Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

The Great Sea by David Abulafia
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Sep 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: librarybooks
Read from September 10 to 18, 2011

‘For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilisation.’

This book, the cover tells me, ‘is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent invention of the Mediterranean’s shores as a tourist destination’. I was immediately fascinated: how does a history of a sea read? People interact with the sea in a number of ways, but they don’t live on it. What facts become important, which aspects of human civilisation will feature, and why?

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and in this book he sets out the presence of the people who have lived around the Mediterranean from around 22000 BC to 2010 AD. This is a history of the people who ‘dipped their toes in the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it.’ The book is divided into five chronological sections:

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC – 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC - 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD – 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD – 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD – 2010 AD

Each section of the book opens and closes a period of the sea’s history during which trade, cultural exchanges and empires act as unifiers before the process stops or reverses. Some of those significant events include the collapse of the Roman Empire, the impact of the Black Death and more recently the building of the Suez Canal.

‘The history of the Mediterranean has been presented in this book as a series of phases in which the sea was, to a greater or lesser extent, integrated into a single economic and even political area. With the coming of the Fifth Mediterranean the whole character of this process changed. The Mediterranean became the great artery through which goods, warships, migrants and other travellers reached the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic.’

There’s a wealth of information here: about the great port cities (including Alexandria, Salonika and Trieste); about the space of the Mediterranean from Jaffa in the east to Gibraltar in the west, from Venice in the north to Alexandria in the south. As part of the narrative, Professor Abulafia includes information about people whose lives illuminate the developments he is describing: a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, political and religious influences. We meet the Venetian merchant Romano Mairano, and the Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr. We read, too, of Shabbetai Zevi, described as a deluded Messiah in 17th century Smyrna.

Of most interest to me was the role of the Mediterranean in trade. The merchant is a critical figure. The Phoenicians spread the alphabet across the Mediterranean: how else can merchants create the records they need? The merchants carry essentials such as grain and salt, but they also carry ideas, plagues and religions across the sea. Not all interactions are peaceful, and different people (including members of minorities) make different contributions across culture and creed.

I would have to read the book at least once more to fully appreciate Professor Abulafia’s coverage: while the book is easy to read there is a huge amount of information to read and absorb. There is a map included in each chapter, which I found very helpful in placing the narrative.

This is an amazing book and well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the history of the Mediterranean Sea.

‘Rather than searching for unity we should note diversity.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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message 1: by Cathie (last edited Oct 07, 2011 03:29PM) (new)

Cathie I would hope the author covered the pirates, some of which were the best of their kind around mid-1400s, appointed by the Sultan, such as Barbarosa. However, Italy also produced some great pirates during this period and later.


Jennifer (JC-S) Oh yes, the pirates were covered. It's a fascinating book.


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