When the Mediterranean is in the news these days it tends to be yet another report of a flimsy migrant boat – a fortunate one – reaching some European shore, while others are lost at sea. It’s nothing new. For millennia, as David Abulafia makes clear in his magnificent history The Great Sea which I read recently, people have crossed the Mediterranean as migrants, warriors, colonists, traders or fishermen.

Terra Amata campfire
Campfire at Terra Amata from 380,000 BC

Abulafia announces his history as one that is limited ‘resolutely’ to ‘the surface of the sea itself, its shores and its islands, [and] particularly the port cities that provided the main departure and arrival points for those crossing it.’ Even accepting those limits, Abulafia’s scope is truly ambitious: stretching from around 380,000 BC when early hunters set up camp at Terra Amata near Nice to the present – signified, in the book’s last two illustrations, by an impossibly crowded beach scene at Lloret de Mar in Catalonia and a group of African migrants landing on a different Spanish beach.

In Christmas week the number of asylum seekers reaching Europe in 2015 passed the one million mark. It’s the crisis of our time. But Abulafia’s book suggests that today’s refugees are just the latest in succeeding waves of human migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean in search of physical or economic security.

Abulafia announces his book (the title of which comes, he informs us, from a Hebrew blessing, to be recited when setting eyes on the Mediterranean: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the Universe, who made the Great Sea’) as a history of ‘the people who crossed the sea and lived close by its shores in ports and on islands’. It’s not a history of the lands around the Mediterranean, then, but one that focusses on networks of commerce, on merchants, on human migration and conquest. He divides the broad span of his story into five epochs, beginning with a First Mediterranean that ended in chaos with the fall of Troy around 1000 BC and continuing with the Second Mediterranean of Roman empire (ending around AD 500), a troubled Third that culminated in the Black Death of 1347, a Fourth in which the Mediterranean world faced increased competition from the Atlantic (a period whose ending Abulafia marks with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869), finally the Fifth Mediterranean that continues up to the present day.

Two strands dominate in this telling: one of trade and the traders who discovered the sea, created its ports and never ceased thereafter to animate it in pursuit of commerce; the other of different faiths and the religious and territorial struggles that ensued, but also their accommodations with each other.

David Abulafia’s own ancestry is significant in this respect. He is a scion of an ancient Jewish Mediterranean family, one that appears several times in the narrative – sometimes as rabbis, sometimes as traders – and he dedicates his book  ‘a la memoria de mis antecesores’. Those forefathers of his would have made their way alongside Phoenicians, Greeks, Iberians, Etruscans, Barbary pirates, and sailors and traders from port cities such as Genoa, Venice, Amalfi, Salonica, Trieste, Livorno, and even the little town of San Gimignano, which grew rich on its trade in saffron.

Hunting and fishing. 6th century BCE. Tarquinia, Tomb of the Hunting and Fishing
Hunting and fishing. 6th century BCE. Etruscan Tarquinia, Tomb of the Hunting and Fishing

Abulafia tracks routes followed from these lands and cities across the ‘Great Sea’, showing how they changed over time and how each era was marked by the rise to power and prominence different ‘nodal’ cities around its shores. For much of The Great Sea Abulafia focusses his attention on trade, perhaps because trade always tends to leave evidence – in the form of documents or objects – of contacts and communication between different places and cultures. And trade invariably evolved into competing trade empires.

Greeks might try to pigeon-hole each ethnic group they encountered, drawing sharp lines between them, but the reality was … (that) the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean did not foster uniformity. Pockets of different peoples lived scattered around the islands and shores of the Mediterranean then and for millennia afterwards.

Weighty this book may be – but reading it is never a chore. Abulafia is adept at presenting a broad overview of a particular period, but then zooming in on some fascinating detail. Take, for example, his treatment of Sardinia, a mysterious island we’ve only visited once. The island was settled by Carthaginians, as well as by Romans, Saracens, Genovese and Pisans – and all of them imported quantities of amber, which travelled by some unknown route all the way from the shores of the Baltic.

Nuraghe on Sardinia
A nuraghe on Sardinia

But, as we discovered, for centuries the island had been the seat of a thriving local civilization, rich in minerals, that has left the island landscape scattered with Neolithic monuments shaped like truncated cones, called nuraghi. They began to be built around 1400 BC and served as both burial chambers and defensive refuges for Sards threatened by Phoenicians, Greeks and later settlers who came for the island’s minerals and grain, and because of its convenient location for island-hopping vessels.

The ‘Second Mediterranean’ emerged with the ascendancy of imperial Rome after the Punic Wars fought between Rome and Carthage from 264 BC to 146 BC. This was when the Mediterranean became mare nostrum, our sea’. One of Abulafia’s first examples of the multicultural port cities which grew around the edge of the Mediterranean is Puteoli (now the Neapolitan suburb of Pozzuoli) which became a huge entrepot for grain, wine and oil which the Romans brought in from all points and then dispersed to all parts of the Empire. The huge granary there traded with places from the Straits of Gibraltar to the coasts of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor. For, at that time, as Abulafia remarks:

The sea was a political unity under Rome; it was an economic unity, allowing traders to criss-cross the Mediterranean without interference; it was a cultural unity, dominated by Hellenistic culture… expressed in Greek or Latin; it was even in many respects a religious unity.

He quotes Gibbon, writing in the 1770s, as suggesting that identify the 2nd century AD was ‘the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous.’

Mediterranean unity was shattered by the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions that followed. For hundreds of years the security of those who lived by the sea or traded upon it was threatened by pirates and slave-traders. Then the rise of Islam divided the sea between an Arab south and a Christian north, later mutating into an antagonism between the Ottoman east and a mainly French and British west.

One of the most interesting sections of Abulafia’s book is where we get a sense of the historiography that underpins it, revealing how history come to be known – and how, just as easily, it may be lost. As part of his research on the period between 870 and 1200, Abulafia discovered the ‘Cairo Genizah’, a massive archive of papers including hundreds of thousands of private letters and business and political correspondence that reveals much about life in the time of the Fatimid Caliphate that ruled North Africa between 909 and 1171.

The hoard had been hidden in an attic store cupboard or Genizah above a synagogue in Cairo in accordance with the Jewish belief that paper inscribed with holy words should not be burnt. As Abulafia puts it:

The Genizah was the opposite of an archive because the aim was to throw away documents without destroying them, in effect burying them above ground, rather than to create an accessible room that could be used for reference.

For centuries the Genizah was forgotten until two elderly Scottish women discovered it in 1896 and brought back to Cambridge University about three-quarters of the mass of ‘manuscripts, often tiny scraps of torn, trampled, crumpled texts, jumbled together in a state of chaos that has taken a hundred years to sort out’. Abulafia was able to draw upon these documents during his research, and they reveal the fruitful coexistence of Sunni Muslims, Jews and Christian Copts in a caliphate ruled by the Shi’ite Fatmids. In a period of economic expansion, the Jewish merchants of the Genizah took full advantage of the opportunities for trade with the cities of the Levant and North Africa.

Solomon Schechter studying documents from the Cairo Genizah, c. 1895
Solomon Schechter studying documents from the Cairo Genizah, c. 1895

Two themes dominate Abulafia’s survey of the more recent past of his ‘Fifth Mediterranean’: the environmental consequences of the pressure of mass tourism on its shores, and the human devastation brought about by nationalism. Few places with a beach along the sea’s north-western shores have been spared an invasion by the bulldozer and the cement mixer: between 1990 and 2005, for example, nearly half of Liguria’s coastal farmland disappeared under concrete.

Smyrna postcard: Greetings from the East
A 19th century postcard from Smyrna: Greetings from the East

But as for the human character of the lands and cities that abut the Mediterranean it is less materialism, argues Abulafia, than nationalism that has almost extinguished the diversity that has characterised Mediterranean societies for thousands of years. He writes evocatively of the great multi-ethnic port cities where minorities of different faiths and ethnicities rubbed against each other roughly, where cultures met and mixed uneasily but with harmony and tolerance prevailing for the most part.

A Jewish family of Salonkia in 1917
A Jewish family of Salonkia in 1917

In the great cities of the Levant, such as Smyrna, Salonika, Alexandria or Jaffa Christians, Jews and Muslims and people drawn from all corners of the Great Sea had lived side by side for one and a half millennia. By modern standards, the Christians and Jews were often treated as second-class citizens, but it was a kind of pluralist equilibrium that had no parallel in Europe until the 1950s. But, the diversity of Mediterranean culture was destroyed by the strident nationalism of the 20th century.

The slow extinction of one vibrant, multicultural Mediterranean port after another – whether the destruction of 98% of the Jews of Salonika, or Greeks and Armenians fleeing the flames of Smyrna in 1922 – seems to suggest the end of the ‘fundamental diversity’ which Abulafia sees as the defining characteristic of the Mediterranean littoral. But, though the homogenising impact of modern nation states has been deadly for many minorities, with expulsion and massacre destroying the rich texture of cities like Salonika, Smyrna, Alexandria and Jaffa, Abulafia’s concludes that diversity will remain.

The ethnic, linguistic, religious and political diversity of the Mediterranean has been constantly subject to external influences from a cross the sea, he argues. Therefore, it has been – and will continue to be – in a constant state of flux. Even under national rule, a port is still a port.

For Abulafia, the true nature of the human Mediterranean is found ‘in its swirling changeability, in the diasporas of merchants and exiles, in the people hurrying to cross the sea as quickly as possible’. For him, the sea has been a ‘most vigorous place of interaction between different societies’, and ‘has played a role in the history of human civilization that has far surpassed any other expanse of sea’.

See also



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