For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilization. From the time of Troy until the middle of the nineteenth century, human activity on and around the Sea has decisively shaped much of the course of world history. David Abulafia's The Great Sea is the first complete history of what has happened on and immediately around the Mediterranean, from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent reinvention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination.
*I found out about this book from the Economist Magazine's list of 2011 books of the year.
Abulafia divides his book into five periods. The second period (1000 BC to 600 AD) is the age of the Greeks and Romans, the third period (600 - 1350) sees the rise of Venice, the fourth (1350-1830) is the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. The fifth period (1830- ) sees the importance of the Mediterranean disappear - the Great Sea turning into a local backwater whose only value is its access to both the Atlantic and the Indian ocean. The book, thus, is nostalgic - and revisionist in neglecting the extremely powerful influence of the non-Mediterranean powers. From the Romans to the Ottomans to the Germans and Americans, it was the people of the land, not the sea that dominated Mediterranean history. Reading only Abulafia will not give you a full picture of this sea's history. His elitist diatribe against mass tourism at the end of the book is unnecessary, but it included a wonderful Freudian expression that illustrates his anti-German stance based on ignorance: "naturist resorts ...would appeal specially to the eager adherents of German and Scandinavian Frei-Korps-Kultur seeking an all-over tan." In German, the terminus is Frei-Körper-Kultur (enjoying one's naked body in mother nature). Freikorps exist too - these were the post WWI German right-wing militias, ancestor of the SA and SS. Mixing the two up requires both linguistic and cultural ignorance whose undertone detracts from an otherwise highly readable book.
This reads like a textbook at times, but Abulafia livened things up at one point when he said "the incestuous mass-murderer Charlemagne." He did not refer to any other conqueror in such derogatory terms nor did he make many personal judgments against others, so I wonder what his beef against Charlemagne is. As a historian, making the incest claim stick against Charlemagne based on rumor and innuendo is questionable at best.
This is not to say there are not issues: I was deeply unhappy with the maps. There were too few, with too few labels, and I had to have a historical atlas constantly at my side. In addition, the photographs in my edition were in black & white (the European edition apparently had colour photos so watch which edition you purchase). And the names and place names are so endless that although my Kindle-reading friends complained about certain aspects of the book on a Kindle, they said the links to the footnotes, etc. which were obviously electronic, were extremely helpful, which made me mad with jealousy as I juggled bookmarks on the map and footnote pages.
I can't conceive of writing a book of this magnitude and depth of knowledge. What a legacy Professor Abulafia has left the world. I stand in total awe.