Amazon Exclusive: Author Q&A with 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.
"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