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The Great Sea: A history of the Mediterranean

David Abulafia's new work takes in the entire sweep of the Mediterranean's rich history. It's an impressive sea of words that yields many riches.
A painting by H Letter depicting the third battle of Lepanto. The clash marked the final showdown between the Spanish and Ottoman empires. Courtesy Museum of Art History
A painting by H Letter depicting the third battle of Lepanto. The clash marked the final showdown between the Spanish and Ottoman empires. Courtesy Museum of Art History

For anyone writing a history of the Mediterranean, the example of Fernand Braudel still looms large. The French historian's classic The Mediterranean and The Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, first published in 1949 and revised several times since, remains one of the most innovative works of history of the last 100 years.

Ostensibly a study of just one century, Braudel's influential study is much more than that. The usual stuff of history - events, names, dates - takes a back seat to geography, natural history, geology and the slow drip of time, which Braudel endows with an almost mystical force. Still, disquisitions on the role of mountains, plateaus and plains in the Mediterranean world, however beautiful, are not everyone's idea of historical writing.

David Abulafia's The Great Sea might be seen as a forceful counterpoint to Braudel's masterwork. Taking in the entire sweep of Mediterranean history, from 20,000BC until the 21st century, Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge, has written a far more conventional work. This is truly history as one thing after another.

Like an old-fashioned survey course, The Great Sea swells with names and dates - with a focus on high politics, religion, warfare and, above all, commerce. If Braudel almost minimised the human factor, Abulafia sees human initiative as a defining motif of the sea and its history: "The human hand has been more important in moulding the history of the Mediterranean than Braudel was ever prepared to admit."

The Great Sea is deeply learned, and reflects a lifetime of study. Abulafia has synthesised an enormous amount of material: this is an eminently useful book, even if it lacks Braudel's poetry. Abulafia, at times, can sound like a pedantic lecturer, droning on and on at the front of the classroom. (On the diet of sailors, for example, Abulafia observes "the main difference of the Genoese, Venetian and Neapolitan sailors was the balance of elements, with the Venetians receiving rather less biscuit and cheese and much more salted meat ..."). Yet Abulafia's sea of words yields many riches as well.

He ranges far back into the deep history of the sea and its regions. Braudel said of the Mediterranean that it "is not even a single sea, it is a complex of seas", and Abulafia has much to tell us about the Mediterranean's watery adjuncts - the Aegean, Adriatic - and the Tyrrhenian seas - and the primacy of its islands: Crete, Cyprus, Mallorca, Sardinia and Sicily.

Poised between East and West, at the meeting point of Europe, Africa and Asia, the Mediterranean has been an arena of economic and religious exchange between Muslims, Christians and Jews, as well as a bloody battleground for clashing empires. As such, Abulafia writes, the Mediterranean became "the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of this planet, and it has played a role in the history of human civilisation that has far surpassed any other expanse of sea". He more than backs up this bold claim over the nearly 800 pages of his book.

If documentation on the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean is relatively scant, Abulafia still has much to tell us about the Mycenaean, Minoans and Phoenicians by way of archaeological findings. He is always keen to look out for borrowings and influences; in Abulafia's telling, cultural boundaries were always porous, allowing for influences to spread freely. If the Greeks were justifiably proud of their culture, they owed their alphabet to Phoenicians. And one of the most glittering centres of Hellenic culture was not to be found in the Greek islands at all, but in Alexandria. The city produced some of the greatest figures of Greek science and culture, among them mathematician Euclid and the inventor Archimedes.

Nearly everywhere, Abulafia sees the human hand at work. The Cannanites of Lebanon, who the Greeks dubbed Phoinikes, "Phoencians," brought their culture from the east into the western reaches of the Mediterranean, to Sicily, Sardinia and beyond. They were naval pioneers, and transformed the entire region, establishing one of the great cities of the ancient world, Carthage (which Rome would destroy in the Punic Wars). "The Phoenicians did not simply have a long reach; their activities also had the power to lift the political and economic life of a far-off land to a new level," writes the author. This is an abiding theme of Abulafia's Mediterranean story: how the overseas expansion of various cultures promoted development afar. Phoenician influences mixed with Greek and Etruscan cultures "helping to create interconnections that spanned the entire sea".

Abulafia is at his best describing the role of trade to the region's history, and the rise of trading cities like Alexandria, Venice, Genoa and Pisa. We read of commodities - wine, wheat, olives and oil - being shipped hither and yon. (One of the most unusual wares was the traffic in garum, a stinking fish sauce made of fish innards that was popular during the Roman Empire).

Today, Venice is merely a museum; but its centrality to the history of the Mediterranean is paramount. A way station between east and west, Venice rose on trade in timber, salt and fish. But canny Venetian merchants also cornered the market in luxury goods such as silk, jewels, gold artifacts and saints' relics. One of Abulafia's most pointed anecdotes concerns the theft of St Mark's remains from Alexandria in 829 AD by a group of Venetian traders: they covered their cargo with pork, which deterred Muslim customs officials from taking a closer look. The Venetians, writes Abulafia, created "not just a distinctive city built in the water, but a distinctive culture and a distinctive polity, suspended between western Europe, Byzantium and Islam".

There are a number of remarkable journeys Abulafia recounts in The Great Sea that highlight the crossroads of culture and religion. Take the example of Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Jubayar, who was born in Muslim Spain in 1145.

He set off for Mecca in 1183, and his travels took him to Sicily, Alexandria and the Holy Land and lands that were populated by Muslims but were owned by Frankish crusaders. He travelled on Genoan ships, which also carried Christian pilgrims. The voyages of ibn Jubayar are a wonderful reflection of the mixings and minglings of Abulafia's Mediterranean, as was the world described by the Cairo Genizah, a rich trove of papers that document the varieties of Jewish and Muslim interaction during the era of the Fatimid dynasty. The "Genizah Jews", sailing on Muslim-owned ships, created a commercial empire in the 9th and 10th centuries that stretched from Alexandria to the Spain of the Al-Andalus.

Abulafia does not overlook the role of warfare or religious strife in his account. His chapters on the crusades are hair-raising, and his account of the epic showdown between the Spanish and Ottoman empires in the 16th century, which culminated in the naval battle of Lepanto, are trenchant and concise. For several thousand years, the Mediterranean was arguably the motor of world history. As Abulafia takes his story into the 19th and 20th centuries, the sea loses its centrality. The kind of cultural contacts it fostered we now get online or by air travel. Thus the world, as Abulafia puts it, has itself become one big Mediterranean.

Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.

Updated: July 1, 2011 04:00 AM