Peter. Georgia: In the Mountains of Poetry. Curzon Press, 2001.

Rosen, Roger. Georgia: A Sovereign Country of the Caucasus. Odyssey Publications Ltd., 1999.

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NGS Resources
Ballard, Robert D. “Deep Black Sea,” National Geographic (May 2001), 52-69.

Clark, Miles. “A Russian Voyage: From the White to the Black Sea,” National Geographic (June 1994), 114-138.

Houot, Georges S. “Four Years of Diving to the Bottom of the Sea,” National Geographic (May 1958), 715-731.

Murray, Edward S. “On the Turks’ Russian Frontier: Everyday Life in the Fastnesses between the Black Sea and Ararat, Borderland of Oil and Minerals that Hitler Covets,” National Geographic (September 1941), 367-392.

Dwight, Harry G. “The Gates to the Black Sea: The Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmora,” National Geographic (May 1915), 435-459.

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