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.

Wonders & Marvels–and me!

For those of you who don’t know it, Wonders & Marvels is one of the best history sites on the web.  Holly Tucker, the author of Blood Work, has put together a lively community “for curious minds who love history, its odd stories and good reads”. In addition to book reviews and guest posts by historians with interesting stories to tell, she’s now added a group of regular contributors.  I’m thrilled to be included.

In addition to writing about whatever has caught my fancy here on History in the Margins, I’ll be writing one article a month for Wonders and Marvels, usually about Middle Eastern and Islamic history.  My first piece is up.  I hope you’ll click the link and check it out.  Poke around while you’re there.  It’s a great place for the historically minded to hang out.


Columbus Sails the Ocean Blue

Columbus Day is a problematic holiday.  Schools and government offices close, but most private businesses do not.  There is no public or private celebration.  For many of us, the only impact is the realization that there was no mail delivery, so the book we’re expecting didn’t come.  Dang it.

For those of us who study the history of the non-Western world, Columbus Day is problematic in other ways.  There’s the whole question of what discovery means.  There’s the impact of western diseases and greed on the native populations of the Americas.  There’s the transformation of western culture by American plant stuffs from the tomato (good) to tobacco (not-so good).  (For some of us, the potato famine of the 1840s was the real Montezuma’s revenge.)

However you celebrate Columbus Day*, it is absolutely clear that 1492 is a line in the sand as far as world history is concerned.

Two recent books** by Charles Mann offer the historical equivalent of “before” and “after” pictures.  In 1491, Mann considers life in the America’s before the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria arrived on American shores. In 1493, he looks at what Alfred Crosby called the “Columbian exchange”:  the transfer of hundreds of plant and animal species between the Old and New Worlds.

It’s Columbus Day.  (Monday holiday?  Pffft!) I’m going to have a dish of pasta with tomato sauce in recognition of the Columbian exchange.  You?

* For many years I worked in an office where we closed the doors on Columbus Day to give the staff a chance to discover new territory:  the tops of their desks.  In theory, it was a chance to file, sort, think, and finish long term projects.  In practice it was as problematic as anything else related to October 12.

** Recent on my shelves is relative.  Let’s just say published in this century and leave it at that.