What Are the Seven Seas?

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iStock / zoom-zoom

There more than 100 bodies of water in the world that are either officially named seas or commonly referred to that way. When someone talks about sailing the “seven seas,” which particular seven are they referring to?

It depends on who you ask, and when. A lot of the time, the term isn’t meant to be taken literally, and simply refers to all the seas and oceans of the world. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, though, ever since the term was first recorded in ancient Mesopotamia in a religious poem, different cultures have used the phrase for specific sets of bodies of water. In different places and at different times, it was applied to trade routes, regional waterways or the waters of far-away, exotic places. 

The ancient Greeks, who introduced the term to the West, applied it to the Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Caspian, Mediterranean and Red seas and the Persian Gulf.

To Medieval Arabian geographers and explorers, the seven seas were the bodies of water they travelled on voyages to the Far East, which they called the Sea of Fars (the modern-day Persian Gulf), Larwi (Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea), Harkand (Bay of Bengal), Kalah or Kalahbar (Strait of Malacca), Salahit (Singapore Strait), Kardanj (the Gulf of Thailand and the part of the South China Sea between Sumatra and Borneo), and Sanji (South China Sea).

Medieval Europeans, meanwhile, had a few different sets of seven seas that included the Adriatic, Aegean, Arabian, Baltic, Black, Caspian, Mediterranean, North and Red seas, as well as the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean. 

During the Age of Exploration and the European discovery of the Americas, some sailors began including New World waters into the group, so the seven seas included the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, the Caribbean and Mediterranean seas and the Gulf of Mexico in different groupings.

The term is mainly used figuratively today, but if you wanted to keep it literal, says NOAA, the world has five major oceans—the Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Southern (Antarctic) and Pacific—and the Atlantic and Pacific are cut into north and south divisions by the equator, giving you seven “seas” to sail. 

Themed Geography Grab Bag Quiz

The U.S.-Canada Border Runs Directly Through This Library

Though the Haskell Free Library and Opera House might not be as well known as the Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty, it's undoubtedly one of America's most unique tourist attractions. Completed in 1904, the building is stationed directly between Stanstead, Quebec, and Derby Line, Vermont, with the official U.S.-Canada borderline running right across the library's floor.

Martha Stewart Haskell and her son, Colonel Horace Stewart Haskell, both Canadians, built the building as a tribute to Mrs. Haskell’s late husband, Carlos. The family hoped that citizens from both countries would use it as a “center for learning and cultural enrichment,” according to the official Haskell Free Library website.

The Haskell is divided between the two countries. While the library’s official entrance is on the U.S. side of the building, most of the books are on the Canadian side. The opera house is similarly split, with most of its seats in the U.S. and its stage in Canada. As Atlas Obscura reported, it is often said that the Haskell is the only library in the U.S. with no books, and the only opera house in the country with no stage.

U.S. Border Patrol Agent Andrew Mayer speaks to Nancy Rumery as he stands on the Canadian side of a line on the floor of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House that marks the border between the U.S. March 22, 2006 in Derby Line, Vermon
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Passports and other forms of identification aren’t required to cross from country to country in the library, though the Haskell’s website notes that the border inside the "building is real and it is enforced.” Visitors are expected to return to their side of the border after a visit; if they don’t, they risk possible detention and fines.

Even beyond the building's unique position, library director Nancy Rumery told CTV News that Haskell staffers—Canadian and American alike—consider the institution to be like any other library in the world.

"We're just trying to be the best library we can, and our community is made up of people from two different countries," she said. "We don't think of it in that big symbolic way that I think a lot of people do. These are all our neighbors and we do our very best to help them on their life-long learning journey."

This article originally ran in 2016.

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