California Literary Review

Book Review: The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia

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November 1st, 2011 at 10:07 am

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The Great Sea by David Abulafia
The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
by David Abulafia
Oxford University Press, 783 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


Sea of Humanity

David Abulafia’s new book about the Mediterranean Sea, The Great Sea, has everything a major work of history requires. An important theme, solid research, magnificent writing and a perceptive insight into human nature figure prominently in the pages of his study of the body of water that the Romans called mare nostrum, “our sea.”

Abulafia’s The Great Sea is blessed with another attribute that historians can only pray for: the gift of perfect timing.

This year, the wave of political dissent known as the Arab Spring convulsed the North African nations bordering the Mediterranean. On the other side of this inland sea, a near economic melt-down has threatened the southern tier of the European Union – Greece, Spain and Italy, as well as nearby Portugal – with a landslide of debt and soaring unemployment. Jobless rates among young people in these Mediterranean nations are especially high, with Spain in the unenviable lead position with 44.4% unemployment for workers under the age of 25 years. Revolt in such volatile circumstances may only be a matter of time.

World shaking events of this sort give Abulafia’s book a special resonance. The headlines that grab our attention today have many parallels in the Mediterranean past. Just as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis motivated readers to ponder Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and the American Revolution lent a special timeliness to Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which was published in 1776, so with The Great Sea.

Abulafia’s book is much more than an account of the vast, faceless forces of history. This is a people-driven narrative of social upheavals and the making and breaking of empires. The deeds and aspirations of individuals or groups of struggling refugees or seafaring merchants propel this story through its often tumultuous course. If Abulafia enables us to take the long-view of history, it is always presented through the eyes of gifted, flawed people not unlike ourselves.

Abulafia pays special attention to the inhabitants of islands, coastal regions or seaports often bypassed in accounts that emphasize political intrigue or naval battles. Island communities like Sardinia and Mallorca or now forgotten cities like Acre or Antioch were once market places of commerce and new ideas. A particularly good example of this refocusing of the historical lens can be found in Abulafia’s account of the rise of the Italian city-state of Amalfi during the early Middle Ages. Abulafia writes:

Amalfi is one of the great mysteries of Mediterranean history…With a single main street winding upwards, and tiny alleyways that duck under and through its buildings, Amalfi seems an unpromising rival to Venice. It was almost impossible to catch a wind in the morning, and this must have constrained navigation quite significantly.

Yet, “this town without any past history, growing up around a watchtower in the sixth and seventh centuries” became one of the great centers of commercial activity in western Europe, trading with Constantinople and the cities of Muslim North Africa and the Middle East. Amalfi, as Abulafia notes, was hardly worthy to be called a town, being but one of a number of small southern Italian communities which engaged in maritime commerce because they had little else to sustain them. There is a vintage nineteenth century photo of Amalfi showing its straggle of buildings perched above a sliver of shoreline.

Abulafia cogently states that “the label ‘Amalfitan’ was really a brand name, applied to a mass of merchants and sailors from all over southern Italy” who took to the sea in ships. Amalfi, like Venice, was a product of the post-Rome “Dark Ages.” The deeds of these two audacious, seafaring communities, however, reveal that the early medieval period was anything but “dark” for risk-takers with business acumen and survival skills.

Amalfi was one of many city-states which played a decisive role in shaping the destiny of the Mediterranean. As happened with Amalfi, many of these trading centers rose to prominence in response to challenging environments. An earlier “dark age” during the eleventh through the ninth centuries B.C. had been marked by the collapse of Bronze Age empires like those of the Mycenaean warrior kings of Greece and their Hittite rivals in Asia Minor, now Turkey. Around the decaying remains of these fallen oaks, sapling-sized communities grew into the mercantile powerhouses of Tyre and Sidon on the coast of modern-day Lebanon and the fledgling city-states of Greece.

One of these early Greek centers of commercial activity is especially significant, the island of Euboia. Located just off the eastern coast of the Greek mainland, Euboia sent expeditions to found trading colonies in the bay of Naples, notably on the island of Ischia, around 750 B.C., an amazingly early date. By most accounts, Homer’s Iliad had only recently been composed in written-form and almost all of the other familiar hallmarks of Greek civilization did not exist, except perhaps in embryo.

The Greeks from Euboia also ventured to the east. Like the Amalfitans of the Middle Ages, they parlayed their meager resources – especially timber for ship-building- into a big pay-off. Coming into contact with the cities of Tyre and Sidon, it was the Euboian Greeks who brought the Phoenician traders’ alphabet into widespread use in Greece and then to the Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily. In 1954, a stunning archeological find on Ischia of a ceramic wine cup, c. 700 B.C., provided visual evidence of this ancient cultural revolution. “Nestor’s Cup,” as it is called, was inscribed with the new Greek alphabet, but done in the style favored by the inhabitants of Chalkis, one of the major towns on Euboia. This shows the astonishing extent of the achievement of the Euboian Greeks, so long over-shadowed in renown by Athens and Sparta.

Abulafia’s commentary on the role of the Euboian Greeks deserves careful scrutiny. He remarks that the “Euboian Greeks … learned the alphabet from Phoenician visitors to Euboia.” This is a guarded appraisal of a very significant moment of cultural transmission. It is also a comment very much in keeping with his belief in the interaction of many cultures and ethnic groups, rather than creating a starring-role for one or two favored nations.

Does it really matter if the Phoenicians from Tyre or Sidon brought the alphabet to Greece rather than the possibility that seafarers from Euboia carried it back home to Chalkis?

Robin Lane Fox, in his study of the voyages and commercial enterprise of the Greeks during this supposed “dark age,” makes a convincing case for celebrating the role of one group of seafarers at the expense of the many. His book, Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer, places the Euboian Greeks at the forefront of the expansion of culture, as well as commerce, during the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. Noting that their maritime skills were learned from navigating the treacherous currents around their home island, Lane Fox contends that the Euboian Greeks were not passive recipients of Phoenician innovations. They were able, he believes, to launch long-ranged expeditions at a very early date to all points of the Mediterranean world.

The “Euboian thesis” of Lane Fox may be accurate in terms of this particular episode from antiquity. But Abulafia’s emphasis on the intertwined accomplishments of many groups and peoples is certainly the correct approach to formulating an over-arching interpretation of Mediterranean history. Political initiatives to impose unity on the Mediterranean, like the doomed attempt to revive the Roman Empire by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, (527-565 A.D), usually ended in disaster. Historical schools of thought, assigning a central role to a particular culture, religion or philosophical premise, are frequently shipwrecked on the shoals of reality as well.

Abulafia steers clear of these graveyards of empires and historians by taking a very sensible and humane course. The subtitle of his book is A Human History of the Mediterranean. The manner in which Abulafia incorporates the life experiences of individual merchants, religious pilgrims and wandering nonconformists onto the broad canvas of Mediterranean history is a key to his book’s vital theme. The sagas of Abulafia’s “traveling heroes” counterbalance the record of cruelty and insensitivity that have long characterized human history in the Mediterranean world.

The twelfth century A.D. journeys of Benjamin of Tudela, a rabbi from Navarre in present-day Spain, and Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Jubayr are of particular interest. In a sea swarming with pirates, often posing as religious warriors in the age of Crusades, the pilgrimages of these two holy men were perilous endeavors. Ibn Jubayr financed his journey to Mecca with gold coins given him by his employer, the governor of Muslim Granada, who had tempted him into drinking wine. No admirer of Christians, ibn Jubayr traveled aboard Christian ships that were more skillfully handled than ones from his native province in Spain. The most dangerous stage of his journey occurred on his return voyage at the perilous straits of Messina in Sicily. His ship foundered and only the efforts of the Christian king, William, who was at the port preparing to attack the Byzantine Greeks, saved the lives of the Muslim pilgrims.

Sadly, such instances of cooperation and solicitude are only part of the story of the Mediterranean. Piracy, slavery, economic exploitation, religious intolerance and wars, holy and unholy, figure prominently in Abulafia’s account. “There is an understandable tendency to romanticize the Mediterranean meeting-places,” he writes, “and the darker reality of trans-Mediterranean contact …also needs to be born in mind.”

Abulafia’s description of the callous refusal by the Allied powers to prevent the “ethnic-cleansing” of the Greek and Armenian population of the city of Smyrna by Turkish troops in 1922 is but one instance of the depravity and barbarism that have stained the waters of the Mediterranean with human blood over the centuries. Despite the presence of a powerful task force of British, French, Italian and American ships off-shore, no attempt was made to intervene and secure a peaceful resolution to the fighting. Thousands of unarmed citizens, many of them women and children, were slaughtered by the Turks, despite the fact that they were hapless bystanders in a war between Greece and Turkey. Abulafia’s searing depiction of this atrocity is an indictment of governments past and present, who seldom refrain from military intervention when it comes to starting a war, but hardly ever act to prevent one:

On board the British warships, bands were ordered to play rousing sea shanties while the officers dined in the mess, to drown out the terrified screams that were coming from the quayside a few hundred yards away. Eventually the British admiral gave way to the impassioned pleas… Even so, something like 100,000 people were killed in Smyrna and its hinterland, and at least as many were deported into the Anatolian interior, where most vanished.

Smyrna, Abulafia tersely concludes, “had ceased to exist.”

The regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea may have lost the central role in world events that they have had for so long. But given the headlines of recent days, it is safe to say that many a dramatic chapter remains to the story of the nations and peoples of this tormented, trend-setting area of the world. As an introduction to this story – and as a cautionary tale of what happens when the darkness in the human soul crowds out the light – there is no better place to start than David Abulafia’s The Great Sea.

  • Anne

    terrific review

    Abulafia’s searing depiction of this atrocity is an indictment of governments past and present, who seldom refrain from military intervention when it comes to starting a war, but hardly ever act to prevent one

    wow. I remember Hitler was cautioned about slaughtering people….Jews and other “undesirables”. He was cautioned about world opinion…he remarked, “The Turks slaughtered the Armenians and who remembers that? ”

    Glad someone did .

    And what has been the result of the Arab Spring? Sadly, not much good so far…Egypt is now a military dictatorship and Libya is being carved up by the Western Powers. They were no longer content with having a middle man in power

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