Though a glass darkly – 40

The Mediterranean

For me the words ‘The Mediterranean’ are wonderfully evocative. Heat, sand, sunshine, the smell of sun protection cream and of Gitanes; the clink of ice-cubes in pastis or in citron pressé. I’m not sure how much the images owe to Scott Fitzgerald or to Françoise Sagan. And how much to my own memories. I first saw the Mediterranean in 1961, at La Ciotat, east of Marseille, having hitched across France with my older brother. We stayed in the youth hostel, smeared ourselves with thick, brown Ambre Solaire, lay on the beach all day, and shed several layers of skin by night. Over the years I’ve stayed at various times at Vsar, on the Istrian peninsula, where Susie and I spent a delayed honeymoon staying with Bostjan;  at Taormina, staying with Saro’s parents; at Cassis, at Peniscola, at Cavalaire [where we swam reluctantly alongside a dead rat], at San Pedro Pescador on the Costa Brava, at Beziers-Plage, and in Nice. The last time we stayed on the Mediterranean we were doing a [not wholly satisfactory] locum chaplaincy in Ibiza a few years ago.


David Abulafia: The Mediterranean in History

With snow and ice outside I’ve been reading this book which I was given by Mike and Wendy for my birthday last year. It is a sumptuous illustrated Thames and Hudson book; more suitable for skimming the pages than for reading. It tells me that the term ‘Mare Mediterraneum’ only came into existence in the sixth century. The Mediterranean climate is essentially hot and dry summers; warm and wet winters. It includes both the driest place in Europe, Almeria in south-east Spain; and the wettest, Crkvice in Montenegro. Throughout its history there has been a population shift from mountains to the coastal settlements. Watercourses run typically only during the rainy season. There are small and beautiful deserts, in Spain and on Crete.

Of the staple crops, olives and some vegetables are native. Wheat and barley were introduced at an early age from the Middle East. Vines were imported from central Europe. Centuriation was the Roman practice of dividing land into exact squares. Cultivation terraces are the most characteristic feature of Mediterranean landscapes. Mediterranean peoples generally settled near water sources. In the absence of springs or wells, water was stored in stone cisterns. The Mediterranean with jagged promontories and few natural harbours was dangerous for ancient shipping; as Xerxes and St Paul both discovered. Piracy was a hazard, on land as well as at sea.

The first trading empires and the battle for the sea routes

How languages developed and how different ethnic groups emerged in Italy, Spain, and Greece remains a mystery. Concentrated settlements, the earliest cities, are found in the Levant and in Anatolia, from about 10,000 to 7,000 BC. There were four ‘Bronze Age Empires, c.4,000-2,000 BC’: Hittite Anatolia, Pharaonic Egypt, the Minoan Aegean, and Mesopotamian civilisations. Of these Hittite is the least known. The Mycenean and Phoenician trading networks were the first to master  the Mediterranean.

At the end of the Bronze Age several powerful states in Greece and Anatolia, the Hittite Empire and the Mycenean kingdom, all collapsed. Greeks began settlements on the shores of Asia Minor. The emergent powers were the Tyrrhenians of the Aegean and the Phoenicians. The Phoenician trading model and their maritime trade routes were rapidly imitated by the Greeks. By the eighth century BC Corinth had come to occupy a dominant role. These commercial links did much to diffuse Greek culture as well as goods. There were trade wars between Greek cities snd Carthage and Syracuse. But a giant was emerging from the Italian peninsula.

The creation of Mare Nostrum: 300 BC – 500 AD

Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. After his death Macedonia and Egypt struggled for control of the eastern Mediterranean. But  the clash in Sicily with the Phoenician colony of Carthage led Rome into becoming a major sea power. “In response to their rivalry Carthage created an army, which invaded Italy and came close to conquering Rome, and Rome in turn created a  navy.” [Geoffrey Rickman] By 146 BC Rome had become dominant; and Roman forces destroyed the city of Carthage in the west and Corinth in the east. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the great sea battle of Actium [off the west coast of Greece] in 31 BC, Rome annexed Egypt; and the circle of Roman control of the Mediterranean was now complete.

Under the rule of Imperial Rome the whole Mediterranean was united for the first [and last] time. Between 200 BC and 200 AD the volume of sea traffic had an intensity that would not be matched again for a thousand years.  For the Romans the sea was ‘Mare Magnum’, or Mare Internum, or simply ‘Mare Nostrum’ [the ‘great sea’, the ‘internal sea,’ or ‘our sea’]. 

Mare Nostrum

Roman sea trade was exemplified by cabotage, tramping from port to port. Which necessitates harbour or refuges every 50-70 kms. Rome in the time of Emperor Augustus had an estimated population of 1 million, demanding the import of massive amounts of grain, oil, and wine from all around the southern Mediterranean. Navigation was customary from May to September; the winter was a closed season for sailing. Rome had long made use of the natural harbour at Puteoli in Campania. But the Emperors Claudius and Trajan subsequently built a huge, artificial harbour near the mouth of the Tiber. And the Romans built a number of smaller harbours, close to settlements, around the Mediterranean; in southern Gaul, in Spain, and in the eastern Mediterranean.

As the Roman Empire came under attack from the barbarian invasions from the north, large-scale trade on the Mediterranean collapsed. The population of Rome fell rapidly, to around 300,000 by AD 450. The imperial court retreated from Rome to Milan, and then to Ravenna, sheltered behind protective marshes. Such trade as continued was small scale cabotage. By AD 500 the situation in the Mediterranean was very different: “not because the sea was divided off at any point but because the changed world was no longer a cohesive unit”.  [Geoffrey Rickman] The Roman Empire, described as ‘built on water’ was gone. The Mediterranean sea was no longer a Roman lake.

Trogir, Dalmatia

The Mediterranean breaks up: 500-1000 AD

After the Roman Empire in the west came to an end in 476, new invaders, the Lombards, came to dominate the Italian peninsula. From the early seventh century Muslim forces swept across the eastern Mediterranean, and on across north Africa and Spain before being defeated by Charles Martel at Tours in 732. In the ninth century the Mediterranean began to suffer incursions by the Vikings. The Byzantine Empire was increasingly threatened, first by the Bulgars, a Turkish people; and then from the north by Scandinavians who had settled along the Dnieper river, known as the Rhos, who attacked Constantinople in 860 and again in 1043. As the Byzantine Empire loses ground, the emergent powers are the Christian cities of Venice and Pisa and Genoa.

Rumeli-Hisari, The Bosphorus

A Christian Mediterranean 1000-1500 AD

During these five centuries of the Middle Ages the expansion of the Western powers was balanced by the decline of Muslim power in the Arab countries; but also by the rise of Turkish power in the Ottoman Empire. It was the initiative of the Italian merchant republics that brought a new stimulus to Mediterranean trade. Traffic was mainly consumer goods and raw materials; but also slave trade, and luxury items – silk, spices, perfumes, precious stones and pearls.

The Albigensian Crusade brought the northern French into Languedoc. For the first time French royal authority reached the Mediterranean; and Louis IX built the new town of Aigues-Mortes. Developments in Italy took on a new character with the creation of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The growing strength of the Western powers contrasts with the increasing debility of the eastern Mediterranean states. The Crusades mark the start of European colonisation in the eastern Mediterranean. With ports at Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli, and Antioch. Pilgrims and crusaders chose to take up residence in the newly created kingdom of Jerusalem.


The Black Death swept through the Mediterranean in 1347 and 1348, killing a third or more of the population. Christopher Columbus’s setting foot in the New World in 1492, and the circum-navigation of Africa, thus reaching India, by Vasco da Gama six years later, gave rise to wider trading horizons; and threatened to undermine the Mediterranean spice trade.

The Mediterranean as a battleground for the European powers: 1700-1900 AD

In the eighteenth century Islamic power in the Mediterranean declined. In 1768 France purchased the island of Corsica from Genoa [Napoleon Buonaparte was born the following year.] In 1797, Venice, a long-standing centre of trade and power, lost its independence. And in 1797 Napoleon, after conquering northern Italy, decided to attack Egypt.

In August 1798 a British fleet under Nelson defeated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, off the coast of Egypt. The battle decisively affected Mediterranean history for the next century. From 1798 to the post-1945 decline of British naval power the British navy dominated the Mediterranean. Which was now the front line in a clash between two imperial powers’ struggle devised by strategists in distant, northern capitals. The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 gave Britain Malta and the Ionian Islands to add to Gibraltar. In the 1830s France occupied Algeria. [By 1846 there were 108,000 French troops in Algeria.] In 1859 the Suez Canal was a joint Franco-Ottoman enterprise, but in 1875 the British government bought the shares of the Ottoman Khedive. In 1882 Britain invaded Egypt and established a protectorate there [though this was not confirmed until 1914].

The world of Islam was in retreat. The British Navy dominated  the Mediterranean.

A globalised Mediterranean: 1900-2000 AD

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the total expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor by the new secular Republic of Turkey; and the forced repatriation of Turks from Greece and the Greek islands. The First World War also ended Ottoman influence in Palestine and Syria. These countries were entrusted to Britain and to France by the League of Nations. The French believed in exporting French civilisation across the Mediterranean. So Algiers became a French city on the edge of Africa. But the Algerian Civil War, 1954-62, ended with Algerian independence; and with a mass migration of French Algerians to France, especially to Montpellier, and Marseille and Toulon.

The major consequence of the Second World War was the creation in Palestine of a Jewish state, Israel. It was originally sanctioned on the basis of a two nation state, Jewish and Arab. But after 1948 fighting the Palestinian Arabs fled into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Soviet support for the Arab world was demonstrated by their funding for the Aswan Dam. Nasser championed the cause of Arab unity. But the Six Day War in 1967 was a massive humiliation for the Arab world.

The conflict between Israel and the Arabs is not the only source of tension in the Mediterranean at the end of the twentieth century. There is an unresolved tension in Cyprus between Greece and Turkey. And the tiny territory of Gibraltar continues to sour Anglo-Spanish relations.

Cultural tranformation

Until the end of the nineteenth century the Mediterranean was a place for travellers, not tourists.

With the development of the Cote d’Azur at the end of the century the coast around Nice and Menton became a playground for the rich. Things changed after the Second World War as travel became easier. The real transformation came with the advent of the aeroplane and charter flights. Britain led the way because there was no direct rail link to the Mediterranean. Thomson Holidays began charter flights and package holidays to Majorca in the 1950s. Palma is now one of the busiest airports in Europe. And tourism now accounts for 84% of Majorca’s economy.

Holiday-makers were not generally in search of culture. A deep Mediterranean tan became a badge of prosperity and health. The supposed immorality of the bikini led Franco’s Spain to ban them from beaches. There was a culture clash about [lack of] clothing between liberal France and the more conservative countries such as Catholic Malta or Muslim Tunisia.

Two inventions, as far apart in technology as can be imagined, have transformed the relationship between the Mediterranean and northern Europe in the second  half of the twentieth century: the aeroplane and the bikini”.  [David Abulafia]


Hotel Les Roche-Blanches, Cassis

One of the idle pleasures during this time of lock-down has been planning trips that we are not currently able to make.  So I planned for myself a hybrid day on the shores of the Mediterranean, limiting myself to places where we have been. Breakfast will be on the terrace of the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina. With splendid views out across the Ionian sea, and the rooms [converted monks’ cells] evoking memories of Edward VII and of Audrey Hepburn. After breakfast some gentle exercise: walking from Soller up through the olive and orange groves to Fornalutx, often described as the prettiest village in Mallorca. Coffee in the square and time to buy an artisan T-shirt. Lunch caused me much debate and head-scratching. But I have settled for Trogir, which we visited all too briefly driving up the Yugoslav coast many years ago. Jack Cuddon, who once taught my brother English, describes it as a “small medieval town of tanned and weathered stone, congested with palaces, monasteries, and churches”. The afternoon would be mainly for swimming and sun-bathing. Probably at Vsar, further up the same coast on the Istrian peninsula, trying to avoid the sea urchins.   And then dinner and overnight at Les Roches Blanches in Cassis. It is ridiculously more expensive than when I once stayed there. But the setting and panorama across to the port are splendid. So – dream on. In the real world we are planning to book a Car Club car later this week and drive out to a cafe in East Lothian. Which will be good. But not quite the same.

February 2021

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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