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Black Sea

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  504 ratings  ·  56 reviews
Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History

In this study of the fateful encounters between Europe and Asia on the shores of a legendary sea, Neal Ascherson explores the disputed meaning of community, nationhood, history, and culture in a region famous for its dramatic conflicts. What makes the Back Sea cultures distinctive, Ascherson agrues, is the way their
Paperback, 320 pages
Published September 30th 1996 by Hill and Wang (first published 1995)
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David Sogge Can't be sure, since I haven't read King's book. However a review in the Times Literary Supplment of 2 April 2004 makes the following remark: "Charles…moreCan't be sure, since I haven't read King's book. However a review in the Times Literary Supplment of 2 April 2004 makes the following remark: "Charles King's The Black Sea...[is] Less of an evocation and a meditation than Ascherson's book, it is a solid work by an academic historian, written for the general education public."(less)

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The Black Sea cities of Odessa, Sevastopol, Trabzon and of course Istanbul all conjure up the exotic for me, which drew me to this book in the first place. It comes across as a very well researched book, filled with excellent history, politics, culture and anthropology, as well as cataloguing the authors own travel in the area around the Black Sea.

But I suspect my review and probably more-so my reading of this book probably don't do it justice. For me, there was just too much to take in. I am
Tim Pendry

The Black Sea is a well written if, at times, a rather self indulgent book. The book is not really about the Black Sea in its entirety - great tracts of its coastline are ignored and the historical gems are chosen to meet the interests and sometimes political prejudices of its author.

Romania, Bulgaria and half the Turkish coastline are ignored. Ascherson goes hurtling off to the North West on a lengthy tour of matters Polish-Lithuanian that barely connect with the Sea. He also has a clear
Jul 16, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-2007
I am flipping through this book now and wishing that I remembered even a tenth of its contents. "Black Sea" is an amalgamation of travelogue and history, and an excellent narrative about the many peoples and cultures that have lived--and, in some cases, still live--on the shores of the Black Sea. The writer, Neal Ascherson, describes personal trips to different parts of the region, and incorporates these experiences with historical background that he has amassed over the years.

There are loads of
This is not a travel book in the conventional sense, nor is it a mere work of history. The best description that I can think of is 'a book of ideas', overwhelmingly erudite, an extended meditation on cultural identity and nationalism. Indeed, for me, 'Black Sea' is the finest book of ideas I've read since 'The Third Chimpanzee' two years ago, and in a whole different category from previous five-starrers like 'In Siberia' or Bruce Lincoln's book on the Russian Civil War.

I learnt such an
Bryn Hammond
Jan 31, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: steppe-history
I skimmed much of the modern content to get at ancient, medieval and early modern. I did catch a few tirades on the scourges of nationalism, which was fine. Quite interesting too with a focus on artificiality and the concoction of pasts that never were, to serve a contemporary agenda.

I liked it on the inception of the Civilization/Barbarian discourse... I say discourse because that's a word he hates even though he uses it himself. He's not too fond of new methods of history that look at how and
Lyn Elliott
Feb 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
When I first read this fascinating book I was most interested in Turkey. This time it has been recent events in the Ukraine that prompted me to re-read it and I realise that I had forgotten its scope; the range of Ascherson's knowledge and the acuity of his perception about the politics of identity in the regions connected with the Black Sea, from Lithuania to Abkhazia.
Although he wrote this nearly 20 years ago, his observations are completely relevant today. This is a must-read for
One of my most favorite books, Black Sea by Ascherson is difficult to classify. It's an examination of the layers upon layers of geography, civilizations, ecology and history of a parts of the Black Sea region interspersed with anecdotes of the author's travels in the area. In gorgeous prose, Ascherson, captures the essence of the Black Sea.
Noel Hourican
Apr 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Superb. One of the most though provoking works that I've read. About more than just the Sea.
Anna (lion_reads)
Putting this book down after trying many times to get into it. It's not what I wanted. The book is a mix of personal Soviet-era Western anecdotes and a kaleidoscopic journey through thousands of years of history of a large region. I found it quite disorienting. I wanted to get a good primer on the history of the Black Sea region, but this isn't that. Rather, it is a complex, subjective collection of essays that draws on various historical instances to colour in the character of a place. From ...more
Charlene Mathe
Feb 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I'm only about a quarter-way through this book, but I am rating it now because there could be no better time to read it than now, during the Olympic games in Sochi! That is because Sochi is located on the Black Sea; and if you are like me, your knowledge of the peoples and historic drama of the Black Sea region is pretty thin. I think author, Neal Ascherson, does a wonderful job of bringing to life centuries of human drama in the context of the unique Black Sea habitat. You will have a much ...more
Lauren Albert
Jul 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
I hated this book until I realized that I hated it because it wasn't fulfilling my expectations for it rather than because it was a bad book. I thought it would be a good general history of the Black Sea and instead it was more poetic and impressionistic. I kept getting annoyed by his language until I realized, again, that it was more due to my own expectations.
Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk
I think this is a wonderful book about the Black Sea region. Well-written it compliments any study of Eastern Europe.
Sep 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating, perhaps tragic. Not for those who prefer history straight up--it's part memoir/travelogue (but not annoyingly soul), part nature writing, part history, part socio-cultural meditation.
Jun 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
British journalist Neal Ascherson has produced a terrifically informative historical travelogue of the region surrounding the Black Sea. Written several years ago, it's a timely read for me in light of the current conflict between Russia and the Ukraine - in specific, the hot property of Crimea. As Mr. Ascherson relays:

"Crimea, whose beauty provokes almost sexual yearnings of possession in all its visitors...has always been a destination, the cliffs at the end of the sea or the shore where the
Michael Connolly
Feb 13, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: revisit
The Black Sea has been a meeting place of East and West, and Christianity and Islam. The author describes many ethnicities that are not well known, but which have interesting histories. The Hemsinli are a Muslim people who speak Armenian. Because their ancestors converted to Islam, they were not deported or killed during the Armenian genocide of the twentieth century. Another small group is the Lazi, who live in Turkey, but speak a language related to Georgian. They speak Lazuri at home and ...more
Apr 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. I picked it up in an Oxfam shop as background reading before going to Turkey on holiday. Ascheron tells the story of the peoples living round the Black Sea in an interesting way, mixing history with anecdotes from his many travels there. I knew nothing about the geography of the area, and even less about the peoples before I started. But now I feel I have a bit of an understanding of both.
Jan 20, 2014 rated it liked it
I had a little trouble getting into this one. It's a bit of a mix of travel writing and history and I think that structure made it hard for me to really dig in. Ultimately, though, it offers some fascinating information about how people have and continue to fashion ethnicities and nationalities.
Sep 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I lived in Crimea for a year. This book was a useful tool to learn about the cultures that settled there in the past. Neal really does a great job of writing about history in a poetic way.
Dafne Flego
Oct 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
"There's such a lot of world to see..." sang Audrey Hepburn.

I chose to "take a look" at the geocultural complexity surrounding the Black Sea upon a thrilled friend's enthusiastic recommendation. No regrets.

I chuckled when I first opened the book and found a map. "Starts out promising, yup."
And indeed, if you squint through a wink, the book reads somewhat like a non-fiction companion to a fantasy novel - all fascinating world-building. (view spoiler)
Gordan Karlic
Thank God this is over.
Let's imagine 4 or 5 sets of puzzles and you mix them all and then try to put them all in one picture.
You just got this book.
This guy is jumping all over the place.
He is writing a little about Greece, then about Scythians, he jumps on Stalin's period, a bit of Crimean war, then for some reason about Poland, again Stalin, then Mongolians followed by Persians, little more about Stalin, and let finish up with a bit of Greece and just a pinch of Ataturk.
I just saved you 300
Jul 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal. Wonderful miscellaneous history. The frame is a trip around the Black Sea area in the mid 90s after the implosion of the Soviet Union, but the meat of the nut is a historical travelogue that bounces back and forth through 3000 years, taking in the history of Poland, Norway and Britain along the road. Deeply curious, deeply read, Neal Ascherson is my kind of writer. This joins a list that includes Roberto Calasso's Ruin of Kasch, Claudio Magris' Danube and Microcosms and Ryszard ...more
Dan Sumption
Sep 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
A fascinating and at times very personal history of the area around the Black Sea - including parts of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia and Georgia, but with deep links to many European and Asian cultures from the Greeks to the Huns. Nations and ethnicities have met, traded and interacted here since the birth of civilisation (in fact, it was here that concepts such as "barbarian", "nation" and "refugee" first emerged), but despite being such a melting pot, neighbours often ...more
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great book. I'll be reading more of his books and a few look very interesting. But it's more Ascherson's writing style that makes the book unique. It's nonlinear. There's a basic structure of mentioning an area on the Black Sea coast and working his way chronologically from ancient to modem times, but he really digresses like he's pulling a thread from a sweater... uncertain where he'll end up. And it's all extremely interesting. His knowledge is extremely broad.
Katrina Sark
p.17 – in the early thirteenth century, Chingiz (Genghis) Khan united the Mongolian peoples of east-central Asia and led them out to conquer the surrounding world. China fell, and the Mongol cavalry rode westwards to conquer not only the central Asian cities but the lands which are now Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Iran within the next few years. But it was not until 1240-1, ten years after the death of Chingiz, that a Mongol army led by Batu reached Russia and eastern Europe (where they were ...more
Jun 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a highly readable history. It reaches far into the past and takes things up to the moment when the book was being written, with the fall of the Soviet Union as its ending point. In the process it gives the impression of being comprehensive, something that is emphasized by the chronology at the end, but looking closer makes it clear that it is more a series of vignettes, each fairly distinct. A few things come back around again. Here are the basic topics:

Intro: land, water, people
1: end
David Sogge
Sep 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: informed general readers, opinion-fomers, university students, journalists
“This is a book about identities, and about the use of mirrors to magnify or to distort identity – the disguises of nationalism.” Appearing in its final pages, that sentence captures this book's main purpose and underscores why, 25 years after its publication, it is more relevant than ever amidst today’s eruptions of nativism and identity politics. Ascherson confronts readers with case after case that reveal how social identities are created, internalized and often cynically manipulated in ...more
Marie Rochon
Nov 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book offers a fascinating look at the Black Sea and the lands that surround it, from historical as well as geological and anthropological angles. The author weaves the different strands in a non linear way that kept me interested throughout, and I feel that I learned many things about this important area of the world and its role in the evolution of civilisation. Great, entertaining read.
Nov 05, 2019 rated it it was ok
A book that's aged poorly. This feels as though it was a book written to justify travel, as opposed to the other way around. Large sections of the Black Sea coastline and culture are completely ignored, and the book talks about Poland at some length (maybe Poland has a magical coastline that connects t to the Black Sea, not sure).
This book meanders around the Black Sea, pulling the long, tortuous, tangled strings of the history of this fascinating region and the waves of people, cultures and empires that have carved it into its current form. A fascinating adventure for the curious, and a sheer pleasure to read.
Feb 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book. Some fiendish glitch pushed me out of a very detailed review of WHY I found it a great book. I'm too annoyed to reprise that now.
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Goodreads Librari...: correct page number and modify title 3 17 Sep 05, 2016 12:06AM  

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Charles Neal Ascherson is a Scottish journalist and writer.

He was born in Edinburgh and educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where he read history and graduated with a triple starred first. He was described by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as "perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had. I didn't really teach him much, I just let him get on with it."
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“All human populations are in some sense immigrants. All hostility between different cultures in one place has an aspect of the classic immigrant grudge against the next boatload approaching the shore. To defend one’s home and fields and ancestral graves against invasion seems a right. But to claim unique possession – to compound the fact of settlement with the aspect of a landscape into an abstract of eternal and immutable ownership – is a joke.” 8 likes
“History — the product, not the raw material — is a bottle with a label. For many years now, the emphasis of historical discussion has been laid upon the label (its iconography, its target-group of customers) and upon the interesting problems of manufacturing bottle-glass. The contents, on the other hand, are tasted in a knowing, perfunctory way and then spat out again. Only amateurs swallow them.” 3 likes
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