on September 8, 2011
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. Geography and power alone rule the Great Sea. Colonies, outposts, and civilizations appear and disappear in this time machine. The patterns repeat over and over to the present day. Abulafia resists the temptation to extrapolate a future from the history and he doesn't need to. History repeats itself and so the reader is free to envision a future trajectory or tragedy. The feeling of continuity is very present.
In 800 pages and 150 pages of notes, this is a massive addictive tale that can include an `all-nighter'. The reader is left to consider the temporal irrelevance and civilization of Minoans, Phoenician's, Carthaginians, Greek's, Roman's, Genovese ... the EU and Islam. Civilizations struggle mightily to rival the cadence of the socio-technical-economic demands of this continental junction which is the "Great Sea".
The enjoyment in these reads is the relentless evolutions of civilization to possess a thing that can not be possessed for long. The nearest approximate read to compare with the Great Sea is the Durant's 11 volume "The Story of Civilization" and that's too much and not effective in conveying the story that Abulafia frames. I was struck that I've been to Malta, Crete and Cyprus and seen the remains of the most ancient Mediterranean civilization against the backdrop of the most modern and I quite missed imagining the story of everything that radiated out and in between. I've wandered among the strange Cyclopean remains in Malta, then the Cycladic places of Greece, without appreciating that Cycladic were the epoch distant successor of the Cyclopian. The time scales are hard to imagine. Abulafia does the best job I've seen in pulling it together. This is an important book and a must read. There's a good chance that the reader's perspectives might be adjusted ... it's a 5 star great read and a 'wow' that will stay with you.
p.s. I have gone back after several other reviewers noted a disconnect in the maps. I read the book and not the Kindle which is getting some tough reviews. I have to say that I noted Abulafia had aligned adequately illustrated, narrative matching maps. The exclusion of political boundaries for modern reference differing to a focus on 'centers' is part of Abulafia's story. I was previously unaware of a Sardinian (proto-Basque?) contender (pg 120) and had to go to Wiki for a closer look. Abulafia's use of maps seems adequate.
on October 6, 2011
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. The Mediterranean became the great artery through which goods, warships, migrants and other travellers reached the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic.'
There's a wealth of information here: about the great port cities (including Alexandria, Salonika and Trieste); about the space of the Mediterranean from Jaffa in the east to Gibraltar in the west, from Venice in the north to Alexandria in the south. As part of the narrative, Professor Abulafia includes information about people whose lives illuminate the developments he is describing: a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, political and religious influences. We meet the Venetian merchant Romano Mairano, and the Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr. We read, too, of Shabbetai Zevi, described as a deluded Messiah in 17th century Smyrna.
Of most interest to me was the role of the Mediterranean in trade. The merchant is a critical figure. The Phoenicians spread the alphabet across the Mediterranean: how else can merchants create the records they need? The merchants carry essentials such as grain and salt, but they also carry ideas, plagues and religions across the sea. Not all interactions are peaceful, and different people (including members of minorities) make different contributions across culture and creed.
I would have to read the book at least once more to fully appreciate Professor Abulafia's coverage: while the book is easy to read there is a huge amount of information to read and absorb. There is a map included in each chapter, which I found very helpful in placing the narrative.
This is an amazing book and well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the history of the Mediterranean Sea.
`Rather than searching for unity we should note diversity.'
"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. As it has always done, this inland sea serves to join as well as divide, the paradox that provides David Abulafia, in his lavish and quite astonishing compendium, "The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean."
"The Great Sea," unlocks its rich and vigorous past, ranging from early antiquity to our time. It is a vivid record of human progress and historical interaction across its shores, that has brought together most of the greatest ancient civilizations, and the surpassing empires of medieval and modern times. Interweaving major political and naval developments with the decline and flow of trade, Abulafia explores how commercial transactions in the midland sea created both rivalries and partnerships, with merchants acting as intermediaries between cultures, trading goods that were as exotic on one side of the sea as they were commonplace on the other. He stresses the remarkable ability of Mediterranean cultures to uphold the civilizing ideal of cohabitation exemplified in late antiquity Alexandria, and medieval Spain.
Magnificently written and overwhelming in its scope, with over seventy illustrations, the study is as colorful and comprehensive as the Mediterranean world it reveals, a meeting place of many different ethnic and religious groups, covering historically everything from the Trojan War, the history of piracy, and the great naval battle between Cleopatra's fleet and Rome's, to the Jewish Diaspora scattering within the Hellenistic worlds, in Alexandria and Antioch, the rise of Islam, The crusades, and mass tourism of today. This is a magnum opus account of the most vibrant theater of human interaction in history.
on December 2, 2011
Written for educated non-specialists, The Great Sea covers the human history, largely commercial, of the Mediterranean. It traces the rise and fall of civilizations (mostly city-states) that depended on Mediterranean trade (Egypt, for example, properly gets short shrift until the Hellenistic era and the founding, long heydey, and decline of Alexandria).
The story follows colonizations and wars driven mostly by commerce--the search for new markets and new commodities--luxury goods and materials required by advancing technology.
There is a thesis, demonstrated repeatedly in a non-polemical way, that cities that tolerated ethnically/religiously diverse peoples prospered; those that didn't faded into obscurity.
This is a scholarly work in the sense that it provides source notes, though not a separate comprehensive list of works cited, mostly secondary but some primary; it does include several pages of recommended further reading.
I would guess, though, that the author wrote a great deal based on knowledge acquired over a lifetime of scholarship and didn't backcheck every fact, which probably accounts for the one minor error I noticed (he confuses Richard I of England's wife with his sister); there are probably others. This in no way diminishes the quality of the work. Even Homer nods.
I read this book on a Kindle. The footnote hyperlinking worked well. Other than many compounding anomalies (hard hyphens interpreted as soft ones), I noted no typos or formatting errors.
The illustrations appear at the end of the book and are awkward to reach; I used the Table of Contents and paged thru them. They are not linked from the text. On a standard Kindle, the illustrations are, of course, black and white and not high resolution, which is fine with me since I'm not willing to sacrifice megabytes of the Kindle's sadly limited storage space for high resolution versions of illustrations I found easy to track down on the Web when I wanted to see them in more detail.
The maps are another matter. They are interspersed in the text, are uniformly the entire Mediterranean with a few spots picked out for emphasis relevant to the section they're in, and are difficult to read even with a magnifying glass. They are not, however, essential to the book, so it's just a minor irritation.
All in all, I enjoyed The Great Sea immensely; it's highly readable, and I learned a great deal. Recommended.
This is a splendid, well written book with an emphasis on the economics of the Mediterranean basin, yet with a rejection of the over-hyped Braudel thesis. I found particularly illuminating the discussion of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and the later rise of the Italian trading cities such as Amalfi, Pisa Venice and Genoa and how their emergence ended the previous trade patterns dominated by Jews and Moslems as reflected in their own trade documents. The book has excellent notes and a superb bibliography.
They why the Caveat?? Because the vital illustrations are missing from the Kindle edition!
on December 5, 2011
This is a magnificently written, remarkable, view changing book. It is impossible to write a thorough review of this 600+ page book (not to mention the over 100 pages of notes/references) that covers the history of the Mediterranean Sea from before written history to the present day. However, let me say that Abulafia does an absolutely astounding job of relating this history without pre-conceived notions or prejudice. The book is highly readable and an eye-opening joy. Simply by reporting on the peoples and events that shaped the lands around the Mediterranean over thousands of years, Abulafia shows that people are people regardless of the time in which they live. The history of the Mediterranean is one of human triumph and tragedy that repeats over and over again simply because human beings are human beings. The only time in the history of the Sea that it was peaceful for hundreds of years was during the Pax Romana, that period when the Roman Empire ruled all of the lands around the Mediterranean (called the "Mare Nostrum" by the Romans - "Our Sea"). The book is divided into five chronological sections from 20,000 BCE to the present. Each section is amazing in its breadth and not only includes information from the most recent archeological finds, but also details how these finds relate to each other, to other lands and peoples around the Mediterranean, and to the past (and possible future) of the Sea. I give this book my highest recommendation.
After reading the other reviews I agree with this recurring concern: the maps are too few, and lack detail. It appears the publisher outsourced the illustrations to a minimalist. It is exactly these kinds of books that appeal to geography students and students of geography. And students of geography love maps.
It is a very thick book and thus hard to hold while reading. But the writing is so good, you don't want the book to end.
Easily 5-star had the maps been up to speed. Inside the front / back covers would have been the perfect place for a map. It's hard to believe these surfaces/pages are completely empty.
on November 14, 2011
This is not an overnight read unless you are trapped on a jet heading east across the pacific at midnight. It is a huge labor and really well done. I've checked a few of his references and he is spot on. While physically a huge book, it is broken down into manageable parts and is easy to use as reference material for other more narrow books on specific ideas.
I am only a few hundred pages into it and keep a few folded sheets of typing paper to keep notes on esoteric pieces of information which have evaded other historical writers. This is a really well done piece of work which will probably gnaw at me until I finish it. As an extremely fast reader ... I am taking delight in savoring the nuances and insights which the author has shared. Learning to slow down and enjoy the subtleties of any book is a technique I am only now understanding. I can only barely visualize what material and notes David has not included in this book.
Get it, read it, enjoy it and savor a real treasure in historical writing.
on March 10, 2012
David Abulafia's masterpiece chronicles the history of the civilizations that looked out upon the Mediterranean Sea. His history focuses on the interaction and diffusion of people, ideas, technology, and commerce across thousands of years of human history. Dividing his history of the Mediterranean into five epochs (I. 22000BC - 1000BC, II. 1000BC-AD600, III. 600AD - 1350AD, IV. 1350AD - 1850AD, V. 1830AD - 2010AD) Abulafia shows that the Mediterranean was maybe the most dynamic scene of interaction between civilization ever to exist on this planet. To try to encapsulate what this book is not to do justice to it because there just so much to it.
But the ability to watch as civilizations rise and fell is fascinating, especially for someone like me who grew up playing Civilization. And the succession of civilizations encompasses all those who sailed the 'wine dark sea'. Egyptians and Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Israelites, and Romans, Byzantines and Vandals and Franks and Moors and Normans, Ragusans, Genoans, and Venetians , Catalans and Portuguese, French and English, Germans, Americans and Ottomans all fought and traded and interacted with each other in their respective time periods. I am sure I left some out but the book is very long. It is a sweeping narrative of the sea; it is not for the feint of heart either - the cast of characters makes the amount of characters in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' look like a one man monologue.
But if that doesn't deter you, and you want to understand how today's Mediterranean civilization came to be, then buy this book.
on September 11, 2012
A good generalist work, not for specialists . The chronological spread is to ample to be dealt with single handed but this notwithstanding, David Abulafia - a well known authority on Middle Ages and on Mediterranean - accomplished a fine book that deserves wide success. As far as I could notice (my knowledge is restricted and inadequate) in the course of a first, superficial reading, there are some oversight that would deserve a proper adjustment in a future edition. What follows a short and incomplete list.
- page 420 At the battle of Prevesa there wasn't a single Portuguese ship: 55 galleys were Venetian, 49 from Spain and the rest from the Pope and other Italian states;
- page 441 ff. The information on Beatrice Mendes and on Joseph Nasi are recurrently inaccurate: the works of Cecil Roth, as scientific sources, are amply outdated by several other authors, like, for instance, Grunebaum-Ballin (Joseph Naci duc de Naxos Paris, 1968.);
- page 450 The Real carried 400 men of the Tercio di Sardegna and not "400 Sardinian": the soldier of this Tercio were almost all of hiberic origin;
- page 450 Barbarigo was all but foolish. Ha had to lift his visor in order to give orders and be heard in a moment of emergency;
- page 450 The Uskoks never "succeeded in boxing Venice in a corner of the Adiatic." They were a true nuisance for trade and for political reasons, just like the Somali pirates today, but for the Venetian navy the only real problem was to catch them;
- page 461 - The bertoni story, as far as Venice is concerned, is not correct. To understand why the galley remained in use until the first decades of the XIX century it is essential to know the artilleries of the 1500-1800 era.
In general a very good book that helps in knowing and understanding the civilisations of the Great Sea.