For 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.