It Works for the Turks: A Colour for Each Direction

Turkish cardinal directions? I didn't even know they had cardinals in Turkey!

What colour is the sea? Why, blue of course (1). Unless you're Homer. In which case your numerous references to the Aegean as the "wine-dark sea" will puzzle scholars for centuries to come (2).


There are other curious exceptions. If you're Turkish, the question What colour is the Mediterranean? is its own answer. The Turks call that body of water Akdeniz, which literally means: the White Sea.

 

Some maps, like this late-19th-century serio-comic map of Europe, take the Black Sea's name literally.

 

But then of course English also has its coloured seas – four, to be precise, although none of the toponyms is native to the English language. One also is a White Sea, though not quite blessed with the same balmy climate as its Turkish namesake. A direct translation from the original Russian (3), the white in this sea's name refers to the ice floes that block shipping to and from Arkhangelsk, the region's major port, for at least half the year.

The Yellow Sea is another direct translation. Called Huánghǎi (黄海) in Chinese, the sea gets its name from the sand particles that travel down the Yellow River, or Huánghé (黄河), from the Gobi Desert, and can turn the sea's surface golden yellow.

 

Another popular literalist representation, this time of the Red Sea.

 

The Black Sea is rich in iron sulfide, allowing very little else but sulfur bacteria to thrive. Hence the darkness of the sea's sediment, and of its waters when stirred. The oldest recorded name for the sea, dating from around 500 BC, already refers to its colour: the Achaemenids called it Axšaina, (Persian for 'black').

 

A proposed alternative flag for Turkey, composed of the colours associated by Turkish with the cardinal directions.

 

Greek popular etymology transformed the Persian word into axeinos ('inhospitable') when Greek settlers first arrived on the sea's shores, and into euxinos ('hospitable') when they became more numerous in and familiar with the region.

The last coloured body of water is the Red Sea, separating Africa from Arabia. The Greeks already called it Red Sea, or Erythra Thalassa (Ερυθρὰ Θάλασσα) (4). One theory is that the red of the name refers to the seasonal blooming near the water's surface of a red-coloured cyanobacterium called Trichodesmium erytrhaeum – sometimes also known as sea sawdust.

 

The traditional Chinese colour/direction scheme seems to match the Turkish one.

 

But there is another theory. Certain Asiatic languages use colours to refer to cardinal directions. In his Histories, Herodotus on one occasion refers to the “Erythrean or southern” sea, using the terms interchangeably. Could it be that the Red Sea owes its name to something else than bacteria - and perhaps the Black Sea too?

Let's go back to the curious Turkish name for the Mediterranean. Turkish is one of several languages and cultures to associate the cardinal directions with colours. White, you guessed it, is linked to west, as the Mediterranean lies to the west of Asia Minor, homeland of the Turks. Two other names also fall into place: north is black, south is red. And indeed: the Black Sea – Karadeniz – is to the north of Turkey, the Red Sea – Kizildeniz – to the South.

 

Sea the sights: a Turkish colour scheme for the Middle East.

 

What about east? In Turkish, that direction is associated with blue. But there is no Gökdeniz ('Blue Sea') to the east of Turkey. The likeliest candidate is the Caspian Sea, landlocked between Russia in the north and Iran in the south, flanked by the Caucasus region in the west and the 'stans in the east. But it is called Hazar denizi in modern Turkish. Literally translated, the 'Khazar Sea', after the disappeared Turkic tribe that famously converted to Judaism around the 9th century.

 

The Blue Sea - an atrophied Turkish toponym?

 

However, on Emanuel Bowen's 1747 Map of Iran, a northern inlet of the Caspian Sea is labelled the Blue Sea. The area has been known afterward as Tsesarevich Bay and, in communist times, as Komsomolets Bay. It is currently called Dead Kultuk. Could its former name be a residue of an older Turkish toponym, one that covered the entire sea? Then again, other sources seem to suggest that the Aral Sea may have been the Turks' orlginal Gökdeniz.

 

At the crosshairs of the four coloured seas: the original Turkey?

 

The question of coloured cardinal directions is not just of interest from a historical or linguistic point of view. Linking Turkish culture to ancient toponyms provides a proximate location for Turkish ancestral lands. In a region riddled with ancient grudges about territorial loss and conquest, such archaeo-linguistic evidence of residential antiquity is highly valuable.

 

Many thanks to Luis Alipio for sending me the colour maps of the Black and Red Seas. 

The 'serio-comic map' is Das Heutige Europa, published in 1887 by Caesar Schmidt in Zürich for the satirical magazine Nebelspalter ('Fog-cleaver'). Image found here on russianuniverse.org. The Red Sea map is an excerpt from Battista Agnese's 1544 world map, found here on Wikipedia. Alternate Turkish flag found here on the Steampoweredwolf page at Deviantart. Chinese cardinal direction scheme found here on Xue-Hanyu.com. Map of the Caspian Sea by E. Bowen (1747), found here on Wikipedia. Images of the four seas and of the putative Turkish ancestral homeland taken here from the blog Tareh ve Arkeoloji ('History and Archeology').

 

Strange Maps #770

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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(1) From Blackadder, recall Baldrick's pathetic attempt at lexicography by defining the letter C as: "Big blue wobbly thing that mermaids live in". 

(2) It has been suggested that Homer was colour-blind, that ancient Greek lacked a word for 'blue', that marine algae gave the Aegean that particular hue, that it referred to dust-induced red sunsets, and even that Greek wine in antiquity was... blue! Indeed, in a 1983 letter to the science journal Nature, two Canadian scientists proposed that the water used by the Greeks to dilute their wine contained alkalines of such quality and in such quantity that it turned the originally red-coloured drink blue. Likeliest still is the standard explanation: that of poetic licence.

(3) Byeloye More (Белое море). Curiously, the related Slavic languages of Serbian and Bulgarian use their equivalent to describe... the Aegean.

(4) Also the origin of the name of the modern state of Eritrea, thus, literally: "Redland".

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.