This lively, beautifully illustrated history of the civilizations that rose and fell on the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea represents the culmination of a great historian's unparalleled art, eye, and scholarship.
John Julius Norwich is renowned for his magisterial histories, including the two-volume A History of Venice and the three-volume Byzantium. The Middle Sea showcases the qualities that have made him one of the most respected and popular historians of our day: witty prose, scrupulous research, and an unerring ability to bring to life the dramatic event, the colorful character, and the telling detail.
Norwich traverses five thousand years of history, tracing the growth of culture, trade, political alliances and enmities, and religious movements from the Phoenician civilization to present-day Mediterranean nations.
In a vivid, fully accessible narrative, he recounts the achievements of the Phoenicians, those great sea traders who carried not just goods but also knowledge to Europe and parts of Asia, the glories of ancient Egypt, the extraordinary contributions of the Greeks, and the rise of the mighty Romans. The twin stories of Byzantium and Islam, the dominant forces after the fall of Rome, crescendo in the incredible saga of the Fourth Crusade and carry readers to the reemergence of a vibrant Europe.
From the far-reaching developments in medieval France to the Renaissance wars in Italy to the triumph of Isabella's Spain, Norwich provides a brilliant portrait of the intermingling of ancient conflicts and modern sensibilities that shape life today on the shores of the Middle Sea.
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December 03, 2007
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Excerpt from The Middle Sea by John Julius Norwich
The Mediterranean is a miracle. Seeing it on the map for the millionth time, we tend to take it for granted; but if we try to look at it objectively we suddenly realise that here is something utterly unique, a body of water that might have been deliberately designed, like no other on the surface of the globe, as a cradle of cultures. Almost enclosed by its surrounding lands, it is saved from stagnation by the Straits of Gibraltar, those ancient Pillars of Hercules which protect it from the worst of the Atlantic storms and keep its waters fresh and - at least until recent years - unpolluted. It links three of the world's six continents; its climate for much of the year is among the most benevolent to be found anywhere.
Small wonder, then, that the Middle Sea should not only have nurtured three of the most dazzling civilisations of antiquity, and witnessed the birth or blossoming of three of our greatest religions; it also provided the principal means of communication. Roads in ancient times were virtually nonexistent; the only effective method of transport was by water, which had the added advantage of being able to support immense weights immovable by any other means. The art of navigation may have been still in its infancy, but early sailors were greatly assisted by the fact that throughout much of the eastern Mediterranean it was possible to sail from port to port without ever losing sight of land; even in the western, a moderately straight course was all that was necessary to ensure an arrival on some probably friendly coast before many days had passed.(1) To be sure, life at sea was never without its dangers. The mistral that screams down the Rhone valley and lashes the Gulf of Lyons to a frenzy, the bora in the Adriatic that can make it almost impossible for the people of Trieste to walk unassisted down the street, the gregale in the Ionian that has ruined many a winter cruise - all these could spell death for the inexperienced or unwary. Even the mild meltemi in the Aegean, usually a blessing to ships under sail, can transform itself within an hour into a raging monster and drive them on to the rocks. True, there are no Atlantic hurricanes or Pacific typhoons, and for most of the time - given a modicum of care - the going is easy enough; still, there was no point in taking unnecessary risks, so the earliest Mediterranean seafarers kept their journeys as short as possible.
When possible, too, they kept to the northern shore. To most of us today, the map of the Mediterranean is so familiar that we can no longer look at it objectively. If, however, we were to see it for the first time, we should be struck by the contrast between the littorals to the north and south. That to the north is full of incident, with the Italian and Balkan peninsulas flanked by three seas - Tyrrhenian, Adriatic and Aegean - and then that extraordinary conformation of the extreme northeast corner, where the Dardanelles lead up to the little inland Sea of Marmara, from the eastern end of which the city of Istanbul commands the entrance to the Bosphorus and ultimately to the Black Sea. The southern coast, by contrast, is comparatively featureless, with few indentations; there one is always conscious, even in the major cities, that the desert is never far away.
One of the many unsolved questions of ancient history is why, after countless millennia of caveman existence, the first glimmerings of civilisation should have made their appearance in widely separated areas at much the same time. Around the Mediterranean that time is, very roughly, about 3000 BC. It is true that Byblos (the modern Jbeil, some fifteen miles north of Beirut), which gave its name to the Bible - the word actually means papyrus - was settled in palaeolithic times and is believed by many to be considerably older still; indeed, it may well be the oldest continuously inhabited site in the world. But the remains of a few one-room huts and a crude idol or two can hardly be considered civilisation, and there as elsewhere nothing much really happens until the coming of the Bronze Age at the beginning of the third millennium BC. Then at last things start to move. There are some extraordinary monolithic tombs in Malta dating from about this time, and others in Sicily and Sardinia, but of the people who built them we know next to nothing. The three great cultures that now emerge have their origins a good deal further east: in Egypt, Palestine and Crete.
Of the traditional Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only the oldest, the Pyramids of Egypt, survives today; and there is little doubt that they will still be standing five thousand years hence. The most venerable of all, the step pyramid at Saqqara, is said to date from 2686 BC; the grandest and noblest, that of the Pharaoh Khufu - known to Herodotus and so, normally,