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Great Sea, The [Hardcover]

David Abulafia
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 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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Review

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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4.0 out of 5 stars
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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
Format:Hardcover
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
Format:Hardcover
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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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
Format:Hardcover
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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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  40 reviews
170 of 180 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A perspective changing read and an important book Sept. 8 2011
By robert johnston - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a can't miss read or gift for the history buff.

Between 22,000 and 6000 years ago, 4 trans-Mediterranean civilizations can be traced to evolve from out of Neolithic enclaves and to grow into distinctive civilizations and then disappear without a word. 13,000 years ago these seafarers traversed and traded from one end of the Mediterranean to the other to leave their patterns. The symbols of the fifth civilization defies translation and the earliest Minoans advanced like none before and are then erased beyond our purview. Only in the 6th iteration and beginning just over 5000 years ago, can we begin to peek into the human mind through its words and remnants. Abulafia places evolving civilizations in the humbling context of space and time and to be considered as numbered days in humanity's progression.

The Great Sea is written in 5 chronological parts from most ancient to present. The parts weave and intertwine the past to the next. The Great Sea has hosted the spectrum of human care takers and chaos. The Great Sea is a sweeping and compelling read that links the snippets of civilizations of one after the other. History has been well written on specific events and times, Peloponnesian and Punic Wars, the Crusades and Gallipoli and you might miss the far greater context that the Great Sea perspective provides.

The Great Sea is a disciplined focus of the history of humanity in the context of the Mediterranean. Abulafia's discipline is evidenced that this history excludes the Mesopotamians and the early Egyptians until descendants emerge onto the Sea to attempt to contend. These other civilizations were river people and land people and they earn their place among the Great Sea-farers of this story.

Political fabrications are irrelevant in the Great Sea. Geography and power alone rule the Great Sea. Colonies, outposts, and civilizations appear and disappear in this time machine. The patterns repeat over and over to the present day. Abulafia resists the temptation to extrapolate a future from the history and he doesn't need to. History repeats itself and so the reader is free to envision a future trajectory or tragedy. The feeling of continuity is very present.

In 800 pages and 150 pages of notes, this is a massive addictive tale that can include an `all-nighter'. The reader is left to consider the temporal irrelevance and civilization of Minoans, Phoenician's, Carthaginians, Greek's, Roman's, Genovese ... the EU and Islam. Civilizations struggle mightily to rival the cadence of the socio-technical-economic demands of this continental junction which is the "Great Sea".

The enjoyment in these reads is the relentless evolutions of civilization to possess a thing that can not be possessed for long. The nearest approximate read to compare with the Great Sea is the Durant's 11 volume "The Story of Civilization" and that's too much and not effective in conveying the story that Abulafia frames. I was struck that I've been to Malta, Crete and Cyprus and seen the remains of the most ancient Mediterranean civilization against the backdrop of the most modern and I quite missed imagining the story of everything that radiated out and in between. I've wandered among the strange Cyclopean remains in Malta, then the Cycladic places of Greece, without appreciating that Cycladic were the epoch distant successor of the Cyclopian. The time scales are hard to imagine. Abulafia does the best job I've seen in pulling it together. This is an important book and a must read. There's a good chance that the reader's perspectives might be adjusted ... it's a 5 star great read and a 'wow' that will stay with you.

p.s. I have gone back after several other reviewers noted a disconnect in the maps. I read the book and not the Kindle which is getting some tough reviews. I have to say that I noted Abulafia had aligned adequately illustrated, narrative matching maps. The exclusion of political boundaries for modern reference differing to a focus on 'centers' is part of Abulafia's story. I was previously unaware of a Sardinian (proto-Basque?) contender (pg 120) and had to go to Wiki for a closer look. Abulafia's use of maps seems adequate.
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `For over three thousand years, The Mediterranean Sea has been one of the great centres of world civilisation.' Oct. 6 2011
By Jennifer Cameron-Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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. The Mediterranean became the great artery through which goods, warships, migrants and other travellers reached the Indian Ocean from the Atlantic.'

There's a wealth of information here: about the great port cities (including Alexandria, Salonika and Trieste); about the space of the Mediterranean from Jaffa in the east to Gibraltar in the west, from Venice in the north to Alexandria in the south. As part of the narrative, Professor Abulafia includes information about people whose lives illuminate the developments he is describing: a diversity of ethnic, linguistic, political and religious influences. We meet the Venetian merchant Romano Mairano, and the Arab traveller Ibn Jubayr. We read, too, of Shabbetai Zevi, described as a deluded Messiah in 17th century Smyrna.

Of most interest to me was the role of the Mediterranean in trade. The merchant is a critical figure. The Phoenicians spread the alphabet across the Mediterranean: how else can merchants create the records they need? The merchants carry essentials such as grain and salt, but they also carry ideas, plagues and religions across the sea. Not all interactions are peaceful, and different people (including members of minorities) make different contributions across culture and creed.

I would have to read the book at least once more to fully appreciate Professor Abulafia's coverage: while the book is easy to read there is a huge amount of information to read and absorb. There is a map included in each chapter, which I found very helpful in placing the narrative.

This is an amazing book and well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the history of the Mediterranean Sea.

`Rather than searching for unity we should note diversity.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
60 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificently written, Abulafia magnum opus account of the most vibrant theater of human interaction in history Sept. 12 2011
By Didaskalex - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
*****
"Over the course of nearly 800 pages, we follow faiths; sail with fleets; trade with bankers, financiers and merchants; raid with pirates and observe battles and sieges; watch cities rise and fall and see peoples migrate in triumph and tragedy. But at its heart, this is a history of mankind that radiates scholarship and a sense of wonder,...the Mediterranean as its medium." -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Financial Times

The Mediterranean Sea has been for many millennia, the cradle of great civilizations, and astounding nations, ancient moral religions, flourishing economies, and advanced social and political systems, that interacted, clashed, and influenced one another. David Abulafia offers a new vista by reflecting on the historic sea itself: its vital importance for marine transport, and its sustaining ports and fleets, in the rise and fall of empires; and substantial provision of characters; sailors, merchants, pirates, migrants, who have navigated and crossed it. Wide enough to support radically distinctive and most ancient civilizations, yet of little width, enough to ensure close contact between them. In the author's view, it was the "most vigorous place of interaction between different societies on the face of the planet".

The Midlanmd Sea is connected to the black sea and the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by South of Europe, North Africa, and the Levant, Nearest west Asia. It is almost completely enclosed by land, usually identified as a separate body of water. The name Mediterranean is derived from (Latin: medius, 'middle' and terra, 'earth'), meaning: "in the middle of the earth", or "inland sea." The Mediterranean, covers an approximate area of a million sq mile. but its connection to the Atlantic, through the Strait of Gibraltar, is hardly nine miles wide. As it has always done, this inland sea serves to join as well as divide, the paradox that provides David Abulafia, in his lavish and quite astonishing compendium, "The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean."

"The Great Sea," unlocks its rich and vigorous past, ranging from early antiquity to our time. It is a vivid record of human progress and historical interaction across its shores, that has brought together most of the greatest ancient civilizations, and the surpassing empires of medieval and modern times. Interweaving major political and naval developments with the decline and flow of trade, Abulafia explores how commercial transactions in the midland sea created both rivalries and partnerships, with merchants acting as intermediaries between cultures, trading goods that were as exotic on one side of the sea as they were commonplace on the other. He stresses the remarkable ability of Mediterranean cultures to uphold the civilizing ideal of cohabitation exemplified in late antiquity Alexandria, and medieval Spain.

Magnificently written and overwhelming in its scope, with over seventy illustrations, the study is as colorful and comprehensive as the Mediterranean world it reveals, a meeting place of many different ethnic and religious groups, covering historically everything from the Trojan War, the history of piracy, and the great naval battle between Cleopatra's fleet and Rome's, to the Jewish Diaspora scattering within the Hellenistic worlds, in Alexandria and Antioch, the rise of Islam, The crusades, and mass tourism of today. This is a magnum opus account of the most vibrant theater of human interaction in history.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wide-ranging, highly readable Dec 2 2011
By TwoTooth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Written for educated non-specialists, The Great Sea covers the human history, largely commercial, of the Mediterranean. It traces the rise and fall of civilizations (mostly city-states) that depended on Mediterranean trade (Egypt, for example, properly gets short shrift until the Hellenistic era and the founding, long heydey, and decline of Alexandria).

The story follows colonizations and wars driven mostly by commerce--the search for new markets and new commodities--luxury goods and materials required by advancing technology.

There is a thesis, demonstrated repeatedly in a non-polemical way, that cities that tolerated ethnically/religiously diverse peoples prospered; those that didn't faded into obscurity.

This is a scholarly work in the sense that it provides source notes, though not a separate comprehensive list of works cited, mostly secondary but some primary; it does include several pages of recommended further reading.

I would guess, though, that the author wrote a great deal based on knowledge acquired over a lifetime of scholarship and didn't backcheck every fact, which probably accounts for the one minor error I noticed (he confuses Richard I of England's wife with his sister); there are probably others. This in no way diminishes the quality of the work. Even Homer nods.

I read this book on a Kindle. The footnote hyperlinking worked well. Other than many compounding anomalies (hard hyphens interpreted as soft ones), I noted no typos or formatting errors.

The illustrations appear at the end of the book and are awkward to reach; I used the Table of Contents and paged thru them. They are not linked from the text. On a standard Kindle, the illustrations are, of course, black and white and not high resolution, which is fine with me since I'm not willing to sacrifice megabytes of the Kindle's sadly limited storage space for high resolution versions of illustrations I found easy to track down on the Web when I wanted to see them in more detail.

The maps are another matter. They are interspersed in the text, are uniformly the entire Mediterranean with a few spots picked out for emphasis relevant to the section they're in, and are difficult to read even with a magnifying glass. They are not, however, essential to the book, so it's just a minor irritation.

All in all, I enjoyed The Great Sea immensely; it's highly readable, and I learned a great deal. Recommended.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Kindle Caveat Oct. 22 2011
By Daniel Weitz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a splendid, well written book with an emphasis on the economics of the Mediterranean basin, yet with a rejection of the over-hyped Braudel thesis. I found particularly illuminating the discussion of the Bronze Age Mediterranean, and the later rise of the Italian trading cities such as Amalfi, Pisa Venice and Genoa and how their emergence ended the previous trade patterns dominated by Jews and Moslems as reflected in their own trade documents. The book has excellent notes and a superb bibliography.

They why the Caveat?? Because the vital illustrations are missing from the Kindle edition!
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