AIGAION PILAGOS, Turkish EGE DENIZ,
an arm of the Mediterranean Sea, located between the Greek peninsula on
the west and Asia Minor on the east. About 380 miles (611 km) long and 186
miles (299 km) wide, it has a total area of some 83,000 square miles (214,000
square km). The Aegean is connected through the straits of the Dardanelles,
the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus
with the Black Sea, while the island of Crete
can be taken as marking its boundary on the south. The cradle of two of
the great early civilizations, those of Crete and Greece, from which much
of modern Western culture is derived, the Aegean Sea is also an important
natural feature of the Mediterranean region, possessing several unique characteristics
that make it of considerable scientific interest. The Aegean has an intricate
configuration and could well be considered as a bay within the eastern Mediterranean
basin, to which it is connected by the straits to the west and east of Crete.
It also has a good connection with the Ionian Sea to the west, through the
strait lying between the Peloponnese peninsula
of Greece and Crete. Virtually throughout the Aegean area, numerous islands
large and small emerge from the clear blue waters. These are the mountain
peaks of Aegeis, the name given to a now-submerged landmass. At the dawn
of European history, these islands facilitated contacts between the people
of the area and of three continents. Throughout the entire Aegean shoreline--that
is, both the continental shores surrounding the Aegean Sea and those of
the islands--bays, ports, and shelter creeks are also abundant. These also
facilitated the task of seamen traveling in the Aegean Sea, making longer
voyages possible at a time when shipbuilding was in its infancy. No other
maritime area of the Mediterranean has such shoreline development when compared
by its size.
The maximum depth of the Aegean is to be found east of Crete, where
it reaches 11,627 feet (3,543 m). The rocks making up the floor of the Aegean are mainly
limestone, though often greatly altered by volcanic activity that has convulsed the region
in relatively recent geologic times. The richly coloured sediments in the region of the
islands of Thera (Santoríni, or Thíra) and Melos
(Mílos), in the south Aegean, are particularly interesting. During the 1970s, Thera in
particular became a topic of major international scientific importance, analysis of its
surrounding sediments having been linked with a possible explanation of the ancient legend
of the lost island of Atlantis.
North winds prevail in the Aegean Sea, although from the
end of September to the end of May, during the mild winter season, these winds alternate
with milder southwesterlies. The tides of the Aegean basin seem to follow the movements of
those in the eastern Mediterranean generally. The tide of Euripus
(Evrípos)--a strait lying between continental Greece and the island of Euboea
(Évvoia), in the heart of the Aegean--is, however, extremely important, because it
displays a tidal phenomenon of international significance, to which it has, in fact, lent
its name. The euripus phenomenon--characterized by violent and uncertain currents--has
been studied since the time of Aristotle, who first provided an interpretation of the
term. Aegean currents generally are not smooth, whether considered from the viewpoint of
either speed or direction. They are chiefly influenced by blowing winds. Water
temperatures in the Aegean are influenced by the cold-water masses of low temperature that
flow in from the Black Sea to the northeast. In depths of up to about 1,600 feet (490 m),
temperature fluctuates around 57 -64 F (14 -18 C), while it is practically steady at about
57 F at sea level.
The Aegean Sea, like the Mediterranean in general, is the
most impoverished large body of water known to science. The nutrient content, as indicated
by the amount of phosphates and nitrates in the water, is on the whole poor. The less
saline waters coming from the Black Sea have a distinct ameliorative influence, but the
role of their fertility in the Mediterranean in general has been little studied.
Generally, marine life in the Aegean Sea is very similar to that of the northern area of
the western basin of the Mediterranean. In view of its limpidity and as a result of its
hot waters, it is not surprising that the Aegean Sea accommodates large quantities of fish
at the time of their procreating maturity. Such fish enter the Aegean from other areas,
notably from the Black Sea.
So numerous are the islands of the Aegean that the name Archipelago
was formerly applied to the sea. Structurally the Aegean islands are subject to frequent
earthquakes. Although a number of the larger islands, such as Lesbos, Chios, Rhodes, and
Crete, have fertile, well-cultivated plains, most of them are rocky and quite barren, with
terraces to conserve the sparse soil. Characteristic of this landscape is the Cyclades
group, the southernmost island of which, Thera, has a volcano that was last active in
1925. The northern islands are generally more wooded than are the southern, except Rhodes.
The chief products of the islands are wheat, wine, oil,
mastic, figs, raisins, honey, vegetables, marble, and minerals; fishing is also important.
Tourism generates increasing income, with visitors attracted to the villages of
whitewashed houses and their handicrafts, as well as to the impressive monuments of the
great prehistoric civilization that flourished here.