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The Great Sea – David Abulafia

28 Mar

Big WaterFor over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of civilization. David Abulafia’s The Great Sea is the first complete history of the Mediterranean, from the erection of temples on Malta around 3500 BC to modern tourism. Ranging across time and the whole extraordinary space of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Jaffa, Genoa to Tunis, and bringing to life pilgrims, pirates, sultans and naval commanders, this is the story of the sea that has shaped much of world history.

The Mediterranean Sea. The meeting place of some of the most impressive cultures this planet has seen.  A melting pot of globalisation in microcosm, a cross pollination of so many unique ideas that have formed the world we live in today.

David Abulafia has taken on this colossal narrative combining all manner of diffuse subjects into one book.  It was always going to be a gigantic challenge to chronicle an overview that fits all the pieces of history together and this is an impressive work.

Beginning in 22,000 BC (I’m a traditionalist) and heading on all the way through to 2010, it’s a tumultuous journey through wars, migrations, alliances and trade, the waxing and waning of cities and empires, where religions meet and co-exist uneasily and new ideas are freely spread and incorporated in inventive ways.

The book does focus mainly on the coast, it does reference things inland but only briefly if they happen to affect the Mediterranean and the cultures around its shores.  As a result, at times it does feel like there are gaps as to the exact reason to why some things happen and where interlopers from inner Europe or Asia come from and their motivation for doing so.  There is a particular interest in trade though which made me happy as I find the diffusion of good to be a very fascinating subject.

At first I happily got lost in all the names, dates, movers and shakers, but having considered, a book covering the sheer plethora of shared history as here, is just a little too much to read straight through as I did.  The analysis all seems a little too focussed on what happened, leaving a lot of the deeper details for other more specialist books to cover, this whetted my appetite and led me to a few wild jaunts around the internet to satisfy my curiosity.

Maps at the beginning of each chapter are a handy touch and do help with a sense of perspective between the important  cities of the time, before the deluge of facts start.  There is naturally some overlap between chapters and the times they deal with but this was handled well, with references to previous chapters included to keep the reader informed of where they are in time as well as place.  The titles of each chapter have dates on them, which is convenient for reference and if you wish to break up your reading, which is probably a better way to read it.

Overall it’s a subject that’s to diffuse for one book of 672 pages (not including the +100 pages of notes) and bringing in iss ancestors was a bit indulgent and quite irrelevant to the actual chronology but it is the author’s work so I can appreciate his motivation to do so.  The book is uneven in places however but in general it’s a good tome to dip into and also to use for reference.  Despite my initial enjoyment on reflection it wasn’t altogether satisfactory but after all with such a huge scope it was never going to satisfy everyone.  Some things have had to be sacrificed and left out but in the end it will most certainly give you lots of topics to enjoy exploring in greater depth.

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40 Comments

Posted by on 28/03/2015 in History

 

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40 responses to “The Great Sea – David Abulafia

  1. shadowoperator

    28/03/2015 at 22:30

    Here you are on your noted history kick again! It’s true, the Mediterranean is key in the history of a lot of countries, and I can see how the author may have had to spread his subject net wide. I do think that I would have been most interested, actually, in what he had to say about his own ancestors–I always prefer the personal or memoirist perspective, the near view to the far view.

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    • Ste J

      29/03/2015 at 07:57

      It did feel very indulgent reading about someone else’s ancestors in a book which is actually about a region, I agree a separate book for this sort of stuff would have been better all round. I think the Med is so epic in so many areas as to make a summation impossible to the depth people crave unless it is a multi book effort which would take a life time of learning and writing. I like to get deep into the events and causes, ramifications etc but as a book that fits all those events together it is well worth a flick through.

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  2. gargoylebruce

    28/03/2015 at 22:39

    That’s an alluring cover. I remember being mildly shocked when hearing a librarian tell students that you don’t read non-fiction books cover-to-cover like you do with fiction. “Whyever not?” I thought. But this is why I suppose. Sometimes there’s just too much information. But only sometimes.

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    • Ste J

      29/03/2015 at 08:12

      What strange advice, I tend to do that with everything, there are so many names and dates that it is probably a good thing to let books of this nature settle in your mind before continuing on. I remember with two of David Rohl’s books I had to stop precisely at page 180 both times because nothing was sinking in, I went back a week later in both cases and flew through the rest of the books. It is rare though, I bet that librarian had gone power mad, I know I would if I was keeper of the books.

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      • gargoylebruce

        30/03/2015 at 08:05

        It would be an easy thing to do. Yes, a break along the way is probably the best way to avoid non-fiction fatigue. I often find I can read to about three-quarters of the book but then my interest level declines dramatically. A compulsory break at about five-eighths through should sort me out.

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        • Ste J

          30/03/2015 at 19:35

          It is strange how arbitrary we are but then again if it gets us through then it makes me happier than something happy.

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    • Jeff

      01/04/2015 at 12:17

      Wow, a librarian recommending people not read something! Just when you think you’ve heard it all.

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      • Ste J

        02/04/2015 at 10:18

        The world has gone mad…except for me, I’m the sane one.

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      • gargoylebruce

        02/04/2015 at 10:38

        I should probably clarify that she didn’t suggest not to read it at all, just not to read it from cover to cover as you would a novel. She was more saying that you should use the headings etc to guide your reading, and skip around according to your interest.

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  3. Jill Weatherholt

    28/03/2015 at 23:34

    I always enjoy maps at the start of new chapters. It’s a nice little bonus. Thanks for the review.

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    • Ste J

      29/03/2015 at 07:50

      It is nice to get a context, I have been known to stare for hours at maps before, just because there’s one close at hand, it makes me happy.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  4. Tom Gething

    29/03/2015 at 02:08

    And to think, in millions of years it will be crushed into oblivion by the African plate, as I learned in my last read on geology. Guess I better read about it now! 🙂

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    • Ste J

      29/03/2015 at 08:09

      Time, the force we can none of us push back! Before it is crushed into oblivion, it’ll probably boil away due to climate change or something, still there will be enough salt left for anyone who happens to be around at that time. There’s always a positive.

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      • Jeff

        01/04/2015 at 12:22

        A book about the effects on the Med from climate change would have surely been more interesting than rehashed and compressed history. It would have been a highly relevant lens through which to see the way its past informs its present and future. The sea is, after all, where Africans board rafts to get a better life (only to end up, as so often is the case, washed up on European beaches). Big political subject in Italy, Spain and France.

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        • Ste J

          02/04/2015 at 10:41

          I find that I need context and a lot of the history that I have read around the Med has been fairly haphazard, so this history allowed me to gain a context into what was happening in the wider world around each event I have so far studied. A climate change or just political change book would be good, sadly this book was published before the Arab Spring so that didn’t get a look in, which is a shame.

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  5. Lyn

    29/03/2015 at 05:30

    It sounds a very interesting book. I don’t mind the occasional history book.

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    • Ste J

      29/03/2015 at 07:59

      It is a huge tome, you certainly get your money’s worth and it provides many side avenues of interest into obscure events that helped shape the world in their own way.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  6. Jilanne Hoffmann

    29/03/2015 at 07:36

    I’m thinking this book looks like the kind for dipping into. Leave it lying about, so whenever the urge hits, you just pick it up and give it a few minutes wander. I’m not sure I could read it straight through.

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    • Ste J

      29/03/2015 at 08:20

      I don’t recommend powering through, I have done with other histories but this was a little much, I read it in about two weeks as well which was perhaps a little too eager. Unfolding the story a little at a time like an archaeologist makes the reading more dramatic I findm especially if you wear an Indiana Jones fedora.

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      • Jilanne Hoffmann

        29/03/2015 at 22:25

        oooh, I love the idea of wearing a fedora. I’ve been looking for one that suits me. You’ve given me more motivation to find one, now.

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  7. clarepooley33

    29/03/2015 at 23:47

    What strange advice that librarian gave about not reading non-fiction books all the way through! Some non-fiction is very difficult to read so I do limit myself to a chapter at a time (or even a page at a time) and have a book by a favourite fiction author on the go at the same time. I enjoy non-fiction just as much as fiction and probably read more NF now than fiction mainly because I am anxious to learn more about everything before it is too late and my brain turns to mush. When I have mush for brains I won’t remember anything I’ve read so perhaps my reasoning is suspect.

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    • Ste J

      30/03/2015 at 19:39

      I think having mush for brains is a good thing if you are a fan of detective fiction. I like the idea of reading two books side by side, getting a personal element and the overview, as well as spotting any author mistakes if you fancy being a pedant.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  8. Christy Birmingham

    30/03/2015 at 17:32

    Given the length and the short attention spans of many readers these days (perhaps because they are learning to scan the Internet so much), I am thinking maybe it would have been a book best divided into two different ones instead? I think I would enjoy the maps though!

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    • Ste J

      30/03/2015 at 19:31

      The maps are fairly sparse, jus the same map with a few cities dotted on them but they are nice to give context.It is interesting what you say about short attention spans, apparently the brain rewires itself so if we bounce between things we are more likely to tend to do that. Goodness knows what my brain is like as I read lots and hit the internet in equal measures…I think my brain may be leaking out of my ears.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  9. Sheila

    30/03/2015 at 20:24

    This sounds intriguing – not only because it covers so many years but so many different countries and cultures. It’s amazing how much seas and oceans connect us.

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    • Ste J

      02/04/2015 at 10:16

      It is, you would think that seas and oceans kept us apart but it seems that the Romans and Egyptians were crossing the Atlantic and trading. There is plenty in this book to interest you and is a great primer to some big events and obscure bits of knowledge.

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  10. writersideup

    31/03/2015 at 05:10

    Ste J, as I was reading your intro, “colossal” was the perfect word for this undertaking! Although you weren’t 100% satisfied, it sounds like the author did one helluva job. Excellent review, my dear 🙂

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    • Ste J

      02/04/2015 at 10:17

      I think any author trying to tackle such a huge subject would miss things out and not quite succeed but it is an admirable attempt and sometimes I think maybe I am just a bit too picky!

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  11. Sherri

    01/04/2015 at 12:50

    I know I would love the maps, but this book sounds very long and indepth that I’m afraid I would lose my way, literally. Not the best map reader at the best of times, you understand, and don’t do sat nav either, so you see my dilemma. I’m proud of you for reading it and producing another wonderfully balanced review…

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    • Ste J

      02/04/2015 at 10:36

      It was something of a challenge in places but I powered through it in order to meet my other reviewing commitments, I do like to read the odd huge book every so often, makes me feel better for reading all the shorter ones. The chapters for each era are fairly short usually around thirty pages max and some as short as twelve so it is easily digestible over time. I would never ask for directions because if I did I feel I would let down all of mankind!

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Sherri

        02/04/2015 at 11:36

        Yes, I can see that…and you don’t have to tell me about men never asking directions, LOL!!!

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  12. Bumba

    01/04/2015 at 21:08

    Sounds like an interesting book, which you review excellently, which means I have a good idea what the book is like. I enjoy non-fiction, of course, truth being stranger than fiction, and me being stranger than both of them. Cheers!

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    • Ste J

      02/04/2015 at 10:20

      You’re not strange…just a little abstract. I found the truth and fiction got confused yesterday and I had no idea what was going on but then it was the papers and the line blurs anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

       
  13. Aquileana

    02/04/2015 at 10:28

    “The Great sea: A human History of the Mediterranean “… Well it sounds like a quite pretentious book… I would have been lost among those waves, for sure…
    Long books are challenging for avid readers as you are …. 300 pages would have been a perfect length… Well maybe 350… mainly because we are not talking about a novel… But this is just my opinion!…. I am glad you found it interesting and draw your own map there! 😛
    Best wishes dear Ste. Aquileana 😀

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    • Ste J

      02/04/2015 at 10:31

      That would be quite a challenge to condense the history of the Med into such a short amount of pages. It was on the whole a good book, it did lose it’s way slightly, I suppose that if the book was read in short bursts it would perhaps be better appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

       
      • Aquileana

        02/04/2015 at 10:32

        I agree with you as to the last point!… Happy day, Ste!… Aquileana 😀

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