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The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean Hardcover


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1ST edition (October 13, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195323343
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195323344
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 2.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #124,502 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, October 2011: In this expansive yet detailed historical gem, David Abulafia covers the full course of human history on the Mediterranean. Beginning more than 20,000 years ago with Cro-Magnon cave dwellers on Gibraltar and stretching to the present, Abulafia treats the Great Sea as “the Liquid Continent,” a place peopled and traveled—where trade, cultural exchange, and empire-building were forces as key to life as currents, tides, and weather patterns. The book deftly illustrates how the Mediterranean was always big enough to keep cultures apart, thus allowing them the space to flourish as unique entities, but that it was never so big that differing cultures couldn’t interact. The result is an epic story of trade and conflict, showing how differences in language, religion, law, and other human flashpoints sparked so much of what we think of today simply as culture. --Chris Schluep




Amazon Exclusive: Author Q&A with David Abulafia

Author David Abulafia

Q: What role did Greek mythology and Homeric poetry play in creating a lasting conception of the Mediterranean?

A: The seas described in Homer's Odyssey are a strange amalgam of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, of east and west. Circe the sorceress seems to live in the east, where the sun rises, while Scylla and Charybdis are often identified with the straits between Sicily and mainland Italy.

Despite those muddles, Homer does provide fascinating testimony to knowledge of the seas among the Greek colonists in Ionia (what is now eastern Turkey), whose dialect was the basis of Homeric Greek. He knew about Phoenician sailors and was not very complimentary about them. Above all, he placed Odysseus' kingdom at the western limits of Greece, on Ithaka, which he portrayed as an island where it was natural to know how to handle boats. What we see is a dawning conception of the extent of the Mediterranean and of the importance of the sea to the early Greeks.

Q: Beyond the historical, military significance of the Mediterranean, what happened culturally that we tend to overlook?

A: The Mediterranean has been a meeting place of many different ethnic and religious groups, inhabiting its shores and islands--in remote antiquity, Greeks, Etruscans, Phoenicians; in later centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims. Gathering in the port cities around the Mediterranean, such as ancient Marseilles, medieval Palermo and Alexandria, modern Livorno and Smyrna, these groups have interacted not just at the level of high culture but in everyday life. On the one hand you have the transmission of medical and astronomical knowledge from east to west in the Middle Ages, often via Muslim and Christian Spain, and on the other hand you have the peaceful interaction of traders and sailors doing business and respecting one another in the great ports of the Mediterranean. Often they were able to cross the boundaries between warring competitors for control of the sea, moving between Christian and Muslim lands under the protection of local rulers.

Q: Americans and Europeans have vastly different conceptions of the Mediterranean Sea, with most Americans thinking of the Sea and its shores primarily for its appeal as a tourist destination. What role, if any, has the Mediterranean had in shaping the United States?

A: The American involvement in the Mediterranean at the start of the nineteenth century is a fascinating story--not just an episode but something that decisively altered the Mediterranean world. By defeating the rulers of the Barbary regencies (Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli), who detained their trading ships and sailors and demanded extortionate sums of money for their release, the American navy helped clear the Mediterranean of the five-century-long scourge of piracy. This was the first foreign war of the United States after independence, and it was now that the U.S. Navy came into existence. In the 20th century, the strategic significance of the Mediterranean in the Cold War brought the U.S.A.F. to Wheelus airfield in Libya and the conflict between Israel and its neighbors has also brought the U.S. Navy into the Mediterranean. Strategically, the Mediterranean has remained important to the U.S., as we see from the latest events in Libya.

Q: Will the Mediterranean continue to play a key role in the global economy of the 21st century?

A: Much depends on the relationship between northern and southern Europe, and between Europe and North Africa. With the Greek economy in desperate straits and the Italian and Spanish economies under severe strain, and with the Arab countries in turmoil, there is a big question mark over the assumption that rapid economic growth will continue in the region. One solution may be to build closer bonds between northern and southern Mediterranean countries, including free trade concessions to Tunisia and Libya. Tunisia possessed the strongest economy in Africa and it would be a disaster to ignore its great economic potential. Another question arises over Chinese investment and involvement in the Mediterranean, which has begun to accumulate. So we are looking at a particularly uncertain future.


Review


"This magnificent book ...is teeming with colourful characters. Over the course of nearly 800pp, we follow faiths; sail with fleets; trade with bankers, financiers and merchants; raid with pirates and observe battles and sieges; watch cities rise and fall and see peoples migrate in triumph and tragedy. But at its heart, this is a history of mankind - gripping, worldly, bloody, playful - that radiates scholarship and a sense of wonder and fun, using the Mediterranean as its medium, its watery road much travelled." -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Financial Times


"This memorable study, its scholarship tinged with indulgent humour and an authorial eye for bizarre detail, celebrates the swirling changeability at the heart of that wonderful symbiosis of man and nature which once took place long Mediterranean shores" -- Jonathan Keates, The Sunday Telegraph


"An Everest of a book, brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship...the effect is mesmerising, as detail accumulates meticulously." -- Ian Thomson, The Independent


"David Abulafia's marvellous history of the Mediterranean is an excellent corrective to oversimplified views of geopolitics." -- The Economist


"New, highly impressive book...magisterial work..." -- Prospect


"Engagingly written, precisely documented, and liberally studded with tales of the fantastic and absurd, the book has much to offer the casual reader and is indispensible for specialists in the region." -- Publishers Weekly


"Abulafia writes in a popular style with an eye for interesting sidelights on history, such as the backdating of the Trojan War by Homer and Virgil, and quirky asides about modern Mediterranean culture...this comprehensive, scholarly study contains much food for thought." -- Kirkus


"A comprehensive, fair-minded history." -- The National Interest


"The Great Sea deserves a place on the shelf next to Braudel's classic work." -- Shelf Awareness


"David Abulafia's new book about the Mediterranean Sea, The Great Sea, has everything a major work of history requires. An important theme, solid research, magnificent writing and a perceptive insight into human nature...As an introduction to this story - and as a cautionary tale of what happens when the darkness in the human soul crowds out the light - there is no better place to start than David Abulafia's The Great Sea." - The California Literary Review


"For both specialists and interested general readers, this book will be a treasure and become the standard work on the topic." -- Booklist Online


"Book of the Year" selection, History category -- he Economist


"David Abulafia, Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University, brings historians and interested readers the ultimate biography of this unique sea, as seen and used and experienced by the people who lived and still live on its long coastline."-- Bookbanter


"This magnificent history, at once sweeping and precise, spans the period from 22,000 B.C. to 2010 A.D. to explicate the history of human activity on and around the Mediterranean Sea... [Abulafia] is a superb writer with a gift for lucid compression and an eye for the telling detail...He has taken on a grand subject, and has related and interpreted it with authority, exactitude, and verve. His work deserves a wide and appreciative audience." -- The Atlantic



More About the Author

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at Cambridge University and the author of The Mediterranean in History. (Photo Credit: Yao Liang)

Customer Reviews

This is a can't miss read or gift for the history buff.
robert johnston
One gains a very thorough understanding of the sources and destinations of all types of traded goods as well as navigational considerations after reading this history.
H. Yang
Of most interest to me was the role of the Mediterranean in trade.
Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

170 of 180 people found the following review helpful By robert johnston on September 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a can't miss read or gift for the history buff.

Between 22,000 and 6000 years ago, 4 trans-Mediterranean civilizations can be traced to evolve from out of Neolithic enclaves and to grow into distinctive civilizations and then disappear without a word. 13,000 years ago these seafarers traversed and traded from one end of the Mediterranean to the other to leave their patterns. The symbols of the fifth civilization defies translation and the earliest Minoans advanced like none before and are then erased beyond our purview. Only in the 6th iteration and beginning just over 5000 years ago, can we begin to peek into the human mind through its words and remnants. Abulafia places evolving civilizations in the humbling context of space and time and to be considered as numbered days in humanity's progression.

The Great Sea is written in 5 chronological parts from most ancient to present. The parts weave and intertwine the past to the next. The Great Sea has hosted the spectrum of human care takers and chaos. The Great Sea is a sweeping and compelling read that links the snippets of civilizations of one after the other. History has been well written on specific events and times, Peloponnesian and Punic Wars, the Crusades and Gallipoli and you might miss the far greater context that the Great Sea perspective provides.

The Great Sea is a disciplined focus of the history of humanity in the context of the Mediterranean. Abulafia's discipline is evidenced that this history excludes the Mesopotamians and the early Egyptians until descendants emerge onto the Sea to attempt to contend. These other civilizations were river people and land people and they earn their place among the Great Sea-farers of this story.

Political fabrications are irrelevant in the Great Sea.
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Format: Hardcover
This book, the cover tells me, `is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent invention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination'. I was immediately fascinated: how does a history of a sea read? People interact with the sea in a number of ways, but they don't live on it. What facts become important, which aspects of human civilisation will feature, and why?

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge and in this book he sets out the presence of the people who have lived around the Mediterranean from around 22000 BC to 2010 AD. This is a history of the people who `dipped their toes in the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it.' The book is divided into five chronological sections:

The First Mediterranean 22000 BC - 1000 BC
The Second Mediterranean 1000 BC - 600 AD
The Third Mediterranean 600 AD - 1350 AD
The Fourth Mediterranean 1350 AD - 1830 AD
The Fifth Mediterranean 1830 AD - 2010 AD

Each section of the book opens and closes a period of the sea's history during which trade, cultural exchanges and empires act as unifiers before the process stops or reverses. Some of those significant events include the collapse of the Roman Empire, the impact of the Black Death and more recently the building of the Suez Canal.

`The history of the Mediterranean has been presented in this book as a series of phases in which the sea was, to a greater or lesser extent, integrated into a single economic and even political area. With the coming of the Fifth Mediterranean the whole character of this process changed.
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Format: Hardcover
*****
"Over the course of nearly 800 pages, we follow faiths; sail with fleets; trade with bankers, financiers and merchants; raid with pirates and observe battles and sieges; watch cities rise and fall and see peoples migrate in triumph and tragedy. But at its heart, this is a history of mankind that radiates scholarship and a sense of wonder,...the Mediterranean as its medium." -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Financial Times

The Mediterranean Sea has been for many millennia, the cradle of great civilizations, and astounding nations, ancient moral religions, flourishing economies, and advanced social and political systems, that interacted, clashed, and influenced one another. David Abulafia offers a new vista by reflecting on the historic sea itself: its vital importance for marine transport, and its sustaining ports and fleets, in the rise and fall of empires; and substantial provision of characters; sailors, merchants, pirates, migrants, who have navigated and crossed it. Wide enough to support radically distinctive and most ancient civilizations, yet of little width, enough to ensure close contact between them. In the author's view, it was the "most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of the planet".

The Midlanmd Sea is connected to the black sea and the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by South of Europe, North Africa, and the Levant, Nearest west Asia. It is almost completely enclosed by land, usually identified as a separate body of water. The name Mediterranean is derived from (Latin: medius, 'middle' and terra, 'earth'), meaning: "in the middle of the earth", or "inland sea." The Mediterranean, covers an approximate area of a million sq mile. but its connection to the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar, is hardly nine miles wide.
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