The Dardanelles – in Turkish, Çanakkale Boğazı – have defined Çanakkale’s history and its place in myth. The area’s Classical name, Hellespont, derives from Helle, who, escaping from her wicked stepmother on the back of a winged ram, fell into the swift-moving channel and drowned. From Abydos on the Asian side, the youth Leander used to swim to Sestos on the European shore for trysts with his lover Hero, until one night he too perished in the currents; in despair, Hero drowned herself as well. In 1810, enthusiastic swimmer Lord Byron succeeded in crossing the channel only on his second attempt – a feat he often claimed as his greatest-ever achievement.
Persian hordes under Xerxes crossed these waters on their way to Greece in 480 BC, and in 411 and 405 BC the last two naval battles of the Peloponnesian War took place in the straits; the latter engagement ended in decisive defeat for the Athenian fleet. Twenty centuries later, Mehmet the Conqueror constructed the elaborate fortresses of Kilitbahir and Çimenlik Kale, across from each other, to tighten the stranglehold being applied to doomed Constantinople.
In March 1915, an Allied fleet attempting to force the Dardanelles and attack İstanbul was repulsed by Turkish shore batteries, with severe losses, prompting the even bloodier land campaign usually known as Gallipoli. These days the straits are still militarized, and modern Çanakkale is very much a navy town.