The Great Sea

As so often happens when I pick up a history book, I was recently whacked over the head by a factoid that was both obvious and illuminating: the name Mediterranean literally means “the sea between the lands”. It’s a good name, but it’s by no means the only name that sea has gone by. The ancient Egyptians called it the Great Green. The Romans, always a bit grabby, simply called it “Our Sea”. For the Ottomans it was the White Sea (At the height of the Ottoman Empire, Europeans referred to it less happily as the “Muslim lake.” And, as historian David Abulafia points out in the introduction to his excellent history of the Mediterranean, his Jewish ancestors called the Mediterranean the “Great Sea.”

Abulafia tackles history on a grand scale in The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

Abulafia takes the reader on a journey that begins with Neolithic Sicily in 22,000 BC and ends with the transformation of the Mediterranean into a tourist destination after 1950. Summarizing his subject as “those who dipped their toes into the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it,” he considers islands, ports and wind patterns, sailors and merchants, the exchange of goods, religions and ideas, and the rise and fall of empires. He tells new versions of old stories: the fall of Troy, the founding of Carthage, the mysterious origins of the Etruscans, the emergence of Dubrovnik as the “Jewel of the Sea”, the impact of the Barbary Corsairs, and the building of the Suez Canal.

Comparison with French historian Fernand Braudel’s groundbreaking The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II is inevitable.  Abulafia deals the question head on. He describes Braudel’s work as horizontal history, focused on cultural continuity based on regional geography.  In contrast, he claims that his own work is vertical, emphasizing change over time. . In fact, the two books differ in both scope and focus.  Where Braudel concentrates on the hinterlands that support the Mediterranean shore, Abulafia focuses on the sea and the men who crossed it.

Whether horizontal, vertical, or upside down, The Great Sea deserves a place on the shelf next to Braudel’s classic work


A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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