Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Gallipoli and the Dardanelles: Myth and Memory in a Landscape

Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Minchin


With a colleague, Prof Chris Mackie, of La Trobe University Melbourne, I am working on a long-term joint research project focussed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in western Turkey and, across the Hellespont, the Dardanelles (our proposed book title is ‘Gallipoli and the Dardanelles: Myth and Memory in a Landscape’). Our project, which we ‘scoped’ in 2010 (while we held an Australian Research Council grant), is to explore the mythical and historical narratives set in this region (the story of Troy, for example). We are considering the power inherent in these narratives, the way in which they have been adapted through time, and their capacity to intertwine themselves in later events, especially in the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915. This project will, we believe enhance Australian understanding of Gallipoli from a new perspective, by placing it in a much broader cultural and historical context dating back to the period of ancient Greek colonization of the area.

Our individual research and writing roles are clearly defined, as my strength as a Homer scholar has been memory, until recently solely from a cognitive perspective, and the relation of memory and landscape. My task is to write four chapters of this book (not all of them while I am in Konstanz for only three months!). One of these has been completed (on commemoration and pilgrimage in the ancient world, with special reference to Troy).

My tasks in Konstanz are (1) to produce a chapter which sets out the theoretical backdrop against which our proposed book will develop, beginning with the nature and power of spatial and cultural memory. I am particularly interested in the power of landscape phenomena to prompt memory for narratives.

My second task (2) is to study the myth of Hero and Leander. It is with this project that I shall begin my work here.

The story of Hero and Leander and their love is located quite precisely on the Hellespont, establishing a link across the water between Europe and Asia, between the towns of Sestos and Abydos. In this chapter I shall draw on research in social psychology (on the links between landscape and memory) and the work of Jan Assmann (on social and cultural memory) to explore the story itself and its transmission in literary texts through the ancient world and into the modern world—and especially the strange story of its reception from the nineteenth century on, no longer only as text but also as a Hellespont-based physical challenge. 

On 30 August each year the Hellespont is closed to shipping for two hours while people from all over the world gather to swim from Europe to Asia (from Eceabat to Çanakkale). What are they commemorating? That simple tale of love and geography has yielded to history. Despite Lord Byron's swim across the Hellespont in 1810 and his poem honouring Leander, this annual event has over the last 25 years metamorphosed into a celebration of national identity: Turks mark Turkish Victory Day (the end of the Turkish War of Independence); and, remarkably, from the other side of the world, Australians commemorate their presence in the Dardanelles and on Gallipoli during WWI. 

The fourth chapter in the proposed book is to study the chain of association through time that links the so-called ‘tombs’ that dot the landscape of the Troad. I wish to focus on the ‘tombs’ of Protesilaos, Achilles, and Ajax and to discover what it is that links these great mounds with those Greek heroes. I shall consider not only the ancient Greek presence in this area; an important element in this project will be archival research being conducted by a colleague, Dr Mehdi Ilhan of the ANU, in the relevant Ottoman records.