Like Frogs around a Pond

Nigel McGilchrist

  • The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia
    Allen Lane, 783 pp, £30.00, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9934 1

The title of David Abulafia’s magisterial book comes, as he reminds us, from a Hebrew blessing, to be recited when setting eyes on the Mediterranean: ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the Universe, who made the Great Sea.’ His book is a two-fold history: first of the trade and the traders who discovered the sea, created its ports and never ceased thereafter to animate it in pursuit of commerce. (The ports could be said to be the principal players in this story.) Second, it is a history of religious and territorial struggles and subsequent accommodations. A vast body of material and reference – some of it quite new – is astutely marshalled. Abulafia sketches out five successive epochs of Mediterranean history, and gives fair emphasis to Muslim, Christian and Jewish stories. Individual lives – of nomadic Jews, Arab pilgrims, Italian antiquarians – illustrate the pleasures and hardships of travel by sea in pre-industrial times. In Abulafia’s hands, the Phoenicians are not altogether outshone by the Greeks, or the ancient Iberians by the Etruscans, or Genoa by Venice; the Barbary corsairs and the murky world of piracy are given their just weight, and some less familiar places are brought to light: the maritime republic of Amalfi, the cities of Salonica, Trieste and Livorno, even the little town of San Gimignano, which grew rich on its trade in saffron.

Reviewers tended to see Abulafia’s book in relation to Braudel’s La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II, published in 1949, and its much later, and greater, appendix, Les Mémoires de la Méditerranée of 1998, in which Braudel turns his gaze back into antiquity, as well as to Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s meditation on the ‘connectivity’ afforded by the Mediterranean, The Corrupting Sea, which appeared in 2000. There is magic in Braudel’s writing and in his ability to cut through historical material to reveal the underlying structure of human evolution in the Mediterranean. This cannot so readily be said of The Corrupting Sea, which is erudite and at times inspiring, but marred by jargon. Still, these are the twin pillars between which Abulafia confidently navigates.

What drives the evolution of Mediterranean history in his reading are the routes and nodes of trade. The Mediterranean is not like a continental territory which is appropriated by agriculture, defined by ancestral possession and bounded by frontiers. It is a labile, negative space that allows connections to be made, and Abulafia follows the routes back and forth, up and down, across the ‘Great Sea’, showing how they changed over time and how they caused the different ‘nodal’ cities around its shores to wax and wane in power and prominence – from Malta, Knossos and Troy in earliest times, through Alexandria, Carthage, Constantinople, Venice, Barcelona and Acre, down to Trieste, Smyrna, Jaffa and Port Said more recently. All owed their greatness and their prosperity to the expanse of water which connected them. Though it’s the conclusion to which he leads us, Abulafia never actually says that the Mediterranean’s capacity to create out of communities with very little territory powerful centres of prosperity, urban sophistication, culture and influence, has been its most valuable gift. Oceans couldn’t perform this trick until the coming of the industrial age – their distances were too great, and their waters too violent – but the Mediterranean was smaller, warmer, more manageable and had some reliable sailing seasons and wind patterns: in a phrase, it was made almost to the measure of man.

It was this that made it possible for Venice, a string of boggy islands in the middle of a brackish lagoon, subject to occasional flooding, and Alexandria, a spindly reef down the shore from the Nile Delta, chosen as the site for his city by Alexander the Great for mainly oneiric reasons, to become centres of commercial and cultural power. So too for ancient Samos, Dubrovnik, Amalfi or Genoa. These were never populations engaged in defending vast tracts of land which they saw as belonging to their ‘nation’ or their ‘ancestors’: that was the pastime of their continental counterparts. They were concerned instead to guarantee their independence and prosperity through the safety of seaways and the security of friendly harbours in distant places.

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