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F - 147 : Finding a Way around the Meltemi

Wind conditions in the Aegean played a major role in our route planning for summer 2022. Every year, from June to September, the Meltemi blows almost constantly from north to south. We thus reversed our plans. Instead of sailing from Athens to Istanbul, we now sail from Istanbul to Athens. Ancient traders or rulers did not have that choice. They needed to be able to reach Constantinople any time of the year, specifically in summer. In ancient times, the sailing season in the Mediterranean lasts from mid-June to mid-September.

Meltemi in July - the Scale on the left is in Knots

Having changed our sailing route to sail with instead of against the wind, I had another look at my map and was dumb found. There are considerably more ancient towns on the west-coast of Anatolia than on the east-cost of Greece. Rhodes, Halicarnassus (Bodrum), Miletus, Ephesus, Samos, Chios, Pergamon, Mytilene (Lesbos), Troy. All of them were important ports and trading hubs. The indented nature of Anatolia's coast line did not only protect sailors from the strong Meltemi, it also provided harbours to ride out bad weather or repair ships when necessary. To sail north, the ancient sailors hopped from port to port catching the thermic morning and evening winds.

The Aegean Sea with the many important Ports on the East-Coast of Anatolia

This sailing pattern remained unchanged in Roman and Byzantine times and under the rule of the Genovese and the Ottomans. For the Genovese, using these routes during summer was particularly important. They bought Caucasian slaves from the Mongols for the Mamluk rulers in Egypt. The despicable trade was very lucrative. The most lucrative trade on their books. It is thus no surprise that both Mytilene and Chios were heavily fortified. You only spend large amounts of money on defense if absolutely necessary. For the same reason, capturing these islands became a high priority for the Ottoman Sultans. Given their superiority in siege artillery, Genovese resistance did not last long.

The massive Genovese Bastions of Chios were no Match for the Ottoman Siege Artillery

The sailing route along the Anatolian coast remained important for the next few centuries. The naval battles during the Russian-Turkish War o 1768 – 1774) were fought for control of this important sea lane. Without it, the Ottoman Empire could not transfer military resources from the Levant and Egypt to the Crimea and southern Ukraine where the major land battles took place. Losing control meant that the Ottoman Empire was cut in two.

In summer 1770, a Russian Fleet of 10 ships surprised the Turkish Fleet at anchor in the Bay of Chesme – opposite Chios – and set it ablaze. Turkey had to fight the Russian Army with the forces it had north of the Bosporus and lost. The Crimean, Southern Ukraine and large parts of the steppes north of the Caucasus came under Russia’s control. Under Catherine the Great, Russia had arrived as one of Europe’s major powers. Poland would be next on her shopping list. Before the French Revolution, the Polish State was dismembered. Its remains distributed between Prussia, Austria and Russia. Guess who took the largest bite? Once an aggressor is successful, aggression continues.

After the Battle of Chesme in 1770, Russia won Control over the Black Sea's northern shores. These are the lands Russia is trying to take away from Ukraine as I write - Russia's territorial claims are only 250 years old. Tartars but no Russians lived there in 1770.

In 1912, during the 1st Balkan War, a similar scenario played out. Whilst steam liners started to replace sail ships, the transformation was far from being complete. Most of Turkey’s bulk commodities were still sailed up and down the Anatolian Coast. Today’s spacious Gulets are a reminder of this time. They were the cargo boats which handled most of Turkey’s maritime transports. The ancient sea lane along the Anatolian coast had not yet lost its importance.

The Port in Mytilene (Lesbos) in 1895 is still dominated by Sails

Early in the conflict, the Greek Navy imposed a naval embargo and thus severed the link between the western and eastern part of the Ottoman Empire. Lesbos, Chios and Samos were occupied by Greek Solders. The Turkish Army of the Balkan was isolated, lacked supply and had to fight alone against Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Within weeks it was encircled and defeated. The Ottoman Navy tried several times to break the Greek blockade but failed against the modernized Greek Navy which had modern battlecruiser.

Never would Turkey rely on this sea route again. With considerable energy, money and the help of German Emperor Wilhelm II, the Baghdad Railway was built to connect the various parts of the empire. But drilling through the Taurus Mountains was challenging and time consuming. Finished only in 1918, shortly before Turkey’s surrender, the Bagdad line primarily served the French and Italian occupiers. It never fulfilled its strategic purpose.

The Baghdad Railway Line in Red - completed in 1918 - to late to improve Turkey's strategic Position in WWI

In these days of engine propulsion, we do not consider wind pattern to be strategically important any more. But they were. Entire Empires depended on them and wars were fought for the control of these sea lanes. Our trip this summer will be a pleasure cruise – whenever we want, we switch on our diesel engine and change direction. The ancient sailors used their curiosity and ingenuity to find a way around the strong Meltemi. Human creativity is amazing.

The typical Gulet today is a pleasure cruise ship and comes with an engine - it rarely sails

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