IN THE Rebel, his treatise against totalitarianism, particularly of the Left, and in some of his earlier essays, Albert Camus hailed the Mediterranean, which for him embodied life, light, beauty (quite probably sex) and a sense of limits. He contrasted what Cambridge don David Abulafia calls “the Great Sea”—actually a Hebrew designation (hayam hagadol)—with the darkness of northern Europe’s cities and forests, seedbeds as they were of the twentieth century’s encompassing murderous ideologies, Bolshevism and Nazism.
“The Mediterranean sun has something tragic about it,” Camus wrote in “Helen’s Exile” (1948):
quite different from the tragedy of [northern] fogs. Certain evenings at the base of the seaside mountains, night falls over the flawless curve of a little bay, and there rises from the silent waters a sense of anguished fulfillment. In such spots one can understand that if the Greeks knew despair, they always did so through beauty. . . . Our time, on the other hand, has fed its despair on ugliness and convulsions. This is why Europe would be vile, if suffering could ever be so.
He identified the sea with Greece, a place that revered moderation. “It never carried anything to extremes, neither the sacred nor reason, because it negated nothing. . . . balancing shadow with light. Our Europe, on the other hand, off in the pursuit of totality, is the child of disproportion.”
Abulafia’s sweeping survey of the “sea between the lands” and its shoreline peoples—from the Stone Age through the present era of global tourism—tells us a different story. It is a tale in large part characterized by hubris, excess and mass murder. Take the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BC, the three bouts of combat between the Phoenician colonies (with their center in Carthage) and Rome for command of the central and western Mediterranean. It was a war to the finish, ending in the annihilation of Carthage and the sowing of its ruins with salt, its inhabitants put to the sword or consigned to slavery. Or take the campaigns of the Almohads, sectarians who ruled the western Mediterranean lands (Spain, Morocco) during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with an iron fist, dispensing death and terror in the name of a pristine Islam. Or take some of the crusaders, who slaughtered Muslims (and Jews) in vast numbers in their efforts to reclaim and purify the Holy Land.
Abulafia doesn’t really tackle the contemporary resurgence, and its implications, of Salafist Islam around the Mediterranean basin, from the Strait of Gibraltar through Bosnia and Alexandria, which may yet herald a new Mediterranean age (in The Great Sea he postulates five eras between 22,000 BC and AD 2010, a periodization that is not completely persuasive). But he does refer to a “new Ottomanism” when considering the Gaza flotilla incident of May 2010 and its aftermath. (He could well have added Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent repeated threats to send Turkish warships into the eastern Mediterranean to assert the “rule of law.”)
Excess seems to be part of the human condition, and while paragons of excess—mass murderers, in short—may have flourished at certain times in certain places, there are probably few of the earth’s regions that have demonstrated complete immunity.
WHAT WE have in The Great Sea is a history that emphasizes politics and warfare: these are the primary and most significant arenas of human agency—and the major vehicles of change. In fact, in his “Introduction,” Abulafia, a man of noble Sephardic Jewish lineage (and in his book one repeatedly encounters the Jewish dimension, almost invariably Sephardic, in this or that period and land—and the occasional precursing Abulafia to boot), sets out the parameters that distinguish his opus from previous major works of Mediterranean historiography, most notably Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) and Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (2000). Horden and Purcell dealt mainly with communities and peoples living along the littoral, what happened on land, not with what transpired on the sea’s surface. Braudel, for his part, argued that geography, rather than men’s actions, was the real determinant of development and change in and around the vast water’s edges. “Braudel showed what almost amounted to contempt for political history,” writes Abulafia. He could have added military history as well. Sea and wind currents, climate and landscapes ruled the tales of men. Abulafia prefers to stress “the human hand” as “more important in moulding the history of the Mediterranean than Braudel was ever prepared to admit.”
Abulafia is profusely informative about commercial and cultural connections between the various communities that lived in the surrounding areas (Phoenician fertilization of Italy, the gifts of the Sea Peoples to the Levant) and allows for the importance of geography in periodically determining the foci of human activity, the sites empires and peoples covet, attack or abandon (Gibraltar dominating the sea’s western throughway, Corfu controlling passage up the Adriatic).
But throughout, Abulafia casts an impartial, not to say jaundiced, eye on the successive struggles for dominance in the various Mediterranean theaters at different times. Occasionally, he appears bent on provocation, and (inevitably) distortion is the result. Take Abulafia’s view of Persia versus Greece in the fifth century BC, the struggle, as traditionally taught in schools, that helped forge who we Westerners are, where civilization battled and overcame invading barbarism. “Whether the Greeks were really fighting for liberty against Persian tyranny is questionable,” he writes. Indeed, the Persians generally left alone cities that offered up the symbolic tribute “of earth and water,” he tells us. Still, a good case can be made that submission to an Asiatic overlord meant loss of sovereignty and that political freedom was what was really at issue.
It all began when the Ionian Greek cities along Asia Minor’s Aegean coast and the Hellespont failed to help the Persian king Cyrus against the Lydians in the mid-sixth century. The Persian ruler, after victory, forced the Ionians to give him ships and men with which to subdue other Greek cities and islands. In 509 BC, the Persians conquered Lemnos and massacred many of its inhabitants. Revolt ensued, and mainland Greek poleis came to the aid of the Ionians. According to Abulafia, as the Ionian revolt “petered out, the Persians were surprisingly considerate, accepting democratic governments and attempting to remove a source of tension between cities by demanding that they make trade agreements with one another.” But then, with the accession of Xerxes to the throne in 486, Persian policy “shifted . . . from tough accommodation with dissidents to vigorous suppression of Persia’s foes.” Xerxes prepared huge armies and fleets to invade mainland Greece and then struck. He was briefly stalled by the Spartan three hundred at Thermopylae (the “hot gates”) and then was thoroughly defeated at sea at Salamis (480) and Mycale (479) and on land at Plataea (479).
Such is Abulafia’s presentation. But it is strangely deficient and incomplete. To crush Greece wasn’t the whim of a particular Persian emperor; it was consistent long-term imperial policy. From around 500, if not earlier, the Persians intended to extend their rule deep into Europe, including over Greece. Facilitation of this was probably the main aim of their abortive expedition against the island of Naxos, midway in the Aegean. No wonder, then, that the Ionian rebels of 499–493 felt able to ask for, and receive, help from the mainland. True, then Persian leader Darius subsequently treated the beaten rebels with (relative) kid gloves—he needed their maritime support for the invasion of Greece—and demanded of the mainland city-states relatively cheap tokens of submission. But when these were not forthcoming, the Persian army crossed the Aegean and attacked Euboea and then, in 490, landed in Attica, north of Athens. There, at Marathon, a small, mainly Athenian force roundly defeated the Persians, putting an end to the first invasion of the mainland. Astonishingly, Abulafia fails even to mention the campaign and the surrounding circumstances, jumping straight from the Ionian revolt to the (second and larger) Xerxian invasion of 480, and then moving on to detailed descriptions of post-479 Sparta and Athens as effectively nondemocratic imperial polities, as if to assert a moral equivalence with the empire they had just defeated. Abulafia devotes a long paragraph to describing the tos-and-fros of the squadrons at Salamis—but not a word about Marathon, surely a crucial battle in European history and one which even inserted itself into humankind’s vocabulary.
AND THEN there is the question of clashes of civilizations, another key historical meme that Abulafia’s narrative seems to skirt. He certainly expends a great many pages on tracing Muslim-Christian conflict and contact in the Mediterranean from the seventh through the twentieth centuries. And one is struck not merely by the quick succession of combat and commercial and cultural intercourse but by the, on occasion, simultaneous occurrence of these interactions. While crusaders are out to beat back the Muslims and reclaim Palestine for Christendom, Christians and Muslims nearby are buying and selling and making cross-civilizational profits. Throughout, Muslim warlords make pacts with Christian warlords as their cousins are busy killing each other.
Take Francis I, king of France (1494–1547), at loggerheads with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (1500–1558), who was busy fighting the Turks. Francis goaded the beys in Tunis to send corsairs against the Kingdom of Naples and supplied the Muslims with cannons to reduce the Spanish fort in Algiers. In 1543, a French ambassador “accompanied [the Muslim] Hayrettin’s fleet as it savaged the coasts of southern Italy, carrying off the daughter of the governor of Reggio.” The king even allowed the Turks to use Toulon for a winter bivouac; with thirty thousand Turks dispersed in the town, the cathedral “was [temporarily] transformed into a mosque.” Meanwhile, the Turks made expeditions into the countryside to lay hold of young peasants to sell off as slaves.
Still, Christian and Muslim rulers continuously fought, with the Mediterranean serving as a major battlefield. Abulafia rightly pinpoints as crucial the late sixteenth-century engagements at Malta and Lepanto in which the Ottoman Empire was decisively contained in its expansion westward. But when it comes to other episodes, Abulafia often pooh-poohs claims that Muslim-Christian clashes were driven by religious motives.
He may have it right when he asserts, quoting the historian Frank Lambert, that the American campaign against the North African Barbary pirates in the early nineteenth century was “primarily about trade, not theology.” But clearly theology, or straightforward religious-national hatreds, trumped commercial interests a century later when Turks slaughtered Armenians during World War I and subsequently killed hundreds of thousands of Greeks. No doubt, individual covetousness on the part of Turkish neighbors played a part, and Turkish leaders were interested, for nationalist reasons, in dispossessing and then replacing the Greek and Armenian middle classes with a new Turkish one. But the testimonies of Western, particularly German, witnesses at the time all point to religious antagonism as a key motivating factor.
Abulafia, reasonably, devotes far more space to the Turkish-Greek episodes (they inhabited the Mediterranean littoral) than to the Armenians (most lived, and died, in the interior of Asia Minor). And the Greeks—the descendants of the second- and first-millennium-BC Ionians and Black Sea settlers—also served between 1915 and 1923 as fodder for a harrowing and today largely forgotten tale.
The Greeks had been fighting the Turks on and off for years. The Turks wanted the Greeks out of Asia Minor (and, if possible, also out of the Aegean). The outbreak of World War I interrupted the low-key 1914 Turkish campaign to achieve that goal, but it was renewed a year later. Greece then joined the Allies and declared war on the Ottoman Empire in July 1917. By 1919, with the Turks out for the count, the Greek army occupied the port city of Smyrna and part of the Ionian coastline and then pushed inland, reaching the outskirts of Ankara.
Economically and militarily overstretched, the Greeks proved unable to defeat the new nationalist Turkish army or to retain the lands they had occupied, and they were eventually driven back. Then came revenge. The Turks first destroyed the Greek communities along the Black Sea (Samsun, Ordu, Bafra) and then, in September 1922, reached the Ionian coast, with the Greek army and many Greek civilians from the interior retreating helter-skelter before their advance. The Greek troops boarded ships and departed for Piraeus. The Turks entered Smyrna, by then the chief Greek city, and torched the Christian quarters. Thousands were killed (the presence of Allied warships probably prevented a wider massacre). Within days, hundreds of thousands of civilians were evacuated to Greece—though tens of thousands were slaughtered (Abulafia says “something like 100,000”) and a similar or perhaps larger number were deported by the Turks inland, never to be heard from again. (During World War I and its aftermath, the Turks managed to perform a linguistic sleight of hand: “deportation” became synonymous with annihilation, something the Nazis later replicated.) The three-thousand-year-old Greek communities along the coast of Asia Minor and the Black Sea were thus erased, never to be resurrected. Today, only a small community of Greeks in Istanbul remains.
Abulafia blames the United States, Britain and France for Smyrna, saving only “twenty thousand” by placing them aboard Allied ships. He charges the Allied naval commanders—and, by extension, their governments—with “callousness.” And to be sure, everything bad he says about the American high commissioner and naval chief, Mark Bristol, and more, is justified. But the overall story, as illuminated by the contemporary documentation, is somewhat different. While understandably reluctant to go to war (again) with Turkey, the Allied naval teams performed in the Smyrna crisis with courage and humanity, orchestrating the withdrawal to safety of more than a quarter of a million Ionians, mostly on Greek ships, in one of the great maritime evacuations in history.
AND—I can’t restrain myself—one last point about Abulafia’s book in connection with the battle of cultures—and religions. One of its principal theaters in the twentieth century has been Palestine, where the Jews, seen by themselves and by their Arab neighbors as representatives and embodiments of the West, have repeatedly clashed with the country’s Arabs and the surrounding Arab world. The conflict is both political—over a patch of territory—and over values. Abulafia does not put the Palestine conflict in these terms, or, indeed, in any others, and devotes to it only a small amount of space, mostly by zooming in on the history of the seaside Arab town of Jaffa, on the site of a first-millennium-BC Philistine city, and the emergence of its Jewish neighbor, Tel Aviv, founded in 1909. Arab attacks on Jews by the late 1930s had turned Jaffa into an almost exclusively Arab place, but in April–May 1948 it was conquered by Jewish militiamen and almost all of its population fled to Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. The town was then co-opted by its larger Jewish neighbor, creating one municipal area designated “Tel Aviv-Jaffa.” While tens of thousands of Arabs inhabit Jaffa today, Arab Jaffa no longer exists.
Abulafia’s cool, evenhanded treatment of this microcosmic history leads to serious elisions that, to my mind, amount to distortion. He writes of the second bout of anti-Jewish rioting by the Arabs: “Outbreaks of violence between Jews and Arabs soured relations from 1921 onwards.” And of the 1936–39 Arab revolt against the British government and its Zionist wards, he writes: “The port of Jaffa serviced Tel Aviv until the outbreak of a new and even more serious round of violence in 1936.” Similarly, his succinct reference to the 1948 war also fails to attribute agency to any side—violence simply breaks out, no one starts it, no one is to blame.
As to Jaffa during the 1948 war, no context is provided. Abulafia tells us, simply:
Over a number of weeks in spring 1948, . . . tens of thousands of Jaffan Arabs fled by ship or overland. . . . The United Nations had designated Jaffa as an exclave of the proposed Arab state that would coexist with a Jewish state in Palestine. Following bombardment by Jewish forces in late April, the population of Jaffa dwindled.
No mention is made of the fact that the Palestinian leadership in 1947 rejected the partition resolution and launched, albeit inefficiently, a war to prevent its implementation; no mention of the fact that from November 30, 1947, the day after UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (partition) was passed, Jaffa’s militiamen daily assailed Tel Aviv with sniper and, occasionally, mortar fire and that the Jews finally attacked and conquered Jaffa after suffering these depredations for five months.
Abulafia writes well and offers up a comprehensive, fair-minded history. For those who can plow through 650 pages of historiography, this is a good read. And, occasionally, the prose is captivating. Abulafia has a good eye for quotes. Take Pharaoh Merneptah’s (thirteenth-century-BC) inscription at Karnak relating to his conquest and pacification of Canaan:
Men can walk the roads at any pace without fear. The fortresses stand open and the wells are accessible to all travellers. The walls and the battlements sleep peacefully in the sunshine till their guards wake up. The police lie stretched out asleep. The desert frontier-guards are among the meadows where they like to be.
Would that this were so today.