Canvas Empire: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Wade into the Putrid Sea

Do you dare?

You do.

Good.

So, let's get right into it. You should know from the beginning that there really was - that there really is - such thing as the Putrid (or Rotten) Sea. What a name! It sounds straight out of Lord of the Rings or Princess Bride, does it not?

The Putrid Sea became part of the Russian Empire in 1783, when Catherine II annexed the Crimean Khanate. We here at the Imperiia Project were curious about what Russians knew about the Putrid Sea - which also went by the name Sivash, or Syvash - at that time. While people could not turn to trusty web browsers for information, they did have books. Geographical dictionaries were the hot new thing in the late 18th century, and in 1788 a man named Maksimovich published The New and Complete Geographical Dictionary of the Russian State. His list of all of the places in the Russian Empire fills 5 volumes. It describes towns and villages, forts, lakes, and monasteries. And it contains an entry for the Putrid Sea on page 214 of volume 1

Entries in 18th-century dictionaries can be terribly disappointing. Can you imagine a more tantalizing toponym than "Putrid Sea"? Of course not. But the Dictionary does not share our enthusiasm. On page 214 of volume 1 you will find this: "The Putrid Sea is a gulf of the Azov Sea that extends to Perekop."

That is it. As if there could not be a more pedestrian place in the entire Russian Empire.

Meanwhile, we are talking about a shallow network of lagoons and marshes that vary in color from blue to green to raspberry, cover an area almost as big as Rhode Island, and smell like rotten eggs.

In other words, while the Dictionary is right that the Putrid Sea is a gulf that extends to Perekop, sometimes being right is not enough.

Let's see what we can do to build out the underwhelming, uninspired description of this unique body of stinky, shallow water, shall we?

Phase 1: Observe & Describe

 

Phase 2: Measure & Assess

Phase 3: Dig into History

Phase 4: Breathe it in

Have you ever smelled something rotten? Something putrid? (If the word "putrid" does not mean much to you, this is a good time to click on the first hyperlink on this page.) Well, it would appear that since the days when ancient Greeks began to settle Crimea (6th century BCE), this body of water smelled bad. The question is, why?

The Putrid Sea is a hyper-saline environment. In other words, you can think of it as a large, strangely-shaped salt lake. There are salt lakes all over the world. One of the most famous is the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Watch this 2019 drone footage of the Great Salt Lake.
 
Notice anything odd, perhaps about the color of the water? That's right. It is pink. (Much of it is, anyway.) Just like the Putrid Sea.

Is it possible that the color of the water is related to its smell?

Scientists began studying this question in 1838, when Michel Felix Dunal first observed a unicellular alga in the salt ponds of Montpellier in southern France. The species came to be called Dunaliella salina. (Get it? Dunal > Dunaliella?) In time, scientists learned that Dunaliella produce both green and red cells, and many argued that these were the cause of the pink color of so many of the world's briny environments. 

They were wrong. It turns out that the real culprits are microorganisms called haloarchaea. But if it weren't for pioneering studies performed in the salt lakes of Crimea, Romania, France, and Algeria in the 19th century, we would all be wallowing in ignorance - laboring under the delusion that Dunaliella salina was turning our salt lakes pink. [If you are a student looking to impress your teachers or anyone looking for a new topic of conversation for the dinner table, we highly recommend this 2005 article accessible via the US National Institutes of Health.] 

So that sorts out the pink color. But the smell? For that we cannot point the finger at Dunaliella or haloarchaea. That would be too easy.

No, the Putrid Sea - like the Great Salt Lake - is putrid because of the presence of something far stranger. The smell is caused by the presence of Artemia salina. Go ahead. Do some sleuthing.Then go back to the dinner table and really entertain everyone.

Phase 5: Try your Hand at Hydrography

Phase 6: Bring it into the Present

As we said at the start, the Putrid Sea exists to this day. In fact, it plays a significant part in global geopolitics. If you can figure out the meaning of the dashed white line on this Google Earth rendering of the sea, you will have figured out why this stinky backwater is a place that truly matters.

Well done! You waded in well past your knees. We hope you had fun!

If you can't get enough of stinky, salty bodies of water, take a peek at the Secrets of the Salt Lake exercise. 

We would love to see your work and we are happy to provide answers! Contact us at imperiia@fas.harvard.edu.

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