Named after Helle, who fell from the Golden Ram (source of the famous golden fleece) as it flew towards Colchis, this narrow channel separating east from west has a history embracing gods, heroes and romantics reaching back through the legends of Ancient Greece to the dawn of civilisation.
[Above: Image - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Thracian_chersonese.png#filelinks]
It is here that the Persian King Xerxes, in 480 BC, had a bridge of boats constructed to provide a crossing for his army to invade Ancient Greece. And where in 334 BC Alexander’s army crossed the straits in the opposite direction on its way to conquer western Asia.
And it is also the scene of the legendary story of Hero and Leander.
Leander, a young man from Abydus in Thracian Chersonesus, swam each night in order to join his lover, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, who lived in a tower at Sestos on the opposite (European) bank.
Hero, whose beauty was such that it was said a meadow of roses appeared in her limbs when she moved, dazzled Leander from the moment of their first, wordless meeting - recreated by Christopher Marlowe in his poem Hero and Leander (left unfinished at his death, but completed by Chapman):
These lovers parleyed by the touch of hands;
True love is mute, and oft amazed stands.
Thus while dumb signs their yielding hearts entangled,
The air with sparks of living fire was spangled
Then, with words that ‘might rouse even a stone’ (Musaeus Grammaticus) Leander convinced Hero that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, scorned the worship of a virgin. He promised that for the sake of your love I will cross even the wild waves.
Thus the two become secret lovers, Leander’s nightly crossing of the Hellespont guided by a lamp lit by Hero at a window at the top of her tower – until one night the lamp was extinguished by the wind. In the darkness Leander lost his way and was drowned. On learning of his death, Hero threw herself from the tower in grief.
In May 1810, at the age of twenty-one and on his Grand Tour, Lord Byron (who as yet had gained neither fame, nor infamy) determined to swim the Hellespont – for glory, as Leander had swum for love. When, on his second attempt, he achieved the crossing, he was ecstatic, writing: “ I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, political, poetical, or rhetorical.”
He wrote a poem in celebration. Read Byron's poem here.
The later name for the Hellespont, the Dardanelles, is derived from Dardanus I, the son of Zeus (ruler of all the gods of Ancient Greece) and the nymph Electra, and ‘father’ of the house of Troy. The region (initially named Dardania) and its people later gained the additional name of ‘the Troad’ and ‘Trojans’ after Tros, the grandson of Dardanus.
The Trojans accrued great wealth and power from their proximity to the Hellepsont, which gave them complete control of the valuable trade route between the Aegean and Black Sea.
Tros' son Ilus founded a city on the plain, now more commonly called Troy, but which was named after him: Ilion or, in Latin, Ilium.