A voyage from the sailboat to the bikini

The Mediterranean in History
December 3, 2004

John Bennet takes a Cook's tour of the history of the 'inner sea'

Two inventions, as far apart in technology as could be imagined, have transformed the relationship between the Mediterranean and the north of Europe in the second half of the 20th century: the aeroplane and the bikini." These words by David Abulafia, the editor of The Mediterranean in History , end this volume on what might seem a note of bathos. However, they emphasise the way in which the past 50 or so years have seen enormous changes in attitudes to, and experiences of, the Mediterranean, particularly among northern Europeans, but also Americans and Japanese. For many, the Mediterranean is a parched, sun-drenched holiday destination, increasingly homogenised by the construction of large hotels offering cuisine that owes more to its visitors' traditions than those of its local regions - a "globalised Mediterranean", as Abulafia has it. The Mediterranean as tourist destination marks the end of this book's story, bringing the history of the "inner sea" vividly up to date, but simultaneously reminding us that the Mediterranean, as it has been throughout its history, is connected in complex ways with the rest of the planet.

How should we define the entity that is at the centre of this study? The question "What is the Mediterranean?" serves as the title of Abulafia's introductory chapter. In it he offers a discussion of other approaches to Mediterranean history. Prominent, of course, is Fernand Braudel, whose The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), transformed the historiography of the Mediterranean. Braudel saw the Mediterranean as a geographical entity, whose features dictated the slowly shifting rhythms of Mediterranean life at the scale of the " longue durée ".

Over this slow, deep "ground bass" was played the fast-moving, ever-changing melody of events at a human scale. Braudel's vision of the Mediterranean, dominant for half a century, was contested by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell in The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (2000). Originally designed to provide a Braudel-like treatment of antiquity and the Middle Ages, Horden and Purcell developed a concept of history in the Mediterranean that hinges on the local environments ("microecologies") and the constant motion - of people and things - ("connectivity") within the region.

Any contemporary account of Mediterranean history needs to take Horden and Purcell's treatment on board and, not surprisingly, Abulafia devotes significant space to an exploration of their views. As any Mediterranean historian must, he recognises the importance of interaction. "In this book, an attempt has been made not to write the history of each of the societies that developed within the Mediterranean space, but to understand how contemporaneous societies interacted with one another across the sea. Lands far distant from one another enjoyed trading and cultural, even political, ties as a result of ease of movement across the open sea." Ultimately, however, he defines the goal of the volume as "to write a human history of the Mediterranean Sea expressed through the commercial, cultural and religious interaction that took place across its surface". In stressing the efficacy of human actors, he cites, among others, the work of Shlomo Goitein, whose five-volume A Mediterranean Society painted a fascinating and detailed picture of medieval Jewish life centred on Cairo. Goitein's history, also cited as influential by Horden and Purcell, was possible because of an extensive documentary archive preserved in the Cairo Genizah. Documents and textual sources, including images, are vital to the kind of history of the Mediterranean Abulafia has in mind.

The next eight chapters, each by a different author, take us from the "basics" - the physical geography of the Mediterranean - through prehistory to the present. The potential danger in entrusting a story to different narrators is that they will vary in message; the benefit is that each is better informed about the period covered than a single author could be about all periods. Most of Abulafia's contributors are fairly firmly "on message", stressing interaction within the Mediterranean - often its mechanics; there is a lot of nautical history - and most effectively highlighting how its position shifted through time: first, from edge to centre of the Old World, then from centre to margin within the global systems of the early modern and modern worlds. Abulafia keeps the big picture to the fore by including between chapters two-page reflections on what he sees as major themes: migration, the major religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), unity and division, and the Mediterranean of the imagination of northern European travellers.

Oliver Rackham's first chapter, "The physical setting", might seem to violate Abulafia's people-centred view, but his chapter is an exploration of the relationship between humans and the environment, stressing the Mediterranean's resilience against human interference. The supposed decimation of the Mediterranean by human-induced erosion is a modern fallacy, he argues. Interaction is a strong theme here, too, as Rackham notes how the cultivated (and non-cultivated) plant repertoire has been enriched - and sometimes endangered - by imports from many parts of the globe. For the summer tourist (or even the naive archaeologist) who strays off the beaten track and imagines her or himself in a timeless, "traditional" landscape, Rackham warns that we should not be seduced into thinking that practices that predate the mechanisation of the past 50 years stretch back into the mists of antiquity. Even Braudel's fundamental rhythms were not immutable.

Given the emphasis on textual history, it is perhaps not surprising that the second chapter, "The first trading empires: prehistory to c. 1000BC", is not one of the book's successes. Although this chapter covers a longer period than any other by a considerable margin and so must work at a higher level of selection, its focus is on the Minoan and Mycenaean societies of the Aegean region and their contacts - elucidated largely through Hittite and Egyptian texts - with the eastern Mediterranean societies. The development of the sail and its effect in collapsing distance - arguably as significant in the Mediterranean at the beginning of the second millennium BC as the jet aeroplane was near the end of the second millennium AD - is rather glossed over, although the theme of interaction is otherwise well developed. Unfortunately, a good copy-edit here would have brought consistency, for example, to the three different dates given for the eruption of Thera and would have restored the domestication of plants in the Levant to the 11th-10th millennium , not "century", BC.

The next three chapters document the first steps to integration within the Mediterranean, its unification under Rome and its fragmentation in the wake of Roman collapse and the expansion of Islam. In "The battle for the sea routes: 1000-300BC", Mario Torelli charts the increasing incorporation of the coastal western Mediterranean into a pan-Mediterranean trade zone, a set of enterprises led by the cities of the Lebanese coast - the "Phoenicians" - and by Greek-speakers from the Aegean. Torelli makes good use of archaeological evidence for trade, notably distinctive shapes of amphorae, a vessel-type synonymous with trade in the Mediterranean for more than two millennia. The title of Geoffrey Rickman's chapter, "The creation of Mare Nostrum : 300BC-500AD", reflects the shifting terminology of the Mediterranean, as Roman conquests encircled the coastal Mediterranean by 31BC. By the early empire, the Mediterranean was "our sea" as far as the Romans were concerned, and this dominance ushered in a period when, according to the evidence of archaeological remains of shipwrecks, the volume of exchange across the sea seems to have been as high as it was for many centuries to follow.

Trade and the technology of shipping are prominent in Rickman's chapter, as they are in the two following chapters: "The Mediterranean breaks up: 500-1000" by John Pryor and "A Christian Mediterranean: 1000-1500" by Michel Balard. Here, the themes of conquest and maritime trade are drawn out against a background first of fragmentation, as the western Roman Empire collapses and Islam expands in the south and east, then consolidation under two major religions, Christianity in the West (except Spain) and Islam in the East. But it would be a mistake to think of the two religious blocs as impermeable and the inclusion of a chapter - "Resurgent Islam: 1500-1700" - by Molly Greene, an Ottoman historian, offers a refreshing perspective informed by Ottoman documentary sources that dispels some common misconceptions and highlights the significance of the Ottoman Empire as Islamic, yet a successor to the Byzantine Empire. She makes the point well that Ottoman expansion is often ignored by Western historians because it occurred within 50 years of the discovery of the New World.

European mercantile involvement in the New World to the west and the Indian subcontinent to the east diminished the economic significance of the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, in the next chapter, "The Mediterranean as a battleground of the European powers: 1700-1900", Jeremy Black offers a tour de force of narrative history that charts the complexities of European involvement in the region as the great powers sought to develop interests from Gibraltar to Egypt and the new nation-states of Greece and Italy were created.

Is this the sort of book that the fictional Mediterranean mass tourist mentioned above might read? Possibly. Its illustrations - more than 20 per cent of them showing ships, harbours or seascapes - are plentiful, well chosen and often striking, their full captions ensuring that the visual narrative supports and complements the text. Clearly written within a post-Braudelian framework defined by Abulafia's opening and closing chapters and sustained in his editorial cameos, it is more likely to appeal to armchair travellers and historians looking for a one-volume "Cook's tour" through the diverse and entangled pathways of Mediterranean history.

John Bennet is professor of Aegean archaeology, Sheffield University.

The Mediterranean in History

Editor - David Abulafia
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 320
Price - £29.95
ISBN - 0 500 25120 7

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