The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

August 25, 2011

In this work of a lifetime dedicated grandly "a la memoria de mis antecesores", David Abulafia surveys a Mediterranean world from a hunters' camp near Rome, set up "435,000 years before the present", until now. Two generations ago, Fernand Braudel used the techniques of the Annales School to delineate "the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II" and, given his preference for the longue durée over histoire événementielle, he ranged widely. But The Great Sea goes further still. In his introduction, Abulafia politely promises a sort of anti-Braudel. Not for him the Frenchman's geographical determinism and pessimistic estimation of the feebleness of the "human hand"; for Abulafia, individuals and events matter. Trade, war and cultural borrowing demand his attention; this Mediterranean is a place not of stasis but of flux. "Race" is meaningless in its ever-changing environment where, from any beginning, "ethnic groups merge, languages are borrowed". For Abulafia, the past is the site of histories and not of History.

This review is too short to display the wealth of detail and analysis that results as Abulafia splits his story into five periods: to around 1,200BC and "Troy"; on to c.AD500, "Greece", "Carthage", "Rome" and "Byzantium" (quotation marks signal Abulafia's span as well as his focus); through the medieval world to the Black Death of 1347; thereafter he delineates the track of modernisation that was clear by the French seizure of Algiers in 1830. Finally, he hymns "a surprising new identity" won by the region in its long 20th century. Over the first four eras, Abulafia detects a rise and fall, a rhythm of death and life, but not one that was predetermined, instead being eternally varied in its pace and nature and directed by individuals' thoughts and actions.

Most often Abulafia draws hope from the intermingling of peoples, however brutal contact could be. So, we learn, the "Greeks might try to pigeonhole 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."

Some 1,500 years later, he adds: "It is hard to see how the Nasrid sultans of Granada could have maintained themselves in power (or built the Alhambra palaces) without the financial support they gained from the Christian merchants. They liked to think that it was their fervent Islam that held Granada together, but foreign funds were no less important." Similarly, the 17th-century Mediterranean, "with its renegade corsairs, its displaced Moriscos, its Sabbatian converts, its 'Portuguese' (really Jewish) merchants was therefore a place in which religious identities were constantly distorted and displaced".

Come the 20th century, the homogenising requirements of modern nation states were deadly for many "minorities", as they were now deemed, and expulsion and massacre destroyed the texture of Salonika, Smyrna, Alexandria and Jaffa. Yet difference did not die. Even under national rule, a port is still a port. Instead of searching for unity in the Great Sea, we should note diversity. Abulafia's 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". As "the most vigorous place of interaction between different societies", it "has played a role in the history of human civilization that has far surpassed any other expanse of sea".

Through the centuries, so many cities, so many ports, had their moment in the sun, and their shimmering was achieved messily through collaboration, however blind or reluctant, rather than "efficiently" through the master plan of a single ethnic or religious group. It is the little stories of Tyre and Anghelu Ruju, Aigues-Mortes and Algiers, Ceuta and Amalfi, Ragusa and Beirut, Gibraltar, Tripoli and Haifa that light up Abulafia's pages.

To be sure, on occasion there is a downside to Abulafia's definition of history. At its worst, his story can seem like one damned naval campaign after another. Sea commanders, official and piratical, regularly figure; fishing communities very rarely; women only at the end. Moreover, Abulafia's writing is solid rather than mellifluous, as an "end result" and other tautologies testify.

Yet he has achieved his purpose in representing a human and humane Mediterranean world to his readers. This book is likely to last as long as did Braudel's, despite or because of Abulafia's liberal, event-driven, and thus 21st-century surpassing of the Gaullist and totale imaginings of the powerful patron of the Annales.

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

By David Abulafia. Allen Lane, 816pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780713999341. Published 5 May 2011

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