“The Great Sea” by David Abulafia

By Allston Mitchell, May 13, 2012

The author David Abulafia and the cover of "The Great Sea"

The author David Abulafia and the cover of "The Great Sea"

David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and author of the authoritative biography of Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen, has written a masterly, entertaining and eminently readable human history of the Mediterranean.

Ranging from the prehistory of the Mediterranean, and the Neolithic temples in Malta of 3,500 BC, David Abulafia’s immensely readable  “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean”  takes us all the way through the recorded history of the Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires right up to the present day and the dramatic fate of African immigrants, sailing across the Mediterranean desperately seeking a better life in Europe. Abulafia has skilfully condensed his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Mediterranean, managing to encapsulate hundreds of years of history in a few pages, where volumes have been needed in the past.

The Mediterranean has seen moments of momentous change. It was a unified highway of trade and culture under the Romans, the favoured path to Asia via the Suez Canal in the 19th century, as well as witnessing decisive naval battles that changed the course of human history, such as the Battle of Lepanto. Abulafia covers it all, from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the founding of monotheistic religions to the cultural impact of the bikini on unsuspecting Spanish locals. From the triremes of Rome to the US Sixth Fleet, the Mediterranean attracted everyone with ambition. The Dutch, British and Germans, and even the Russians, have all tried to stake their permanent claim on some strategic spot and the story is not over yet. In recent years the Chinese have joined in, with their purchase of one of the docks in Piraeus, Greece.

Abulafia has assembled a vast amount of information but never is it overwhelming. The lengthier histories are peppered with anecdotes to keep the reader gripped: one such tale described the response of Roger, the Norman Count of Sicily to a request by Christians to help in a campaign against the Mahdia – the prelude to his refusal was to “lift his thigh and make a great fart”. Another provided a grim description of the British warships anchored off Smyrna observing the massacre of 1919, on which “rousing sea shanties were played while officers dined in the mess, to drown out the terrified screams that were coming from the quayside a few hundred yards away”.

The book looks at the people and events that shaped the Mediterranean and made it quite literally the centre of the world. Abulafia recounts how the Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Genoese, Venetians and Catalans at different times dominated the Mediterranean either by force of arms or through the vitality of their merchants, or both. The book also looks at the intriguing city states, and the free commercial and religious zones that sprang up along the coast, which were often characterised by convivencia, allowing Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together to the commercial benefit of all. Cities such as Smyrna and Salonika were prime examples. But other cities, now mere faded glory such as Amalfi, are also examined, highlighting their commercial savvy and the links they created with other cities across the sea – which in the early years of commerce was safely navigable for only a few months of the year.

The aim of the book is very different from that of the other great Mediterranean scholar, Fernand Braudel, who favoured identifying historical patterns over centuries and the broad (albeit slow and relentless) sweep of socio-economic and geographical phenomena. Abulafia has deliberately taken a human focus in his stated aim of finding evidence of a unified Mediterranean:  periods when the sea became “integrated into a single commercial, cultural and even (under the Romans) political zone, and how these periods of integration ended with sometimes violent disintegration, whether through warfare or plague.” Abulafia focuses on the coastal regions and islands of the Mediterranean, not straying too far inland, but he highlights the dichotomy of coastline cities being open to influences from other countries and cultures while at the same time being firmly embedded within their own hinterland.

The author David Abulafia

The author David Abulafia

The early history of the Mediterranean is characterised by the struggle for mastery of the major islands in the Mediterranean such as Sicily, Malta and Rhodes. These islands offered a safe haven and access to basic supplies, as merchants and travellers were obliged to hug the coasts and stop for fresh water and food every few days. An island outpost was invaluable. The prime mover of the Mediterranean Sea’s economy was the search for access to timber, salt and wheat, but equally the demand for exotic goods made foreign merchants ever welcome far from home.

Piracy and slavery featured heavily right up until the 19th century, and there are tales of pirates landing unexpectedly and carrying French fishermen and their families off into slavery. There was a thin line between piracy and official state conquest, and slavery did not discriminate between classes – affecting the highest and the lowest born: it all depended on finding yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book is also the history of the mass expulsions of the Arabs and Jews from Spain, the Pieds Noirs from Africa and the relentless flow of immigrants and refugees escaping hunger and war in Africa, desperately seeking a new life in Europe, but often ending up in internment camps, or being repatriated.

David Abulafia’s  “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean”

David Abulafia’s “The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean”

Abulafia, in his search for periods when the Mediterranean was a unified entity, is the first to admit that the real discovery is the diversity and the constant cultural flux in the life and history of the Mediterranean, even in periods of greatest unification, such as under the Roman Empire. The Mediterranean was in a state of continual change, with countries and city states influencing each other politically, religiously and culturally.

The history of the Mediterranean is also the history of cities and islands such as Sicily, Malta, Venice, Barcelona, Beirut and Alexandria some of which have passed from greatness to disaster like Smyrna and Salonika, while others have been reborn in a completely different guise, like Venice and Barcelona. There is much faded glory in this book, from the once important island of Motya off of Sicily, to the formerly burgeoning Catalan empire and once bustling cities like the ancient Roman town of Puteoli.

The strategic and cultural importance of the Great Sea is by no means on the wane: it is still vibrant and in a constant state of flux. As Abulafia says, the Mediterranean was “the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet”. And so it remains.

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