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Great Sea, The [Hardcover]

David Abulafia
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 17 2011
This title is "Sunday Times" History Book of the Year. For over three thousand years, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilisation. From the time of historical Troy until the middle of the nineteenth century, human activity here decisively shaped much of the course of world history. David Abulafia's "The Great Sea" is the first complete history of the Mediterranean from the erection of the mysterious temples on Malta around 3500 BC to the recent reinvention of the Mediterranean's shores as a tourist destination. Part of the argument of Abulafia's book is that the great port cities - Alexandria, Trieste and Salonika and many others - prospered in part because of their ability to allow many different people, religions and identities to co-exist within sometimes very confined spaces. He also brilliantly populates his history with identifiable individuals whose lives illustrate with great immediacy the wider developments he is describing. "The Great Sea" ranges stupendously across time and the whole extraordinary space of the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Jaffa, Venice to Alexandria. Rather than imposing a false unity on the sea and the teeming human activity it has sustained, the book emphasises diversity - ethnic, linguistic, religious and political. Anyone who reads it will leave it with their understanding of those societies and their histories enormously enriched.

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The greatest living historian of the Mediterranean -- Andrew Roberts A towering achievement. No review can really do justice to the scale of Abulafia's achievement: in its epic sweep, eye for detail and lucid style. -- Dominic Sandbrook Sunday Times Brocaded with studious observation and finely-tuned scholarship, the overall effect is mesmerising. -- Ian Thomson Independent A memorable study, its scholarship tinged with indulgent humour and an authorial eye for bizarre detail. -- Jonathan Keates Sunday Telegraph The story is teeming with colourful characters, and Abulafia wears his scholarship lightly, even dashingly. -- Simon Sebag Montefiore Financial Times

About the Author

David Abulafia is Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow of Gonville and Caius College, and was until recently Chairman of the Cambridge History Faculty. His previous books include Frederick II and The Western Mediterranean Kingdoms. He is a member of the Academia Europaea, and in 2003 was made Commendatore dell'Ordine della Stella della Solidarieta Italiana in recognition of his work on Italian and Mediterranean history.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable, truly remarkable April 12 2012
By Vlad Thelad TOP 500 REVIEWER
Here is a history book with overwhelming details and scholarly depth, and yet it is an easy and pleasurable read. Abulafia intersperses comments and opinions that are both witty and opportune, increasing the appeal of his narrative. This is as thorough an account of the history of the Mediterranean as one could possible dream of, covering the civilizations and peoples whose interactions, be it through trade or war, or both, have given life to centuries of vibrant existence to this body of water and its shores. To top it all, we also get a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern view of the histories of Europe, the Balkans, Eurasia, the Middle East and North Africa. This is a highly recommendable, remarkable and truly fascinating book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 50 REVIEWER
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A masterfully broad sweeping history April 22 2014
Abulafia manages, in about 650 pages, to tell us the story of the Mediterranean. This book is truly an achievement. It is well written, pulling you into the flow of several thousand years of history without losing you in the process. Obviously, it helps to have some knowledge of different eras and peoples - Abulafia is often only able to reference a tribe or an event without going into great detail. Nonetheless, the narrative remains clear, and the organization of this book helps the reader to understand the profound changes happening as we move forward in time.

This is an admirably focused book. Abulafia resists the near-constant temptation to go wandering far afield from the Mediterranean and stays focused on that space, even when it may seem the main action is happening elsewhere. The effect is one of sharpened perspective, as we see the sweep of world history from a place that waxes and wanes in importance on the global scale.

In short, this is definitely a must-read for anyone who loves a good history read.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Are you READY for this? July 4 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
My learned colleagues whose reviews are above have me at a disadvantage: they already knew something of the subject matter before starting to read. I didn't. I bought this book because I knew next to nothing about Mediterranean history, and wanted to learn. The author assumes that the reader is already familiar with the dozens of tribes which litter the early history of the region. What is perhaps worse, the book lacks adequate maps. Without at least one chart for each era, showing the name of each area and the identity of the group resident in it, the beginner is left completely without orientation in time and space.
In another lifetime I was a university mathematics professor, and it seemed to me that British texts and references in my subject were more demonstrations of the authors' erudition than an attempt at explication. Perhaps that approach extends to monumental works of history.
If you already know lots of Mediterranean history, this may be a good book. It is not for the uninitiated.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A Tremendous Accomplishment Oct. 19 2012
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
In almost 700 pages of text, the author has recounted the history of the Mediterranean Sea from the earliest times to the twenty-first century. As indicated in the book's subtitle, this is really a history of human activity throughout the ages. The topics include migration, conflicts, trade, economics, politics and much more. Depending on a given reader's particular interests, some sections of the book can be absolutely gripping, other sections can be interesting to varying degrees and, inevitably, certain section can be rather, well, boring. This was certainly my experience. The author's many discussions include some about communities, tribes, groups, religious sects, etc., that I had never heard of before. Consequently, although I was occasionally confused while trying to keep track of all of these "strange" names, I did learned quite a bit.

The writing style is scholarly, accessible, clear and often quite detailed. Although this tome has at least something for just about every type of history enthusiast, those who, I believe, will enjoy the book the most are those with a passion for the Mediterranean Sea, its peoples and its history throughout the ages.
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