The Mediterranean Sea
a crossroad of civilizations
Testo: David Abulafia
Foto: Andrea Pontini

The Mediterranean Sea, a crossroad of civilizations

The Mediterranean only accounts for 0.8% of the maritime surface of the globe, and yet it has had an importance in human history far beyond what its size might seem to merit. Indeed, its relative smallness, compared to the oceans, is one of the reasons for its importance. Here is the space that joins together three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, and whose history is founded upon the intensive political, commercial and cultural interaction that has taken place across its surface. It has been the scene of conquest, trade, migration, cultural relations, for nearly 3,000 years, ever since its length was traversed by Phoenician, Etruscan and Greek sailors, and ever since its cities, such as Tyre, Corinth, Tarquinia, Carthage and Rome emerged as major nodes of population.

With the opening of the Atlantic and of routes from Europe to India at the end of the fifteenth century, the economic importance of the Mediterranean gradually diminished, though it never disappeared. Surprisingly, perhaps, the opening of the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century did not boost the fortunes of the Mediterranean, since the Mediterranean became a passage way for shipping (especially from Great Britain) en route to India and beyond. Britain’s mastery of Gibraltar, Malta and eventually Cyprus, as well as its role in Egypt and the Levant, was directly linked to the requirements of its Asian empire, rather than specifically Mediterranean issues.

A historical perspective on the significance of the Mediterranean is vital, because the legacy of those past centuries is still felt within the Mediterranean. Its map reflects the movement of peoples over millennia, so that the Adriatic, for instance, preserves the division between the areas settled by Slavonic peoples, on its eastern shores, and the speakers of Italian on its western shores; but this goes further, and is expressed in the religious variety of the eastern side, reflected in the bitter divisions during the disintegration of Yugoslavia: Catholics in Croatia, Slavonic Orthodox in Serbia and Montenegro, Muslims in Bosnia. Complex legacies can be identified in Sardinia and Corsica, both islands having been brought into the Italian sphere by the Genoese and the Pisans, although Corsica finally fell under French rule, while it still retains distinctive characteristics, such as a language much closer Italian than to French. One could even say that how we define Europe is the result of the long history of the Mediterranean: the loss of Majorca, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete and Cyprus to European powers ensured that they are seen as part of Europe rather than as extensions of Africa and Asia.

One of the important features of the Mediterranean has been the existence of its port cities, places where, at least in previous centuries, peoples of varied ethnic origins and religious identities lived side by side, in often friendly but sometimes tense relationships with one another. The Mediterranean ports acted as magnets drawing in not just the population of the surrounding countryside but a varied population drawn from right across the region – merchants, mercenaries, missionaries and all sorts of other migrants, not forgetting the active slave trade in the era of the Barbary Corsairs and the Knights of Santo Stefano and of Malta. Something of this world survived until nationalist movements saw these port cities torn apart by political rivalries, as the Greeks and Armenians fled from Smyrna (Izmir) in 1922, as the Jews of Thessaloniki were exterminated in 1943, as the Italians, Greeks, Jews and others were chased out of Alexandria in the 1950’s and ’60’s.

The end of colonial occupation saw the European settlers leave Algiers and Tunis (not just French but Spaniards and Italians), while the Italians left Tripoli. Even so, these cities contain visible reminders of their colonial past in their avenues lined by monumental buildings modelled on those of Paris and Rome. Ethnic convulsions have continued to occur during the last seventy years, as Israel became the focus of Jewish settlement after the horrors of the Holocaust, while large numbers of Palestinian Arabs fled right across the Middle East. Much more recently, as Syria disintegrated, the exodus of most of its Christian population took place, not to mention vast numbers of Muslim refugees.

Understanding these changes is crucial to the way we interpret the Mediterranean today. The unresolved problems concern not just Israel and the Palestinians, but economic relationships across Mediterranean space. Decolonisation had the welcome result that the inhabitants of north Africa could take charge of their own destiny; but external interference by the Soviet Union, along with a reluctance to retain a close relationship with the former colonial powers, inhibited the creation of strong economic ties across the Mediterranean. This happened, moreover, at just the moment when the movement for European integration was gathering pace, with first France and Italy and then other Mediterranean democracies looking northwards towards Brussels and what became the European Union. It became far more important to pursue a common economic strategy in Europe than to focus on trans-Mediterranean relationships. Building close ties to the power-house economy of Germany promised to stimulate economic growth in a way that ties to much poorer countries around the southern rim of the Mediterranean could not do.

Initiatives to promote some sort of co-operation across the Mediterranean have not had significant results. There is a great deal of talking, but action is needed. Like other seas, the Mediterranean has suffered from over-fishing. It also has suffered severely from pollution, accentuated by the vast expansion of the tourist industry. The building of massed ranks of concrete hotels along the shores of Catalonia, the Adriatic, Cyprus and many other parts of the Mediterranean has brought a degree of prosperity to these areas that would have seemed inconceivable a hundred years ago, but at a high cost to the Mediterranean itself.

The most visible problem within the Mediterranean has become the flow of migrants: refugees from persecution and warfare not just in Syria or Libya, but from further afield, to whom must be added large numbers of economic migrants. Phenomenal population growth in West Africa, as medical care has improved, and the lack of opportunities for a newly emergent middle class has propelled migration in dangerous conditions across the Sahara and then in unseaworthy boats across to Malta, Lampedusa and Pantelleria, or over the barriers at Ceuta and Melilla into Spanish territory. This flow will not cease. The question is how to manage it in the interests of safety, fairness and the capacity of receiving countries to cope with the influx. This is not an issue just for individual countries such as Italy, Greece and Spain, but one that demands an international solution, especially since the target of many trans-Mediterranean migrants is not a Mediterranean country but Great Britain, Germany and other northern states. It is a global problem that also demands political stability, investment and job creation in the countries from which migrants come. Just opening the doors and letting everyone stream in is not a humane or practical solution. Those who get left behind are often those most in need.

All these thoughts lead to the conclusion that the Mediterranean is not functioning effectively at the moment. The Covid pandemic has only worsened further a worsening situation.