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Some questions about the Great Sea

Situated at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Mediterranean Sea has been for millenia the place where religions, economies, and political systems met, clashed, influenced and absorbed one another. Ranging from prehistory to the 21st century, The Great Sea is above all the history of human interaction across a region that has brought together many of the great civilizations of antiquity as well as the rival empires of medieval and modern times. Interweaving major political and naval developments with the ebb and flow of trade, David Abulafia explores how commercial competition in the Mediterranean created both rivalries and partnerships, with merchants acting as intermediaries between cultures, trading goods that were as exotic on one side of the sea as they were commonplace on the other. In the Q&A below, we get just a taste of what to expect from this hefty tome.

Q. What role did Greek mythology and Homeric poetry play in creating a lasting conception of the Mediterranean?

A. The seas described in Homer’s Odyssey are a strange amalgam of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, of east and west. Circe the sorceress seems to live in the east, where the sun rises, while Scylla and Charybdis are often identified with the straits between Sicily and mainland Italy.

Despite those muddles, Homer does provide fascinating testimony to knowledge of the seas among the Greek colonists in Ionia (what is now eastern Turkey), whose dialect was the basis of Homeric Greek. He knew about Phoenician sailors and was not very complimentary about them. Above all, he placed Odysseus’ kingdom at the western limits of Greece, on Ithaka, which he portrayed as an island where it was natural to know how to handle boats. What we see is a dawning conception of the extent of the Mediterranean and of the importance of the sea to the early Greeks.

Q. Beyond the historical, military significance of the Mediterranean, what happened culturally that we tend to overlook?

A. The Mediterranean has been a meeting-place of many different ethnic and religious groups, inhabiting its shores and islands – in remote antiquity, Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians, in later centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims. Gathering in the port cities around the Mediterranean, such as ancient Marseilles, medieval Palermo and Alexandria, modern Livorno and Smyrna, these groups have interacted not just at the level of high culture but in everyday life. On the one hand you have the transmission of medical and astronomical knowledge from east to west in the Middle Ages, often via Muslim and Christian Spain, and on the other hand you have the peaceful interaction of traders and sailors doing business and respecting one another in the great ports of the Mediterranean. Often they were able to cross the boundaries between warring competitors for control of the sea, moving between Christian and Muslim lands under the protection of local rulers.

Q. Americans and Europeans have vastly different conceptions of the Mediterranean Sea, with most Americans thinking of the Sea and its shores primarily for its appeal as a tourist destination. What role, if any, has the Mediterranean had in shaping the United States?

A. The American involvement in the Mediterranean at the start of the nineteenth century is a fascinating story – not just an episode but something that decisively altered the Mediterranean world. By defeating the rulers of the Barbary regencies (Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli), who detained their trading ships and sailors and demanded extortionate sums of money for their release, the American navy helped clear the Mediterranean of the five-century long scourge of piracy. This was the first foreign war of the United States after independence, and it was now that the US Navy came into existence. In the twentieth century, the strategic significance of the Mediterranean in the Cold War brought the USAF to Wheelus airfield in Libya and the conflict between Israel and its neighbors has also brought the US Navy into the Mediterranean. Strategically, the Mediterranean has remained important to the US, as we see from the latest events in Libya.

Q. Will the Mediterranean continue to play a key role in the Global Economy of the 21st century?

A. Much depends on the relationship between northern and southern Europe, and between Europe and North Africa. With the Greek economy in desperate straits and the Italian and Spanish economies under severe strain, and with the Arab countries in turmoil, there is a big question mark over the assumption that rapid economic growth will continue in the region. One solution may be to build closer bonds between northern and southern Mediterranean countries, including free trade concessions to Tunisia and Libya. Tunisia possessed the strongest economy in Africa and it would be a disaster to ignore its great economic potential. Another question arises over Chinese investment and involvement in the Mediterranean, which has begun to accumulate. So we are looking at a particularly uncertain future.

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and the author of The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean.

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